Navigating the advisor-advisee relationship

The word “mentor” has its origins in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, as a character who oversaw Odysseus’s household, taught his son, and later — as the goddess Athena in disguise — supported his quest to reclaim the the throne of Ithaca. Mentors today usually do not support such lofty ambitions, but finding a good mentor (or set of mentors) in graduate school is essential to achieving success, both during your studies and in the job market.

UCLA Sociology offers a professional development seminar to first year PhD students, and the Director of Graduate Studies asked me to come talk to the first-years about “navigating the advisor-advisee relationship.” I asked eight friends in the program to answer a few questions about advisors and advising, at UCLA and elsewhere. Rather than just share my and their advice with our 17 first-years, I decided to synthesize our answers into a blog post that I can share more widely.

First, what is a mentor? The Council of Graduate Schools defines mentors as: “Advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one’s performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; models of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic.”

This definition suggests the multiple roles that a mentor should play. It reminds me of some advice I read by Jessica Calarco, a professor of sociology at Indiana University and author of A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum. She emphasizes that one person can never be everything you need in an advisor. Rather, she recommends finding a “team of mentors,” who together fulfill certain roles. This team should consist of:

  1. a topic/area expert
  2. a methods expert
  3. someone for feedback/edits on writing
  4. someone for professional/life advice
  5. someone you enjoy talking to

One reply on Twitter also recommends a sixth role: someone for emotional support. Calarco adds that one person can play multiple roles, but it’s rare to find someone who can play all of them. Although academic mentors are usually faculty members, some roles may be filled by other students or other people in your life, at least at times.

Another good piece of advice I’ve read comes from The Professor Is In, the website of academic consultant and former professor of anthropology Karen Kelsky. She recommends when starting graduate school that “You align yourself with an advisor who is well known, who is at the peak of his/her career (no asst profs, no emeritii), who has recently placed other Ph.D.s in tenure track jobs before you, and who is genuinely and personally invested in your arrival to the program.” I think assistant professors can be good advisors as long as they have time for you (the tenure clock is brutal!), though you should develop relationships with more senior faculty early on. Assistant professors may be more eager to bring you on to projects that they want to quickly publish, whereas senior faculty have more extensive professional networks and can help more with the eventual job search. Again, the benefits of working with more than one mentor are clear.

Next I’ll share feedback from eight fellow students. I asked them each four questions, so the sections below are organized around these.

What makes an ideal advisor-advisee relationship?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all advisor; you should figure out whether you prefer a more hands-on or hands-off approach, and also realize that you may think you prefer one but then discover you prefer the other. One student highlights how, like any good relationship, your relationship with your advisor should be built on a solid foundation of “boundaries, expectations, and communication.” Expectations shouldn’t be assumed; it can be good to set up a meeting near the beginning of graduate school to discuss both their expectations for you and your expectations for them. One student also recommends thinking about your advisor’s potential to make professional connections. Your advisor should “know people in your field who you want to get to know. Over time, they should start facilitating connections to those people.”

It’s also important to have an advisor who you can depend on. As one student emphasizes, “fundamentally you need to be able to rely on your advisor. You want to know that they will get your recommendations in on time, respond to your emails in a timely manner, and will have your back when applying for jobs, getting fellowships, or in department meetings.” Especially if you prefer a more hands-on advising style, finding an advisor who communicates quickly and usefully with you is essential. At the same time, needing to provide the occasional friendly reminder to respond to an email is far from unusual. Professors are busy people.

Do you rely mostly on one professor for advising, or do multiple professors (or other people) help guide your research and study? How do you manage different streams of advice?

Some students rely mostly on one mentor. At the furthest extreme, one student recommends that “you should follow the advice of your advisor first and foremost, unless they advised you to talk to someone else (then you follow that person’s advice). Your career is made initially by your advisor, whether you want to believe it or not.” Even so, some students find it helpful to rely on one main advisor for big-picture ideas and more frequent meetings, with other mentors serving as specialists in subfields or for specific methods. One candidate who worked mainly with one advisor up until forming her dissertation committee shares: “I’ve found it actually very helpful to have people on my committee who don’t soley study my subfield, as it pushes me to answer the ‘so what’ question that I would otherwise take for granted with just a subfield-specific audience.”

