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Focusing on the Grad Student

June 26, 2014

Good graduate student advising is both an art and a science. But what books there are on good advising tend to focus on the science: how to tackle the dissertation, part by part, or how to help a student secure funding. So what about those more nuanced, personal aspects of advising, such as how to help a student through a major life transition? Or what to say when he discloses something private, such as the fact that he has a learning disability?

While some will say the art of advising can’t be taught outright, a new book aims to outline the human side of business. Bruce M. Shore, professor emeritus of educational psychology at McGill University, wrote The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach (University of Chicago Press) to pass on what he learned over more than 40 years as a professor and to fill a perceived gap in the literature. He seeks to guide readers through most interpersonal scenarios over which they may “trip” during their careers, such as how to travel appropriately to conferences with graduate students (separate rooms), how to host them at your home (have a “chaperone,” such as a spouse or partner), and how to deal with students’ writer's block (break down the task into short, simple parts).

The book also encourages professors to mind not only their students’ academic successes, but their personal ones, as well.

“We are not officially charged with monitoring or fostering students’ overall well-being and ethical behavior, and this is reasonable given that graduate students are adults,” the book says. “But we should act as if we did have such a mandate. Advisor benefit is a consequence of student benefit.”

A student-centered approach to advising, the book argues, means happier, more productive Ph.D. candidates and better ensures the future of the profession. (After all, graduate students are tomorrow’s professors.)

In an interview, Shore said he didn’t expect all professors to adopt his philosophy. But he said he hoped it would spark important conversations about what constitutes good advising and mentoring.

“I’d hope some departments and programs will say, ‘Let’s look at how we do this,’”  Shore said, noting that he agrees with potential critics that he’s not a “friend” or “therapist” to his graduate students.

But, he said, all professors “do have an obligation to bring students into the community of which you’re apart, and at the end of the process students should be able to say, I’m a ‘historian,’ for example. So there are things I think we need to do in terms of giving students opportunities to experience that ‘colleagueship[.]”

Using adviser and “supervisor” interchangeably, Shore outlines best practices for the student-adviser relationship, from how to agree or decline to work together (don’t tell one student you’re not taking on new students, and then accept another) all the way to celebrating the awarding of the Ph.D. (take the student for dinner). On the way, be upfront about expectations for funding, research and writing, and be not only accessible but available and attentive to your students. Each piece of advice is told through one or more anecdotal examples, which Shore said are his own personal experiences, or composites of colleagues' experiences, to "protect the innocent."

And while attraction to advisees is an occupational hazard, sleeping with them is out of the question. (Shore referred to the “sex” section of his book as the “shortest paragraph I’ve ever written in my life: No.”)

Shore may be unusual among professors in that advising has been the highlight of his career, which included time in various administrative roles. But Shore said advising happens "most of the time mostly well,” even if advising isn’t every professor's favorite part of the job.

The books aims to color in the gray area between those “mosts,” and raise a few larger questions, such as whether the academy – which still rewards scholarship above all else, at least at research universities – sufficiently values and prepares professors to shepherd the next generation of scholars.

"I think there are still barriers to people taking seriously the message in this volume," Shore said. At the same time, he noted, there has been progress in recent years toward an understanding "that we're not just dealing with content of the disciplines, or that we're the bearer of the disciplines, but also that we're dealing with human beings. "

The book already has gotten some endorsements.

Lorraine Lopez, an associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, wrote that the book was “thoughtful and comprehensive, while being concise and readable,” and that she believed it would make her a “better adviser.”

Karen Kelsky, an academic job consultant who runs the blog The Professor Is In, said the book helped fill a “total vacuum of information on this crucial topic.”

She continued: “I mean, for anyone to give thought to this at all is a step forward.”

Chris Blattman, an assistant professor of international affairs and political science at Columbia University who raised eyebrows but also earned praise last year when he published on his blog explicit guidance on how his graduate students should interact with him, said the book seemed like a “great idea.”

But he said he wondered just who the book’s audience would turn out to be.

“The conscientious advisers have their method already and the rest wouldn't care enough to read a book,” he said. “I might expect to see articles in professional journals. Or blog posts. But there’s little I've seen. I think most of us make it up as we go along and pass along good and bad habits to our students.”

Shore said he hoped advisers would read the book, but that it was important reading for graduate students, too, to make them more aware of the adviser-advisee relationship and how it could be better.

“If you were a fly on the wall in the graduate lounge, I think you’d hear a lot of talk about this topic,” he said. “Like I said, most of the time, it mostly goes well, but I think it would be hard to find a graduate student who can’t come up with a story about a time it didn’t go well.”

 

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