Ghost Advising

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By Katrin Schultheiss

Back in the late 1980s, I applied for admission to various doctoral programs in history. A couple of months later, I was shocked to receive a phone call from an internationally renowned scholar. He congratulated me on being admitted to his university’s program and invited me to the campus to talk with him in person.

When I arrived at the appointed spot, a young woman introduced herself as one of Professor Famous’s graduate students, apologized on his behalf, and said he could not be there after all but she would be happy to talk with me. Far from being offended that I had been bumped from his schedule, I was flattered that I had made it onto his radar at all.

I ended up matriculating at the university, though I eventually switched to another male adviser (for intellectual reasons and not because Professor Famous tended to schedule advising meetings during walks to his car to feed the meter). My new adviser — I’ll call him Professor Prominent — was well regarded but not a superstar like Professor Famous. Professor Prominent was an excellent teacher and my conversations with him were always pleasant, and sometimes even inspiring.

I accepted as "bad timing" the fact that he had a secretary put a pink "While You Were Out" message in my mailbox informing me that he would be out of town for my comprehensive oral exams. But maybe that was a sign of what was to come. When it came to providing guidance and feedback on my dissertation, I remember clearly the downward slope of his engagement with my work: I received a page of comments on my first chapter, a postcard of comments on the next two, and an efficient "looks good!" on the remaining three.

Nervous that his comments did not, in all likelihood, reflect the actual quality of the dissertation, I turned to a junior faculty member, a woman, who generously agreed to read the complete thesis. A week or so later, she returned it to me with detailed comments and suggestions throughout. It was her thoughtful remarks that enabled me to revise the dissertation and eventually turn it into a publishable book manuscript. In the university’s records, I remained a student of Professor Prominent. The junior faculty member who actually did the work of commenting meaningfully on my dissertation was relegated to "committee member." Her only reward was having to write letters of recommendation for me for years to come.

It has taken me two and a half decades to recognize that my experience of having a senior male nominal adviser and a female (usually more junior) actual adviser is common throughout academe.

In fact, I myself have served in the intervening years as a "ghost adviser" to several graduate students of more senior male professors without recognizing that I was part of that pattern. When I recently asked an online group of female historians whether they had ever served as a ghost adviser for the students of a male colleague, I received more than 100 responses in a matter of hours.

Many offered versions of the same experience: A well-known senior male professor in the department attracts graduate students to work with him because of his scholarly reputation. Students are well aware that being a student of Professor Reputation will help them compete in an extraordinarily challenging academic job market.

But Professor Reputation, it turns out, doesn’t always respond to emails or is too busy to meet regularly with his students. When they send him their written work, they receive cursory comments or none at all.

Desperate for assistance, students turn for help to another faculty member, often a woman. This professor is torn: She wants to help the abandoned student but she knows that, by doing so, she is enabling a system that allows Professor Reputation to continue to burnish his, well, reputation as a producer of fine Ph.D. students while Professor Ghost Adviser will get little if any recognition for the hours she spends improving the work of his student. Professor Ghost Adviser knows that if she refuses to help, the one who gets hurt is the student — not Professor Reputation, who will very likely lay the blame for a weak dissertation on the student.

No matter how limited Professor Reputation’s advising actually is, his graduate students are unlikely to officially switch advisers. They are well aware that their nominal adviser’s stature is perhaps the most valuable currency they have in academe’s guild-like structure. Moreover, switching advisers risks alienating an influential person in the field.

So Professor Ghost Adviser "adopts" the student and takes some personal satisfaction in having contributed to his or her success even if that contribution goes largely unrecognized. She is unlikely to confront Professor Reputation because, if she is junior to him, somewhere down the line he will be voting on her promotion.

And even if she is not junior, she knows that confronting Professor Reputation risks conflict and, at any rate, is unlikely to result in a change of behavior. In many instances, his voice carries weight not just in the department, but in the university more generally, which benefits from his scholarly productivity.

