how to be a good advisee

Edit 2/6/20. I just linked to this old post. Re-reading, I’d give more overt attention to issues of student marginality and abusive profs. But I’ll let this essay otherwise stand as it was written nearly 12 years ago.

As I suggested in response to the thread about picking an advisor, it is a mistake to view an advisor as a commodity for which you comparison shop, as you might select a new dress.  Rather, it is a two-sided process of building a long-term relationship.  Your own behavior and characteristics are just as important as the advisor’s, and it isn’t just a matter of finding the right person, it is a matter of acting in ways that make both of you feel good about your interactions.  So it is important to consider what makes the experience good for the advisor, not just what makes it good for the student.  In the long run, former advisees are friends and junior colleagues and part of your professional network.  Having former students who do well in the profession make you look good.  But there can be plenty of immediate rewards in the advising experience itself.  This varies somewhat depending on personalities, of course, and others may have other opinions.  But here are the things I think about when I reflect on advisees I have appreciated and advisees who have been less satisfactory.

1.  Accept that most academics are introverts with underdeveloped social skills.  Although there are certainly exceptions, we are, as a class, awkward and a little weird and tend to combine academic/intellectual arrogance with insecurity and competitiveness.  If you are a graduate student, you most likely fit this profile, too.  So give yourself and your potential advisor a break.  Don’t take it personally if initial interactions are awkward.  And forgive us if we seem pompous and full of ourselves; years of having people write down everything you say tends to warp even the strongest sense of personal humility.  While you may ultimately decide that a personality mis-fit is too large for a decent working relationship, don’t decide this too quickly if the person might otherwise be someone good for you to work with.  Instead, approach the problem like an adult and accept your half of the responsibility for building a relationship in spite of personality quirks.

2.  Try not to take out your ambivalent feelings about your parents on your advisor.  The parent-child model is a very bad one for the advisor-advisee relationship, and advisees acting out the rebellious teenager or the clingy toddler can be very difficult to deal with.  The advisor-advisee mentor-mentee relationship is hierarchical, but it is a relationship between adults.  The more you can draw on your adult feelings about yourself, and your adult understandings about the imperfections of other adults, the easier the relationship will be.  (I’m not denying that some advisors have their own issues, I’m just encouraging you to try to play the part of adult and not contribute to other dynamics.)

3.  I realize many of you hate the relationship metaphors, but in my department, we tell first year students that a first advisor is more like “going steady” than a marriage.  It is really too early for any long-term commitment on either side.  It is my habit always to tell first year students who ask me to advise them that they should treat this as a temporary relationship that they should feel free to dissolve as appropriate depending on their interests.  Think of this as a relationship you are building over time, with low commitment initially.

4.  Take some initiative in moving the relationship forward.  If the advisor does not seek you out for meetings, take the initiative to make appointments or otherwise communicate.  Figure out how your advisor likes to communicate, and try to adapt.  Some people like email, some hate it.  Some like regular appointments, some like drop in visitors, etc.  If you would like to coauthor something with your advisor and s/he does not bring up the subject, you can bring it up.  “Is there a project I could work with you on?”  “Would you be interested in being a coauthor on my master’s thesis to turn it into a publication?”  (Coauthoring is a more intense level of involvement than “giving comments” to an advisee.  Many of us learn how to write for publication by coauthoring.  In general in sociology, the lead author is the person whose idea it is, who writes the first draft.  Coming on as a coauthor is taking a junior or subordinate role in a publication.)  If you would like more comments on your papers, or more directive advice about courses, or more appreciation for the difficulties in balancing your work-home responsibilities – ask for it.  If you are worried about this, you can ask tentatively: Could I talk with you about my courses for next term?  If your advisor does not respond as you wish, then you can update your evaluation of the relationship.  But don’t just suffer in silence wishing s/he would do something s/he is not doing.

5.  Ask for advice and help.  Too many students think they have to pretend to know everything to make a good impression.  Wrong.  Trying to act like you know everything just makes you seem like an arrogant jerk, and avoiding your advisor until you have figured out enough to impress him/her is a recipe for failure.  Part of the emotional satisfaction of the advising relationship is feeling good about being asked for advice and feeling good about giving advice that is helpful to someone else.

6.  Take your advisor’s advice, although not slavishly.  If you repeatedly refuse to do what your advisor suggests, your advisor will not find the relationship satisfying.  Conversely, when you take your advisor’s suggestions and do well, it makes your advisor feel good about his/her competence as an advisor.  This is not to say that you should always do what your advisor tells you to, as the advisor may be wrong, or may be wrong for you.  But if you regularly avoid or ignore your advisor’s opinions about what you should do, the relationship will be frustrating on both sides.

7.  Get things done.  It is fun to talk with students about their ideas.  But if you cannot generate written papers, after a while you will become tedious to work with, no matter how interesting you are in a conversation.  I remember a student who asked me, many years ago, “I know I need to publish to get a job.  How do I publish articles?”  I responded, “Well, the first thing you have to do is to write something.”  If you are working on a research team, you have to get your part of the work done.  The most satisfying thing you can do for your advisor is produce good work.  The first step to producing good work is producing some work.

