A Better Way is Possible: Lessening the Power Disparity Between Faculty and Graduate Employees

This past weekend marked Penn State’s graduation ceremony, which caused me to reflect on my experiences here. Though I do not officially graduate until August, after defending on May 12th, I will have completed all the PhD requirements. This was not an easy feat. Ask any newly minted PhD and they will tell you that their road was marked by struggle, hard work, tears, and, at times, feeling of despair and hopelessness. Nevertheless, we persist, working toward the goal of becoming experts in our chosen fields and disseminating knowledge that will (hopefully) help to better  our society. As I mentioned in an earlier post, as the only black male in my department grad school has been no “crystal stair.” Additionally, I experienced something that can happen to any graduate employee: dealing with an unsupportive and neglectful faculty adviser.

My adviser abandoned me. With just two months before my tentative dissertation defense, he chose to not only step down as my chair, but also as my academic adviser. His departure led another committee member to step down as well. I found myself tasked with rebuilding my committee and re-defending my dissertation proposal. His departure caused me to worry that I would not be able to defend and graduate before beginning my faculty position this coming fall. I felt hopeless, defeated, and above all, confused. Graduate employees and their faculty mentors part ways all the time. In certain scenarios, like if a graduate employee is taking their research in a new direction, it is appropriate for said employee to seek out a more fitting adviser. Occasionally, advisers and advisees have irreconcilable differences and must part ways for the benefit of both parties. In these scenarios, the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial. Regardless of the circumstances, open communication and clear protocol are necessary. I received no communication (to this day I do not know why my adviser abandoned me) nor was there a formal process that my adviser had to go through to drop me as his advisee. In short, I was dropped without any notice, and found myself struggling to reform my committee so that I could defend and graduate in time to start my faculty position this coming fall. The actions of my adviser demonstrated a wanton inconsideration of the wellbeing of someone with considerably less power than him.

That’s what it comes down to. Power. All too often, faculty feel that they have the power to treat their advisees however they see fit and that they are above any punitive actions. A union, however, would even out this power disparity, allowing us to advocate for the mentorship, answers, and consistency that we need from faculty. I am a proud member of CGE and an avid supporter of graduate employee unionization because I believe that we cannot have a university where professors treat their advisees unjustly without fear of recourse. What happened  to me should not happen to anyone.

To this day I still wonder why my adviser chose to abandon me. Is it because he is close to retirement? Is it because he felt that my work was going in a direction that he didn’t agree with? I don’t know, and I perhaps never will. But what I do know is that a better way is possible.
Like many graduate employees, I chose Penn State because it provided the resources and promised the training I needed to become a competent researcher. I did not choose to attend a university where I would experience abuse and neglect from my faculty mentors. And yet, that is exactly what I received. My close friends, colleagues, and informal mentors helped to see me through. It is this type of community a union helps foster. A community that can lead to success in the face of overwhelming adversity.

This blog post was contributed by Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, Sociology and Demography