Your Adviser, Your Ally

Building trust requires taking risks and having difficult conversations, writes Stephanie K. Eberle.

October 7, 2019

It’s a familiar story -- a graduate student walks into a career coach’s office and says they don’t want to be a professor when they grow up, but their adviser will not support that decision. The coach empathically asks what their adviser said when they informed them of this view. And the student says, “I have not told them. I heard they were unsupportive of others in the past.”

If this is your story, it may be time to rethink the adviser-trainee relationship. We’ve all heard myriad rumors about advisers thwarting their students’ career progress or, at least, sitting passively on the sidelines without any support. Those rumors, passed down from generation to generation like a childhood telephone game, are so prevalent that it is easy to assume them to be true and to assume malintent on advisers’ parts. When asked directly, however, advisers share more varied and complex stories.

A Stanford University BioSci Careers survey recently asked graduate-level employers, alumni and faculty members to define the value of graduate education. Results indicated similar opinions about the skills gleaned from the training, including independence, leadership and verbal/written communication -- all of which translate well into any sector. Further, faculty members did not show a strong preference for students to follow academic careers; rather, they saw the training as an expression of a passion for science.

In speaking directly with faculty members at Stanford and across the country, a few themes emerge. Many do champion a career-of-choice perspective for their trainees, others do but are not sure how to support that development and still others share a similar perspective but do not feel career development is their job. While certainly some faculty members do not support careers beyond research academe, they may not be the majority.

It feels like they are because those are the stories that circulate -- and circulate quickly. As a result, students opt to sneak behind advisers’ backs, pretend they are going into academe and/or give up career exploration altogether until training is over, or close to it, all to avoid disappointing their adviser or retaliation. On occasion, that causes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as sneaking around or leaving with minimal warning ruins trust. Building trust requires taking risks and having difficult conversations. Instead of assuming your adviser is an adversary, consider the following recommendations that I have gleaned from faculty over the years on how to make them an ally.

Define mentoring needs. Important academic and career decisions begin with knowing what you want. Often, students complain about their mentor’s style, but they cannot define what good mentorship should look like in the first place. What is the best way for you to get feedback? What does support look and feel like to you? That is what you want -- that is how you measure the relationship.

Assess mutual interests. Misunderstandings occur when assumptions are made. Early on in the relationship, share your mentoring ideals with your adviser and ask them about their mentoring style, expectations and values. In initial meetings, assess lab culture and set up a pattern of direct dialogue via questions such as, “What are the best resources for academic and career support on campus?” and “What are lab alumni doing now?” Additional conversations should include ways to contact your adviser when they are busy and how they prefer to give/receive feedback. Most important, you should keep the lines of communication up throughout your training; your individual development plan provides such opportunities. The more you know about your adviser’s values, the easier it is to align mutual interests.

Present a plan. An internship or career class certainly helps your career readiness. Your adviser, however, wants reassurance that those activities will not interfere with your training. To assuage concerns, let your adviser know: 1) what you are going to do (internship), 2) why (experience may reduce time to degree), 3) when (after comps and in the summer when you have fewer lab commitments), and 4) how you will cover your responsibilities (lab mates tending to your mice, Zooming in to lab meetings and so forth). Presenting a rationale and clear plan moves you from asking permission to proactively planning, with your adviser on your side. That provides clarity as well as aligns your mutual interests.

Communicate consistently. While you are on an internship, taking classes or the like, follow through on the plan you’ve created with your adviser and check in with them periodically. A few emails to let your adviser know how your research is progressing while you are gone, or for a friendly update on what you are learning while you are away, keeps them updated and in your court.

Use multiple mentors and resources. Your adviser cannot be your only ally. Additional mentors can give new and different perspectives, provide academic and professional advice, and support you if disagreements arise with your adviser. Further, many other resources exist on the campus to help you. If you have trouble communicating with your adviser, oral communications coaches, career and mental health counselors, and ombudspersons can advise you on options and practice new approaches with you.

Plenty of opportunities exist for exploring your career of choice, and your adviser may be your best ally. By the end of your training, very few people will be able to speak as well about your skills and professional presence as your adviser -- as long as you give them a chance to know you.


Stephanie K. Eberle is assistant dean of Stanford University’s BioSci Careers community, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the STEM fields, and vice chair of the board of directors for the National Postdoctoral Association. They were the resident fellow of a frosh arts and humanities residence hall for 10 years and adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco. They are a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. The ideas presented here are their own.


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