Other students echo Calarco’s advice about finding multiple people to fill different mentoring roles, but divide up these roles in different ways. One has a main advisor to deal with day-to-day questions and advice, another more senior professor who he only occasionally sends very polished work, and more casual relationships with other faculty members. He recommends looking for both “formal and informal advisors. The cool thing about being in this department is there are a ton of different people who come from very different places and address things in very different ways, and you should get to know professors even if they’re not your advisors. Talk to them, send them work, ask them what they think about things.”

Another student turns “to one person for professional advice, one person for more pastoral care, and another person for specific methodological or substantive guidance.” Finally, one respondent finds both gentle nurture and brutal honesty helpful, albeit not in the same person: “I sometimes find it useful to work with someone who’s a little gentler than my main advisor to stroke my ego. Whenever I’ve been in a situation where these people are my main advisors, I get frustrated and end up being unproductive. But they’re good for keeping me sane and somewhat grounded.”

Have you had negative experiences or challenges with an advisor? How did you manage those experiences?

Although most students receive mentoring from multiple professors, students highlight how important the relationship with your main advisor is, and how common it is for students to change to a new advisor. The most common reason to switch is due to mismatch in preferred mentor styles. For example, you may need a more hands-on approach, but your advisor’s schedule and style may preclude as frequent contact as you need. One student who experienced this shares: “I assumed that because they did not reach out to me that I need not communicate with them. That was wrong. It is our duty as graduate students to actively engage in our professors.” Even after realizing this, he ended up needing to change advisors to find a relationship that worked for him.

Another student who changed advisors talks about the importance of not burning bridges with past advisors. If you decide you need to change advisors, end the relationship quickly without making a big deal of it, and try to be on good terms with them, if possible.

At the same time, if you can manage the occasional negative experience without switching to a new advisor, that may be preferable. As mentioned above, be clear in your expectations for a mentor, and ask them about their expectations for you. Try to address things that aren’t working for you as they come up. For example, if your advisor doesn’t reply to your emails within a reasonable timeframe, don’t be afraid to be persistent. Oftentimes, they lost track of your email, and a friendly reminder will be appreciated. One student recommends: “Ask questions! Schedule appointments! Let them know when you need help! Don’t be shy. It’s the advisor’s job to help you! And you should feel like they WANT to help you.”

Do you have any other advice to share about navigating the advisor-advisee relationship?

It can be helpful to work out a long-term plan with your advisor. Early on, talk about what you should expect to accomplish in each year of the PhD, when you will complete the MA, when you will take your field exams, the general timeframe for the dissertation. These will likely change, but having a plan in place makes it easier to stay on track.

It’s rare to find an advisor who is completely aligned with you substantively and methodologically, and such a mentor may not be the most valuable anyway. “Be open-minded about faculty. I think over the course of the first year some ‘battle lines’ get drawn about what faculty are ‘right for’ or ‘get’ certain kinds of questions. I’ve seen this really pigeon-hole students and close them off from advisors that might be better fits for their projects than they realized. Who you pick as an advisor is a strategic choice; not all of your advisors need to see eye-to-eye with you 100% on everything.” Another student further emphasizes the value of multiple — and sometimes competing — streams of advice. “I looked for advisors that would not necessarily agree on everything for things that reflected different analytic positions. I did that so I would get a sense of different objections I would get in the field and among reviewers, and I don’t always do what they want me to do, but I always address the things that they say.”

Lastly, collaborating with your advisor on publishing research can be a win-win situation: “Try to work with your advisor,” recommends one student. “They will be much more invested in you if you have projects together. If they don’t offer this, then ask if they have anything you can help with.”

Thanks for reading! Do you have other advice to share on mentors and the advisor-advisee relationship? Leave a comment below!

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