Advising Expectations Basics

December 15, 2020

Reposted from an older blog.

While I've mentored many students over the years, I'm entering a new phase in my career where I will be officially advising graduate students. This post is a first pass on what that means to me.

Note that some undergraduates will be assigned to me as your curriculum or major advisor. That is a very different kind of advising relationship from the one described here, and is not covered below.

The Advisor-Advisee Relationship

I expect my advisees to come from a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences. Some of you may never have worked in a professional setting before. Some of you may have years of experience in industry or government. Some of you may never have had any kind of relationship with an adult who wasn't a teacher or a parent. Some of you may have managed teams, courted clients, or negotiated contracts.

No matter your background, there really is no professional relationship quite like the PhD advisor-advisee relationship. Everyone starts with holes and has something to learn. The best analogy I've seen is that it is an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have typically been common in the trades. I believe the analogy is helpful when thinking about the PhD as traditional labor, in the sense of production. It's deficient when we think of the PhD as knowledge work, and as mentorship. One way I have come to think about this tension is that advising is about guiding and managing production, and mentorship is about guiding and managing intrisic/personal growth.

Note that while we often talk about your advisor also being a mentor, that is, in practice, often not the case, and I am not sure it is actually desirable for it to be! Sometimes the directives of an advisor conflict with the directives of a mentor, and asking one person to be both can cause distress and potentially a loss of trust for the advisee. Therefore, it can be helpful for the advisee to ask themselves: am I interacting with my PhD advisor as a supervison, or as a mentor?

Advisors as Managers: Time

Generally speaking, most students are funded to work 20 hours per week for the term of their contract, either as a TA (teaching assistant) or an RA (research assistant). Regardless of how you spend your time, it is important to discuss up front with your work supervisor (i.e., the instructor of the course if you are a TA, or your research supervision if you are an RA) how that time should be allocated, and what the contractual obligations are. For example, are you expected to work up to 20 hours per week, an average of 20 hours per week, or a total of the number of weeks in your contract, times 20 hours per week? Are there major deadlines around which you should not travel? Are there deliverables or meetings you are expected to attend?

In my experience, most supervisors don't speak explicitly about hours, but rather set expectations that most closely comport with the third interpretation (i.e., as if you have a total number hours expected). This can mean that there are times when there is little work and times when you are expected to engage in "sprints," where your week hours will exceed 20 hours per week.

I strongly encourage students to discuss expectations with their supervisor ahead of time. I personally plan to do this with my students. I strongly prefer consistency in hours for a variety of reasons (e.g., it's easier for students with health issues or familial responsibilities to plan around them, I don't think sprints are mentally or physically healthy, etc.), but this tends to require more planning up front (i.e., acting rather than re-acting) and can puts more burden on the supervisor. Supervisors tend to have a lot of responsibilities and wear many hats, so staying organized and on top of things can be challenging. This is especially true of new professors; I will do my best to prioritize my students over other responsibilties, but know that this can be challenging to actually pull off! The important thing for students to remember is that you should feel empowered to have these conversations early and often!

Finally, note that assistantships benefit the advisee both financially (i.e., you are paid) and educationally (i.e., they are training you to teach/do curriculum development, or they are training you how to do research).

Advisors as Mentors: RAships

In the general case, you should not be spending, on average, more than the time you are paid on your assistantship. The major exception to this is when you have an RAship that overlaps with your dissertation topic (or, for very junior studnets, research area you think might provide the foundation of your dissertation). Advisors tend to encourage students to find an overlapping RAship because it's good for the student (making progress on the project is equivalent to making progress on your degree, and removes the overhead of context-switching) and because it's good for the advisor (you have incentives to go above and beyond the outlined work because you now have a personal stake in it).

In the ideal world, an RAship would work something like this: you start graduate school funded on your advisor's project, or on a more senior student's project. You put in your 20 hours, and over the course of your first year, you are largely working on someone else's project, learning how to do research. Ideally, you'd work with your advisor to set learning goals and output goals. Then, once you find your feet, you work with your advisor to find funding for the research you want to do.

However, there are many ways that this process can go awry. In particular, since it relies on your growth as a researcher, advising here can become intertwined with mentorship.

For example, you may never find a research area or question that motivates you. Sometimes students discover that they don't actually like research. Sometimes students discover they don't like the working style of their advisor. There are many things that can make the working relationship rocky.

A common failure mode is that the student discovers that the topics that really interest them, or the questions that really motivate them, are outside the scope of what their advisor cares about, or has expertise in. Part of developing an independent research identity is learning how to pitch your research idea to your supervisor. However, it is not the obligation of a supervisor to invest in a new research area because their student has interest there. Just as it is important for students to recognize that they are entitled to boundaries from their research supervisor, it is important for studnets to recognize that their supervisors are entitled to boundaries from their student's research interests. This is why many schools advertise to prospective graduate students that it is easy to change advisors.

Your advisor is a coach, not a parent

Each advisor's and advisee's needs will be different, so it is critically important to continually communicate needs and expectations. It can be quite challenging for students when they need one thing from a supervisor and another thing from a mentor.

This is issue is particular pronounced when students struggle. Consider the following scenario: a student is having personal struggles that are affecting their work performance on a funded project that has a deadlines and deliverables. The advisor then must step in to complete the work. The student needs compassion and encouragement, but they have also put other students' funding in jeopardy because the advisor had to use time that was allocated to writing grants on delivering on this grant. In this particular (not terribly uncommon) case, the advisor may feel conflicted between their roles as work supervisor and mentor.

It can be tempting for students to think of their advisors as parental surrogates -- after all, the heirarchical and often patriarchal nature of academia makes it all too easy for everyone to buy into this model of mentorship. I prefer to think of advisors as coaches: we want our team to do their best (and preferably win!), but most of all, we want to support each team member in their professional and personal goal. Good teams are more than the sum of their parts, and good coaches know when to deliver tough truths and when to step out of the way. Good coaches also understand that getting a good game out of the team isn't about the coach. Finally, good coaches understand that athletes sometimes need personal coaches and trainers, and aren't threatened by that.

Are you my advisor?

Finally, I want to make it explicit what I mean when I consider someone to be my advisee. I consider an advisee to be someone whose degree progress I am directly and strictly greater than 50% responsible for, or someone whose research I directly or indirectly supervise.

This means that if I am on a committee that determines your fate (e.g., thesis committee or curriculum committee), I am not necessarily your advisor. If I agree supervise your thesis, but you never follow up, I am not necessarily your advisor. If we talk about research, but either party never follows up, I am not your advisor.

If you aren't sure, just ask!


This post is the result of culmination of many years of thinking about the power differential between adivsor and advisee, but most recently I owe the distinction between advising and mentoring to discussions with Sara Kingsley.