Managing Your Adviser

Graduate students need to recruit advisers who genuinely care about their goals, particularly when it comes to careers, writes James M. Van Wyck.

May 2, 2016

The typical Ph.D. candidate (for the sake of convenience, let’s pretend that there is such a creature) spends an inordinate amount of time worried about what their doctoral adviser thinks. Sometimes this is a harmless habit; sometimes it’s a debilitating compulsion.

For better or for worse, the graduate adviser-advisee relationship shapes each step of a graduate student’s training and exerts an outsize influence on professionalization and career preparation. For many graduate students, the opinions of advisers are all too central to how they feel about themselves and their futures.

Early on in graduate school, for example, a discouraging comment from an adviser can curtail or even extinguish nontraditional career preparation. During the dissertation stage, the dynamics of the relationship can slow progress to a crawl. And in ways it is hard for those outside graduate school to grasp, graduate students agonize about how advisers feel about their career choices.

Those kinds of anxieties are bred in a system of graduate education that -- for the most part -- is a kind of apprenticeship model that rewards advisers who “place” students in academic careers. To make graduate education work in the 21st century, we’ll need to rethink and rehabilitate the mentor-mentee relationship.

But while changes to the model are long overdue, they will probably take place later than sooner. As we wait for these systematic changes, what can graduate students do to think strategically about career preparation within this flawed system?

One answer is that graduate students need to manage their relationship with their adviser. How? Here a few preliminary thoughts.

Attend to the structures around you and make the process more about you than it is currently set up to be. By default, the current structure (particularly in the humanities) is geared to have advisers recreate themselves. So buck the trend by placing yourself and your desires first.

Ph.D. programs are often structured on the assumption that graduate students have similar strengths, preferences and career goals. And if you’re not careful, you can begin to conform your desires to these assumptions. So as you make your way through the prescribed course of study in your discipline, take time to identify your strengths and to map out short- and long-term goals.

Meet with Career Services. Conduct informational interviews with alumni who’ve gone on to alt-ac careers. Get on LinkedIn. Compose a list of careers you’d be happy with, and be bold about the kinds of futures you imagine for yourself. Be strategic and adventurous, and above all, don’t limit yourself to the goals that those around you hold.

Find an adviser who will help you achieve goals of your own design. Begin to think of yourself as the CEO of your own graduate education (in the phrase of Fordham University English professor Leonard Cassuto). As CEO, your duties include managing your mentor, and the first step is hiring one.

When choosing your adviser, act like a Brooklynite looking for wine: shop local and worry about pairings. If you want to know if a prospective adviser will work well with you, you need reach out to students present and past. And don’t just focus on the adviser’s academic placements. Contact a variety of students, including those who didn’t pursue a traditional academic career.

Avail yourself of one of the many great pieces on how to identify a good adviser, but above all, avoid hiring an adviser who believes an academic career is the only option for a Ph.D.

I was recently approached after an alt-ac panel by a Ph.D. candidate whose adviser believed that, although the academic job market was abysmal, the solution wasn’t to prepare for multiple career paths but rather to double down. She urged him to devote all his energy to the tenure-track job search, concluding that “if you want an academic position badly enough, you’ll do what it takes to get it.” In other words, securing a tenure-track job is about desire: those who “fail” (and thus must look for careers outside the academy) simply didn’t want it badly enough.

In today’s market, the last thing you need is advice like this. You need an adviser who is open-minded about career paths. You need to recruit someone who doesn’t grasp the reins of his or her students’ lives but instead cedes authority to a plurality of advisers -- and indeed back to you.

Work on making sure that your desires shape the partnership. Recruit an adviser who genuinely cares about your goals, particularly when it comes to careers. You need a person who will adjust to your aspirations -- not one who will slowly drag your career goals in line with their own. Although much of what you do in graduate school is prescribed, you can do a lot to shape your particular experience within your course of study.

For example, if you are a humanities Ph.D. interested in teaching jobs (ranging from high schools to selective liberal arts colleges), remember that you are being trained at a research university that doesn’t value teaching in the same ways other institutions do. There’s a chance your adviser might not think of incorporating pedagogical discussions into your advising sessions. So it’s up to you to broach the subject and to find ways to incorporate pedagogical discussions (and documents) into those sessions.

Regularly diagnose the relationship, especially at the outset. Many times the failures, aggressions and omissions that make up a bad adviser’s repertoire don’t seem that bad when taken on their own. You may have the kindest of advisers, for example, but he might not be interested in giving useful feedback. So stepping back and evaluating your adviser is critical. And you must do the evaluation with help from appropriate departmental contacts. If something feels unfair or unjust about the way you are being treated, don’t assume that you’ll be able to change your adviser over the course of your time in the department. You can’t manage your way out of an abusive mentor-mentee relationship, for example. You need to end it.

Push for a strategic, long-term approach to your training and career preparation. Graduate advisers are almost always swamped and often only have the time to react to what you put in front of them. So it may fall to you to push for more strategic planning when it comes to career preparation and professional training. For example, if your adviser never asks you about the kinds of institutions for which you’d like to work, you have to make that a part of the conversation. It needn’t be fancy; one easy way to do it is with a one-page Word document with a list of goals, along with clear steps and timelines for achieving each of them. The document will help orient advising sessions and keep both you and your adviser on the same page.

You don’t need an adviser, you need a board of advisers. There’s no denying the importance of your academic adviser, but you’ll need more than one adviser to get through graduate school, and you’ll need a board of advisers to plan for and execute a job search outside the academy.

A fortunate side effect of this process is that as you develop relationships with talented people in different fields, you won’t agonize (as much) about your academic adviser’s opinion of you. You’ll be empowered to sift through various types of advice and to pick and choose what is most appropriate in each case.

Graduate students often imagine that graduate advisers think about their advisees a lot. They do not. While graduate students tend to think about their relationship with their adviser way too much, I’ve yet to find the reverse to be true. Graduate advisers often don’t have the time to worry about you when you aren’t in front of them, and they’d prefer a self-directed advisee over a dependent one.

In fact, the best advisers cultivate adviser-advisee relationships that evolve into a partnership of equals. In a study of counseling psychology faculty members, one mentor described her advisee as “ideal” because the student was “able to use the adviser’s strengths without being dependent.” This sounds like a good formula for the adviser-advisee relationship. Rather than being shaped by your adviser’s strengths, look to form a partnership that leverages the strengths you both possess.


James M. Van Wyck is a senior teaching fellow in the honors program at Fordham University, Lincoln Center. He is also the inaugural GSAS senior higher education administration fellow at Fordham University, Rose Hill. He is a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on 19th-century evangelical fiction.


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