Maximizing the Mentoring Potential
Director, Grad Resources
Introduction: The Ideal
In the epic poem, The Odyssey, Ulysses prepares to fight
in the Trojan War. Before he leaves, he asks his friend, the aptly named Mentor,
to care for his son, Telemachus. Mentor proves a trusty counselor and teaches
the young man the wisdom of the scholars and the wiles of the world.
Many years pass, but Ulysses does not return home.
Finally, Telemachus decides to search for his father. The evil men scheming
to take his father's place jeer, "Stay home and get your news here," and plot
to keep Telemachus from his journey.
Seeing the young man's dismay, the goddess Athena takes
on Mentor's form to reassure Telemachus. Encouraged by Mentor's advice to
find his father, Telemachus hurries to prepare for the voyage while Mentor
readies a fast ship. Late one night while everyone sleeps, Telemachus joins
Mentor aboard ship and together they put out to sea.
The fabled Mentor had taught his protégé well for Telemachus
eventually finds Ulysses and gallantly helps his father recover his home and
The term "mentor," a catchword surfacing in discussions
about leadership development today, is derived from this myth. A mentor
is a person with superior rank or authority and influence in his or her field
who commits time, emotional support intellectual strength to encourage growth
and development in an understudy.
Mentoring is the ideal for the graduate student/professor
relationship. Indeed, a successful student does not reach his or her goals
alone. Ideally, among the resourceful counselors in his/her relationship networks
is ideally one professor to whom the student can refer to as the mentor in
his/her life. The professor not only passes onto his protege the expertise
he has acquired in his field but also guides the student through the intricacies
of the university system, lends moral support, and provides wise career advisement.
Few fortunate students find quality mentor relationships.
Two grads described their experiences in this way:
My overall experience [with my advisor] has been
very good. The professor made himself available to me and even had my wife
and me over for dinner. I wanted some good mentoring and fortunately have
received much. (Jim; Economics; Madison, Wi.)
My relationship with my advisor is extremely good. He
is young and still remembers what it is like to be a graduate student. He
treats others as he would want to be treated himself. I see him as being
very human and can work well with him. Clohn; Biochem; MIT)
Unfortunately, grad/prof relationships fall short of the
ideal on many major university campuses today. One reason is that over the
years higher education has shifted from an emphasis on interactive relationships
and teaching to competition within departments and schools with the emphasis
on research and publishing. In the 1960s Wilhelm von Humbolt, father of the
described the change:
The teacher no longer serves the purposes of
the student. Instead, they both serve learning itself.
The result-a deterioration in personal commitment to grad/prof relationships and the
development of a university system that tends to alienate the two groups. Several
graduate students expressed frustration about their experiences with their
My appointment with my advisor is like a "ten
minute ticker." He has a rule-he allows ten minutes for meetings with his
advisees. He sets his watch in a prominent position and, at the end of ten
minutes, I am told the appointment is over. Just once I wish I could have
fifteen uninterrupted minutes without him looking at his watch. (Maty; Polisci;
I had a good relationship with my advising professor-and
then he left town for another university. My new advisor's specialty is
in a different area than mine, and I am left hanging without the kind of
mentoring I need to effectively pursue my course of study. (Kathy; Psychology;
These accounts and many others raise questions about graduate
student/professor relationships in academia today. Through input from interviews
with grad students across the country and research into the dynamics currently
working on campuses today, we attempt to give answers to questions like: How
can a student establish a relationship with his/her professor and Can
graduate students implement unable resolutions to counter poor relationships?
and suggest practical solutions to help build interactive graduate student/professor
Many times, a 180 degree disparity exists between the perspectives
of students and those of professors. Two humorous riddles emphasize these
How many grad students does it take to change a bulb?
Just one, but it takes three-and-one-half years.
How does a professor change a light bulb?
He holds the bulb and lets the world revolve around him.
Apart from the humor, these jokes illustrate the vast
gulf between students and professors. Mark Stanford, in Making It in Graduate
School (1976), describes the damage caused by contentious relationships:
The aspect of graduate student experience that is probably
the most debilitating and trying to the soul is the dependency relationship
which exists between the student and his professor or professors. At a time
when most young men and women are seeking some independence for themselves,
graduate students find it necessity to please the powers that be, often without
knowing precisely what it is that those powers want. This is a shock to the
student's self-esteem, and keeping faculty at a distance may be a way of avoiding
the pains of dependency.
