Last fall, I posted some thoughts subsequent to a Career Services panel, in which two colleagues and I conversed with graduate students about “how to manage your advisor.” Called “Enduring Abusive Advisors” the post received a few skeptical comments from folks who doubted the cogency of leaving a program or switching advisors just because of personality differences. I agree. Such decisions should not be made hastily. I can report, however, that I have heard through back-channels that some of the students in attendance actually did change their advisors, and that they are happier in their programs now. So: one small victory for vocalizing the need for quality of life over endless and fruitless sacrifice to unhappiness for the sake of an increasingly ambiguous academic credential.
Still, as yet another semester ignites, the question remains how to make the most of the advisor-advisee relationship that is, after all, a structured and unavoidable facet of one’s masters or doctoral program. I aim my comments at Humanities graduate students, since that is the ocean I swim in, and I write from the perspective of the over-committed advisor.
It seems to me that graduate students are caught in a bind familiar to many apprentice situations. On the one hand, they are mature and intelligent adults who can and should be proactive in securing their needs and clarifying their wants. On the other hand, the power dynamics of many departments work to signal a kind of infantilization of these selfsame mature adults. Before all else, then, you grad students need to remain imminently respectful but also resist infantilization. You need to clarify what you need and want from an advisor, and to ask (if it’s not clarified for you) what the advisor needs and wants from the advisee relationship. Here are some other thoughts:
(1) Advisors are not parents, best friends, police officers, or therapists. What you need and desire from this advisor-advisee relationship should be centered on intellectual content and intellectual process.
(2) Remember that you are responsible for setting agendas for meetings, asking questions, and meeting deadlines.
(3) If it’s clear that you think well with a certain advisor, but also that you will not get the feedback you need from them, consider switching advisors, or consider satisfying your need for feedback in other ways, such as a writing collective or hired writing coach. Put more bluntly: Feedback is essential. You should consider how much you need and how you best process and act on feedback. Knowing these aspects about yourself will help you ask for the counsel you need, better engage your advisor, or figure out how to get it elsewhere.
(3) You should meet with your advisor AT LEAST at or near the beginning of each semester. Be proactive. Walk in with an updated copy of your c.v. Use sentences that start with things like: (a) “My goals for this semester are…”, or (b) “I work best when…” or (c) “It really helps me when you…”, or (d) “how much lead time would you need if I wanted feedback on… [a conference paper, a grant submission, a chapter draft].” Don’t be afraid to pull out your calendar and mark in writing your advisor’s responses.
(4) If your advisor has given you a task (read this book), an agenda (practice networking at this upcoming conference), or a deadline (I need a full draft of chapter one by mid-August)–and you accept this advice–then you simply have to meet it. Doing so is the basic way to maintain good faith in any relationship.
(5) If your advisor gives you a task, agenda, or deadline that you do not wish to accept, then you need to say so. Opening up with your advisor is risky but important for two reasons. First, it reminds them that you are an adult, with fully formed ideas and agendas of your own. Second, negotiating expectations and demands is the best and honest way to approach difficulties with people in authority anywhere and in any job.
(6) Again, you need to be proactive in the mentoring relationship. If a graduate student tells me that they need regular meetings and feedback, that is fine. But my job is to be willing to do that, not to be chasing them down to make that happen.
(7) To say the obvious: How you craft and engage your advising relationship is part of how your advisor writes about your character and potential in their letters of recommendation. It behooves you to treat the relationship with care, respect and the utmost professionalism. Compose emails respectfully, comport yourself politely in meetings, respond to emails from your advisor promptly and honestly. Recognize that the work your advisor does for you–if it is indeed real mentoring and not a sham–really cannot be paid back, so the best way to acknowledge that gift is to be professionally grateful when the opportunity arises, and to pay it forward in your career. Because every job will have someone around who needs mentoring.