8.  Be willing to show imperfect work to your advisor and accept criticisms and suggestions about how to improve.  It is your advisor’s job to read work that you think is done and tell you how to improve it in the next revision.  This is frustrating in the short run but is what will make you a better scholar in the long run.  Do not assume that your first drafts are golden.  It is not an insult to receive criticism of your work, and you will be really annoying if you respond to critique with hostility or argument.  (This does not mean that you have to agree with every point of the critique.)  And do not shrivel up into a little ball if or run away if you get critical comments.  It does not mean you are stupid if you receive criticism of your work: what academics do is read and criticize what people write.

9.  Be willing to disclose problems and vulnerabilities to your advisor.  Tell her/him if you are struggling with statistics, battling depression, breaking up with your love interest, exhausted from child care, wondering whether you really have an academic interests that could be worth all the grief of graduate school, can’t figure out how to get all the work done, are feeling inadequate in your teaching assignment, are worried about money, etc.  If you are of a different cultural background from the advisor, it can often be helpful to name that and ask whether there may be cultural norms or cues that may lead to misunderstandings.  It is OK to talk about good stuff, too, by the way.  It is great to mention the happy parts of your life that have nothing to do with work/school.  Obviously, you have to gauge reactions and it is perfectly reasonable to self-disclose in small bursts.  But if you are extremely reserved and fearful of revealing anything about yourself that does not show you to be a brilliant always-working scholar, you’ll just play into your own fears and make the relationship with the advisor that much more tense.

10.  No matter how much you love your advisor, get to know other faculty and ask their advice, too.  Remember, you need five people on a dissertation committee and at least three people who know you well enough to write you good letters when you are on the job market.  If you work with a team of advisors, you can balance their strengths and weaknesses.  Never be in a situation where the only person who knows you is your advisor.  Always take initiative to get to know other faculty.

11.  Act with integrity, even when you think others are not looking.  I still remember the graduate student who made personal calls to his father on my office phone while I was on maternity leave because he thought he would not get caught.  I have known other people who have blown opportunities because they thought they could get away with dishonest dealings.  Character shows, and it matters. If you are only looking out for yourself and cutting corners or cheating when you think you can get away with it, people will know and will not want to help you.  If you work hard, are honest and generous in your dealings with others, you will find that others want to help you and are honest and generous in their dealings with you.  If you don’t have a solid moral center, then at least remember that the sociology profession is a small community, and your reputation will go with you wherever you go.

The final note: These are my own thoughts on the subject and I am sure that some of them reflect my own idiosyncracies, not general rules.  Unfortunately, I don’t know which ones.  Perhaps others can chime in with their own.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

12 thoughts on “how to be a good advisee”

  1. great tips!
    at my school, we call it “courting”.
    so the last time my parents, who speak english as a second language, asked if i was dating anyone…
    well, let’s just say it was an interesting conversation!


  2. This all sounds reasonable and is mostly what I did (though hardly perfectly) in my first and failed advisor relationship. My only disagreement is that you underestimate the amount of power the student has or feels they have. I tried to change my relationship with my advisor for years–and I felt powerless. I most definitely did not get the feeling that it was acceptable to “fire” her. On my first attempt to change, I was turned down and sent back to the original advisor. Our chair would not have been helpful. Our DGS was equally unapproachable. I did find my way out, eventually, but why didn’t my original advisor try harder to make things work or encourage me to shop around when she tired of working with me?


  3. Yeah–I think this is a good list, but don’t underestimate the power trips faculty members have when dealing with graduate students; for this reason I would disagree with number 9. Keep your personal business to yourself. I had an advisor my first year who heard from another student that I missed my boyfriend who was in another city, and he harassed me about it for the ENTIRE year. It was totally inappropriate.


  4. Lots of good points here. First, an additional point:
    Meet deadlines or let your advisor know ahead of time if you can’t. This is especially crucial if other people on your team are dependent on your work.

    A few reactions to the above:

    Be willing to show imperfect work to your advisor

    I definitely agree with this, but did want to clarify a point. This does not mean that you should give your advisor work that you have not proofread. We are here to comment on the quality of the intellectual work and also help with your writing style, but we are not your spell checker.

    Tell her/him if you are struggling with statistics, battling depression, breaking up with your love interest

    The part about the love interests.. I’m not sure. My understanding is that female advisors get stuck with much more of this than male advisors. Of course, if it’s a major breakup that’s really influencing your work it’s a good idea to mention it. But unless you’ve worked with the advisor for years and have developed a very good relationship, I would leave certain personal issues out.

    Act with integrity, even when you think others are not looking. [and everything else in that paragraph]

    Absolutely! It’s sort of sad this even has to be mentioned.


  5. I think this is very good advice. About dating, etc.: some advisers really want to know about your life, and others don’t. Those that don’t aren’t people who just don’t care about you, they tend to be people who think of your relationship as a professional, work relationship. You should figure out which kind of person your adviser is. Also figure out which type you would prefer. It’s nice to have someone care about your life. But the downside is that they can tend to ask you about your life. And sometimes you want distance between work/life. As for the more “professional” approach (you’re a worker; this is a job): it’s nice to separate work and life. The downside is that they affect each other and being able to talk about it is handy.