Strained relationships between grads and their professors
give rise to many problems.
1. The basis for most friction is the lack of communication
between faculty and students. Communication is the foundation for any
relationship, and when little or no dialogue exists, problems inevitably occur.
In many graduate programs, little emphasis is placed on open communication
by the faculty for various reasons. Sometimes students shy away from breaking
down barriers so an impasse results.
2. Some of the breakdown in dialogue may stem from
the personalities involved. One student commented, "Good scientists are
given people to work in their labs and the frustration comes from the fact
that good scientists can make poor managers of people. And the grads suffer (David;
Architecture; MIT)." A professor who excels in research or publishing may
not have adequate communication skills to advise students.
3. Some professors simply do not take into account
the stresses that graduate students face. Amidst the tensions caused by
an at-large serial killer at the University of Florida, one student sought
empathy from his faculty advisor but was angry over the response:
I approached one professor during the student
slayings when fear was prevalent (the atmosphere was so tense that some grads
bought guns or hid bats in their offices) and asked him if he could temporarily
lighten things up. He simply said, "No way," implying that the wheels of academia
can't be stopped. (Joseph; Polisci; U. Fl.)
Faculty disinterest in the student's plight leads to resentments
and strained relations within what should be a close-knit community.
4. The size of the university also influences the amount
of interaction between students and faculty. As the number of students
increases, the potential for informal interaction decreases. The more students
a professor has to advise, the less time he or she can give to each person.
5. Another widespread problem is the lack of supervision
and guidance for teacher's assistants. Although there are notable exceptions,
most major universities offer little or no teacher training for teacher's
assistants. Carmen Arroyo, Chairperson for the investigative committee on
Professor-Graduate Relationships at Yale and author of the "Arroyo Report"
explained, "I was thrown into teaching responsibilities as a TA, and became
self-taught. But just once I wish my advisor would sit in my class and critique
me on content and style."
The stress of spending hours preparing for and standing in front
of a class can be excruciating for an inexperienced TA, especially when he
has no supportive network to help him. Although some students strive to excel
in teaching, many are forced into the role of instructor; the pain of grading
tests. tension with students and abandonment of professors may make the money
not worth it. When this scenario is compounded many times over, an explosive
situation can ignite.
One recent example involves the tensions between graduate
teaching assistants, their professors and the administration at Yale University.
Over a three-year period, teaching fellows continued to voice concerns about
several issues: the lack of job descriptions, inadequate and untimely pay,
no standardization of responsibilities across departments, and no grievance
procedure for TAs. Because of resistance to change from faculty and administration,
TAs formed a solidarity group in 1987. This group informed students of their
legal right to prompt and timely pay. When an outside party, the State of
Connecticut, became involved, the university acted quickly to resolve monetary
This victory by TA solidarity convinced many grads that
the university would respond to acute problems within the TA system only when
presented with organized strength and legal compulsion. This belief widened
the gulf between discontented students and faculty.
6. Uncertainty over faculty expectations can aggravate
problematical relationships. Lack of definition concerning departmental
and degree requirements create considerable anxiety for the graduate student.
Some confusion stems directly from the classroom. This
is due in part to poor teaching. Some professors merely regurgitate the textbook.
Others dwell on their own specialties without relating the material to the
larger academic milieu or to the real world. Classes are turned into rap sessions
which do little more than provide entertainment. Many professors fail to prepare
adequately or leap from one topic to another in what to them may appear as
fascinating intellectual trapeze acts. Such teaching methods only serve to
obscure the meat of the curriculum and the requirements for class completion.
Expectations over the graduate thesis can also be baffling.
"The matter of how the thesis is graded is so arbitrary," one University of
Washington Electrical Engineering student said, "Half of the battle is trying
to find out what the professor expects."
7. Meaningful contact to clear up the confusion is
often lacking. Often times this lack of contact stems from professors
who must stay heavily involved in research projects to further their careers;
therefore, they do not want to get wrapped up in a time-absorbing, mentor
relationship. Or professors may feel that, should they take on such a role,
they would compromise their objectivity about the quality of the student's
work because of their personal link with the understudy.
