Burn it Down: Emails of Advisor & Professor Abuse Expose Systemic Crisis in Academia

I received this email a few days ago: Thank you for sharing your story. What happened to you happened verbatim to a friend of mine…. Ironically, I found your blog after a faculty member that I am friends with on Facebook shared your post in order to express his outrage over it. It took everything I had not to comment publicly on his page: “This happened in your own Department while you were the Graduate Advisor.”

The toxic culture of academia has reached a point of no return. There is a palpable collective trauma that has emerged, and this recent study about mental health in graduate students points to the enormity of the problem. It leads me to wonder if academia itself is the cause of depression.

The cyclical nature of trauma and abuse can transform victims into abusers, especially when one is a part of a culture that places impossible demands on those within it, and has such a well-established system of silencing and abuse that it all seems commonplace, and to be expected. The conversation must be continued, and that is why I decided to summarize, in excruciating detail, what I have been receiving in my inbox. It is not my intention to transform this site into a collection of horror stories, but rather, to demonstrate precisely how widespread issues of advisor and professor abuse, negligence, plagiarism, and other forms of career and emotional sabotage are. I have no answers, and my most cynical side is not even sure if there is a solution. From where it stands, academia needs to be razed to the ground so that we can re-build it into an institution that actually supports young and radical scholarship, and the scholars who produce it. What suffers most from this type of institutional corruption is innovative scholarship itself, and by extension, the entire education system. It should not be this way. We owe it to ourselves, to scholarship, and to academia to continue talking about this, and hopefully, to push for a better future.

Even if this toxic culture has always been around, is that really an excuse? That is the exact same excuse used by Frat boys during hazing. Shouldn’t we, as intellectuals, be better than that? Dr. Mao told me horror stories of their advisor, one of the top respected scholars in our field, who had neither the time nor the patience for graduate students, much less undergraduates. (The larger question here is, what exactly is their job, if it is not to educate?) Mao told me of how they were consistently undervalued, belittled, and made to feel their scholarship would never be important, and would never make a critical impact.

Dr. Mao went on to perpetuate that with their own advisees. I have personally watched Mao’s other advisees called out for their “poor” writing, for their inability to become scholars, and for not being worthy enough of a recommendation letter once on the job market.  Mao treated their students of color far worse than they treated me. I have heard Mao’s mocking words in regards to other graduate students, especially those in the exact same field. I heard all of this beginning in year two of my graduate career. Hungry and driven, I resolved never to be one of those students whom Mao so openly mocked. When Mao accompanied me on a research trip to Europe (for which I had gotten a small travel grant), I booked and paid for our hotels, trains, and car rental. I was just honored to be traveling with Mao. Months later, when I emailed Mao an itemized list of what I had paid for asking, politely, if I owed any Mao any money, and if not, what their share of the expenses were, they never responded. Later, in person, Mao informed me that it was my parent’s responsibility to pay for my expenses, because, after all, Mao’s parents had supported them through graduate school, as well as paid for their Ivy league undergraduate education. I assume this was Mao’s way of informing me I would not be paid back. When I gently informed Mao that my parents had no such responsibility, and that I supported myself, Mao rolled their eyes. Mao seemed genuinely baffled by anyone who would not have wealthy enough parents who would financially support them, and their various desires to go on vacation and buy new clothes, through the many years of graduate school. Nevertheless, I still wanted to be the special one. So, I never asked for Mao to pay me back again.

Why wouldn’t Mao take advantage of their students while simultaneously mocking and belittling them? As my story demonstrates, Mao had only incentive, and nothing to lose, by treating their advisees just as Mao had been treated by their own advisor.  There is no recourse, and no consequences for such behavior.

Worse than Mao, however, is the complete failure of departments and university administrators to protect their students (and to protect professors, I might add, but more on that in another post). My former department issued a response to my blog in an email to their current graduate students. In the email, they only mentioned the suspected misappropriation (predictably discrediting me by citing the internal investigation that took place), but the email mentioned nothing about the abuse and neglect that occurred when I simply sought advice about what to do from others in the department, and from the university as a whole. Rightly, this outraged current graduate students, who interpreted the letter as evidence that the department not only didn’t take their concerns seriously, but also didn’t care.

If you are interested, the email is posted at the end of this post, with names redacted**

As one professor commented to me, who also experienced advisor abuse, as well as plagiarism of their work while in graduate school: There is rot in the floorboards of academia and no one seems to be willing to acknowledge it.

 Another professor wrote to me: I also had similar problems during my postdoctoral fellowship when I filed a formal complaint against my supervisor. I actually left research for a while because, like you, I found that administrators and HR would not actually stand for what was right, but rather decided to protect the organization first and foremost.

 Yet another professor writes: I had a student come to me with a similar situation [as yours]. When I went to bat for them, I was smacked down by admin. I was told to keep my mouth shut (I did not and threatened to call my lawyer). And even though I am a tenured professor and could not be fired, I was punished with low-merit evaluations and therefore low or no raises. I also became persona non-grata and lost a few so-called friends.

 And another professor: The lack of care, the lack of tact, the lack of departmental support you received is, frankly, the most upsetting thing about your story from where I sit… I wish there were words to express my gratitude for your willingness to share this story. I completely agree, this is the real issue.

While the salacious material of my own circumstances is no doubt interesting, at this point I would like to illustrate that this is so much bigger than me and my story. I have received over 300 emails in just 2 weeks, and they all point to the systemic nature of this problem. And to the culture of bullying, victim blaming, and silencing by nearly everyone involved.  At least ½ of these emails outline advisor abuse, bullying, plagiarism, or another form of career sabotage. It’s also worth noting that, surprisingly, over 1/3 of the emails are from professors.

A tenured and well-established professor wrote in an email to me the following: I wish I could protest that you’re being too sensitive or that your experiences are an outlier, but sadly they are not… Graduate Students and Prospective Students: you don’t have the power to fight this kind of departmental culture, so you must work to avoid it. Listen to your gut. If your spidey-senses are telling you that the department you want to work in is abusive, pay attention and GET OUT… A department that routinely treats its students as Harbin describes is the kind of department that will rob them of their intellectual contributions.

