Advice on Being Advised

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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.

Don’t Be Friends

The boundaries between advisor and friend are complicated. In one sense, you want to be friendly with your advisor. But, I would suggest you not be “friends” on social media or in general until you graduate. It is hard to be critical to a friend, and your advisor may hesitate to give you critical feedback if you are too friendly. In fact, Karen Kelsky cites this as one of the top 5 traits of the worst advisors. You want your advisor to help you be a better scholar and researcher, not go to a movie with you. I look forward to friending my students on Facebook once they graduate, but I am not going to do it before.

Respond to Emails and Say Thanks

If your advisor emails you, please at least acknowledge that you got the email, ideally within a few to 12 hours. Even better, thank them if the email is helpful to you. I emailed a student some information related to their next career goals, and they never acknowledged the email. I felt irritated that I went to the trouble of writing the email and did not even receive a “thanks”. In fact, this is just common courtesy, even outside of the academy. Thus, make sure you take the time to say thanks to a faculty member who may have done something for you, especially your advisor.

Have a Meeting Agenda

When you meet with your advisor, have an agenda. Make a list of 1) questions, 2) updates on projects, and 3) any other information you want to share. My advisor in grad school was an administrator my last few years, and thus very busy. I would create a bulleted list of what I wanted to discuss with him, and work my way through the list every time. This also cut down on the number of emails I sent him or times I popped in his office.

Actually Take Their Advice

This one is super irritating to advisors. Your advisor will tell you to do something, tell you edits to make, tell you to fix the references in a paper, tell you to shorten a section, etcetera, but when you meet with your advisor again, the advice has not been followed or the changes have not been made. In most cases, given their experience, advisors have a good reason for telling you to make the edit. If you don’t make the edit, come prepared to tell why you did not, whether you had something come up, got overwhelmed, or didn’t agree with it. But don’t send your advisor the same thing again without some kind of comment.

Google It First

If you have a question about something that someone else may have the answer to – i.e. a coding problem, or how to conduct an easy analysis, or an APA style question – Google it. I have had tons of meetings with students when they asked me questions that they could have gotten the answer to from Google.

Check Google Scholar

Sometimes students will come to me and say “I want to do my thesis on this topic, there hasn’t been anything done on it.” Then I go into Google Scholar, search the topic, and find an entire literature. Do your homework when it comes to your research topics.

Go to the Right Source for the Right Question

Remember that your advisor does not have the answer to every question. If you have an HR question, you are probably better going to the HR person. If you have a question about deadlines, the grad school website is the place to go, or your departmental graduate support staff, if your department has someone like this. We had Mary Jo when I was in grad school, and she knew everything and had the answer for just about every question that wasn’t related to the actual research topics. I don’t think anyone would have graduated without Mary Jo.

Go To Events Your Advisor Tells You About

If your advisor tells you about an event or a talk, or forwards you an email that says “this looks interesting”, they are usually suggesting that you should go. Especially if you rarely get messages like this from your advisor. There are exceptions, and in that case, or if you are confused, move to the next point.

Ask For Clarification If Confused

This is may be the most important one. Ask your advisor for clarification if you are confused, before you end up going to meet with them and the task that you were supposed to complete is delayed because you needed clarification. Maybe your advisor emails you about a talk and you are confused as to whether or not you should go. Just send a simple email that says “Just to clarify, is this something you would like me to attend?” This will help you know what the expectations are, and meet them.

Send Materials to Your Advisor At Least 48 Hours before a Meeting

Don’t send a document that you want your advisor to comment on at 9:45 for a 10 am meeting. And, if you are behind and don’t have it done 48 hours before hand, just tell your advisor and ask to move the meeting, or give your advisor a timeline and see if they could adapt to it. For example, you can say, 48 hours ahead of time, “I know we are meeting on Wednesday but I still have a few hours work to do on it. Any chance that I can send it to you tomorrow before 5 and you would have time to read it before our meeting? If not, could we move our meeting to a bit later this week?”

Advisors Don’t Know Deadlines

Your advisor most likely does not know the deadline to defend your thesis to graduate in a given semester. We also probably don’t know conference deadlines. Take it upon yourself to keep up with deadlines, and remind us as they approach.

Give Advisors What They Need So They Can Do What You Want Them to Do

If you need a recommendation letter, give your advisor the announcement for the award, fellowship, or job that the letter is for so your advisor can tailor the letter to that purpose. Also give them your CV, and perhaps even a few points that might be important to emphasize for this award.