Students point out two ingredients that prohibit meaningful
dialogue: (1) Professors prefer academic distance from students and (2) Professors
lack social skills essential for constructive communication.
8. The pitfalls of a mentoring relationship also may
retard closeness. In other cases, faculty create distance because they
view graduate students as a threat to their position. The easiest way to deal
with such feelings is to avoid the student.
One professor echoed the feelings of colleagues when he
said, "I have a desire to be more available to students but don't know what
I will get dragged into." He cited the case of a friend who found himself
dealing with a suicidal advisee. The advisor felt unqualified to deal with
this intense personal issue and discouraged further intimate contact with
9. Poor relationships within a department may mean
that the student must spend more time in the graduate program. In their
research on graduate student retention and eventual completion of their degree,
Girves and Wemmerus state:
It is certain that a student's commitment to
earning a degree in a particular discipline is continually modified by his
or her experiences in that department. What the faculty do to stimulate the
student's interest and to strengthen the student's commitment may ultimately
determine the level of degree progress achieved by students in that department.
Ideally, an advisor serves as a role model and becomes
the primary socializing agent in the department. He establishes the standards
of performance and the behavioral norms for his or her advisee which are reinforced
by the advisor himself, by other faculty, and by more experienced graduate
students. When contact is missing or faculty supervision becomes a painful
experience, the student is less likely to finish his or her coursework.
10. Some professors allow unrealistic standards of
academic success to determine whether he or she will allow time for a student,
respect his abilities, or support him. One graduate student commented,
"When my research is going well, my advisor is helpful, concerned, and interested;
if my research takes a down turn, to him I don't exist (Michael; biochem;
Washington U. St. Louis)." Another discouraged grad said, "I've been in this
program five-and-one-half years and should be done in four months. But my
advisor won't tell me what is required to complete it. Those who do good work
they [the faculty] keep around (Terry; physics; MIT)." These impossible criteria
and cross-purposes may hinder degree progress.
To understand the solutions to these problems, we must
examine the issues involved. What are the factors that make dynamic relationships
essential in graduate programs? Do students consider interaction necessary
to achieve their educational goals?
Relationships are the bedrock of education. Although books
and journals disseminate information, only personal contact between the
student and his/her instructor can transmit a well-rounded and focused education.
In every field, one-to-one dialogue links the past with the future and spurs
on new knowledge. Unresolved problems in communication raise issues that both
faculty and students should understand.
1. Relationships are the key element that distinguish
graduate from undergraduate programs. Undergraduate programs emphasize
assignments done within a class room context-the student attends classes and
prepares homework much as he did in high school. The graduate student, however,
is expected to read widely in his field and then bring his academic focus
to bear on a narrower field of study with the goal of contributing some new
knowledge to the field Educational emphasis is on preparing for small seminar
discussions with peers and conducting research, and usually involves the writing
and presentation of a thesis. Without this vital input from someone learned
in his field, many students feel they are merely a collector of facts, lacking
2. The role of the advisor is crucial for the student's
holistic growth and development. Girves and Wemmerus conclude that the
graduate student's relationship with the faculty, particularly with his or
her advisor, can determine success in his academic program as well as in his
professional career. The advisor influences the students commitment
to his chosen field and to the university Interaction with faculty stimulates
academic achievement, intellectual development, and retention in the degree
program. The grad/prof relationship provides academic and social integration
and a model for future career relationships. A mentor can stimulate his
proteges to a higher standard of creativity and professionalism in their field.
3. A student needs an advocate and an understanding counselor
for the stresses he faces. Graduate students in particular confront a
number of unique pressures, often without any understanding on the part of
All too often, faculty are not fully aware of or don't
care about the financial and time constraints which graduate students experience.
Faculty have personal pressures to publish that cause them to see graduate
students as the vehicle for research. The undergraduate program may have exhausted
their families' resources. Many students are married and have families and
their spouses may also be students. Some grads have part-time employment in
low-paying TA programs or off campus jobs. With tuition at many institutions
doubling every other year and corresponding increases in books and supplies,
the graduate student is hard pressed to make ends meet.
