Managing your Phd Adviser While Staying Zen

Earning a doctorate can be stressful for many reasons, especially when you are considering non-academic careers after the Phd. You might work with a demanding adviser, have too many classes to teach, and might be running out of funding to pursue your studies. Add student debt and no concrete job prospects in your field to the mix, and you’re in for a meltdown. To quit or not to quit? That is the question.

While the right decision might vary with every situation, one thing is for sure: you need to start exploring alternative careers after the Phd right now, which means that you need to learn to manage your adviser who is probably pressuring you to pursue tenure-track positions at all costs. Why? Mainly because having you on the tenure-track makes him or her look good in front of peers and the university.

How to deal with the difficult situation of considering alternative careers after the Phd while being pressured by your superior to work extra-hard for a job that you might never get, or that you simply don’t want anymore? The first thing to do is to acknowledge that academia is a world where one constantly looks for the approval of others. The second thing is to turn off the background noise, and focus on YOU.

Here are 5 tips to manage your adviser’s expectations, give yourself some time to prepare for the non-academic job market, and cut your losses effectively:

  • Ask your adviser to set priorities.

The minute you realize your adviser’s expectations are unrealistic, and might jeopardize the time you need to prepare for other career options, you need to have a conversation. If you feel overwhelmed by too many demands, you need to force your adviser to prioritize. Let him or her know that you can’t do it all, and ask him to focus on what’s most important.

  • If your adviser won’t budge and refuses to set priorities, set them yourself.

It might not very politically correct to say it out loud, but prioritizing is just another fancy term for cutting corners. The demands of writing a Phd fare exceed the allotted time provided by your university. You’re running out of time and feeling the heat? Start cutting corners. If your adviser refuses to prioritize for you, you’ll just have to do everything as best you can with the time you have.

  • Your dissertation is just … a dissertation.

Your dissertation is not the opus of your life. It’s not Remembrance of Things Past, The Magic Mountain, or Finnegan’s Wake. In fact, it will very likely remain ignored by the rest of the world and collect dust in a dark library. Deal with the fact that it does not have to be perfect. And keep in mind that, even if you end up on the tenure-track, you will have to make drastic changes to make your manuscript more appealing to publishers. Consider your dissertation as a draft, the best draft you can produce at this moment of your life. Be comfortable with letting things fall through the cracks. Many of them might even remain unnoticed by your adviser and committee.

  • Stop Whining

Stop complaining and take control of your life. Create a situation where you don’t have to be complaining about being overworked, or taken advantage of by “the system.” If it’s impossible for you to say, “no!” to your adviser, consider that you might over-identify with your Phd to the point that you’re working harder just because you can’t imagine not being perfect.

  • Shift the focus.

Envision your workload not in terms of being overworked, but in terms of time management. The most effective people are not good at doing everything, they simply excel at figuring out when to say, “enough!”


Are you currently struggling with a demanding adviser? Want to share your experience or how you managed to tame the academic beast? Have questions about how to approach your adviser about your career choices? Join in the conversation!

Need help preparing for alternative careers after the Phd?  We’re here to help! Sign up for a free consultation, and learn how we can help you navigate the process.

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