Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Advisor A, continued

Continuing the story from here.

So, funding for the Fall and beyond was looking iffy, but AdvisorA was in town for a conference, so we agreed that we would talk about it in person. I hadn't been planning to attend the conference, but I arranged to drive to the conference, meet with AdvisorA between her sessions, and have S pick LL up at daycare, all so that I would have a block of time to talk with AdvisorA in person, for the first time in five months. When I got to the conference, I looked around for AdvisorA and couldn't find her. I finally found one of our colleagues, who informed me that AdvisorA had left the conference to do some personal errands, and wouldn't be back until the end of the day, in time to give a talk and then leave again. And no, she didn't bother to let me know, even though she knew that I was making a special trip just to talk with her.

So, I wasted a day sitting around waiting for her, because I wasn't allowed to attend the conference (mainly because AdvisorA didn't want to pay the registration fee for me) but I needed to be able to corner her in person and find another time to talk, whenever she managed to get there. At the very end of the day, I managed to get ~15 minutes with her. And that's when things fell apart.

The conversation had two parts. One part was about my progress, and one part was about money. On the "progress" side, she told me that she has been disappointed that I haven't been making more progress the past few months. And yes, I acknowledged to her that my progress has, indeed, been much slower than it used to be. (In the past, AdvisorA has mentioned on numerous occasions that I'm generally more productive than any student she'd ever worked with, and I'd already accomplished more by my third year than most PhD students accomplish by the time they graduate -- typically six years.) She tried to frame this as an argument that, as my advisor, she should only have to fund me for a fixed period of time, and if I'm too slow to graduate during that time, then it's my problem.

I reminded her that I'm still going to graduate in six calendar years, which is exactly average for someone who works straight through my program, but I'm actually faster (and cheaper!) than most because she has never before paid for my summers and she didn't have to pay for my maternity leave of absence. Basically, instead of working at 100% pace for six years, I worked at 130% pace for four years, took less than half a year off, worked at 50% pace for another half year, then plan on doing 100% for the last one. I understand that it sucks to be going through that 50%-output period right now, but I'm doing my best. And I would have thought that four years of 130% pace would have bought me a bit of good will.

She told me that she expected me to be back up to 130% as soon as I returned from maternity leave. And she expected me to have gotten some work done during the maternity leave as well. (??? No idea why should would have thought this. Especially since we discussed it at length several times during my pregnancy, because I wanted to be absolutely sure that there would be no misunderstandings on this point.) And then she commented that she discussed this with BossLady when they ran into each other a few weeks ago, and she implied that the two of them (and by extension, lots of other people) are disappointed with me right now. (I'm going to jump right by the fact that AdvisorA ran into BossLady, and the first thing she did was say, "Don't you think that Nicky is being really lazy recently?") I asked what BossLady said, because I couldn't believe that BossLady would have agreed with that sentiment, and AdvisorA admitted that BossLady had actually gently corrected her. (Apparently, BossLady laughed, shook her head, told AdvisorA that she's a moron for thinking that a woman with an infant would be back up to complete output anytime in the first year, and then spent some additional time praising me and telling AdvisorA how lucky she is to have me for a student. I'm not sure whether it helped or hurt, but it's nice to know that BossLady has my back.) So, given that AdvisorB is also extremely understanding about the situation, it's really only AdvisorA who has a problem with what's going on right now.

At one point, AdvisorA went on a rant about how silly it is that she should be inconvenienced because of my personal choices. As if everyone's personal choices don't inconvenience other people all the time. And as if having children was an odd, screwball thing that hardly anybody does. (And, what I definitely did not say out loud: as if her moving cross country didn't inconvenience me, too, but I just sucked it up and congratulated her and wrote her a recommendation to help her get the job anyway, because I believe that people need to do what's right for them with their personal lives. But whatever.)

