In my recent video on what I called “the hazing ritual problem,” I mentioned the idea that some professors are sadists, and that really touched a chord for one of my friends who was kind enough to look at my video.
In the video, I was making the point that it’s not helpful to view your professors as sadistic (unless, of course, they really are), and that’s it’s easy to mistake for sadism what might be something less malicious. But I don’t want to make light of what can be a really serious problem, so I’m going to make a few comments that follow up on the ideas in the video.
Firstly, let’s set the basic premise that there are some really reprehensible people who are professors. There are people who enjoy causing pain, and people who enjoy exerting their power to force others to do their will. Some of those people are professors. How many such professors there are is uncertain—1%? 10%? 50%?—but there are some, I’m sure. The best answer to such a situation might be to get a new professor, or the best answer might be to take action to protect yourself against the worst and grin and bear it. A lot depends on the situation—real crimes should not be tolerated, but what about petty malice? One might choose to accept some petty malice for the advantage that might be conveyed. However you may choose to respond, you want to focus your attention on your real choices. Remember that it is your life: you don’t have to work with a sadist, even you would have to switch to a new program at a new school to finish a degree free from that professor. Giving up years of work in one program would be awful, but worse than suffering through additional years of future torment? Another program will accept you. You can get a degree from another school.
The more that you can focus your attention on your wider set of opportunities, the less you feel at the mercy of someone who is mistreating you. On an emotional level, there is a vast difference between feeling trapped in a program under a sadistic professor and feeling like you’re in a bad situation under a sadist, but still a situation that you can choose. If you can stop feeling trapped and start thinking about your choices, you have a better chance of protecting yourself from the stresses and damages of working with someone abusive.
Beyond accepting that there are some sadists out there, I would encourage trying to look for whether, in fact, what could be mistaken for abuse is, in fact, something else. There’s a saying “never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” To that I would add “or by disregard/indifference.”
I would think that the main cause of graduate student suffering is professorial indifference: professors are supposed to care and are supposed to give guidance. But professors are busy, and they may not give sufficient attention to their students. I’ve worked with a lot of students who have received really bad feedback from their professors. I couldn’t tell whether that was because the professors just weren’t trying or were incapable of giving good feedback, but one a certain level, it doesn’t matter: bad feedback is bad feedback.
On another level, it does matter to know whether you’re getting bad feedback through stupidity or neglect, because you would want to make plans that take your professor’s shortcomings into consideration. Planning to work with an indifferent professor is different from planning to work with a stupid professor. And although neither the neglectful nor the fool deserve the same censure as the malicious actor/abuser, their impact on a student can be severe.
On the whole, professors are just people. If you have trouble with your professors, think of them as people and consider how to manage their emotional issues. Make plans; devise strategies. Recognize that you are an active participant in your relationship with your professors. Keep your eye on options so that you don’t feel trapped. Above all, remember that you are not trapped. You may need to make a sacrifice to achieve healthy change, but you are not trapped in a graduate program. There are other programs. If you’re good enough that you’re in an extremely prestigious program, and are worried about loss of prestige by switching to another institution, well, it’s still your choice, and if you’re that good, maybe you’ll do better with a less prestigious program that gives you good support than you will in a program that is making you feel like your dissertation work is torture. Make it your choice.
A graduate program is an opportunity, not a trap. There are difficulties and costs, and it’s hard to predict exactly what those will be in the future, but what plan is certain? The more that you think about your situation in terms of your choices and your power to guide your own life, the less that you will feel at the mercy of your professors. There are costs in staying with a sadist, and there are costs in leaving a program to work with another professor—if you’re feeling like your professor is torturing you, start to consider why—sadism? neglect? stupidity?—and then make appropriate plans.