For most grad students in the sciences, their doctoral advisor has an extraordinary level of power over their professional and personal life. This is long overdue for an overhaul. No single person should have that much power over another, particularly in academia where institutions chronically overlook and enable misconduct.
Regardless of what the rules might say, the advisor levies day-to-day expectations and essentially has sole authority to rate the quality of student progress. Many advisors do this job well, but the number who are inadequate or malicious is way too high. This linear power structure can facilitate exploitation and abuse, but also provides a lower quality training experience. Grad students gain more when they become an expert while training in a diverse program.
There are so many ways we can repair doctoral programs. Here are a few:
In many cases, the major advisor is the primary (or sole) arbiter of the quantity and quality of student work. However, this represents a massive conflict of interest, because advisor is often the beneficiary of student labor, as it’s become a new custom to include them as senior authors on work published by the student. One way to fix this is to have the student’s dissertation committee chaired by someone who isn’t the PhD advisor. In some fields and countries, this apparently is the norm. I can’t tell you how many MS and PhD students I’ve talked to, who have been fully ready to graduate but were being held back by their advisor who wanted to extract additional labor from their student.
Admissions decisions in my field are primarily based on the decisions of individual faculty members, built on students networking with them before the application phase. (You’ll hear more about this later from me but for now) maybe it’s a good idea to think about letting actual departments and diverse committees do recruiting and selection of students? If the doctoral program is about student training rather than providing labor for PIs, then why is it so important for PIs pick their own minions?
For many doctoral student, the primary evaluator of the student is also their employer — they are often funded by grants that are run by the PI. If you’re not familiar with the way that grants are operated, the PI essentially has full discretion over the allocation of funds, hiring authority, and can make all kinds of capricious decisions without having accountability. If a student working on their dissertation depends on this PI for their actual paycheck, then this clearly creates an environment for exploitation sans accountability. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve talked to who have been harassed or assaulted by the PI of their projects who is also their advisor, and have been afraid to report because of fear of retaliation, or who got shoved out of grad school as a result of retaliation. Of course universities could benefit from having more transparency in how grants are run, but also, we can make sure that trainees have funding streams that are separate from the people who are responsible for deciding their professional outcomes. Students with TAships and fellowships are less susceptible to this kind of exploitation, but the power structures often put them at risk, too.
Not all research environments are required to have a program to train new researchers. If your institution doesn’t want to train doctoral students, they don’t have to! It’s not against the law. But if you actually are running a doctoral program, then this means the program should be there to support the professional development of the students, not just to use students as cheap labor in the research enterprise. This means giving them training opportunities and supervision across the program, from multiple areas. Yes, a dissertation is where you focus on a narrow question and become an expert under the tutelage of another expert, but we can do this without giving a single person so much control over trainees.
When talking about this previously, a few people have said to me that reducing the power of doctoral advisors would reduce their capacity to be highly effective. To that, I say: phooey, that doesn’t even make sense! The authority that a person has over another person doesn’t have to alter the impact of their mentorship. For example, I suspect some of the people who I have impacted most positively are people who I have had absolutely no authority on whatsoever. But I still funded them, guided them, enabled opportunities, and so on. If you can’t support a person to succeed in a diversified power structure, then how much are you really equipping them for the future?