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.

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Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Research Skills

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I am still on the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. Today I want to discuss another tool that graduate students need for success: research skills. The art of conducting research has many components. First, students need to formulate research questions, preferably research questions that are going to be incremental, if not significant, additions to the field. This is a hard skill to teach, and one students really want to learn how to do. In fact, I was just on a panel at a first-year graduate student orientation, and a student asked – how do I come up with good research questions?  There is no easy answer to this question. But, I have a few ideas of how we can help grad students gain skills related to formulating research questions.

medium_320161805First, we need to teach graduate students how to find and consume research. Faculty often assume that because our students are so tech-savy, they know how to search the internet for research related to their topic of interest, and find relevant articles. However, what faculty forget is that as undergraduate students, our students most often use their computers for social networking and consuming information. It is a very different skill to use the internet to find research. In a future post, I want to talk about skills related to finding research, but that is outside of the scope of this post. Let me just say that we need to teach students how to use the internet (my favorite is google scholar) to find research articles, rather than assuming they know how to do this.

On the topic of how to consume research, I think most students come into graduate school thinking they need to read every word of every article, and that they need to read every single article on their topic. Students will eventually realize that this is impossible. We might save them time by recommending ways to figure out which articles they should read in their entirety (i.e. classic articles in their field, articles that they are directly building on with their research) and which articles they can skim (i.e. articles for class that our outside of their field, articles that they are using just for a particular citation). We also need to help them understand when they have enough of a grasp of their area to begin to move towards research questions. I try to cover how to consume research early in the grad student proseminar I lead (see a syllabus here), but grad students can go years without really understanding how to consume research in an effective, efficient way. It feels overwhelming to get to know a field when you are a beginning grad student, so the earlier grad programs and advisors can give tips for consuming research, the better. Advisors are also the best individuals for helping a student know when they are ready to go to the hypothesis building phase, and have read enough. I have seen students fall in this trap where they think they don’t know the literature well-enough to formulate and test research questions, even after years in graduate school, and these students tend to flounder and not get the publications needed to land jobs.

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