Advice on Being Advised

The advisor-advisee relationship can be complicated. This post focuses on advice for new grad students on how to navigate these relationships and start off on the right foot. However, these relationships vary on so many continuums – on how friendly they are, how hierarchical they are, how useful they are. . . Thus, some of the advice below may not be useful for some graduate student-advisor relationships, and may not be useful in some fields or in particular graduate programs. If you want advice more specific to your own graduate program or field, you might identify an alumni or current graduate student who had some success in your program, and even better, in working with your advisor. What is their advice for having a successful graduate student-advisor relationship?

My former graduate student Sara Mernitz and I at her graduation in 2016

My former graduate student Sara Mernitz and me at her graduation in 2016

Ask Your Advisor What Their Expectations Are

There are these implicit rules of grad school that no one often tells you [note, that is the point of this series on advice for new graduate students], and the worst part is that some of these rules change from advisor to advisor. One rule I didn’t realize I had until I had a student who was not following the rule is that I expect my students to spend a majority of their working time on campus, largely from around 9 to 4, usually four days a week. If students want to work from home one day a week, I am fine with that. But for new graduate students in particular, I want to see their face around the office. Once trust has been established, I am more flexible. Unfortunately, I did not set up this expectation clearly at the beginning with one of my students, and this led to me being frustrated, and the student being frustrated. Some things you might want to check with your advisor re: their expectations.

  • Work schedule – Does the advisor have any expectations about when you will be on or off campus? What about over the summer?
  • Emails – How quickly does the advisor expect you to respond to emails?
  • Tasks – How quickly does the advisor want you to complete tasks?
  • Interruptions – Does the advisor mind if you stop by their office with a question?

I am not saying that what the advisor wants should always happen. I am saying that you need to have explicit conversations about their expectations so that you can either 1) meet them, or 2) negotiate with the advisor to come up with an agreement that works for both of you. My student and I should have talked and set up a schedule we could both live with. Perhaps something like – the student will spend 2.5 days on campus as long as they are achieving their goals.

Their Schedule vs. Your Schedule

Professors are busy. I know grad students are too, but in general, grad students tend to have more flexibility. If you are trying to schedule a meeting with them, defer to their schedule in general. If the advisor is an administrator, this is even more important.

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Professional Organizations: Why You Should Join Them, How to Get the Most Out of Their Meetings, and How to Avoid Going Broke Doing So

Professional organizations and their meetings are one of the best parts of academic life. You get access to important professional resources and networks. Conferences are in fun locations – some of my favorites have been Melbourne, San Diego, New Orleans, Lausanne – and once there, you get to hang out with a bunch of people who also nerd out on good research. But, professional organizations and conferences can also feel overwhelming and mysterious to new graduate students.

Why join a professional organization?

The big question is – why join an organization in the first place? They are expensive to join, and once you graduate, they are even more expensive to maintain membership. But, they do offer a host of benefits.

Me, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder on the Lavaux Vineyard walking tour outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We were attending the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies conference.

Me, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder on the Lavaux Vineyard walking tour outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We were attending the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies conference. Kara Joyner was behind the camera.


Professional organizations often sponsor journals. You will have access to the journal through your membership, and often can even get print copies of journals if you prefer. But, you can probably get the journal through your institutions library, at least at most universities with graduate programs. You also get access to other professional resources, such as the mentoring program that the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) offers. Junior scholars are paired with more senior scholars, and these senior scholars offer advice, networking opportunities, and support. Many organizations have teaching resources available, and others have professional development resources, such as example conference submissions.

Some organizations have member profiles on their websites. The Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) has a database of members that reporters can search for experts related to their reporting. The listserves maintained by professional organizations are also very useful. They are used for disseminating information such as job opportunities and as recruitment tools for studies. Some disseminate teaching resources or media articles related to the organization’s topical focus.

Most departments post their job ads to professional organization websites as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is much easier to find jobs that are related to HDFS on the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) website that to try to search the massive Chronicle database.