And you know, I get that the world doesn't revolve around me, and having a baby is a choice that I made and I can't expect everyone to make lots of allowances just for me. But at the same time, I also believe that having a baby is a normal part of life, that it's the price you pay for employing human beings. And I'm also angry, because in my particular field, students take leaves of absence ALL THE TIME for other personal purposes, like starting a company or working somewhere for a year or traveling the world, and nobody blinks when they interrupt things to leave for several months and then come back and spend two months talking about it, before finally getting back to work. My leaving to have a baby isn't all that different, except that yes, I continue to take care of the baby even after I returned to work. But AdvisorA never had children, and just kept making side remarks about women and choices and careers and being taken seriously. And it pisses me off.

At this point, AdvisorA shifted the conversation to be purely about money. Ignoring all of the you're-not-productive-enough excuses that she'd just laid out, she now explained that she'd love to fund me, but she doesn't have money. "But I heard that you have money from X, Y, and Z?" Oh. Um. Correction. She has money, but she can't transfer it to my university. "But you've transferred it in the past, what's changed?" Oh. Um. Correction. She can transfer the money, but she loses a lot in the transfer, so she doesn't want to do it that way. "But I thought that you worked all of that out with AdvisorB last year, to make the transfer easier?" Oh. Um. Maybe. Then she changed arguments again, and started saying bland, generic things about the bad economy. And she said something about maybe I can just spend next year being a TA, or maybe I can find a rich friend to give me a grant (!). And then she had to leave.

So, right now, nothing is resolved. I have funding through September, but I have no idea what's going to happen after that. The backup backup plan is that I have to TA. The problem is that being a TA is a huge time suck. PhD students in my department are advised to get all of their TA responsibilities finished in the first few years, because they know that it is nearly impossible to make progress on a thesis while being a TA, so they don't want students having to teach during their final year or two. So, while being a TA for a semester would solve the funding problem for a semester, it doesn't actually solve anything long-term, because it would probably also push out my graduation date by a semester. TA or not, I will need one full year of non-teaching-contingent funding.

The backup backup backup plan would be that I officially take a leave of absence from school, so that nobody has to pay anything for me, but I actually keep working on my thesis during that time, and then I enroll for just one semester so that I can submit and defend the thesis. But this would mean not getting paid for a year, while still paying for childcare.

As for other suggestions: No, talking to my department chair or dean won't do any good, because AdvisorA doesn't work here anymore. She has lots of moral obligations to me, given our history and verbal agreements, but no real ones. She has every right in the world to stop working with me and focus on students at her own school. And no, transferring is not an option, either. I'm currently in (arguably) the best department in the country for my particular field, and I've spent five years working my butt off to get a PhD from here. There's nothing to gain from transferring this late in the process.

In a collision of bad timing, AdvisorB is on vacation right now, so I can't discuss all of this with him. For now, I'm hoping like hell that either AdvisorA will come to her senses and snap out of whatever shitty mood made her want to screw me over like this, or that AdvisorB will find a way to step in and resolve things. I've also started going through our personal finances very very carefully with S, to see exactly how horrible it would be for me to stop bringing home any income for a year while I finish. There are definitely some places where we could trim expenses, and between that and dipping into our savings, we could probably make it work for a limited amount of time. But I'm unbelievably bitter that we might have to do it that way.

In the middle of all of this, LL turned 9 months old, visited with his out-of-town cousins, went to the beach for the first time, ate his first cheerios, and sprouted three teeth. So a much happier post is on its way later in the week.


  1. I think that Advisor A is a bitter woman who, after clawing her way through the male dominated ranks of academia (especially in what you've said is a male dominated field) is bitter at the thought of a new generation of women academics being able to balance both work and family because maybe academia is starting to wake up to the fact that it has been scaring away talented women. Okay, well maybe I don't know th situation well enough to say that. But in my experience, middle-aged women in academia have struggled so much that they are now often the most controlling and micromanaging people you will ever meet...and certainly the toughest to work for.

  2. I'm sorry to hear about your situation with Advisor A -- that really sucks. Something that she needs to keep in mind is that being childless is NOT hereditary -- in other words, having children is the default position, not the exceptional position.

    That being said, hopefully you can get Advisor B to talk some sense into her when he gets back from vacation. And TA'ing can take up a lot of time, but there are worse fates than being a TA.

