Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The roots of adviser rage

What do you mean, you forgot to take the crude NMR?
Photo credit: terraspirit.com
I recently heard complaints about a faculty adviser; this adviser had taken to resorting to banging on tables and walls to get their* point across.

Obviously, this is immature and wildly inappropriate (especially in the presence of subordinates.) But it seems that most chemists have either seen or heard stories of advisers losing their temper and taking it out on either physical objects and/or (verbally) their students and postdoctoral fellows.

Such behavior is probably the result of a few of different factors: 1) the stress and pressure of a faculty career, with grants and et cetera, 2) the vulnerability and pliability of subordinates (when directed at such) and 3) the knowledge that such behavior is looked at with a blind eye and more or less tolerated by their department and/or administration.

I suspect that, unfortunately, adviser rage will always be with us; while I might be able to list 2 or 3 reasons why it might go away over time, I can think of 10 reasons why it won't. While it's awful and inexcusable, it does happen. (And sometimes, there's a legitimate reason for the adviser to be frustrated.) But it is my sincere hope that (over time) university administrations and the chemistry community will come around to the thought that it's unacceptable and needs to be frowned upon. I hope I'm right.

*Look, who am I kidding? Of course it was a dude.


  1. Adviser rage is usually inversely proportional with life satisfaction outside the lab. An adviser has a bad day, gets dumped, divorced, or rather ... hasn't had a real date since his TA days (or even a real buddy to hang out with) seem to precipitate the most rage. This is most unfortunate.

    While I have also met some of the most caring, charismatic, compassionate and inspirational scientist, I have also met some of the most fear mongering, timid, emotionally scarred scientists. I think the fear mongering is more harmful, especially these days when most grad students need other skills sets beyond the lab. Like networking, and people skills, and even hobbies! (I know a Ph. D. physicist that now runs his own gym, and several former scientists now graphic designers.) None of this will come by treating your students like a bunch of beaten dogs.

  2. The marriage thing does seem to help. Especially when kids are in the picture. Married advisors with kids tend to be less grouchy and ready to fight than their unmarried, super-ambitious cohorts.

  3. I wouldn't be so to suggested it is only men who can lose their cool. The least level headed advisor I've had is female.

    Yelling, screaming, threats, withholding letters of rec, talking crap about you when contacted by potential employers via phone for a recommendation (and then offering to renew your contract), messing around with author lists on a whim, suggesting you get paid too much at every opportunity. I feel especially bad for all the people in the lab that weren't born here and have immigration status linked to their job.

  4. I'm sorry about that, did not intentionally discriminate. It is just that chemistry is such a male dominated field. Many of us haven't had the opportunity to work for a female adviser. (Many of us don't often work with females.) And holy hell, it does remind me of another nightmare adviser in the dept (molecular biologist). Thank god she didn't make tenure.

  5. Mean and abusive advisors are quite easy to deal with. You just poison them.

  6. As unpleasant as it can be when such things are directed at you, or you are in the presence of such an incident, i think a level of fear must be bestowed during a graduate 'career', especially these days and with this generation. sure, a line should not be crossed but a stern, result driven environment is necessary. mediocrity and complacency will most certainly wield its head in its absence. competition is particularly steep for synthesis/jobs and stern hard advisers usually prepare their students well (yeah, maybe after milking them dry). i don't remember promises of a rose garden, anyways (to steal the Marine Corps poster title)

  7. @milkshaken (not stirred)

    Wow, I had no idea you had a vindictive side! Worked with much thallium lately?

  8. @anon 5:28pm:

    Apparently you have never experienced an truly abusive advisor. Nothing excuses that sort of advisor.

    If you think an abusive advisor is doing that just for the good of their students, consider this. If the advisor was stripped of their famous name, and was only left with their personality and their wits they most likely NEVER could obtain a job in industry. Some elementary social skills are necessary to survive in the real world. Behavior as described encourages their students to do similar behavior, which is no service to them or to those around them.

  9. Seriously anon 5:28

    Those days gone! Look if mindless servitude of a better part of decade actually meant wealth and prosperity then sure let's take the hit. But if mindless servitude just leads to either living in you parents basement or traveling across the country for no money. I'll let science take the hit. When times are tough, the students from the tougher advisers (who apparently aren't as connected anymore as they would like to be) have a harder time surviving in the "real world" because they can't think outside the box, let alone themselves. They can not imagine a life not tied to the hood. They can not network. They can not have a simple conversation. Science might have little transferable skills as is, but sucking the creativity out of your progeny so they lack the ability to market the skills they have, elsewhere, anywhere... is just deadly and sadly an OLD SCHOOL way of thinking in the new economy.

    I'm not saying chemistry/grad school shouldn't be hard. I'm just getting the feeling that grad students might need their friends, family and networks more than they need their adviser's letter of recommendation. Especially if it is fickle.

    If the world goes back to "normal" and our chemical knowledge and intuition is respected by dollars and cents and not just taken for granted, then we can go back to the salt mines mindless and heirarchy.

  10. Not out of spite, not to get a vindication. That would be petty and meaningless.

    You need to act proactively so that you avoid all future problems with your abusive boss. You are doing it because it is the right step for your career. It is essential for your job satisfaction and job security. And it helps your employer because without the abusive boss you will perform better at the workplace.

  11. "I'll let science take the hit"

    Science will be just fine: there will always be a cadre of selfless people willing to make very little money for very big contributions.

    If you think it's bad in organic chemistry (it is: I am grateful I got out of the horrible biotech game), try getting a PhD in theoretical physics: harder to get (in my opinion, no way I could have done it) and painfully limited job market.

    Nothing new, though, cf. AE, decades ago "Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it."

  12. Reasons for a tantrum r the same at age six and sixty: Inability to express need or desire, an unmet need or desire. In an adult, especially a faculty advisor, such behavior is a serious character flaw. Smart people find effective ways to communicate, dumb adults have tantrums. If your faculty advisor is a dumb adult, you shouldn’t be learning from him.

  13. PIs have way too much power over their students, and there's no oversight of any sort, so the Prof can get away with anything and everything. "Down here.. I am God!" - Trainman (Matrix Revolutions)

    I've just launched a website for researchers to review their PIs, and bring whatever abusive, unprofessional, infantile behavior they display into the public eye:


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20