Finally, organizations often publish newsletters with useful articles and updates on issues of relevance to the organization, such as the funding situation at NIH or a policy brief that was recently published. You do not always need to be a member to receive these emails, so check the organization’s website to see if you can sign up for the emails even before you are a member.

New research ideas

Professional organizations, particularly through their meetings, can spark new research ideas. Consuming the latest research at conferences can help you identify exciting trends coming in the field before they even appear in the journal.  You might learn about a dataset that is publicly available that you did not know existed. You might come up with a novel research idea that you hadn’t previously thought of upon hearing a question at a talk. Thus, professional organizations can help you push your research forward.

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How to Take Graduate Courses, and Use Them to Advance Your Career

I have been on a grant writing hiatus from my blog, but this semester, I am back! I am starting a series designed for graduate students early in their career based on the first-year proseminar I teach to our human development and family science graduate students. When I designed this course, my hope was to reduce the variation in graduate student achievement that is attributed to the advisor. Thus, I wanted all students to have a good, solid base of information and advice that would benefit them in the coming years. This first post is on taking graduate courses.

Undergrad is very coursework focused. Most PhD programs are not. That said, it is important to do reasonably well in your graduate coursework. Graduate courses require a different set of skills that many students easily catch on to.

It's your first semester of graduate school - do you feel like this? photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

It’s your first semester of graduate school – do you feel like this?
photo credit: Buried Alive via photopin (license)

Skill 1: Be engaged. Many graduate seminars are discussion-based, and to be seen as an engaged graduate student, you need to be asking questions, and answering questions. Some courses will even require you write discussion questions each week. When you are in class, look at the person who is speaking, or the professor. Make eye contact with your professor and classmates. Comment on readings and answer questions. Talk at least twice during a 3 hour discussion based seminar. Use the readings as your resource, not your own personal experiences. And, do not talk just to talk. If you are an extrovert, make sure you are not dominating the conversation with another extrovert in the course. One way to be sure you are not dominating the conversation is to keep a tally of how much you talk compared to the other students. Try not to double or triple their talking turn count. Do not interrupt the speaker. Treat the other students and your professor with respect.

Skill 2: Be professional. Show up to class on time, or even better, 5 minutes early. Don’t look at your phone or websites that are off topic like Twitter. I often let students have laptops in seminars so they do not have to print the papers, but I have had graduate students shopping on Amazon when they were supposed to be engaged in class discussion. I have also had graduate students scrolling when we were engaged in an activity that didn’t require looking at the readings. That is really irritating and I always assume these students are looking at social media or the news or shopping and aren’t engaged in the class.

Skill 3: Produce quality work, and turn it in on time. Take advantage of professors’ offers to read rough drafts or to revise papers. You do not need to blow away your professor with your writing acumen, but you do need to write papers that are well-argued, formatted to your graduate program’s preferred style, and have been proofread. Do not turn in papers late unless you talk to the professor.

Do not be afraid to talk to the professor if you are feeling overwhelmed at the end of the semester. Professors will often consider short extensions on final papers to students who are overwhelmed for any reason. Reach out and ask for help. Other students are doing it, and are benefitting.

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A Graduate Family Course Syllabus

I have been revising my Theoretical Perspectives on the Family syllabus (see the final product here). [Check out this post for tips on how to design your own interdisciplinary graduate seminars]  In a given week, I only want to assign about four readings. But, given that I have to cover theory and substantive topics each week, four readings is always too few. Further, I don’t want the students only reading work from psychology, but also from sociology and economics, and even from communication, public health, anthropology, and law when appropriate. My courses therefore end up being a lot of work for students, and a lot of work for me in design.

Two principles that informed my design:

First, I spoke with a student last year who was talking with me about race discrimination and overall racial ignorance in her graduate program. One example she gave me was that in her classes, diversity was either ignored all together or relegated to a specific week in the semester. This was insulting as race and diversity issues touch every issue, every week. With this in mind, I tried to incorporate readings about marginalized families every week.

Second, all readings must be accessible online. I will only assign a reading that is not online if I have access to a pdf that I can post to our course management system. I do not want to contribute to grad student debt if at all possible.

Here is a list of theories and topics that I cover each week, and the readings I chose to represent them.