A number of factors contribute to the pervasiveness and tenacity of the Ghost Adviser phenomenon:

  • Academic departments at research universities tend to be hierarchical units with distinct rights and privileges afforded to the different professorial ranks.
  • In many fields (including history) potential students apply to work with individual faculty members. Full professors, with their longer scholarly records, usually attract the bulk of applicants.
  • At the same time, most professors want their own pool of acolytes. In part, that’s because they regard training the next generation of scholars as one of the most important ways that they can have a lasting impact on their discipline. Historians, for example, are often referred to by their academic lineage, as in, "Professor X was a student of Y who was Z’s last student." (The Germans make the patriarchal nature of this sort of intellectual genealogy explicit with their word for dissertation adviser: Doktorvater.) More crassly, Ph.D. students are status markers in and of themselves for many faculty members, who regard having a large number of disciples as an indicator of their professional importance.

In that context, one could argue that the existence of ghost advisers is not a particularly gendered phenomenon. If most ghost advisers are women, one might say, that is merely a reflection of the preponderance of men in the senior ranks of so many academic fields. Certainly, there are junior men who have ghost advised for senior colleagues and some of those senior colleagues are women. We all know women who neglect their graduate students after fighting to add them to their stable of advisees just as we all know senior men who are diligent and conscientious advisers.

I certainly don’t mean to essentialize here: Women can be as arrogant, self-regarding, and oblivious as men. As one colleague noted, regardless of whether or not ghost advising is entirely a gender issue, "it’s certainly an asshole issue."

Without a doubt, then, ghost advising is built into a system that grants inordinate status to academic "stars" of all sexes and too often rewards those who prioritize their scholarly productivity to the neglect of their other professional responsibilities. But to claim that ghost advising is entirely a byproduct of structural issues in academe obscures the gendered character of the practice itself.

Every aspect of the ghost-advising cycle is a product of the gendered behavioral norms that are ubiquitous in our society generally. All the players in what might be called the family drama of ghost advising are complicit in perpetuating norms of masculine ambition and feminine helpfulness; of masculine genius and feminine drudgery; of masculine self-promotion and feminine self-effacement. We are all participating in a system that values and rewards a very particular, masculine-coded model of professional and scholarly success, a model that is perpetuated and strengthened by feminine-coded behaviors such as empathy for a wronged student and a reluctance to appear selfish or ambitious.

So what can be done?

In the short term, the obvious solution is for women, indeed everyone, to stop compensating for their colleagues’ dereliction of duty. If a student asks another faculty member for assistance because their primary adviser is unresponsive, the faculty member should report the student’s request to the chair or director of graduate studies. Consequences could include restrictions on the adviser’s ability to take on more graduate students or a requirement that the ghost adviser receive co-adviser status.

Will that actually happen on a broad enough scale to change the pattern? Not likely. The existing system works too well for too many powerful people (as well as for the university itself) and is too deeply rooted in gendered professional norms for the actions of a few people to bring it down.

Maybe what we need is a far more extensive rethinking of the structure of graduate training itself. Might we consider the possibility that the centuries-old traditions that underlie many programs — traditions developed in Europe at a time when women were not allowed anywhere near the ivory tower — are no longer relevant or serving useful purposes? Is the current guild model where one master heads a workshop of apprentices really serving the interests of anyone other than the master?

After all, graduate students who are unionizing on campuses across the country clearly do not see themselves as apprentices nor do they see themselves as obedient children to their "Doktorvater." And too many academic women are painfully aware that they are expected to play the role of nurturing mother to a struggling student or supportive wife to a brilliant and ambitious male colleague.

Graduate programs today, especially in the humanities, are turning out far more Ph.D.s than the academic market can absorb. Now would be a good time to ask ourselves why we organize graduate training the way we do and how we can change it so that we don’t replicate and reinforce the same sort of power structures that so many of us do not hesitate to criticize in our scholarship.

Katrin Schultheiss is an associate professor and chair of the history department at George Washington University.

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