Interpersonal Dynamics in Graduate School: Working with Advisors

Advisor chatting with her students

By Lucy Zheng

Communication and work styles are the building blocks to how we think, act, and interact with others. It seems only logical that our differences in these two areas affect not only our productivity when it comes to our research, but also our relationship with our major professor or advisor. Given that most grad students’ impression of their future mentor (of 5+ years) comes from a few hours or at most, a few days, during the interview process (unless they worked in their lab during undergraduate) many grad students may discover that working effectively together requires more than just becoming the faculty’s student.

Administration and students offer their suggestions and advice on how to approach the graduate student-faculty relationship, including how to prevent issues from arising, who to seek out, and when to switch mentors.

Prevention. The first year of grad school is often very difficult. While students are adjusting to a new type of schooling, faculty may assume that students know how things work in grad school. Both the faculty and student are responsible for keeping and maintaining communication and work boundaries, so it is important to make expectations clear. Below are some tips on how to set a healthy working foundation.

  1. During interviews, be prepared with specific questions for current graduate students that gets you the honest information without it seeming like you’re “digging for dirt” or being nosy. Examples include:
    1. “How often do you meet with Dr. X?”
    2. “How does the TA system work here?” (If they respond with “on an individual basis” it could mean that favoritism is part of the assignment process.)
    3. “Is there anyone who wouldn’t be a good fit?” (This may give the potential student an idea of the type of working environment.)
    4. For more honest answers, potential grad students can contact or call the student later, rather than ask them on interview day.
  2. Grad students and their advisor should meet face to face and have a conversation at the beginning of the work relationship. Create and fill out a mentoring statement or survey delineating expectations. Example questions include: “Who is responsible for coming up with research topics?”; “Will I be required to work overnight and over weekends?”; and “What are each of our roles in regards to networking?”
  3. Grad students should learn to say “no” (respectfully) early on in the relationship. Grad students may feel like they need to take on every task (professional or personal), in order to prove their worth to their advisor. However, this sets a dangerous precedent, where the faculty may inadvertently overburden the student without even realizing it. And over time, it may be more difficult for the student to say “no” later.

    If the student is unsure about whether a boundary is appropriate, they can ask the graduate student coordinator, fellow students, or other faculty as to whether the task is common as an expectation.
  4. Grad students and their advisor should meet more than once a year (to catch things before they fester). Generally, it is recommended that there be weekly meetings so that mentors can give more instructions. Faculty may also struggle to indicate what students do well, ways to improve, or don’t know how to be clear, so the student may need to ask targeted questions during these meetings.
  5. Grad students should follow up meetings with an email. Topics talked about are easy to forget so writing an email both keeps a record of what was discussed and provides a summary to review.

Information-Seeking. When things start feeling unproductive or awkward, the grad student should seek out resources to discuss the issue and find out information about potential options.

  1. If the student feels comfortable enough with the advisor to talk to them, they should sit down and discuss the issues of concern. As many faculty are older, there may be a “generational gap” in expectations and may not know what is “good” mentoring. It may take the student being clear about expectations and boundaries for certain faculty to understand.
  2. However, the above advice only applies if the student has a good enough relationship with their mentor to be open about their concerns. If the student does not feel comfortable speaking to their advisor honestly about the issues, they can go to their graduate chair, graduate student coordinator, or graduate studies for advice. Going to speak to the Dean is also an option, if the aforementioned individuals are unavailable.
    1. Conversations with graduate student coordinators can be confidential, except in circumstances where there may be concerns about wellbeing (in which case they would give the student a referral). For sensitive topics with coordinators or chairs, it’s always good for the student to make sure and ask them to keep the information confidential.
    2. Students can also reach out to their school’s Ombuds (neutral or impartial conflict resolution practitioner who provides confidential and informal assistance to students) and Office of Judicial Affairs.
  3. For employment-related (e.g. hours) issues, students can also reach out to the student union (if available at the school).

Resolution. Sometimes, individuals just don’t get along, regardless of how much effort they put into the work relationship, and conflict may be unavoidable. When that happens, there are several options.

  1. Students can bring in a co-mentor. Management styles vary based on the mentor, so having two may provide the student with the support they need, without causing too many changes.
  2. Students can fully change mentors. Whether changing mentors is a good idea may depend on the following:
    1. Timing. Students early on in their program find it easier to switch mentors. However, it is recommended that students “give it a year” to make sure that it’s not just adjustment issues.
    2. Funding. If the student is funded on a grant with the previous mentor, it may be difficult to change mentors, given that the student’s research and funding is tied to the previous mentor. In this case, it is recommended that the student talk to the grad coordinator or chair.
    3. Level or age of new mentor. Untenured or younger faculty may feel nervous taking on students from other (potentially older, tenured) faculty.
    4. Proximity. Sometimes, after the switch, the grad student’s relationship with the previous mentor can get cold. If they are close enough to warrant seeing each other everyday, it may make the relationship awkward.
    5. Relationship with new mentor. Unless the student has worked with the new mentor before, they may not know their working style as well. It is recommended that the student talk to the new mentor’s grad students, before reaching out to talk to the new mentor themselves.

General Advice.

  1. All grad students considering grad school should consider mental health resources.
    1. Seek help early.
    2. Know that your colleagues do it!
  2. Seek out more mentors and friendships. It’s okay to compartmentalize your relationships such that you seek out different people for different support. One group of friends can give you professional advice, one group can give you personal advice, and another group for specific concerns.
  3. Know yourself, both physically and mentally. Set boundaries of what is “doing too much” and when to leave a situation (or say “no”).
  4. Recommendations for administration: Given that new students may feel intimidated going to talk to someone about their conflict with their advisor, perhaps graduate student coordinators and/or department and program chairs can schedule individual check-ins with each first-year student. This way, the program can make sure students are on track without singling out any particular student. 

Much thanks to Angela Scully, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, and the students who contributed to this article!