  3. I think it is awful that people with such high stature are allowed to treat others with such poor respect.

    Happy 9 months LL. Grow Baby Grow

  4. ok, so i went from the edge of my seat to falling face first on the floor!!

    I hate when females in science have to handle more crap from other females, based solely on the choice to or not to reproduce! "But AdvisorA never had children, and just kept making side remarks about women and choices and careers and being taken seriously."

    That says it all! she is resentful and angry about your choices, regardless if she wanted children or not! I agree with previous poster, the middle-aged scientists that put aside all aspects of personal life to compete with male colleagues sometimes now take that out on our generation of scientists (don't get me wrong I think we owe that group of woman a lot...they gave us choices). This is why I constantly question if I can have both worlds.

    I say, do the TA if you must. Even if it makes it longer the income will make you "comfortable" for longer without wasting all of savings. But first, make AdvisorB fight on your behalf...this is the one time when it's good to have a team of advisors.

  5. I still think you should talk to your dean and/or department chair. What she is doing smacks of discrimination especially if others have taken a leave of absence (for reason outside of childbearing) without a loss of funding. Science is a small world, and it sounds like you're at a very well respected Uni. A phone call from one dean to another can make a huge difference or even the threat of a lawsuit. Verbal agreements, especially when made between multiple parties (btwn you and her, her and advisor B) are compelling. Not as strong as a written contract but still very strong.

  6. It definitely sounds like discrimination, but I wouldn't say immediately that she is a bitter hag who hates mothers (though it's possible). To me, it sounds like money. She doesn't want to pay for anything unless she's getting 130% out of the deal, and she will try and weasel her way out of paying you to save money for herself if she can. The bad thing about being massively productive as a grad student is that people expect not only the same level of performance, but a HIGHER level. All the time. But they don't want to pay for it.

    I'd see if Advisor B can talk some sense in there, or if there's any other way to get someone else to take over your pay (like splitting half with Advisor B or something).

  7. I'm a first-time reader of yours, directed here by Dr. Isis. While I don't have a science degree or PhD and so don't have the experience from which to offer advice, I can and do empathize with your situation as a fellow sister mother.


    I also think that verbal agreements are compelling, and that based on the facts as you've outlined them you are standing on some pretty solid ground.

  8. UGH! I am super angry at your advisor for you. What a b*tch. That's all I can say about that.

    I had a chilly reaction from one of my mentors as an undergrad when she found out I was getting married and changing my last name. (She was/is a well-known and respected psychologist in the field of women's issues.)

    I think it's great that women have OPTIONS... you can be a Ph.D. and I can be a SAHM... and we shouldn't be judging one another for making choices. It's sad and divisive.

  9. I'm so angry on your behalf! That's just so crappy of her. Do you know if the FMLA applies to you? I know it does at my school. If it does that may be enough to get her to keep paying you.

  10. Really disappointing that AdvisorA would treat you this way. It just reeks of bad mentorship. I hope you can eventually speak with AdvisorB and get something sorted out. TAing for funding, given your situation, makes very little sense. Your advisor needs to view you as a STUDENT, not as a money/productivity tree.

  11. How very crummy, but after being a mom grad student in one of the "top" departments of my field let me say I'm not surprised. Given that- how about looking into some fellowships? AAUW has some due this Nov that might help you finish.

  12. Re: AAUW fellowships. This is actually what makes me particularly angry. I could apply for fellowships now, but they're all for the 2010-11 academic year, so they won't help with the upcoming year. Had I known that AdvisorA was going to cut me off, I could have applied last year, but when I asked her (and yes, I specifically asked her if it was going to be a problem, and if I should look for outside fellowships) she told me that she was rolling in money and not to bother with applications.

    Looking back, I think that she didn't want me to spend time on fellowship applications, which would take time away from research. But if she'd just been honest with me then, I might not be in this situation now.

  13. oh my god, Nicky....I have been sifting through my major blog backlog and got to this - girl, I am so sorry to hear about this! wtf is up with Advisor A, that's horrible! I wish I could give her a piece of my mind, I really hope your funding issues get resolved....this woman needs a kick in the pants to get some ethical backbone.

    Good luck.


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