It is a fact universally acknowledged that a grad student who is 2 weeks past the last VERY firm deadline established for giving a draft of a chapter to the advisor and who has fruitlessly struggled like a critter stuck in a tar pit to just produce a paltry and poorly written 3 pages since that deadline blew past lives in perpetual terror of accidentally running into her advisor.

I’m definitely not alone in this. Most grad students I know are always dodging their advisors and very carefully cultivate a pattern of movement so as to avoid what a friend has called “the Advisor Attack.” The Advisor Attack always happens when you are late for something else, have multiple things overdue, are unclean (i.e. unshowered), exhausted, have food in your teeth, mismatched socks, and are carrying a large stack of awkward and unwieldy personal items unrelated to work. All of which serves to make you feel your full height of 3”, as you stare up at the Advisor’s ever increasing stature until you are sure they are at least 50’ tall – just like in that Schoolhouse Rock for Adjectives where Girls were tall - get taller and Boys were small - get smaller, till one is the biggest and one is the smallest of all, and then the small boy gets splatted under the tall girl’s giant flip flop.

Typical dialogue of an Advisor Attack usually goes something like this:

Grad Student: “La, la, la, minding my own business, doing my own shit, la la la.”

Advisor: “Hey Grad Student! Where have you been? How is that chapter going?”
(Or some variation on this theme)

Grad Student: “Uh. Um. Hi. Yeah. Um.” (or some variation on the theme.)

My all-time personal favorite Advisor Attack happened one night last winter when I was out eating dinner with Spousal Unit, Cleis, and Phaeon. Committee Member #2 approached and said, “Hey Stewgad, when are you going to finish your dissertation?” The only appropriate response was, clearly, “Well, not before I finish dinner!” But I chickened out and mumbled something about maybe perhaps by the end of the year.

The only sure-fire way to avoid the Advisor Attack is to move out of State. But, short of that, there are techniques. Preventing the Advisor Attack during the semester is pretty easy. First, you learn your advisor’s teaching schedule and office hours. Then, you studiously and deliberately steer clear of anywhere they’re likely to be according to that schedule. You could follow them around for a bit to get a sense of where they go and what they do, but it is definitely risky and could lead to an Attack. Most grad students I know get pretty good at strategic maneuvering from the public schedule and can generally prevent any unintended contact during the semester. The summer is trickier, however, because the advisor is sometimes on campus and sometimes not -- depending only on their sheer whims, not any university published schedule. You’d think they’d consent to a low-jack Martha Stewart-esque tracking anklet to help us with this problem, but surprisingly all of my proposals for such a system have been rejected. Their summer movements are utterly unpredictable and therefore VERY dangerous.

Just to be safe, I have avoided campus for about 2 weeks now, not coincidentally since the last missed deadline. (I also had this great excuse because of this every 2 hours I have to lie down on the floor and contort my back. I thought it might be a little odd of I did this stretch in the stacks outside of the Cage). But, today I finally admitted to myself that I can’t write at home. It is just not working for me. There are far too many distractions and too much mess. And, if I am being fully truthful, I must reluctantly admit that I’ve developed an oh so very slight blog problem, helpfully enabled by Widgets and Bloglines. So, this morning I decided I’d give my office in the department a try. It’s not very comfortable, but there is enough space that I can lie down on the icky floor. I’m pretty sure my 2 office mates are not using the space this summer and -- big bonus -- there is no Internet. I understood that going to the department would be risking potential advisor contact. But, I figured that since today it is really, really hot he would be unlikely to want to hang out in his 4th floor un-air-conditioned office. Well, this was the case. I slunk into the building, hoping to keep a low profile, and whew. The building was clear, so as long as I could stay in my basement office with door closed, all Advisor Attacks could be avoided.