The demands of class and seminars, the need to work and
spend time with spouse and family rob grad students of precious hours for
research to complete their thesis. One Ohio State astronomy major described
her dilemma, "I worked in the lab fourteen hours a day. My studies suffered
so l cut back."
4. Sometimes faculty increase the pressures on students.
One grad explained:
My advisor is the chairman of the department.
I have a fellowship, and he picked me as his advisee. He could jerk my funding
without anyone else's approval. He's the most powerful person in my life.
(Beth; Pharma. Admin.; Ohio St.)
A student in such a position often has no recourse. One MIT
grad complained, "Our government has checks and balances; faculty need checks,
and grads need to know their rights."
5. Despite the lack of constructive relationships in
many departments, most grads desire closer contact with faculty. The following
comments were made by students who point out the importance of continuing
A mentor who knows your field well can serve
as an apt counselor when it comes to the area of career advisement.
It he is up on his research (and he should be) and knows you well enough,
he should be aware of some potential career choices that would be good for
you to consider. (Richard; Engineering; Ohio St.)
My advisor is well-connected in the academic village
and when he heard I had in interest in a post-doctorate in Japan, his connections
made it happen (Aaron; History; U. Tex.).
In a national study of grad students done by the Barna Research
Group of Glendale, California, the overwhelming majority of grads (83%) said
that there were one or more professors or instructors whoose advice they would
seek if they were making an inportant career decision. Fifty-three percent
thought that having an instructor whom they could consult on perconal matters
was either important or somewhat important. About two out of five grad
students (38%) said they would like to spend more time wtih their professors
outsie of the classroom.
Some students have experienced the benefits of these non-professional/social
interchanges. In several departments at the University of Washington
in Seattle, faculty sponsor monthly socials for graduate students in the department.
One student described how his department had a gourmet club in which both
graduate students and professors could participate. This provided a
change of pace from the normal academic activities and allowed student to
get to know professors in a different setting. The insights gained often
helped in their working relationships.
An old proverb says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man
sharpens another." Good relationships between professors and graduate
students encourage those who have exceptional intellectual and creative capabilities
to pursue degrees in higher education. These people make valuable contributions
to our national life as they pursue their various fields.
1. Therefore one result of contentious relationships
is a dwindling pool of impassioned, well-rounded graduates to fill the need
for leadership and scholarship for our national future.
Some grads have told us that they have pulled back from
faculty relationships or even changed their career focus because of bad experiences.
2. The major result of poor relationships is alienation
of the student.
A low level of communication may foster misunderstanding
on the part of a professor or may be perceived by the student as deception.
For example, one student told his professor that he was not really ready for
his qualifying exams. The professorsaid, "Don't worry. Go ahead and take them
anyway. You can take them over later if necessary." When the student failed
the exams, he was dropped from the graduate program. He never trusted any
3. The political nature of some departments may create
poor atmosphere for dialogue. When the system stymies personal interaction
and dialogue about problems, grads tire of what they perceive as a political
game of hoops and hurdles in the department. For example, the unrealistic
regulations in Yale University for time to complete degree and the intention
of enforcing the rule alienated many grads. One said, "The sense of regimentation
and greater bureaucratization (as evidenced by the need to check everything
through the associate dean or another officer) is destructive of community
and of an atmosphere of common intellectual endeavor."
With the many barriers preventing positive dialogue, many
graduate students do not develop supportive relationships with their professors.
Without interaction because of an impersonal stance in higher education and
pressures that create barriers to dialogue, some graduate students never find
a mentor who can give them the needed guidance to obtain a quality education.
But students can ameliorate even the most difficult situations.
We would like to offer some guidelines on how to circumvent the problems and
open channels of communication.
No worthwhile project is accomplished overnight. To reach
goals, one must understand his/her direction and take one step at a time toward
achievement of that goal. Do not expect relationships to happen overnight
but plan for creating an environment that will facilitate dialogue, or if
that is impossible, plan for alternatives that will help you find a mentor.
The first step is to create an open, non-threatening
environment to cultivate potential relationships. If that is unsuccessful,
the second step is to develop an alternative by reaching out to other groups
on campus that can serve as encourages. Third, a sense of personal
security will control environmental disabilities that you encounter.
