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Breaking Up With Your Advisor

What to do when you realize that your advisor just isn’t right for you.

May 31, 2019
 
 

Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo.

We’ve all heard about advisor relationships that have dissolved over time and left students stuck in an ongoing and unhelpful mentorship that they wished they could get out of. We’ve also, no doubt, heard the horror stories of advisors who no longer acknowledge their ex-advisees in the hallways or at department functions, pretending their former students are invisible to save face.

Others have written helpfully about how to choose the right advisor and how to better manage your advisor once you have one but, if your work has changed over time, your university has assigned you an advisor without much consideration, or you just aren’t on the same page anymore, it might be time to let your advisor down easy. Telling an advisor that you’re preparing to move forward in your program without them can be a difficult situation to handle professionally. Just like actual break-ups, leaving an advisor-advisee relationship in pursuit of another can be as messy and emotional or as clean and amicable as you make it. So, you’ve realized that your advisor isn’t the one. Now what?

Ghosting Your Advisor
We all imagine that we’re the sort of person and scholar that would never ignore someone’s attempts to reach out just because we feel uncomfortable officially calling it quits. But if you find yourself leaving your advisor’s emails unread and walking the long way around their office to avoid their potentially open door, then it’s time to break out the Ouija board because you’ve gone full ghost.

While it can be tempting to leave an advisor behind by simply disappearing, it will undoubtedly make for awkward moments at department functions when you’re hiding out in the bathroom until they leave. Putting yourself on silent until your advisor either forces a confrontation (by inevitably catching you in person) or until they drift away and move on to other, more invested advisees is certainly an option, though maybe not a recommended one if you want to be able to make eye contact with them in the future.

Breaking Up Over Email
You’ve been with an advisor for a long time, but you’ve also known that this ending has been a long time coming as well. So, you type up an email to say “regretfully” that you’ll be working with someone else moving forward and that you thank them for all that they’ve given you over the years, but that this is really the best move for your project looking ahead. You hit send and immediately get a reply: “Ok.”

Oh, no. Using an email to deliver your bad news for you means you probably didn’t take the relationship seriously enough to warrant an in-person meeting. While the awkward new dynamic between the two of you won’t entirely be your fault, breaking things off with a hastily-written email is still pretty shallow.

Ambushing Them In Person
There’s no doubt that meeting in person is a much better choice to end things amicably. And, like my mother says, bad news gets worse the longer you wait, so springing this on your advisor at the next moment that you see them has got to be the answer, right? Actually, no.

Like the previous options, this too is tempting. After all, you likely pass them in the hallway, see their open office door, or greet them at social events regularly. However, rushing in during their office hours to announce that you moved on may seem like a quick and easy way to break things off but will feel sudden and out-of-nowhere for them. Likewise, pulling them to some isolated corner during an event and explaining over the brim of your plastic wine cup that things aren’t really working out is just gauche.

The in-person ambush is just that: an ambush. There’s no time to discuss what happened or why you’re leaving them behind. It’s appealing (no time for awkward questions or explanations), but ultimately unprofessional.

Setting Up a Break-Up Meeting
We all know the dreaded “we need to talk” phrase that serves as the death knell for all relationships. Behind this often-poorly-executed phrase, however, is a genuine desire to tell someone what’s coming before it gets there. It can feel difficult to tell your advisor that you want to meet in order to discuss the future (or ending) of your mentorship, but it’s the best option for breaking things off cleanly and professionally.

You’ll want to send an email that both sets up an in-person meeting while also being clear about what the subject of the meeting will be. Ask for a time to meet them in their office and plainly state that the meeting is to discuss your project and their role as advisor on that project. Feel free to say that you’ve already met with someone who works more closely with your subject and talked about receiving guidance from them in the future. Keep the email short and to the point.

The meeting itself should involve a full explanation of your decision and why this is the right choice for you and your project. You’ll want to thank them for all that they’ve done and be specific about how they have helped you and your project. Name who will be replacing them on your committee and why. If your advisor won’t be joining your committee at all in the future then you’ll need to be clear about that as well, lest they think they’ve just been demoted from advisor to second-reader. Just like an actual break-up, this is also the time to guard yourself against taking them back if they promise to change their approach. Like any break-up, empathy and explanation are the keys to ending on a good note. If you take the time to understand their feelings and face uncomfortable questions then you might just be able to still be friends (or, rather, colleagues).

How have you dealt with leaving an advisor in the past?

[Image by Unsplash.com user Tim Gouw and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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