With apologies to Stanley Kubrick, I initially wanted to title these thoughts Dr. Pandemic or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Effectively Advise My Ph.D. Students. For those unfamiliar with the reference, in 1964, Kubrick directed and produced a gallows-humor comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, that satirized the Cold War fears and possibilities of nuclear conflict between the then Soviet Union and the United States. Many people consider the film to be one of the greatest comedies ever written, and it is one of the highest-rated movies on Rotten Tomatoes.
To be clear, I don’t think anything about this pandemic is funny. Nor am I attempting to make connections between nuclear annihilation and the entire globe dealing with COVID-19. Instead, on a much more basic level, I am struck by how simply viewing Dr. Strangelove in 1964 and decades later influenced audience perceptions of the rationality and viability of war. It made people rethink what they thought they knew about conflict, conflict escalation and nuclear anxiety. I can’t help but find parallels in how COVID-19 is making me rethink everything I thought I knew about our work environment, processes, tasks and responsibilities.
Although the scope and depth with which COVID-19 has affected us and the work we do is still unfolding, I do know right now that it is making me deeply rethink everything, including our roles and responsibilities as faculty members. That even includes some tasks or responsibilities that don’t require a new skill set -- like teaching online did for some of us. Advising Ph.D. students during COVID-19 is one of those areas that we need to rethink.
Doctoral advisement -- specifically the working relationship between doctoral adviser and student -- is one of the key conditions for optimal doctoral degree completion. In fact, according to both doctoral students and their advisers, this relationship is of the utmost importance for student success. The relationship is obviously anchored in doctoral education, which is unlike any other academic experience students have had before and requires significant intellectual rigor, psychological flexibility, well-developed writing ability and independent research competence. This is true in even the best of times, but what we are all experiencing during this pandemic is magnifying this reality tenfold.
Within this important relationship, most doctoral students work independently because their advisers view them as high achieving, skilled and high functioning. Many advisers take a hands-off approach and rarely get involved in how students work, manage their time, or integrate their work and personal lives. Yet research has found that a vast majority of doctoral students have had significant difficulty with time management and balancing family life and other obligations and could use more guidance, direction and support.
Again, these are not typical times, and during this pandemic, doctoral students are also facing many of the same challenges that faculty members are struggling with, such as Zoom overload, childcare and homeschooling responsibilities, isolation, anxiety, health fears, difficulty maintaining a schedule, and low research productivity. They are also confronting their own distinct challenges, including funding insecurities, job prospect anxieties and evaluation fears (including how their ability to cope in these times will be judged).
As advisers, the best way we can provide support for our doctoral students and ensure their success, particularly now, is to reimagine and rethink our roles and responsibilities. Prior assumptions and expectations, held by many advisers, that all doctoral students should be able to self-motivate and self-regulate will not give students the essential tools they need to succeed. Some people would suggest, and research supports them, that these assumptions were never true. In fact, a positive doctoral student-faculty relationship, based on support, active engagement and guidance, and effective communication are the necessary foundation for doctoral student success.
Below are eight key recommendations for creating and maintaining affirming and student-centered advising in uncertain times.
- Increase contact. Now more than ever, doctoral students need regular check-ins. Those check-ins need not be long, but they should be consistent and, in these times, initiated by the adviser. Doctoral students are often in a double bind -- they feel pressure to always be positive and competent and not show vulnerabilities regardless of how they actually feel. Just letting them know that they matter can make all the difference. It’s OK not to have a long agenda when you touch base with them. Just touch base. Isolation will lead to self-doubt about their progress and ability to finish, which is why checking in is so important.
- Ask questions. Gather information about the lives of your students. Ask about their well-being and that of their family. Find out what they are doing for self-care. Let them know you are invested in them as a person. If you ask how they are doing, 90 percent of the time they will say “fine,” even if they are not. Assume they will not automatically tell you if they are struggling, and ask more than once. It might build trust if you are willing to share your own challenges as a scholar during these unprecedented times. In addition, broaden the range of questions you typically ask. Find out more about the effectiveness of their workspace, their schedule and how they are managing their online learning, their research and, most important, their lives.
- Listen. Listen. Listen. When you ask questions, listen deeply for what they are not saying and how they may be engaged in performative sharing -- expressing what they think you want to hear. Follow up with additional questions. Show deep empathy, which means to acknowledge the feelings and experiences below the surface, those that are left unsaid. For example, if a student mentions that their living space is more crowded and hectic than usual, you might want to ask what personal and academic difficulties that overcrowding brings. Self-disclosing your own challenges is one way to increase their comfort in sharing their own.
- Provide structure and accountability. Providing appropriate structure and accountability can be a positive strategy for those students who have been unable to provide it for themselves. Ilda Jimenez y West and other scholars found that 60 percent of doctoral students were struggling with time management and finding balance. And that was in the best of times, so we can assume that is probably worse now. Work with your students to create structure and accountability measures. Having a direct and honest conversation with each doctoral advisee will ensure that both of you have an accurate understanding of reasonable expectations. For some students, your role may be to pump the brakes and help them set more realistic goals. For others, you may need to provide structure and guidance to help them meet the most basic expectations. For their growth and engagement to occur, it is essential to find a proper balance of challenge and support.
- Be flexible, understanding and humane. During these times, we have to understand that our students are balancing a lot. Help them set realistic goals and expectations. Be flexible when they are unable to meet those goals, and discuss with them how to remove obstacles. Chances are, they are already beating themselves up -- which is why we have to be the understanding and humane ones, giving them permission to engage in self-compassion. We are all experiencing grief and loss during this pandemic in ways that are not being recognized, understood and accepted.
- Expect and accept the ups and downs. I think we can all agree that productivity is fleeting. All of us have good times and bad times, productive days and lost days. That is our new reality, and the sooner we accept the ups and downs, the easier it will be to help our students deal with them. Managing expectations is key.
- Embrace the uncertain yet plan for the future. Our role as advisers is to continually acknowledge the unknown while also planning ahead. They are not mutually exclusive. To move forward, we plan and then replan as many times as necessary when our first plan does not work. Helping students accept that reality is a good place to start.
- Provide culturally competent advising. One size does not fit all. Unless we listen and truly understand the lived experiences of our students, we will not be able to grasp their specific contextual and cultural realities. While we are currently having a shared experience as a country, it is not impacting us in uniform ways. Disparities that were always there have now suddenly become more visible.
We cannot assume. Instead we need to learn which of our students may be facing structural and systemic challenges that are not always apparent. For example, while as faculty members our lives have been disrupted, our socioeconomic status offers us some protection. For many of our students and their families, their lives have been devastated, economically and/or personally. Now is the time for us as advisers to look beyond our own experiences and privileges and learn about the challenges and inequities many of our students confront.