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Mentor vs. Monolith

Finding and being a good graduate advisor

Mohamed Noor, Caiti Heil


Caiti: Invariably, some problems will arise in the advisor-student relationship, and given the role difference, students will certainly experience a feeling of powerlessness. They will be uncomfortable bringing their concerns to the advisor, and they won’t know where else to turn if the problem is not easily resolved.

Mohamed: What are you saying, Caiti?

Caiti: Oh, nothing. But it seems that a lot of problems with advisors start as issues between lab members that then become issues with the advisor when the advisor mismanages resolving a conflict or disagreement. Ideally, the advisor should not show any favoritism and hear everyone out. Ultimately, he may come down on one side of a disagreement, but it’s essential that everyone’s perspective be considered. Everyone should feel that the advisor is looking out for their success and well-being, as well as the success of their projects. But there will be times that problems will feel unresolved, and students sometimes need to vent about their advisors to their friends.

Mohamed: Advisors also need to vent, but it’s essential for advisors not to vent to (or in front of) students about other students. Instead, faculty can strategize or rehearse difficult discussions with their colleagues or spouses, and get “reality checks” on whether they’re being reasonable. As people often say, it’s good to sit on angry e-mails for a day or longer before sending them, too, and maybe even get a colleague or spouse to look it over. I’ve certainly edited a large number of e-mails by my colleagues that eventually went to their students, and they’ve edited several of mine!

However, even with many precautions, problems will arise that venting alone won’t solve. Students do have means for recourse, even if they may feel uncomfortable. The best first step for students is to attempt to discuss issues with the advisor directly. As with any relationship, communication is crucial, and tackling things early can prevent huge blowups or hurt feelings later. I served as a director of graduate studies for a degree-granting program, and students would often complain to me about their advisors. However, when I’d ask these students if they’d talked with their advisors about the issues, they’d often reveal that they had only discussed them very indirectly despite being quite bothered. That said, the power differential is huge, and advisors should appreciate that students may not be completely forthcoming about concerns.

The thesis committee is the second line of defense, since these people are partially responsible for protecting the student and should know something of her history. The third place to go with concerns is the department or university administration. Students should keep in mind that, aside from extreme problems or actions that are arguably illegal, they should be sure to have exhausted the first two before going this route.

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