Toxic Paternalism and Ph.D. Programs

Many graduate students live in fear of the consequences of disappointing their overcontrolling advisers, but little is discussed or done about the issue, writes Elizabeth Stice.

April 11, 2022
 
 
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In recent years, educators at every level have bemoaned the rise of the helicopter parent and, more lately, the coming of the “snowplow” parent. Such parents are considered overinvolved in the lives of their children, as they often try to manage their child’s experiences or even control their future. No professor or administrator wants a phone call from one of those parents.

But though we often complain about helicopter parents, another form of toxic paternalism is barely whispered about yet all too common in higher education: overcontrolling Ph.D. advisers. We worry about our undergraduates struggling under parental expectations, while many A.B.D. graduate students live in fear of the consequences of disappointing their advisers. Unfortunately, however, little is overtly discussed or done about the issue.

Ph.D. students can be the best embodiment of a professor’s legacy. Entire waves of incredible scholars can be traced back to academic advisers who invested time and energy in their students. There are many beautiful academic family trees, each a product of an adviser’s assistance and advocacy of their students in their pursuit of learning, publication and employment opportunities.

Yet graduate programs also have other kinds of advisers—those who are so focused on burnishing their own legacy that they become overinvolved in the lives of their students. They seek not to help their students find their own way in the world, but rather work to guarantee that each student lives out the ideas and expectations they set for them.

Higher education institutions today are deeply concerned with equity, and they seek to promote more and better opportunities for a broader range of people. But that doesn’t happen for many doctoral students whose life choices do not align with their adviser’s visions of their future. Some advisers will not only negatively comment upon the career choices of their students but even actively hold those choices against them. At some institutions, for instance, it’s not at all frowned upon for advisers to practically disown students who do not choose to work at leading research universities. Ask around, and you’ll probably find that many Ph.D. students at your institution have had experiences with advisers with very narrow visions of their futures.

The students who suffer the most under the overly scrutinous gazes of their advisers are women who choose to include marriage and/or family in their lives while also pursuing a Ph.D. Many advisers have strongly counseled their women students not to get married. And if you talk with some female Ph.D. students who have decided to have children while writing their dissertations, you will probably be saddened by how many have had advisers who not only warned against it but openly criticized them for their personal choice. The experience is so common that many women who are reading this have doubtlessly experienced it as their story.

Advisers may think they are simply informing students about the “harsh realities” of the academic world, but they are, in fact, the front-line enforcers of such often-gendered standards. The perpetuation of those practices also ignores the place that Ph.D. advisers hold in the institutional power structure. Are they not the same people who can, and do, sit on search committees? Are they not the scholars who have ties to the academic publishing industry? Or who help select conference panels? Advisers have significant say within their discipline and its standards. And they play an outsize role in the future of their students, who cannot advance to graduation without their approval.

What can we call this other than toxic paternalism? Many academics think their work is relevant to the larger society, but a large number of those same scholars are openly hostile to their students who interface with the real world by, say, deciding to work at a teaching institution or who sometimes prioritize life outside the profession. Respect for human agency begins at home. Refusing to respect students’ personal choices is the opposite of empowerment.

Obviously, we all can cite many wonderful advisers and mentors who do not push their own agendas upon students and insert themselves inappropriately in their careers and life plans. And many Ph.D.s go on to all kinds of jobs with the blessing of their mentors. But higher education leaders must be much more explicit about the fact that academic oversight should not include ownership of students’ personal lives. Deans and academic chairs should remind advisers about boundaries. More people should receive training in advising, as well. We should actively discourage toxic paternalism within our departments. It is the least we can do.

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Respecting students’ personal autonomy will also lead to better outcomes. A scholar who spends their life chasing the affirmation of their adviser will most likely not make a substantive individual contribution to the field. For an academic legacy to live on, they must escape their adviser’s shadow. The results of helicopter advising will be no better than those of helicopter parenting. Ph.D. students need to be able to think for themselves and follow their own lines of inquiry in order to achieve actual insights. If they look to their advisers for everything, their disciplines cannot advance.

In “What Is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant encouraged people to have the courage to use their own reason. Graduate students also deserve to be encouraged to use their own reason. They are in graduate school to learn their disciplines, to conduct research and to create new knowledge—not to be directed in their life choices. The students who will create the best legacy for their advisers will be those who are empowered to take ownership of their own scholarship and their own lives.

Bio

Elizabeth Stice is associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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