Introduction to the course. What is a fact? Historical changes and the American family. An introduction to theory

Cherlin, A. (2009). Why it’s hard to know when a fact is a fact.

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How to Succeed in Graduate School While Really Trying

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

We are midway through the autumn semester, and I have been reflecting on my graduate proseminar course, which is essentially an introduction to graduate school. Some programs have these types of classes, and others do not. So, in this post I give you links to articles I assign and a few tips I give to our first-year graduate students. The articles and tips are designed to tell students those things which faculty generally assume students know, as well as give them suggestions on how to succeed in graduate school. What would you add to my list?

How do I take a graduate class? How do I know what classes to take?

Claire’s Tips for registering for courses:

  • Talk with your advisor. Talk with your advisor about which courses you should take each semester. They may have specific courses they want you to take, or they may know about a specific seminar being offered that would teach you a specialized skill or knowledge set.
  • Email the professor. You may not be able to tell from the title of a course what the course topic will be. If you see a faculty member is teaching a seminar, email them for a course description and/or syllabus. Even if the syllabus is not ready, they will be able to share with you the topic for the seminar. Then, you can decide whether or not to take the seminar.
  • Take seminars when they are offered. Faculty often rarely have the opportunity to teach graduate seminars. Thus, if you are interested in a seminar in a specific topic, such as attachment, it may not be offered again for two or more years. Thus, it is smarter to take the seminar when it is offered and delay a required course, because you may not have the opportunity to take the seminar the following year.
  • Make it count. Choose your electives wisely. For example, try to take electives related to your research interests. You may be able to write a paper for these courses that are related to your research interests and will thus lead you closer to a publication or help you prepare for candidacy. Further, if you are planning to do a minor or specialization, you should look for electives that will count towards the requirements for the specialization.
  • Explore other departments. HDFS is interdisciplinary, and our students often take coursework outside of the department. If you cannot find an elective you are interested in taking in the HDFS course offerings, you might explore electives in Psychology, Sociology, Economics, or Communication.
  • Register for independent studies and thesis credits. Do not forget to register for independent study and thesis credits! By adding these credits to your load, you will free up time from coursework to focus on your research.
  • Make sure you take the minimum number of credits needed to be a full-time student.

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Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Presentation/Teaching/Media Skills

The final tool that graduate students need for success is presentation/teaching skills. This topic is often ignored in graduate programs – grad students are rarely taught how to teach before they are thrust in the classroom, and likewise, grad students are rarely taught how to make a good presentation, or practice presentations in front of others. I think that at this point, most universities with graduate programs have something like the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching that we have here at OSU. And, most of these centers have training programs for teaching assistants and graduate student teachers – I took the Penn State Course in College Teaching when I was in grad school.  Overall though, most graduate students are given very little guidance on how to become a great, or even adequate instructor. We have added professional development requirements to our graduate program, and one of the offerings was a course in college teaching. The course filled, and the students got a lot out of it. Why don’t more grad programs offer these courses, or require their students to take these kind of courses prior to graduation? Even for students who are more research focused and do not want to go on to academia, teaching training would help them in the long term as they will inevitably have to make presentations as part of their work.

photo credit: derekbruff via photopin cc

photo credit: derekbruff via photopin cc

Speaking of presentations, you can immediately tell at any academic conference that academics have not been trained how to do compelling presentations. For that matter, very few people have been. Someone in my social network runs a TEDx event, and from what I can see, she spends hours with people trying to help them make excellent, compelling presentations. So, I think that graduate programs could really benefit from having presentation training for graduate students. Perhaps these should be part of what is offered by teaching centers, but, tips could be given during brownbag presentations or during seminars that introduce students to graduate school. Even having a one hour meeting around conference season could be incredibly helpful for students. And, these presentation skill trainings could come back to really benefit the graduate program – if students give better presentations, they will craft more compelling job talks, and perhaps ultimately end up landing a better job, or at this point, any job. Because one metric by which graduate programs are evaluated is by whether, and where, they place their graduate students, the graduate program would benefit if more student landed any, and better, jobs.

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