Degree In Sight

Missing adviser

Whether you are selecting classes, navigating exams or applying for internships, an academic adviser's help can be invaluable to graduate students. Good advisers not only guide you through the administrative aspects of school, but also offer feedback on your research, therapy techniques and much more. In a 2010 survey by the Council of Graduate Schools, 70 percent of new social sciences doctorates reported that having an engaged adviser was crucial to their success.

But what if your adviser is not returning your emails or calls? What if he or she is simply not available to you?

Walking the delicate line between being assertive and needy can be a difficult task for psychology students with less-than-responsive advisers. Short of stalking, what can students do to get the attention they need? Grad students and professors offer this advice:

Know What to Expect

Dana,* a school counseling graduate student, says she often feels unsure whether she should consult her adviser about smaller administrative details and advice, so she tends to wait for him to contact her. That's a mistake, says University of Connecticut's Gregory Colón Semenza, PhD, author of the 2010 book, "Graduate Study for the 21st Century, Second Edition." He points out that you should hold your adviser to his or her minimal duties: helping you choose classes, providing advice on research and guiding your writing and career development.

Remember that not all advisers excel in all of these areas, says John Norcross, PhD, a University of Scranton clinical psychology professor and author of the 2010 book, "The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology." Even dedicated mentors might need you to nudge them in the right direction — or ask for support from other faculty.

Schedule Regular Meetings

It's especially important to meet regularly with your adviser if your relationship has moved from the administrative tasks you need to perform to a research-oriented partnership. The "role-fusion" of research mentor and academic adviser can be a wonderful thing, says Norcross. "It's like having a spouse who is also your best friend — when it's clicking and everyone's on the same page and has the same goals, it works well," he says.

But beware of conflicting agendas, Norcross cautions. "There can be tension between what the researcher needs from the student and what the student needs from the adviser," he says. It's important to keep the line between research assistant and advisee clear. Meet early and often to establish clear expectations and limits, says Norcross. "Being clear from the start can prevent anger or frustration on both sides."

Set and Meet Deadlines

During those meetings, set deadlines and goals for your graduate career. "An adviser really needs to sit down with a student to work out a long-term calendar, over several meetings," Semenza says. A visual map of coursework can be immensely helpful during the first years of graduate study, for example, while research and writing deadlines give students structure at later stages.

Once you have a calendar, stick to it. "The simple fact is that most of us will work a lot harder for the students we believe are working their hardest," Semenza says. "I get very frustrated by advisees promising that ‘from now on' they will check in regularly or stick to deadlines and then don't."

Don't Take Absences Personally

Linda, an experimental psychology student, found that her previously responsive adviser seemed to evaporate as she neared her dissertation defense and began looking ahead to internships and postdoctoral applications. But after briefly entertaining the idea of changing advisers, Linda consulted with his other advisees and found that they were all having the same problem. Drawing on other students' successful strategies, Linda began reminding him of their upcoming meetings a week in advance. "I was very reassured when I realized it wasn't personal — it's just how he is."

Broaden Your Support Network

Your department administrators, other faculty and fellow students can be an invaluable source of information if your adviser becomes hard to reach, says Norcross. "Departments will sometimes offer group advising or general information seminars on getting through the university, prepping for internships, how to get teaching experience, and so on," he says. Attending those can help take some pressure off both you and your adviser, says Norcross.

Reaching out to other graduate students can also make a big difference, says Daniel Upchurch, a school-counseling psychology student at Tennessee State University. "When I arrived my first year, I had all these questions that went beyond what I felt comfortable asking my adviser," such as whether it was OK to schedule meetings outside of office hours, and advice about the more general aspects of graduate student life, he says.

To help other students navigate those issues, Upchurch started a peer-mentoring group with a fellow student and his adviser. They provide incoming first-years with upper-level peer mentors who arrange initial meetings between advisers and students and help get paperwork under way. If your department doesn't offer a similar program, seek out more experienced students for advice and reassurance. "If second- and third-year students invest in the first years and make their transition easy, then the new students will pay it forward for the next group of students," Upchurch says. 

Consider a Switch

Kyle,* a first-year counseling psychology student, applied to his program to work with a particular psychologist. Unfortunately, that researcher proved to be a lackluster adviser — missing meetings and, at one point, advising Kyle to sign up for a course reserved for third-year students.

Whether, like Kyle, you're only a year into your graduate education, or you find that your needs are shifting as you move into the dissertation or internship phase, there's little downside to changing advisers, particularly early on, says Norcross. "There are many reasons to switch advisers: personality conflicts, inconsistent research projects, better funding for a different project," he says. "You need to keep your best interests in mind."

That includes times when you just can't get a response from an adviser. "A professor who doesn't offer feedback … in a reasonable amount of time, who isn't in his office when he says he will be, needs to be confronted," Semenza says. While this can be difficult, start by referring back to your earlier conversations about advisee/adviser expectations, says Norcross, and be respectful but assertive about your needs.

Switching may be harder at the dissertation or internship stage, but you still need to keep your goals in sight. You may want to choose another member of your dissertation committee as an informal adviser, rather than formally changing advisers, to ensure that your work doesn't suffer.

The important thing is to put your academic career first and take action if your adviser is standing in your way. "If the professor continually neglects his responsibilities, especially after a conversation has been held, then the student should probably move on," says Semenza. "People change their advisers all the time and, as long as the professor has been given fair warning, he or she has no right to be grumpy about being dropped due to his or her own negligence."

*Student last names have been omitted to protect their privacy.

Emily Wojcik is a writer in Northampton, Mass.