Remind Your Advisor When You Need Something

If you need a recommendation letter by a certain date, or a document signed by a certain day, make sure you email as the deadline approaches. “Just a friendly reminder the recommendation letter for this award is due in one week”. This will help make sure it stays on your advisor’s radar. Also, make sure you give your advisor plenty of advanced warning that a deadline is coming. One of the worst situations I have been in was when my student needed a letter for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and my colleague did not turn it in on time. The fellowship was never reviewed, and all the effort she and I put into crafting the application was for nothing. So, send lots of reminders and follow-ups, especially when it comes to letters for grant applications. These are usually hard deadlines.

Have Purpose for Each Meeting

I do not schedule weekly meetings with my students. We meet as needed. But if we set up a meeting to discuss something and you do not finish it in time, then please let me know so we can cancel or move the meeting, or change our agenda to a brainstorming session on strategies to help you get it done.

Make Sure You Confirm What You Need to Do

Regardless of when you meet with your advisor, as you are leaving a meeting with your advisor, confirm what their expectations are of you for your next meeting. You can even email them to confirm after the meeting is over. This is a great way for you to make sure you are getting things done and meeting their expectations, and to stay accountable. You do not want to get to the next meeting missing something you were supposed to have done because you did not know you had to do it.

Take Notes

This leads my to my next point. Take notes at meetings. I will be at meetings with my students and I will be telling them some kind of important instruction, and they are just there kind of looking at me. So I will say “don’t you want to write this down?” Memories can be lousy, so make sure you take notes when you are meeting, and these notes will also help you with the previous point in clarifying what you need to do for the next meeting.

Don’t Limit Yourself to a Single Advisor

Kerry Ann Roquemore has long advocated for having multiple mentors. You should also cultivate mentors besides your primary advisor. You might have a mentor related to teaching, and a mentor related to writing. You might have a mentor who is not at your university but is doing work in a related field. Don’t limit yourself to your advisor only. In fact, sometimes advisors are out of touch with reality, and informal mentoring might be your saving grace.

Tell Advisors What You Have Going On

I was just meeting with my student a few days ago about all of the projects we have going. I was confused about why she seemed worried about getting one of the projects done. Then I realized it was due a few weeks after her wedding and honeymoon. Oops! I had totally forgotten about it. So, please talk to your advisor about all of the things you have on your plate when trying to set realistic goals and expectations. Your advisor may have forgotten about the course you are teaching next semester, or the large amount of grading you have to do for that online course.

On that note, this tip is not limited just to things taking up your time. I have had students come and talk to me who were not making progress, and when we really started talking, it turned out they were feeling depressed and/or anxious or overwhelmed. This next point is so important I am going to put it as a block quote.

Your wellbeing is WAY more important than any activity or expectation related to graduate school.

Graduate school can wait when you are having mental health problems. So, if you feel comfortable doing so, talk to your advisor if you are struggling with physical or mental health problems. If you do not feel comfortable, talk to your graduate studies chair. If you still do not feel comfortable, go to your university’s counseling center, and have someone there help you come up with strategies for how to get the help you need both in your personal and your work life. Your wellbeing is infinitely more important than a manuscript or fellowship application or anything else. Plus, many graduate students struggle with mental health issues. Our graduate school spent an entire grad studies chairs meeting discussing the mental health of our graduate student population. Our graduate students are much more stressed than our undergrads. Advisors need to do a holistic check-in with their graduate students and build the personal relationships necessary to make sure that the student can reach their full potential while maintaining their physical and mental health and their intimate and family relationships.  When my students bring up issues like this, we can usually brainstorm together ways to take some of the things off of their plate, and we can work together to prioritize projects. And sometimes, I will just say – don’t worry about it – just take the time you need to take care of yourself, and we will worry about these things when you are better. Again, your health and well-being are way more important than anything related to graduate school.

Switching Advisors

Students often think that horrible things will happen if they switch advisors. I know this varies from program to program, but I believe that in general, most faculty do not care if students switch advisors. Not all advisor-student relationships work out. And, most likely, if you do not feel like your relationship is working for you, your advisor probably feels the same way, and may actually feel relieved when you suggest the possibility of switching advisors.

The worst things that could happen when you switch advisors is 1) you lose funding, and 2) your old advisor bad mouths you. In general, it is not in the best interest of the old advisor to bad mouth you; your achievement reflects well on the entire program. In terms of losing funding, I am assuming this varies from program to program. If we have a student switch from an advisor who was also funding them, we usually can put the student on another funding source pretty easily. But, this may not be the case in every program, so make sure you explore the funding situation carefully.

That said, I believe that if you follow some of the strategies in this article early on, you should hopefully start out on the right foot with your advisor, and not run into problems later. The smartest thing to do would be to talk to the former students of your advisor before you apply so you can make an educated decision as whether or not to even apply to work with them.

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