 I should add, however, that more often than not, even with excellent super-hero like spidey-senses, students are incapable of knowing this before signing up with a department. The emails I have received have somewhat dimmed my optimistic hope that if graduate students could band together and speak out, the situation would be better. At this point, I do not think that is true anymore. As one commenter remarked on my blog: “we are all much better off if the PhD system collapses under its own corruption before any more students are burned by it.”

A professor and graduate coordinator writes in: I know such unethical things happen all the time in the academy… The professor who said that older professors can be afraid of graduate students was right. They can be--- if they don’t realize that we all become obsolete. The idea is that we contribute something to knowledge that students and other scholars assess and improve on.

A grad student wrote to me about her relationship with her advisor: I feel like I am viewed as a competitor that she needed to screw over in order to move herself forward, not as a student she should be helping… Until you hear that this is like that everywhere, you feel like you are part of the problem. Morale is down, people are depressed, and just want to get out as fast as possible from this nightmare.

 Another grad student writes: I deeply agree with you that academia is an abusive and narcissistic place where ‘smart’ people who rob people’s work can take advantage of others are often awarded. Two days after reading your stories, I realized that I have heard of at least four cases of senior academics plagiarizing grad student’s work, from robbing ideas in a conference presentation to Ph.D. advisors robbing grad student’s work… And I also want to point out that the sickening system has also turned grad students against each other… Many of my fellow grad students play this same game by being excessively narcissistic and socially bullying others. I foresee that these people will be the ones who succeed in academia.  (The bullying and belittling at the hands of fellow graduate students is also another post, and deserves much more attention than this one anecdote)

 And another grad student writes: This really hits close to home for me. Nearly everything you said has happened to me, except I wasn’t offered tissues.

 And another: Like so many others, I went through something similar during my Ph.D. and am still scrambling to salvage my career.

 And another: It is absolutely a norm: the sabotaging. It happened to me and to others during my time in grad school, and those who suffered from it aren’t in academia now. It ended our careers, too, but the professors prospered.

 And another: The behavior that you describe in your blog is frighteningly common. After all, why WOULDN’T a professor steal ideas from his or her own grad students when there is literally nothing stopping them from doing so? Given that the professor has nearly 100% control over the future career of their advisees, as well as their ability to even get the Ph.D. in the first place, and given that professors themselves have found their career success plagued by their ability to publish in unpaid publications, in addition to rigorous teaching and advisory loads, there’s really nothing but incentive to abuse, plagiarize, and exploit grad students.

As this email so aptly puts it: Thieving supervisors are only one problem alongside the rampant misogyny, the elitism, the racism, and much more that our field encourages. The emails I have gotten from POC (people of color) students and faculty members are perhaps the most egregious, especially because in at 4 of them, their own advisors, also POC, sabotaged their advisee’s work.  Work, that may I add, is without a doubt the most important work being done in academia right now. And yet…

Further, it is essentialist to assume that women cannot also replicate the system of oppression, especially if they want to succeed within it. Female professors are often just as sexist as their male counterparts, which explains how and why it is still not only a disadvantage, but nearly a mark of shame to become pregnant at any point in one’s academic career.

A professor emailed me this: I saw so many women… being denied promotion and even tenure. But white men had no problems at all. Currently I am working to help a WOC who is being discriminated against and may lose her bid for tenure because she had two children over 2-3 years, and was on maternity leave twice in a short period.  That kind of discrimination is against the Human Rights Act [in this region] but the union refuses to take her case seriously.

 When I wrote my MA thesis on a lesbian artist (Roni Horn, wonderful work), a professor who proudly wore the label of Feminist Art Historian told me: you know, if you write about a lesbian artist people will assume that you are gay too. That this was said to me as I was struggling with my own process of coming out to my family, and to my department, is another story entirely.

And lastly, on this too brief note about sexism and racial discrimination of which we all know academia is rife (more of this in future posts): the emails I have gotten from first-generation college students or economically disadvantaged graduate students detailing abuse and career sabotage from their more socio-economically privileged professors and advisors is appalling. If you are reading this and have a story about the sabotage of your work along gendered, race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic lines, I would love to hear from you and, if you wish, have you do a guest post—either anonymously or with your name attached to it. This must be exposed, so that we can fight for a better path forward.

 A professor wrote to me that while in graduate school, their advisor, Dr. X, demanded over 15 hours of work from them per week while she was in the middle of her Ph.D. exams (an already 70+ hour work week, in the best of times), and, most egregiously, asked her to do so when her contract with Dr. X stipulated no more than 5 hours per week. This professor wrote: If I didn’t meet their deadlines, Dr. X would tell me I wasn’t cut out for academia and belittle me in many ways. The day after her Ph.D. exams, on a Friday, Dr. X gave her an even heavier work load, and when she refused to do them over the weekend, that following Monday, Dr. X physically threw the paperwork at her, and again questioned her future in academia. Even after miscarrying from the stress, this professor writes in: I feared what Dr. X would do to me in my career. Other professors started to hint about this to me, and were clearly not on my side, their tone indicated whose side they were on, and who was actually in charge. I considered reporting Dr. X, but I just wanted to graduate. To be done. I told a few people some parts of my story and others all of it—they were in disbelief. This was hell. Another classmate shared abuse they were receiving from this professor, and it was much worse than mine. This professor is still in academia, and thriving, despite her horrific start.

 What enrages me, and should enrage you, is that her story emphasizes the complete lack of recourse, and a collective attempt to silence her. I have over 20 emails detailing the same thing. While my pool is obviously skewed, and I am by no means a statistician, I nevertheless think that the massive amount of responses I am getting is indicative of something very, very important. I also have many emails saying they too have stories, but that they are too scared to share them. We’ll never know what those stories are. It’s also significant to note that most of these emails are from women.

Another former academic wrote that after being urged by many in her field to work with Dr. Y, she submitted a grant proposal to work with them. After several months went by, and she still hadn’t heard anything, so she assumed she had not gotten the grant. Several months later, at a conference, she heard Dr. Y give a presentation on her research topic which she had outlined, in great detail, in her grant application. Horrified, she then emailed the sources and institutions with which she had been in contact during her research, and which she had listed by name in her grant application.  These sources and institutions responded to her completely aghast, saying that Dr. Y had contacted them months ago for more information. They had willingly given Dr. Y all the information, assuming it was for her. A few months later, Dr. Y published this research that was not his own. This person is now 5 years removed from the situation and is a High School teacher.  

