Building a Collaborative Relationship with Your Advisor
In this article, I review the chapter “Making the Best Use of your Guide: Advisor Advising” in the book Destination Dissertation: a Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation by Foss and Waters:
From the very beginning of your graduate career to defending your dissertation, your advisor plays a crucial role in your success as a graduate student. In the book Destination Dissertation: a Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation (Foss & Waters), the authors provide readers with information on how they can make the most of their relationship with their advisors.
Not surprisingly, effective communication with your advisor can help solidify your relationship with them. However, your communication about shared goals might be influenced by mutual expectations. Your expectations might be shaped by certain physical characteristics or roles you play outside of this advisor-advisee relationship. For example, if you are of the same sex and are close in age, one of you might act in ways that suggest the relationship is a friendship but the other may not. In contrast, if you are of a different sex than your advisor and your advisor is much older, you might expect that they act in a parental way (like protecting you) but your advisor might not perceive the relationship the same way. In this way, when perceptions about expected roles are misaligned, they can cause gaps in communication and can hurt your relationship with your advisor.
Usually, if your advisor has chosen to mentor you, they bear no ill-will against you. This is something to keep in mind so that when you approach potential conflicts or disagreements, you don’t act defensively, but rather, trust that your advisor has your best interests at heart. Very often, the advisor wants to help you but uses mentoring strategies that they have observed from their past mentors which may or may not work for you. As their student, your advisor might perceive you as someone who would recreate the work they’ve done, they might work with you as an apprentice with them being supervisors in-charge who prevent you from making fatal errors, or as a junior colleague in which you and your advisor explore ideas together and share an almost symmetrical relationship. The model that your advisor uses can shape your relationship as well as your expectations. Being able to clarify your needs in case of a mismatch is extremely important.
Receiving feedback (and the manner in which you do this) will be a vital part of your relationship with your advisor. Although it might be hard to accept negative feedback, remembering the function of this feedback as a way to improve your writing or other skills as a graduate student can help you receive this feedback more gracefully and professionally. You also don’t need to agree with all suggestions that your advisor gives you and should ask questions about your advisor’s suggestions whenever you need clarity. You can also make a note of such feedback so that you avoid repeating similar mistakes and can provide explicit appreciation for the feedback they give you.
When you are beginning a certain phase such as writing a draft of your dissertation proposal or dissertation chapters, you should try to ask for information that you need to successfully complete it. You might want to communicate respectfully, yet not always deferentially, so that you showcase how you’re ready to take on the role of a competent scholar.
If all else fails and you think that your relationship with your advisor is doomed, you might want to consider asking a mediator for help, looking for a co-advisor, or switching advisors. However, If you consider these options, they need to be handled strategically and delicately. Below, I’ve curated a list of resources that might help you cope with a difficult situation.
Foss, S. K., & Waters, W. J. C. (2007). Destination dissertation: A traveler’s guide to a done dissertation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Advice about switching advisors
“You will fail” - On Bad Advisors: Podcast
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