Feature

Mentor, supervisor, colleague, drill sergeant — advisors play a cast of characters in the eyes of graduate students. But though the advisor-advisee relationship isn't always simple, one thing's for sure: "Your advisor plays a huge role helping you get through a program and setting you up for your career," says Lewis Schlosser, PhD, a Seton Hall University psychology professor who studies advisor-advisee relationships. And recent grads agree: 80 percent of new social science PhDs say that their advisors were one of the main factors they made it through grad school, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Clearly, it's in students' best interest to keep their advisor relationships running smoothly, but how? Here's what some advisors have to say:

Stay in touch ... Don't be afraid to email or visit outside of scheduled meetings, says Janet Gillespie, PhD, a psychology professor at The College at Brockport of the State University of New York. Gillespie actually enjoys it when students drop in to share their ideas. "Our schedules don't allow much ponder time," she says. But don't waste your advisor's time with questions you can answer yourself, says Anisa Goforth, PhD, a school psychology professor at the University of Montana. "I expect my graduate advisees to use their problem-solving skills to figure out some things for themselves," she says.

... but don't overshare. "I'm not your therapist. I don't want to know all about your personal struggles, and I won't pry into your life," says Schlosser. That's an important boundary to respect, because advisors aren't just mentors — in the research lab, they are also your bosses. "It's smart to be concerned about impression management," says Schlosser. However, if your advisor also serves as your clinical supervisor, be sure to let him or her know if your personal issues are seeping into your therapy sessions, adds Jennifer Ripley, PhD, a psychology professor at Regent University.

Remember the big picture ... To succeed in grad school, shift your mindset from getting good grades to getting a good education. "Students need to realize as soon as possible that their competition is with the world, not just those in a class contributing to a curve," says Bryan Fantie, PhD, a psychology professor at American University. So don't complain to your advisor about that "B" in stats, says Gillespie. Instead, raise concerns about whether you are getting the knowledge and skills you need to be a top researcher, clinician or both.

... but don't forget about the diploma. Completing coursework, passing your comprehensive exam and writing your dissertation proposal all need to come before extra clinical placements and research collaborations, says Schlosser. "I have students who want to get involved in a gazillion research projects," he says. "That's great, but you have to prioritize or you'll end up an ABD (all-but-dissertation)."

Be aware of department politics ... If you can figure out which professors have ongoing feuds, you can avoid becoming a pawn in their power games, says Paul Wong, PhD, a professor emeritus at Trinity Western University, in Canada. "Don't put someone on your thesis committee who hates your advisor because that person will tend to be unfairly critical of your work," he says.

... but stay out of them. Be nice to everyone, especially department staff, says Thomas Capo, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland University College. They will help you navigate the university bureaucracy so you can get paid on time, access the equipment you need and, ultimately, graduate on time, he says. "They always know who to contact and, if they like you, they'll be happy to help with your problem." One way to win them over is to become a regular at department-sponsored events, says Jessica Hill, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. "Grad school isn't just an academic experience, it's a social experience," she says. "Everyone notices if you skip that department party."

Quiz

  • Discover what aspects of your advisor-advisee relationship may need work by taking the "Advisory Working Alliance Inventory" by Dr. Lewis Schlosser, of Seton Hall University, and Dr. Charles Gelso, of the University of Maryland.