 As if this were a class-action suit, I picked this story to stand in for the 15+ stories that I have been sent that outline more or less the exact same thing: A grant fellowship submitted and denied, the contents of the application lifted and published before the victim was even aware this had happened.

Another story: A graduate student is awarded a prestigious prize for her thesis, but the awarding foundation pulled her prize because her advisor published the same research just prior to this graduate student being nominated for the award. The advisor had taken this student’s work and published it well before this student would have had the opportunity to do so. The award institution still chose the side of the advisor, and turned around and accused this student of plagiarizing her advisor.

A similar story, with, frankly, many more egregious ethics violations and sabotage by plagiarism happened to another person who wrote to me. When I asked if I could paraphrase it for this post, they wrote: As a group, I’m afraid this collection of stories is fairly identifying. Which… I theoretically don’t mind, but I’ve been advised not to be super public about my burning resentment (apparently, it’s “unprofessional” to tell people what your advisor did to you, even if it’s appalling).

 I would add that in academia, it’s considered “unprofessional” to tell people what your advisor did to you especially if it’s appalling.

I include this comment here because this is what I have been told, repeatedly, and what I have read from nearly everyone who has written me—please do not post specifics, my career is on the line. The culture of victim blaming is so deeply entrenched it is appalling. I’ve had a hard time processing all of these emails collectively, because, story after story, they all begin to wear you down. And by now, I know what exactly what the next line is going to say before I’ve even read because they are all the same.

 And this is not just in the United States, I have gotten emails from Canada, U.K., Norway, Brazil, and the Philippines. This makes sense to me, since most universities are structured on European models, and at that, perhaps one can trace this toxic narcissism directly to Enlightenment thought, but that is an idea to be pursued at a different time. Hopefully by a postcolonial scholar. 

Returning to the issue at hand, this email: While my work was not plagiarized, or at least not to my knowledge, my committee was largely absent during my dissertation writing years. Drafts were not read and feedback was not given by most of the committee until my defense when, of course, they tore my dissertation to pieces… The 8 years it took me to get my degree battered me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually… I could say more, but there is really no need. My experience, like so many others, is pretty standard and it shouldn’t be.

 Yet another: My first advisor is now head of an institute. She has a long roster of grad students who did not finish their dissertations or did not get jobs… She stole ideas, lied about it, gave me feedback only on grammar (which was incorrect) instead of content, and was utterly selfish, self-serving, and clueless…. I was lucky that other faculty in the department knew this, and two agreed to serve on my dissertation…. Everyone told me that my career would be ruined if I brought the matter forward. This happens so often, and the cone of silence destroys ethical, hard-working individuals.

 And another: Part of what’s so frustrating is that so many people in the department see and understand what’s happening, but do nothing. There’s nothing they can do. Except maybe advise graduate students to avoid that faculty member as an advisor.

 I could add in hundreds more comments from the emails I have received in just 2 short weeks, in fact, it was hard to know where to cut this post off.  This pattern repeats itself in such predictable and egregious ways-- everyone wants to remain anonymous, everyone is afraid, and everyone has a story that is utterly traumatic.

I have no doubt that the emails coming to me are just the tip of the iceberg. After spending every second of my spare time this week reading and responding to as many emails as possible, and then trying to spot patterns so as to categorize the types of abuse being told to me, is it any wonder that I’d love to see academia in its current form burned to the ground? What we are dealing with is massive and widespread. No discipline that I have heard from so far is exempt. Stories from the humanities can easily be conflated with stories from science fields. Over and over. I just want to burn it all down.

Please keep emailing me, your voice matters 

If you need to, make up an email address for anonymity.  Also: I’m planning a post about adjuncting, adjunct contracts, and how to advocate for yourself as an adjunct, and I’d love to get some feedback.

If you are a statistician: I could use your help, please get in touch.


Dear graduate students:

As most of you are aware, a recent Ph.D. of the Department has made certain research-related allegations against a faculty member in an internet posting. We want to make explicitly clear that the former student’s allegations were previously investigated and found to be without merit. Unfortunately, due to the nature of social media, this posting has been picked up and redistributed on the internet.

We believe it is critically important, and in fairness to the faculty member, to make this statement supporting the faculty member’s integrity as a researcher and valued colleague.




A Field in Which the Old Devours the Young is a Field that is Dying: A Post about Graduate Student Empowerment


If you missed it, please read "Why I left Academia: Part I" first, followed by Parts II and Parts III in order to understand the context of this post. 

When I was in graduate school during course work, a fellow grad student told me this anecdote: Just as their seminar had finished up, and the 10 or so students were mulling around and packing their things, the professor, who was nearing retirement, turned to them and said: you have no idea how much the faculty is afraid of you graduate students.

Intimidated by our enthusiasm, our youth, and our ideas. The paradox of advising is that they are essentially training their replacements, who, most likely, will over-turn and repudiate much of what they have spent their entire career building. I’m talking about ideas here. I’m also talking about methodologies, epistemologies, and pedagogies.

This has never been truer than it is now—facing increasing pressure from the administration to produce, to address a more global and racially diverse student body, and to educate them, the old guard is overwhelmed. The calls coming from postcolonial studies and gender studies articulate a radical paradigm shift within academia. This paradigm shift necessarily entails an entirely new epistemology that is, in many ways, completely foreign to our incredibly smart and hard-working professors.

This is terrifying (for them).

Graduate students and recent PhDs are the future-- you are hungry, you are competitive, and above all, your ideas represent the new frontier. Is it really any wonder then that many advisors and professors are eager to eat their young? To appropriate our work and then to ensure that we do not succeed?

A field in which the old devours the young is a field that is dying.

Here is what I have learned this week as your comments have flooded every social media platform I am on as well as my inbox: the lifting of graduate student ideas from professors is the norm. Before I posted my experience, I suspected this was true. We have all heard rumors of such, whispered in hallways, during frank conversations with professors, and over drinks. Professors misappropriating graduate student work is academia’s equivalent of camp fire ghost stories: everyone has one, or has heard one.