But, after about ten minutes of typing on the NEW POWERBOOK! at the office, I decided I should go get my laptop stand from the Cage. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. I had almost made it -- I was in the stairwell with my hand on the door to the Cage’s floor, and I hear, “Stewgad…” So, I turn, and there is the very man I’ve been attempting to avoid. DAMN. It was very awkward. He was on his way out and clearly surprised to see me. I panicked and started babbling as I tend to do in those situations. I mumbled something about disc problems and doing work, and although I grabbed my back when I said it, it still sounded like the lamest undergrad excuse ever invented on the planet a la the computer ate my homework. I followed this stellar and articulate monologue with something about how I’ve been feeling really bad about missing the deadline and how I’m embarrassed at the low quality of work that I actually have and so I’ve been wanting to make it better before I gave it to him but even so I wanted to be done with it this week and I’d be in my Office this afternoon if he wanted to stop by when he was done with his errands and talk about it. Of course, of all this insane stumbling around, he picks up on the WORST part of that terrified babble and says, “I think you just need to get it out so you can go on to working on something else, whatever shape it is in, so why don’t you give it to me by the end of the week and I’ll take a look at it.” He was leaving campus (wouldn’t you know it, I was SOOO close to avoiding the Attack. Sigh.) and so we agreed to email. I said ok, and then proceeded on my way to the Cage.

To cover over the panic, and shut down the screams from my brain of – Shit. Shit. Shit. Why did I have to run into him today?? -- I started up the iPod again, which resumed play from where I had stopped it at the first moment of the Advisor Attack. And just I’m thinking, “Why, oh why?” -- my good friend, who just doesn’t happen to know me at all, Ani DiFranco cheerfully asked me “ain’t that the way it is supposed to be?” I hate it when the universe conspires against me in order to help me get over myself. Ok, ok, I get it. Thanks. Message received. I had to run into him. It was the way it was supposed to be.

BUT, this encounter scared the bejezus out of me, prompting me to work like a madwoman today, finishing ALL of the new composition I had to do for this chapter, leaving behind only to whittle down and reshape what I already wrote on suffrage rights so that it fits into the new conceptual framework. And, let me tell you that is a huge load lifted!! I’m going to take end of the week to mean SUNDAY – because otherwise it is nuts since today is Thursday (which I hadn’t actually quite realized when I said “end of the week” in my babbling moment, I had kind of thought it was Tuesday or something like that). Anyway, I’ll whittle away tomorrow at the suffrage section, and then spend Saturday (my birthday, L) and Sunday revising, tidying, tightening (Which DEFINITELY has to happen because I now have 53 pages and am about to add on another 20 pre-whittled). He really is a nice man, and I think that just getting this to him, no matter its condition, is a really good idea. It just wasn’t what I expected when I got up this morning. But, then again, what ever really is?


At 7:34 PM Suz said...

Beats flying monkeys! (Barely)

At 8:19 PM HistGrad said...

I think of it as the "Advisor Avoidance Olympics," and grad students can earn medals in different events, such as Creative Stairwell Usage, Faking Illness, etc. When I started grad school medaling was a bit easier because e-mail now makes Advisor Avoidance much more difficult, but I'm sure today's young-uns are up to the challenge. I moved out of state, so I'm not sure I qualify anymore, since avoiding someone 1000 miles away really isn't a challenge!

But, wow, the power of a deadline, huh? I think I need one of those.

Congrats on your work!

At 1:05 AM La Lecturess said...

Damn this is funny. And so true.

A good friend in my program lived in such fear of running into his advisor, after getting WAAAY behind on a chapter, that he just up and relocated to the Divinity School (about three miles away from the main campus)--having all his books paged from the main library and held at the div school.

At 1:36 AM JTN said...

funny and very true. at least your advisor isn't an ass. Mine refuses to email me to check on my progress ("it's a breach of the foodchain") if I'm late, and then I ignored him for several months working on coding and when I contacted him, the response was "huh. I thought you dropped out." maybe that's why I avoid him like a contagious disease.

At 5:27 AM Helen said...

Thank you for the tips on avoiding one's advisor. I hadn't realised that this skill existed but obviously will have to practice for when the time comes! But don't you feel so proud of yourself having got it all done? Congrats on all that writing, and enjoy your birthday tomorrow, in between all the revising!

At 9:34 AM Patty said...

When I was dodging my thesis advisor (I have an MFA, creative writing) I often thought of that episode of Seinfeld where George avoids his girlfriend so she can't break up with him.

I managed to dodge him for almost a month, but then a friend casually mentioned she was meeting me for lunch. Yup, he showed up at the restaurant. I also took it as a sign from the fates, and got the thesis to him soon after.