  6. Great points all around, I think. Re: sharing aspects of your personal life, I have found it best to take a cue from the advisor on this one. If he/she discloses things in a more familiar way, then it is probably okay (and maybe even expected) that you do the same…keeping in mind that there is a BIG difference between telling him/her about the great band you just saw and gushing about the person you met at the bar last night. Luckily, my advisor is very similar to myself in his/her sensibilities about these sorts of things, so it works very well for us. But as shakha said, if your advisor seems to approach the relationship from a professional angle only, then it’s probably a good idea to do the same thing. With that said, a notable exception is if/when there really is something major going on that is or will affect your work, then by all means you should mention it.


  7. Re advisors being unethical, abusive etc: I am not in denial about this, I had two bad incidents in my own career. This is why I stress the importance of having multiple networks and never being isolated in a relationship. But people can seem negative, dismissive, uncaring when they don’t mean to be. What I’m trying to stress is an iterative process of getting to know someone so you can figure out whether they are actually bad or just socially awkward. I also think this is a structural issue. Prospective grad students ought to ask the DGS and other grads what procedures are in place for helping a student who feels that they are being treated badly by an advsior. Departments that are in denial about this ever being a problem should be given a black mark. It is not always that there are abusive people, there are relationships that can go bad and enter an abusive or otherwise problematic dynamic even for a person who has good relations with other advisees.

    Re telling your personal business, here again I was trying to indicate a matter of degree, personal preference, and process. Of course you want zones of privacy. But if something “personal” is hampering your career, you have two choices: go it alone and be seen as a screw-up, or risk disclosure and possibly get some help. Also, some people hate being treated impersonally and feel upset because their advisor never seems to care about them as a person. I am thinking of myself. I never look down on people for having a personal life, I have one myself, and I can actually be quite sympathetic and helpful to people about how to juggle personal/professional issues. But I almost never ask people about their personal lives. This is partly because I don’t like to intrude on people if they don’t want to disclose, and partly because I’m what’s known as a “context independent” personality type: when I’m in “work” mode, I am very task oriented. I’m not incapable of personal talk, I just have to turn on that switch. Somebody who never takes the risk of mentioning that they are having some problem that is taking a toll never finds out that I can be helpful. At the same time, I’m not in denial that other people would react badly to disclosure. That’s why I’m suggesting a strategy of tentative and iterative moves to test out the other person.


  8. These are all great. i wish i had heard many of these when i started off in grad school. Luckily most of them came out somewhere along the lines (mostly through modeling/mentioning by other grad students, to a lesser extent through trial and error). But it would have made life easier if this would have been part of our first year proseminar.

    #10 is one i would especially highlight. Most of the others (sooner or later) became pretty obviously necessary. The importance of seeking out multiple people (at my own university) to work with? A little slower to recognize (at least for me).


  9. Wonderful advice from all. Three more thoughts, to carry on the dating relationship metaphor…
    1. No one person can fill all your needs. If you set the bar too high for your advisor, you will be perpetually disappointed. It is unrealistic to think that one person can be a methodological whiz, theoretical genius, editor extraordinaire, rainmaker who can secure you funding, mover/shaker who can land you a job, and your personal Dr. Drew. Identify your needs for successfully navigating graduate school, and find someone who fills most of those criteria.

    2. Try to be their top priority (or at least toward the top of their list). In-demand advisors are simply exhausted. There isn’t enough time in the day to give everyone the intellectual guidance and TLC that they need. Hard as we try to read papers in the order they come in the queue, we’re sometimes drawn to those students’ papers we find most interesting. Some people and projects simply captivate us more than others. Try to find an advisor is captivated by your research…and who is willing to make you a top priority.

    3. Set boundaries. Students should try to take charge of some aspects of the mentoring relationship. Give your advisor a “preferred date” for when you would like feedback on a paper, for instance. We’re human, and if there’s no deadline for reading your thesis, it will fall to the bottom of the queue, behind the 12 things that do have an imminent and clear-cut deadline. (On the theme of boundaries…in some cases it’s fine to discuss personal issues that may be impeding your progress. However, please save the juicy stuff for your friends. It’s simply not appropriate to share with your professors, even those faculty who may be close in age to you).


  10. Wonderful! I’m just starting my masters thesis so this is most useful. Thank you!

    Remember, you need five people on a dissertation committee and at least three people who know you well enough to write you good letters when you are on the job market.

    I didn’t know that. It is something to remember indeed. I only once did an attempt to show interest in a subject that went further than class. Maybe I should try to do that more.


  11. Reblogged this on Sociological Fragments and commented:
    “Accept that most academics are introverts with underdeveloped social skills. Although there are certainly exceptions, we are, as a class, awkward and a little weird and tend to combine academic/intellectual arrogance with insecurity and competitiveness. If you are a graduate student, you most likely fit this profile, too. So give yourself and your potential advisor a break. Don’t take it personally if initial interactions are awkward. And forgive us if we seem pompous and full of ourselves; years of having people write down everything you say tends to warp even the strongest sense of personal humility.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: