How to Be the Adviser You’ve Always Wanted

Serving as an adviser can be fulfilling yet also challenging, write Anthony Ocampo and Rachel McLaren, who offer advice on how to be the best one you can be.

September 24, 2019
 
 
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Dear Mentors,

I recently switched jobs from a small liberal arts college to a research university. One new challenge I’m facing is the seemingly unending requests from graduate students in my new department to serve on their thesis and dissertation committees. (Many requests came during the spring and summer before I even officially started my position.) Don’t get me wrong -- the opportunity to work with graduate students was one of the main reasons I wanted to move to my new institution, and I’m flattered and excited that some already want to work with me. In fact, one of our Ph.D. students just asked me to be their adviser.

I really want to do a good job. At the same time, the student has so many questions and needs, and I’m not sure I can meet them all. Do you have any best practices to ensure that I’m being the best adviser that I can be without letting it take over my life?

Sincerely,

Dissertation Chair in Training

Dear Dissertation Chair in Training,

Congratulations on your new job! We’re thrilled that you’re already developing a concern for the graduate students in your new department. Graduate school is hard, and graduate students need every source of support they can get -- especially if they’re the first in their families to pursue a graduate degree, a member of a historically underrepresented community and/or one of a few women in the department.

We definitely don’t want to dampen this excitement, but it’s important to remain realistic about what kind of mentorship you can offer. Working with graduate students, especially as an adviser, can be an incredibly fulfilling experience, yet it can also demand a significant investment of time and energy. Plus, what makes this task a tad different is that you will be shepherding a new scholar in training into your field -- a big responsibility.

In our capacity as coaches and workshop facilitators for the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, we’ve worked closely with hundreds of faculty members from a variety of disciplines and institutions. We’ve heard countless stories about faculty adviser-advisee relationships. Based on those conversations, we’d like to share some best practices.

Don’t repeat trauma. For many of us, our only experience with advisers and committee members are the experiences we had as graduate students. If you had a positive experience, you probably have strong role models for how to be a good adviser. If you had more of a negative one, perhaps even similar to academic hazing, you’ll want to make sure you don’t unconsciously repeat it with your own advisee.

One of us, Rachel, has talked to faculty members who describe residual pain and trauma from their relationship with their advisers due to manipulation, harsh criticism, competition or exploitation. Rachel coached another faculty member who described the paralyzing writer’s block she had, because every time she put her fingers on the keyboard, she could hear her adviser’s harsh words in her head telling her she was a terrible writer and would never get published. Rachel has also heard stories of advisers who engage in strategic and manipulative communication between their advisees to cultivate competition and increase pressure to perform.

If you have painful experiences like that in your past, decide whatever you need to help heal -- therapy, time, distance -- and then consciously decide which patterns of behaviors you want to emulate and which ones you want to let go. Just because you had to jump through hoops and endure hardships to earn a Ph.D. does not mean you have to put your own students through the same experiences.

Be clear about what you can offer. After you’ve decided what negative patterns from your past you don’t want to reproduce, spend some time reflecting on what type of adviser or committee member you do want to be for your graduate students. At our center, we ask people to complete a mentor map, which encourages them to shift from a guru mentor model, where we assume one person fulfills all our needs, to a model where we routinely ask ourselves, “What do I need, and where can I get those needs met?” Not only does Rachel encourage her graduate students to complete the map, but she also uses it as jumping-off point for discussion about the types of needs she is willing to meet for her students.

Ask yourself, where do your strengths overlap with your students’ needs? Are you able to provide access to opportunities for your students? Can you give them substantive feedback on their work? Do you want to offer them accountability for meeting writing deadlines?

Whatever you decide is OK, and having a clear conversation with your students about what you can offer as an adviser will be helpful for setting appropriate expectations. For example, Rachel is willing to give her students emotional support about the stress of being on the job market, but she asks them to refrain from venting to her about other faculty members in the department.

Be generous with your networks. When the other of us, Anthony, was in graduate school, he remembers how intimidating it was to attend his discipline’s annual national conference. In an effort to meet scholars in his field, he made a plan. He looked through the program, identified the conference panels that featured a scholar he admired and sat through the 90 minutes of paper presentations and Q&A. Once the panel ended, he spent another 20 minutes or so awkwardly orbiting around a group of grad students vying for their chance to speak with the scholar. By the time he was in front of the scholar, he could see that person was exhausted. The only conversation Anthony managed to get in was a polite “Thank you for your work,” as the scholar already had one foot out the door.

But soon after, an advanced graduate student in his department generously invited him to dinner with a group of assistant professor friends. She introduced him and shared his research, which gave him the opportunity to have a more organic conversation and forge long-lasting connections with a group of scholars he admired. Over the years, those connections have led to even more fruitful relationships with others in his discipline. And it all started with that one colleague who took the time to introduce him to her close friends in the field. (Shout out to Katy Pinto!)

As a faculty member, you might by now have forgotten how tough it was to build connections with people in your discipline. While your graduate students are your colleagues, know that the power dynamics in academe can make it intimidating for them to forge meaningful relationships with senior scholars in the field. Take the time to facilitate a quick introduction between your advisees and your colleagues at, say, professional conferences or through emails. Better yet, organize a coffee meeting or meal when those colleagues visit your campus. Faculty members, even those who are generous with their time, are all really busy, so an introduction can really help your students build their map of mentors.

Share your rejections. In academe, rejection is the norm. Fellowship and grant applications take at least a few months to put together; preparing publications for submission often takes several years. Yet after all that hard work, it’s not uncommon to receive an impersonal one-paragraph rejection email from a fellowship organization or journal editor. Such rejections are heartbreaking, and it often feels as if those people are rejecting us, not just our work.

Even though we are both tenured professors, we can tell you firsthand that rejections still sting. But all graduate students can see are our successes: the faculty job, the articles, the books, the grants. What they don’t see are the hundreds of rejections that came before those triumphs.

Anthony remembers how impactful it was, in his last year of graduate school, when his dissertation chair shared her struggles in academe. In his view, she was a prolific world-renowned scholar in sociology, so it was shocking for him to hear about all the moments when things didn’t go her way. It not only humanized her, but it also helped him realize that the rejections are par for the course -- and not necessarily reflective of his potential.

To reinforce this point, Anthony would like to share some of his own rejections. When he was applying to graduate school, he was rejected from all but two Ph.D. programs. He submitted his first research article to three different journals before it was finally published. He applied to Ford Foundation fellowship and was rejected six times before finally receiving it. When he was on the job market, he applied to over 60 faculty jobs and postdoctoral fellowships yet received just one offer.

Open feedback loops. As the relationship between you and your students develops, new issues will emerge. So we recommend setting up regular meetings with your advisee to discuss how things are going. Ask each other about what’s working and not working and then develop together some concrete actions to rectify those issues going forward. At the end of the meeting, decide on when you will have your next check-in to see how those new approaches are working. Having such conversations on the calendar can alleviate the stress of deciding whether or not to bring up a conflict or issue.

Thanks so much for writing to us. Like any new role, it will take a little time to gain confidence and experience as an adviser. By not repeating past traumas, being clear about what you can offer, sharing your networks, opening up about your rejections and creating feedback loops, you’ll be well on your way to being an amazing one.

Peace and productivity,

Anthony Ocampo, director of campus workshops for the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity and associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona

Rachel McLaren, faculty success program head coach, certified workshop facilitator and associate professor of communications at the University of Iowa

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