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Managing Your Advisor

The most helpful habits to develop in working with your advisor.

September 4, 2014

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.

The student/advisor dynamic can be one of the most rewarding or most fraught relationships in graduate school, and choosing the right mentor is one of the most important decisions you will make as a graduate student. A positive relationship with your advisor can help you reach your full potential as an academic researcher, while a negative relationship can make the process extremely difficult—so much so that some students don’t finish their programs or leave with a Masters rather than complete their PhDs.

This is obviously the last outcome that any graduate student or advisor wishes for. So how do we as students make sure that we get the best out of our advisors, who are often very busy individuals with many other obligations on their plates? Enter the idea of “managing up” your advisor. Normally we associate management with those below us, not those who supervise us. What is “managing up,” and why am I dragging this business term into an academic context?

Managing up is essentially a way of advancing your graduate education by understanding your advisor’s goals and actively looking for opportunities to work in a mutually beneficial manner. This may be an odd concept, but bear with me. The better you understand your advisor, what questions they believe are important, and how they work, the better off you will be in your own graduate program. Being a graduate student, especially those going for a PhD, means working with your advisor over the course of years, so it makes sense to put in the effort to get the best advising you can.

Here are what I consider to be three of the most helpful habits in working with your advisor:

Open communication: By far the most important act in getting the best from your advisor is open communication. Bad things happen when communication breaks down and students avoid their advisors (this happens enough that there are even Academic Interaction Feynman diagrams). Don’t let this become you! If you find yourself drifting alone in the lab due to your advisor’s busy schedule, make it a point to get face-to-face time at least every other week (or even once a week if you really need it) so that you can go over your progress and any difficulties and concerns that you may be experiencing. This may be more difficult if you are one of many advisees, but try to get what time you can in order to get used to openly discussing your work with your advisor.

Have clearly defined goals: What is the research project attempting to accomplish? How does your work relate to the overall goals of your advisor? (Hint: Read the funded and pending grant applications.) It is all too easy to feel lost under the mountain of individual tasks and experiments that crop up during a thesis project, so work with your advisor to prioritize the key points so that both of you know that the bulk of your efforts are being used productively.

One thing that can really help with this is to follow up longer meetings with a concise email containing bullet points of:

A. What you took away from the meeting

B. What projects/experiments you have prioritized for the upcoming weeks.

This is also helpful in that it will allow you and your mentor to refer to this document at future meetings in order to accurately gauge your progress.

Be proactive in the relationship: If you know that you are starting to struggle with your project, go to your advisor sooner rather than later (good communication skills really facilitate this!). By being upfront about difficulties early on with your advisor, you can get the feedback you need to either try a different approach or refine what you are currently doing. Remember, your advisor has been there before as well and wants to see you make progress. Don’t try to hide the fact that you are facing difficulties, as this can lead to communication breakdowns that will only further hinder both your progress and working relationship with your advisor.

Being proactive also applies to working with your advisor’s strengths and weaknesses. If you know that your advisor can be disorganized or tends to forget the details of your work, be proactive by working around that by being very organized and sending regular updates of your work so that they know (and understand) what you are doing and why.

It is important to remember that all of these tips help to make you a better advisee as well. By taking these steps, you are not only working towards a healthy relationship with your advisor but also taking the reins as an active participant in your graduate education, which is extremely important for your own professional development.

Special cases: There are two significant difficulties that you can encounter with an advisor, and they are at opposite ends of the spectrum: the micromanager and the absentee advisor. Both species are found in abundance in academia, so here’s how to make the most of each type.

Tips if you have a micromanaging advisor: An effective way to fight off micromanagement by your advisor is to be very organized and pay close attention to what they do say. Ask them upfront how THEY want something done, and write it down in front of them so there are no opportunities for miscommunication or need to laboriously repeat already settled points.

Also, with micromanagers it is important to set boundaries. If you feel that they are too directly involved in your work, be upfront is setting boundaries so that you have the time to DO your work (limit conversations regarding your work to a set day/time where you go over the most important parts of your work, rather than daily monitoring and open-ended conversations that can slow your progress). The same applies if you are getting emails at midnight; it is acceptable to say “I do not take work email between 8:30 PM and 6:30 AM” if you find the expectation for constant contact to be too much.

How to deal with the absentee advisor: This can be a very difficult situation for a student to be in, especially if a project hits a rough patch and direct advising is really needed. However, many professors travel extensively and are extremely busy (especially those approaching tenure review) so getting reliable access is about as likely as catching a live Bigfoot.

If getting access is the problem and can’t even be done through email, then don’t be afraid to lean on the rest of your committee for advising and help along the way—this is exactly why we have committees composed of different individuals in the first place. (Pre-committee formation? Test out different faculty members by asking them questions to see how helpful they are—it’s a good way to find out who would make a good committee member!)

Your graduate experience should center upon how well you are progressing towards your intended degree and developing as an independent academic mind. We are all responsible as graduate students to take the reins in our careers and assume direct responsibility for our own professional development. Being a good advisee and having good working relationships with our advisors are a major part of graduate student professional development, so we need to make the most of those relationships!

Do you have any tales of making the most of your own advisor relationship? Please share them in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user Incite and used under Creative Commons License.]


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