6 Strategies for Surviving a Toxic Graduate School Advisor

Graduate school is a challenging time for most students but these challenges should not be further compounded by a toxic graduate school advisor. I can imagine that you started graduate school full of excitement especially if you are first-generation and plan to be the first to earn the title of “Doctora” or “Doctor.” And you probably imagined working with an emerging or leading scholar in your field who would share all of their knowledge and wisdom with you.

But this is unfortunately, not always the case. I know from experience how difficult it can be to work with a toxic advisor, especially when you’re one of few students of color in your program. And I will tell you that if you find yourself in this situation, there are strategies that you can implement to help you navigate this challenge.

Here are six strategies for how to survive dealing with a toxic graduate school advisor:

  1. Identify the root(s) of the problem

To deal with a toxic graduate school advisor, you need to understand the root cause(s) of their toxicity. Is this person overly critical and harsh? Are they a micromanager? Are they MIA or missing a lot? Are they being exploitative? Are they displaying inappropriate or offensive behavior? Knowing the source(s) of the problem can help you develop appropriate strategies for dealing with it.

  1. Document what is going on

It might feel icky or uncomfortable to do this but it’s essential to document the particular behaviors and incidents that are toxic to you and others. You can save emails or make a spreadsheet with dates/times and descriptions of toxic behavior. Even if you don’t plan to share this documentation publicly, it helps you to validate your experience and the way that this person is impacting you and others. Sometimes toxic individuals can make us feel like things are “all in our heads” therefore documenting situations as soon as they happen is essential so that they cannot gaslight you.

  1. Set boundaries and manage up

Establishing clear boundaries is crucial when dealing with a toxic graduate school advisor. You should talk to others who have worked with this person to identify strategies to “manage-up.” Managing up refers to the process of ensuring that you get what you need from your manager, in this case, your advisor. If you decide to continue working with this person, it helps to set boundaries around how you communicate with them, when and how much you will work, and how to make progress in your program despite their toxicity.

  1. Seek guidance from other trusted sources

Talking to other femtors or mentors who you trust about this situation can provide you with valuable input and advice on how to best manage this situation. If their toxicity escalates, you can also approach the department chair, HR, a university ombuds office, or confidential counselors to get professional advice on what to do next. While sharing about this situation is risky, there are trusted sources you can reach out to for support.

  1. Create an exit strategy

If the toxicity of an advisor or an entire department becomes unsustainable, you may want to consider switching advisors or applying to transfer into a new program. I’ve been in this situation and have also supported coaching clients going through this transition. I went with the former and switched advisors during my doctoral program and it was for the better. If you are considering this option, now is the time to talk to other faculty mentors about working with them and/or reapplying and transferring to another program. If you need extra help, consider book a consultation meeting with me or reach out to other resources you know of.

  1. Take care of yourself

Working with a toxic supervisor can take a toll on your physical, mental, and spiritual health. Please don’t forget to take care of yourself during this process. Graduate school may be temporary, but it’s not worth it if it comes at the expense of your long-term health and wellness.

Dealing with a toxic graduate school advisor is a challenging situation, but it’s not impossible to navigate. By identifying the root cause(s) of the problem, documenting what is going on, setting boundaries, seeking guidance from other trusted sources, creating an exit strategy, and taking care of yourself, you can mitigate their negative impact on your academic, professional, and personal life. Remember, your health and well-being are essential, and you deserve to have a supportive and nurturing environment where you can pursue your academic and professional goals.

For more on this topic, listen to episode 188 of the Grad School Femtoring Podcast. And sign up for my free email newsletter where I discuss all things related to demystifying grad school, personal development, and sustainable productivity.

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