At 11:13 AM Stewgad said...

Welcome JTN - Thanks for stopping in! And, your advisor sounds like a consummate ass. I think avoiding him sounds like the best way to ensure sanity.

Really, I am lucky - this is my 2nd advisor, and he is lovely. I'm sure he had no idea that I'm scared of him. It would probably freak him out to know this. He isn't the type of guy to scare anyone. I just scare particularly easily.

At 4:49 PM lucyrain said...

Congrats on the work done and happy birthday, s!

At 3:17 AM Dr. Mon said...

Too funny. I'm fortunate to have had advisors that I don't have eto avoid. But there are certainly unnamed folks at my institution that I am using the move out of state technique for!!! In all seriouness though, I'm so glad u were able move on writing and I wish you a very very very blessed birthday.

At 5:02 PM timna said...

happy birthday. glad you enjoyed breakfast.
I didn't even realize the benefits of moving out of state after finishing my classes. you're right, my advisor never showed up. I only saw her when I flew in on purpose.

At 2:52 PM academic coach said...


This is such a prevelent syndrome that you've inspired a post on my site....

At 3:42 PM wolfspyder said...

A wonderfully funny piece. With just a little more chutzpah, you might even want to consider getting paid for this kind of thing...or turn the blog into a book at some later date.


At 5:31 PM Wanna Be PhD said...

Now I know why (a) I work in My Appartment and (b) my Supervisor is 900 miles away from me.
No such problems at all!!

At 10:42 PM Adjunct Kait said...

Oh, I *so* avoided my advisor during my Master's Thesis process. Actually, I think avoiding him was my inspiration to work harder...if I got cornered by him (which I did once in a while), I would have a chapter or something else pleasant to give to him ;)

At 2:22 PM Dre said...

Soooo funny! Thank god my advisor is usually out of the country - I still find myself terrified I'll run into him though since I never know when he'll swoop into the office. Good luck with the rest of it!

At 5:17 PM Anonymous said...

To quote a master -
"I don't need time; what I need is a deadline." -- Duke Ellington

At 3:55 AM Anonymous said...

It is 3:50 am . . . I am 56 year-old-ABD who has finished her proposal and my advisor refuses to move forward on it. I have worked night and day to produce this after he threw out the research I'd done in prep for my candidacy exams. I am running out of money . . . no job, no retirement, no health care (except for the student insurance). I want to get out and try to rebuild my life and he won't help me. I asked for a weekly or bi-weekly meeting and he turned me down. I completed my exams last November and am stuck because he won't move me forward.

I have an IRB that will have to be reapplied for if I don't have my committee meeting this term.

I don't know if I can take this. This is all I have. My kids are gone, my marriage is over and I am trying to not give up.

At 11:41 AM Stewgad said...

Dear Anon@ 3:50 AM:

Your advisor sucks. He is not only failing in his job to support you, he is actively undermining your success. This is completely wrong and horrible, and is most likely not your fault.

First, let me sympathize with your plight. I've been through a similar experience with Old Advisor, it was horrible. It made me feel small, stupid, unimportant, and unworthy. And I'm sure that your evil advisor is making you feel this way also. I'm so sorry that you're having this experience.

Second, at the risk of offering advice where only sympathy was requested, get a new advisor. Advisors are a dime a dozen, and even if you're working with someone who is doing something slightly different than the project you have conceived of for your dissertation, it is worth it to have a responsive and helpful advisor. It doesn't sound like this advisor is supporting you financially, as well as not supporting you emotionally, so perhaps it is possible for you to make a change now that you're ABD. I'd suggest talking to your graduate faculty representative or to another member of your committee or to a faculty member that you know well and who knows your work. Talk to them about your situation and see what advice they can offer. But ultimately, this is your project and your degree. Don't let anyone get in the way between you and your success. (FYI, switching advisors made all the difference for me, and I defended in February. See my new blog:

You sound determined, as well as desperate, which can often be a good combination for getting some changes made. Good luck, and my thoughts are with you. If you want to continue the conversation in a less public, send me an email ( and I'd be happy to talk to you about the process. Meanwhile, hang in there and good luck!!


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