Numerous tenured professors, some of whom are well-established in their careers with incredible respect and multiple books, reached out to me over the past four days to tell me that the same thing happened to them during their graduate studies. Every single one of them still expressed fear of that information getting out, of their advisors finding out. Even though, for several of them, their advisors retired long ago. This, for me, speaks to the omnipresent fear that works to maintain the status-quo.

But not all of their stories are as horrific as mine: in many cases their professors gave them credit in a footnote, saving their sanity and their career. In others, they fought back, continued publishing and eventually landed their own tenure track jobs. No one ever reported it.

I have heard from many graduate students and recent PhDs, both inside academia as well as from those who have left. They have told me they either went through something similar, or experienced abuse from their professors and advisors in a different way.  Many of these people are traumatized, paralyzed, and have no idea what to do.

When I first discovered what was happening to me, I scoured the internet for anything. I found one small article in which the PhD who reported it was quoted as saying their legal battle had not been worth it, and they ultimately wished they had not reported it. I also found one anonymous blog post, with an anonymous email mentioned at the bottom. I emailed this person, described my situation, and said that I had read their similar account, and that I had no idea what to do. This person told me that it would be in no way worth it to report it. They told me everything that “Wrong Dean” had told me: it would ruin my career, I would not get the outcome I desired, and I, most likely, would be steamrolled by the bureaucratic machine of higher education. I’m telling you this because they were right. I absolutely did.

But that is precisely why I decided to tell my story, this should not be happening. I urge you, if you are a current graduate student, look up, on your school’s website, the handbook of faculty responsibilities in general, and the handbook of faculty responsibilities towards graduate students. In my school’s case, it clearly states that professors should wait no longer than one week to give feedback on a student’s submitted work. When I informed Dr. Hortense of this, they were not even aware that this was written.

That’s part of the problem: everyone has their head in the sand, and does not even know what their responsibilities are, or, in the case of graduate students, what they are owed by their professors and advisors. My school’s handbook also clearly stated that it was the advisor’s responsibility towards their advisees to assist them with publishing opportunities, internships, and other professional networking opportunities.

Know your rights. Know what you are owed. I say this because you are powerful: you are the future of academia, and much like the millennials inheriting the mess of our parent’s generation, you are inheriting a mess. But you are also inheriting the power, ability, and responsibility to change things. I also say this because if professors knew your power, and knew that you were willing to speak out, there would be a de-facto system of checks and balances. No one wants to be Dr. Mao or Dr. Hortense.

I wanted to get this post out here immediately so that if you are reading this and went through a graduate student trauma: know you are not alone. You have rights. You have recourse. Your story does not and should not be mine.  What I have discovered is that this is no longer about me and my story. In many ways, it was never about my experience. This has immediately become something bigger than me, and something much more important.

Send me your stories, send me feedback, if you are afraid, make up an email address that is anonymous and contact me through my website. I am listening. And I am dedicated to moving this conversation forward.

Name *

Why I Left Academia: Part III, The Aftermath

The next few days following my defense, or to be honest, the next few weeks, still feel emotionally distant, almost as if it happened to someone else. I felt numb, the dumb shock of the loss of my career, was, and in many ways, still is too acute to bear. I was in mourning for the passion and love I had poured into my dissertation. I was mourning the reality that my ethics-driven account of how intersectional feminism can-and must- be applied to contemporary art history didn’t matter, that it had never really mattered.

I knew why my defense committee had been so rough--they were terrified of what I might do with the information of what I suspect Dr. Mao had done to me. But I also knew it was more personal.

When I first saw that email alert from academia.edu, what seemed like eons ago in that Mac Store, something in me gave way. It was as if I had been swept up in a deluge and, in its wake, a deeply held belief had finally been brutally exposed. I think on one level I knew I was finished in academia that moment in the Mac store, Dr. Mao did not support me, and worse, all evidence looked like they were actively sabotaging my career.

So, in that moment under the glare of fluorescent lights and a ‘Genius’ telling me what needed to be done with my computer, I decided I would write the final chapter that I really wanted to write: a deeply theoretical shut down of the current art historical methodologies, arguing that they ultimately not only refuse to accept both racial and gendered difference, but worse, they actively work to suppress those voices. Building off the brave art historians and theorists who had come before me, I leveled my case. And, frankly, it was personal. I had finally shrugged off the weight of the desperate need for approval, for recommendation letters, for publishing opportunities, and, once that was gone, the need to critique the deeply entrenched conservatism of art history came to the fore. So I, in every sense of the word, wrote myself out of the discipline.

Before the defense, as I cautiously mounted the case for the “misappropriation of my work,” the only solace that I had was that final chapter. It was everything that I had always wanted to say, and everything that I had been told to “tone down” my entire graduate career. I dreamed of submitting to journals like Third Text and NKA.  But, on the night after my defense, as I sobbed in the comfort of my dark bedroom, all of this seemed like a dismal shanty town of naiveté compared to the glittering castle of a well-argued chapter that I had built it up in my mind to be.

The morning after my defense, I woke up confused and angrier than I had ever been. Looking back on it, my anger was masking the devastating sadness I was experiencing. I was adamant that I would not remove the portion I suspected was misappropriated from my dissertation. To do so somehow seemed more painful than losing my Ph.D. entirely—it felt as if it would be a loss of my credibility and my beliefs about what academia can, or perhaps should, be.

My parents begged me to just make the changes Dr. Mao had insisted on, stressing that I just needed to secure my Ph.D. so I could move on. But I couldn’t let it go. I remember thinking that my integrity was more valuable than a Ph.D., anyway. And I mean that quite literally: outside the confines of academia, a humanities Ph.D. is relatively (and by that, I mean, monetarily) meaningless.

It’s a surreal feeling, to be prepared to give up on your doctorate after coming so far, and going through so much. But I was resolved.

I was now ready to reveal precisely why I refused to remove that portion from my dissertation, which meant that I had no choice but to report the suspected misappropriation. I had been painted into a corner, and the only way out was to blow up the floor from underneath me. That is, to finish off the irreparable blow my career had already taken and speak out. At least this way, I reasoned, I could comfort myself with the illusion of having some sort of choice in the matter. The veneer of agency is perhaps the most important deception we all tell ourselves.

