A secure attachment orientation may be one key to a successful relationship with your adviser, finds a new study in Training and Education in Professional Psychology (Vol. 4, No. 4).
In a survey of 109 randomly selected counseling psychology graduate students from across the country, researchers from Western Michigan University found that students who generally felt more secure in close or romantic relationships were more likely than those with avoidant or anxious attachment relationship styles to report positive relationships with their advisers.
Attachment theory, first proposed in the 1960s by psychiatrist John Bowlby, holds that children who receive consistent, loving parenting generally develop secure relationship patterns; those who receive inconsistent or neglectful early parenting tend to develop anxious relationship patterns; and those with rejecting or abusive parents tend to develop avoidant patterns. Once established, these early attachment patterns often remain stable and are likely to influence people's experiences in adult relationships, subsequent research has found.
It makes sense that grad students would repeat relationship patterns from their childhood with their graduate advisers, says lead author Daniel M. Huber, PhD. "Many students start a new doctoral program in a new location without an attachment figure," he says. "I really believe that the people we rely on most in grad school take the place of our mothers or other primary caregivers, especially at the beginning of the program."
The research echoes similar findings in domains such as therapy and grad school supervision, and they also suggest ways advisers can help students thrive, adds study coauthor Eric M. Sauer, PhD. Advisers may want to initially provide high levels of support for all students, then tailor their interactions as they get to know students' attachment styles. With anxious students, who tend to seek frequent meetings and have trouble regulating their emotions, advisers could help them manage their distress and learn to work independently. With avoidant students, who are likely to keep their distance even when they're struggling, advisers could reach out regularly and provide frequent, constructive and empathic feedback.
Students, meanwhile, can be aware of their own attachment styles and work on them in relation to their advisers, particularly if the relationship is trusting and supportive, Huber adds. Advisees who are generally avoidant may want to strive to make more contact with advisers, for instance, while those with anxious attachments may want to try increasing their independence before immediately reaching out to advisers. If the relationship doesn't feel trusting and supportive, "advisees may want to actively talk this over with their adviser to increase the chances of getting their needs met," Huber says.
Next, the researchers hope to study how advisers' attachment orientations affect the advisory relationship and what makes for optimal pairings, says Sauer. Therapy research, for instance, is beginning to show that anxiously attached therapists may be good matches for avoidant clients, and vice versa, while securely attached therapists work well with all types of clients because they can flexibly adapt their style.
"In therapy, it isn't necessarily the model of therapy that typically makes the difference; it is aspects of the therapist-client relationship that are most critical," says Sauer. "We suspect the same is true for advisers and advisees."