My lawyer, a beacon of calmness, patiently listened to my explanation of what had happened. I sent him a detailed timeline of events with PDFs of email correspondence, publication dates, and names of people who could externally corroborate my story. As I researched and double-checked that what I was about to do was the right decision, I learned that Dr. Mao had gotten over $300,000 in funding for an exhibition and publication based off of the same idea from the essay that I had originally suspected had been based off my work. Dr. Mao also received offers to give lectures at prestigious art institutions along this same theme. It felt like I had been robbed.

When I learned this, my mind flashed back to when I had found out about Dr. Mao’s exhibition a few months after I had sent them the original paper.  We had met up in a swanky hotel in Los Angeles, near where I was then living, in order to catch up. Dr. Mao cheerfully explained that their new exhibition (which, at the time, I had no idea it was so similar to my work), was to be in the same city in California where I was then living. I eagerly offered any type of assistance they needed.  However, Dr. Mao turned my offer to work for free down, saying that they didn’t need any help.

I later found out that Dr. Mao then gave the role of research assistant to an undergrad. This same undergrad, a rising scholar, and I had become friends as they sought me out to ask about graduate school.  It was during this conversation that they proudly told me they had been asked by Dr. Mao to be their research assistant.  All I could think was that Dr. Mao must think so little of me if they’d rather give the work to an undergraduate than to me, a seasoned graduate student who had experience assisting in exhibitions. Of course, the real reason behind Dr. Mao’s refusal to let me help was much more sinister than that—I vaguely suspect that Dr. Mao didn’t want me to find out how incredibly similar the exhibition topic and proposal was to my own work.

My lawyer and I drafted an email to a dean—a different dean—detailing the circumstances in which I had been denied my Ph.D. and my suspicions. Different Dean responded immediately, informing my lawyer that he needed to contact the university’s legal department. It was a full week before my lawyer heard back from them. When he did hear back from the university’s legal team, it was just short email stating that my lawyer needed to contact a different lawyer in the same department. So, my lawyer did just that. And then another full week passed. My lawyer was then told to contact the dean, who again, referred him back to the legal department. This whole game stretched painfully out for nearly three weeks.

The deadline to submit my dissertation to the school in order to ensure a May degree inched closer and closer.  After the first deadline passed, and I still had not heard anything in response to my lawyer’s emails and phone calls, I gave up on getting a May degree. Or, to be honest, on getting a degree at all. My Ph.D. was now tainted. It had now come to represent a loss of time and effort that I could have channeled into nearly anything else. I mourned the loss of my 20s, and the work ethic that I had utilized in graduate school. I felt so burned out. Like any graduate student, feeling burned out wasn’t anything new. After I passed my Ph.D. exams, it felt as if I slept for a month solid before I was able to return to any sort of productivity.

But this burn out was different, I feared that I’d never get my drive back, and that my desire to succeed had completely evaporated. I acutely felt the weight of the squandered time I had spent on passionately pursuing a Ph.D. I had sacrificed decent pay and any sort of life balance to do so. All of my relationships in my private life hadn’t been able to sustain themselves next to the love I felt for my dissertation topic. I deeply regretted my decision to go to graduate school, and also deeply regretted not quitting after my Master’s.

Finally, as my self-doubt skyrocketed and my self-esteem hit an all-time low, my department via the university’s law office, responded. They predictably argued that Dr. Mao had refused to sign off on my dissertation for reasons beyond the removal of the allegedly misappropriated work, and that they were conducting their own investigation into the similarity between my work and Dr. Mao’s. The department stated it would take time before they reached a conclusion.

At this juncture, I asked for Dr. Mao to be removed from my dissertation committee. I no longer wanted their name attached to my dissertation in any way. After a tedious back and forth between my lawyer to the school’s lawyer to Different Dean and back, I was told that removing Dr. Mao from my committee was impossible, especially since the investigation was still ongoing and, as such, it was not clear to the department that Dr. Mao had committed any wrongdoing.

I thought back to a desperate email I had sent to Dr. Hortense back in November. After not hearing from Dr. Mao for over a month about a chapter, and as I began negotiations with my dissertation committee about the date and time of my defense, I realized I needed to contact Dr. Hortense and make them aware of the situation. I told Dr. Hortense in this November email that I was worried about my ability to pass my defense, especially if Dr. Mao was not going to read it prior to sending it out to the entire committee.

I felt like Cassandra—I had unwittingly predicted my own tragic future, but no one had believed me. In the email, I implored Dr. Hortense to help me, and clearly expressed my fears that I would not pass my defense. Dr. Hortense, had repeatedly, via email and in person, stressed that I had nothing to worry about. Given my work, of course I would pass. I remember making an effort to email Dr. Hortense, rather than just going to their office, so that there was a record that I had filed some sort of complaint, just in case. How painfully on point I had been. Returning back to the present, I angrily thought, wasn’t that ‘evidence’ enough to have Dr. Mao removed from my committee? What exactly constituted “wrong doing” in the eyes of the school? What would it take to be taken seriously?

Exhausted, depressed, and completely defeated by the legal red tape obscuring my path, I reluctantly gave in and dropped the idea of having Dr. Mao removed from my committee. I did this at nearly all of my friends and family’s behest, so that I could instead attempt to shore up receiving my now meaningless Ph.D. I responded via my lawyer to Different Dean and then to my department, that I would be happy to make every other correction—which involved moving my first chapter to the last chapter, and shortening my introduction--  other than removing the portion I suspected of plagiarism.

Time slipped away like sand, I went about my life in a dazed fog. The second deadline for submitting my dissertation whizzed past. I had completely shut down physically and emotionally. My dissertation, and my life, felt so far away from me.

A few days after my offer to make two of the three edits, I heard back: that would be acceptable. Dr. Mao would be willing to give me my Ph.D. under those terms, and Different Dean would make an exception for a late submission for a May degree.

I honestly don’t remember making the edits apart from the overwhelming pain I experienced opening the word document and scrolling through years’ worth of hard work. To be honest, I had to go back through my emails with my lawyer in order to even write this part because everything during this time felt like a dream, nothing really seemed real. In many ways, it still doesn’t.  I submitted my revised dissertation, via my lawyer, to Different Dean, and then to the department, where I figured they would pass it on to Dr. Mao for approval.

Around this time, my department concluded the results of the plagiarism investigation. In a letter emailed to my lawyer and then to me, the results were explained. The wording of the letter reminded me of the tone and style in which Dr. Mao wrote. It was concluded that, no, Dr. Mao had not plagiarized me. The similarities between the two papers were instead attributed to a paper written a few years prior by a colleague of Dr. Mao. It was then suggested that I had plagiarized that essay in my paper, as evidenced by my paper’s ‘similarity’ to this essay, as well as to the fact that I had not cited the essay. I had never heard of this essay of which I was now accused of plagiarizing, much less read it.

The letter was signed by the two heads of my department, one of whom I had been friendly with for many years. I remember feeling shame and disappointment that they had signed it. I felt humiliated. I questioned whether or not my original suspicions had even been correct. My lawyer asked me how I wanted to proceed. He pointed out that if the department really believed that I had plagiarized this new essay, it seemed ridiculous that they would agree to grant me my Ph.D. Further, he reasoned, if I had been the one doing the plagiarizing, why did they agree to let me keep the portion of my dissertation that contained the now infamous content? He said that I could continue based on these two issues.

But I was done. I couldn’t keep fighting. For the first time in my adult life, I was unemployed and had absolutely no idea what to do next. It was time for me to focus on my future. I thanked my lawyer for his time and his commitment. I said that the only thing I was considering doing next was writing an account of my experience. He then cautioned me to be careful with what I wrote, and said and to keep it as anonymous as possible. To be sure that I only stated facts and phrased everything as my personal interpretation of events. He stated that even if I did this, the school could still file a frivolous lawsuit against me that they knew they would not win, but would nonetheless cost me thousands of dollars in legal fees.

For anyone who has received a Ph.D., you know how much paper work goes into the last stages, filing with the university, complying with formatting standards, obtaining signatures from usually far-flung locations across campus, and filling out exit evaluations (as you can guess, mine were simply glowing reviews about my experience). Performing these last steps with the weight of what the department thought about me took monumental effort. I remember thinking that these last steps were strangely the most difficult.

The electronic portal through which I was to submit my dissertation had to be re-opened for me since the deadline had long passed. I had to sign a form acknowledging that it was too late for my name to be included in the list of May degrees and that, if I went to graduation, I would not receive my diploma at that time. The thought of being hooded by Dr. Mao was too heavy with tragic irony, so I informed the school that I would not be attending graduation.

I had to return to campus one more time to obtain the final signature that had been withheld from me on the day of my defense. Dr. Mao was either unwilling or unable to sign my dissertation, so Dr. Mao gave permission for Different Dean to sign it on their behalf.  The irony of the department’s refusal to remove Dr. Mao from my committee when it turned out that Dr. Mao would not even be the one to sign my dissertation did not sink in until much later. I walked into the aging house that had been converted into administrative offices, and waited in the creaky hallway. Different Dean met me outside their office with utter contempt in their eyes. I remember averting my gaze down to the emerald green carpet covering the aged hardwood floors. Different Dean snapped at me about some line I had forgotten to fill out, informing me that I should be more organized and take this seriously. Different Dean also admonished me for submitting it so late, as if they not only didn’t care why I was forced to submit it late, but moreover, that they resented me for it. Despite this, Different Dean signed off my dissertation. Wide-eyed and unable to respond with any sort of dignity, or even defiance, towards Different Dean, a kind administrator then led me by the arm into her office. She sat me down and gently helped me submit the last pieces of paperwork, generously ignoring the tears streaming down my face. And with that, I had my Ph.D.

To read my follow up post about this story click here

Why I left Academia: Part II

Part II:

 The two weeks leading up to emailing my dissertation to the entire committee plus my outside reader (a professor from a different university who also need to approve your dissertation, a requirement for most humanities Ph.D.s) are a blur. Every waking moment was spent writing, editing, and emailing drafts that never received comments, or even acknowledgement that they had been read. This was followed by proof-reading and re-writing my dissertation entirely on my own. This was nothing new.  I had to email my dissertation mostly un-read by my advisor to my entire committee (a scandal in and of itself), because, as my advisor wrote in a terse email to me, they did not have time to read it.

 Despite the gross negligence that this brazen declaration signaled, I was relieved by this, because it meant that I would go straight into my defense with a very high chance that Dr. Mao had not discovered what I feared they would.

When the day of my defense came, I got to campus early—far too early—and spent most of my time perched underneath some monument to a long-dead white man while chain-smoking and obsessively texting everyone I knew. It was an unusually warm day, and it felt nice to have actual sunlight on my face. As I began the short walk from the monument to the department, I told myself how stupid I had been. How silly this whole thing was. I thought of Dr. Hortense’s repeated assurances that of course I would pass.  I remember thinking, if I pass, I’ll just drop it. Dr. Hortense was right, I need to move on with my life. What can I possibly do about it anyway?

I entered my defense excited and proud to discuss my work. My defense was held in a dark, windowless room in the basement of the department, deceptively called the “graduate student lounge.” I had always hated that room, it contained the tears of too many graduate students to ever be a happy place. Its depressing cinder-block walls and vaguely musty smell only helped solidify that thought. It was the room in which I had practiced and presented my dissertation proposal in front of all the graduate students and most of the faculty. It was fitting that I would end my graduate studies there.

I sat down at the table in the center of the room, nervously pulling out my computer as the committee members stared at me. I then pulled out the introductory statement that I’d spent all night preparing, which I had been told was how defenses usually began. But my statement was never read. I wasn’t given a chance to speak.

Rather, Dr. Hortense and Dr. Mao launched into what I have now come to refer to as an intellectual bloodbath. The third person in the room, another professor on my committee, had seemingly walked into the bloodbath as clueless as I had been, or so said their wide-eyed reaction to Dr. Hortense and Dr. Mao’s ruthless assessment of my work. Rather than using their own words, they used the detailed letter submitted by my outside reader (which I had not yet seen). But the thing is, they only took her negative comments. Later, after the bloodbath and the resulting tears (which I can proudly say began only once I was safely in bed that evening), I was forwarded the same letter, and in it, there were glowing compliments and approving remarks that had been cruelly left out of Dr. Hortense and Dr. Mao’s citation of it during my defense.

Petty accusations were leveled at me, critiques of why I hadn’t used certain scholars, and even the very foundation of my entire dissertation was brought into question. This is not the unusual part of my story, defenses that revel in ripping apart at least six years’ worth of work without taking the time to acknowledge its value are shockingly common.  During my own defense, I was told by Dr. Mao that my work had no validity in the field of contemporary art history, while Dr. Hortense appeared to nod in agreement. Which, if this were indeed the case, why had this not been brought up to me four years prior when I submitted my dissertation proposal? Or, at the very least, before I submitted my dissertation for defense?

To the best of my recollection, Dr. Mao refused to make eye contact with me the entire time they tore apart seven years of my work. The baffling part was that Dr. Hortense seemed equally angry at me, equally suspicious of my clout as an emerging scholar.

After an hour of fending off attacks as politely but as assertively as I could muster, I stumbled out of the room while they deliberated whether or not to pass me. Whether or not I had earned my Ph.D.

Once in the hallway, I sat on a bench usually reserved for naps by hung over undergrads.  I have no idea how long I sat there. Everyone had informed me it wouldn’t be long, that the committee members knew how nerve-racking it was to wait, so they usually never left you out there for very long. But it felt like hours. Just as I had begun to spiral into a gloriously huge panic attack, I was called back into the room. An unenthusiastic congrats was mumbled under their breath. I was then told that everyone, including my outside reader, had approved my dissertation. There was, however, a catch.  Dr. Mao refused to sign it until I made substantial edits. I now had ¾ of my Ph.D.

When I asked what the edits would consist of, I was given three issues: my introduction was too long, what I had as my first chapter should be made my last chapter, and, most importantly, I needed to completely remove pages 16 to 35 of what was then my first chapter. I think I nodded as the reality of what had just been said quickly sunk in. I knew exactly where the portion that I suspected Dr. Mao of misappropriating: it started on page 17.  

I was shocked at how brazen the request was, as if any attempt to masquerade the real reason behind Dr. Mao’s decision not to pass me wasn’t even worth the extra effort it would take.

Dr. Hortense, the professor whom I had trusted until a mere hour ago, tried to follow me out of the room, making small talk with me as I began to digest the situation, as I attempted to somehow grapple with what had just been leveled at me. I knew I had to respond with some of my dignity in-tact. As my head swam in the swamp of it all, and I don’t know exactly what I said to Dr. Hortense. But I do know that I uncharacteristically cut Dr. Hortense off mid-sentence, and said something to the effect that they knew as well as I did that what had just happened was utter bullshit. I then turned away from Dr. Hortense and walked towards the train station.

On the train back into the city, where I had friends waiting to celebrate with me at a bar, I contacted my lawyer.

For Part III of Why I Left Academia, click here

Why I left Academia: Part I

Why I left Academia: Part I

This is my personal story of why I decided to leave Academia. While sad, I know I'm not the only one to have experienced this. This is why I am sharing the story of my Ph.D, my dissertation, my dissertation committee members, my experience with the dean, how my defense went, and why. 

Thoughts on What the F to do with a Ph.D. beyond Academia

Since I made the decision to leave academia, like any good researcher, I have obsessively looked into what my options are, what I can do about with a Ph.D., or more generally, what I could do for a living that I would get some satisfaction and a decent paycheck from.

Here are some interesting jobs that I've come across in my search and networking adventures:

1. Higher Ed Admin-- I know what you're thinking, that you got into higher ed to do research and publish and teach-- but hear me out for a minute (and stay tuned for an interview in the works with two people with Ph.D.s who are now on the admin side of it) -- because I think for a lot of people this is an awesome option for many reasons.

 Reason One: $$$ (money)-- with a Ph.D., entering into the admin side, at a large public university at least, you're starting out at around $60,000 (or more!) and you are in line to become a dean, who can make a very comfy six salary figure eventually.

Reason Two: If you are good at juggling multiple tasks (and, if you're getting a Ph.D., chances are, you are), and good at dealing with red tape and administrative tasks, such as, organizing a conference, sending out invites, coordinating speakers arrival's, arranging for their lodging, preparing an introductory speech, coordinating room rental and caterers, then the admin side of higher ed might be good for you. You get to approach education from a different angle, and to be quite honest, the most valuable angle, as you can be directly involved in policy and ensuring students get the most out of their university education. 

2. Non-Profit sector and Grant writing: I recently met with Adam Capitanio, based off a rather old blog entry he did about working in the publishing field. His interview is fantastic, and I definitely recommend reading it here. At the time, I was interested in publishing, so I reached out to him for coffee and to ask him about it. He had since left publishing, and now works as a Senior Program Office for Humanities New York. He proudly told me about how, at his new job, he helped manage fellowships and grants for Ph.D. students, and that his favorite project was a fellowship that assisted Ph.D. students in gaining practical experience that would serve them beyond academia as well as within it. If you're still a Ph.D. student, see the action grant here. 

Another valuable thing I learned from Adam is that he got his current job by attending a Versatile Ph.D. happy hour-- as in-- he got it from networking with fellow Ph.D. students! I'm NYC based, and unfortunately for me, there are no Versatile PhD meet ups here anymore! Regardless, their website is amazing, and was really informative for me. 

3. Freelance Writing: This is currently what I'm doing, and to be honest, it's a rough slog. But I've learned a lot about myself, about what I really want from my post-ac career, and it's easy to pick up almost immediately. There are a lot of podcasts that are really informative about freelance writing: The Smarter Freelancing Podcast, High-Income Business Writing: Freelance Writing Podcast , and the Freelance Writing Success Podcast. And once you feel ready, the website Upwork is where you pitch people with a quote and what you can do for them. The Smarter Freelancing's podcast "How Chelsea Baldwin Booked her First Five-Figure Month (Without Driving Herself Crazy)" is about pitching people on such websites to get writing gigs is incredibly helpful, check it out here. These are all just introductions to this incredibly varied path, so hopefully this might give you a sense of what this type of path would look like. Also check out the High-Income Business Writing website here.

The above podcasts are really about copy-writing gigs, which is great for part time work, but thinking more towards content and interest, journalism is a natural fit for Ph.D.s. Also, in the current strange and dim news reality we have, why wouldn't we want Ph.D.s, who are trained to question everything and obsessively track down information, as journalists? Just think about it, your work gets a wider audience, and thus makes a greater impact on the world. 

4. Teaching at a High School. I know, I know, I know: but you're better than that. You want to push the envelop, you want to be respected as a scholar, and HS is not the way your advisor told you to do it. But hear me out: I taught at a creative arts charter high school for a year and a half while working on my Ph.D. and I freaking fell in love with it and the students! The school I was at was specifically catered towards the arts, so the school was full of incredibly talented and creative kids, and most of them were unabashedly proud nerds. What this translates to in the classroom: dynamic conversations, a hard work ethic, and a genuine interest in and engagement with the material.

I learned so much from my students, and I also learned to be a good teacher here. I am still getting thank you note cards from former students, a year after I left for a finishing fellowship. Also, when I was teaching, my salary was based on my education level at the time-- which was just a Master's, and the pay was much better than adjuncting. It's a strange reality when teaching at a public school is the highest paycheck you've ever gotten. With a Ph.D. however, you start out at a higher salary base, and while this varies wildly from state to state and school district to school district, it is definitely hirer than starting TT positions! 

There is also the possibility of teaching at a private school, which offers greater freedom in material, but other than that, I cannot speak towards it. If there are any Ph.D.s reading this who currently teach at a private school-- please get in touch with me, I'd love to post about your experiences!

5. Marketing Research: This, I have found, seems to be the most directly applicable to those of us in the social sciences, that is, those of us used to dealing with data, spread sheets, and everything that comes with that. Since I am not in the social sciences, I'll refer you outward, to the links I've found about this particular path, so you can see if it might be right for you. Check out Versatile PhDs Career Finder section on Marketing to start. Also, I recommend the Forums on Versatile PhD as well, they're easy to skim through and help give you a sense of the larger post-ac or alt-ac community. 

To finish off, I'd like to say something about the Museum field, something that I have been told to do, especially since I'm an art historian. However, during my grad school days, I interned at several museums, worked with curators, etc, and this blog post titled "Why It's Brave to Quit the Museum Field: Part One" is so, so true. Check it out the rest this excellent website, The Female Gaze, here

Also, here are some articles that I found really helpful and comforting as I began my search (presented here in no particular order)

Slate's article "Alt-Ac to the Rescue? Humanities Ph.D.s are daring to enjoy their "regular" jobs, and the definition of academic success is changing. Sort of." by Rebecca Schuman. 

The website, Alt-Ac Advisor, offers interesting glimpses into fields that I certainly would not have thought of, and is an interesting read. I should note I have not used Alt-Ac Advisor's paid services, so I don't know about it, but I do know I enjoy their website. 

Alright, folks, that's all I've got for today. Good luck with everything! See you at the next post!

On Leaving the Academic Pyramid Scheme

If you are reading this post, chances are, you are a graduate student, or recent graduate. You have probably been surfing the web, as I did, obsessively with search words like “post-ac” and “alt-ac” and reading your fill of the ills of higher education.

It’s a difficult decision to leave, even if it might not have been a decision at all, but rather a necessity. It’s scary to leave something around which you have based your entire sense of self and identity for so long.

The way we are trained as academics is to ignore our emotions, our gut instincts, and instead to rely on research and on the words of others on which to base our opinions and direction. Thus, leaving academia and the career path it outlines is terrifying.  It threatens to rupture everything we have spent years (or decades) sculpting and perfecting. We have been indoctrinated into a cult as the lowest possible members with the promise that, once we have “earned” our place, we will move up the ladder, earn more prestige, and do less grunt work.

I know the feeling, you’re probably thinking: but I’ve invested so much time into this bottom level grunt work, and to leave now would mean it would never come to fruition.

And here’s the brutal truth: It will not come to fruition for the majority of us. This has nothing to do with the quality of your work, where you are studying, how much you have published, or how many classes you have taught. Instead, succeeding in academia, that is, earning a professor position, has as much to do with luck and a willingness to play the game. This game involves a grueling season of applications (the fall) to everything—fellowships, post-docs, VAP's (Visiting Assistant Professor), and the very few coveted tenure-track positions that are most likely at a school you’ve never heard of, in a state you probably don’t want to live in.

Academia, in its increasing corporatization, has become a pyramid scheme for tenured professors. There are fewer and fewer tenured professorships out there, and due to the economy and that oh-so-kushy tenured position, there are less professors are willing to retire. On top of that, even when professors do retire, it can take years for the department to ask for the funding for that position, and more often than not, the role that tenured professor filled is then filled by adjuncts.

We all know about adjuncts and adjunct pay, so I’ll spare that beleaguered point for a minute.

What infuriated me the most was when I realized that many of my colleagues, either as ABD (All But Dissertation) or as hard-won Ph.D.s, remain at the University in which they studied as adjunct lecturers. They, by this point, have become amazing teachers and lecturers, love their job and continue to hone their craft. But how good they are has nothing to do with their level of compensation, and almost always means no benefits.

This led me to the sickening conclusion that: whether they like it or not, many PhD programs offer the promise of training their graduate students to become professors, but in reality, are merely training them to fill the endless demand for adjunct lecturers, who are destined to always remain at the bottom of the pyramid. We are being trained to become compliant cogs in the greater money-making scheme of corporate academia.  In other words, graduate students are promised a position at the top of the pyramid by those who currently exist there, when these professors are at best only half-aware that their jobs no longer exist, or that the chances of securing their current tenure-track position is quickly vanishing into the rear-window (and perhaps into myth) of professors in academia. I’ll say it because no one else will: doesn’t this sound a bit like Trump University? How different is the actual university structure from its profit-driven counterparts?

We are encouraged initially to pursue radical ideas, to push the envelope of what our disciplines mean within the larger scope of the humanities, but as we edge closer and closer to our defense, something changes: we are instead encouraged to “tone it down” for the job market. In other words, we are told to adhere to what is already out there.

And for what exactly? Usually that means we become adjunct lecturers, or jump from VAP to VAP, moving across the country each year only to teach exhausting course loads that prohibit us from publishing, which we are told, is the only way to climb out of the adjunct and VAP spiral. It’s a vicious cycle for which there are few winners.

So I have decided to bow out, and to become terrifyingly free and without a firm direction career-wise for the first time in my life. Keep reading my posts to find out how it’s going, what I’m learning along the way, and about the seemingly endless opportunities there are for PhD and ABD students, as long as you’re willing to create it for yourself.