Relationships are not changed or built instantly and one
must take small steps toward the ideal. Use the wisdom and experience you
have gained to help you establish the rapport you need to open dialogue. These
suggestions can help you in your progress:
First, create an open, non-threatening environment
to cultivate potential relationships.
1. Define expectations in your department. Each
one has its own style and personality. Determine how yours functions and how
you can best use the atmosphere to open dialogue. If your professors like
informal, relaxed interaction, come prepared to stimulate their way of thinking.
On the other hand, if your department runs formally, use restraint and courtesy
to your advantage. Get to know the most influential members of your department
and understand their preferences.
Actively find out what your faculty expect of you. Know
their strengths. Find out if your committee will back you. Geri (Journalism;
Columbia) commented, "All my advisor did for me in four years was come through
for me at the orals. Then he protected me, steered me and disallowed one dangerous
comment that would have hurt me." She discovered that one quality in her advisor
made the difference m passing her orals.
One student describes what he did to define expectations:
I pulled together my committee to ask them what they required of
me to get my Ph.D. They responded in silence, with no ideas. But after an
hour, they had hammered out a path for me to follow. (Joe; Polisci; U. Fl.)
2. Understand the pressures faculty face. Do you
know what kinds of stresses your advisor faces? Faculty, as well as graduate
students, are under many forms of pressure. Be sensitive to your professor's
limitations. The majority find themselves working under the "publish or perish"
syndrome and are saddled with many other responsibilities as well. They, too,
operate under all sorts of time constraints.
3. Initiate social or intellectual discussion with
the professor on specialty issues. Begin by asking them questions rather
than giving your opinion. Get their feedback on the effectiveness of TA training
and how the TA program is functioning You might invitethem to a graduate student
function which would also appeal to faculty-but don't pressure them to commit
to something they feel uncomfortable doing.
4. Adjust your perceptions of faculty/student relationships.
Girves and Wemmerus uncovered the correlation between perceptions of faculty
by students and satisfaction/alienation at both the master's and doctoral
levels. They concluded that students at the master's level form opinions of
their advisors' concern and usefulness which greatly affect their grade points
and degree progress. In a doctoral program, the more quickly a student becomes
socialized into his department, the greater his progress. "At the doctoral
level," the authors conclude, "the set of student/faculty relationship variables
is powerful enough to indirectly predict doctoral degree progress through
involvement as well as to directly predict progress."
A student's involvement affects his/her educational achievements.
Having a clear picture of what to expect from your teachers, administrators
and advisors will help you find a starting point to begin communication and
socialization. Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and even
to failure. Don't expect a chummy relationship in what is essentially a business
setting. Faculty see students come and go over the years and may not want
the kinds of closeness you desire. Be patient with personal characteristics
that don't lend themselves to personal contact. The intellectual traits you
admire in your professor may also make it hard for him/her to relate one-on-one.
Most of all, keep yourself flexible and adapt to departmental quirks and personality
5. Build on faculty perceptions of analytical thinking.
The Research Committee of the Graduate Record Examinations Board listed reasoning
as one of the seven basic academic competencies without which "knowledge of
all other subjects is unattainable." Whether analytical thinking skills
perform as well as faculty surmise, it's perceived importance makes it an
essential quality for the successful student. A study by Powers and Enright
found that certain kinds of thinking skills are more valued in academia:
"Reasoning or problem solving in situations in which all the needed
information is not known" was the skill rated as most important overall. Such
skills as "detecting fallacies and logical contradictions in arguments," "deducing
new information from a set of relationships," and "recognizing structural
similarities between one type of problem or theory and another" were the next
most highly rated skills.
Faculty also agreed upon the most serious reasoning errors
and critical incidents. Three of these include: accepting the central assumptions
in an argument without questioning them, being unable to integrate and synthesize
ideas from various sources, and being unable to generate hypotheses independently.
Errors or Incidents Rated Consistently as
at Least Moderately Serious
|Accepting the central assumptions in an argument without questioning
|Being unable to integrate and synthesize ideas from various sources
|Being unable to generate hypotheses independently
|Being unable to see a pattern in results or to generalize when appropriate
|Ignoring details that contradict an expected or desired result
|Submitting a paper that failed to address the assigned issues
|Basing conclusions on analysis of only part of a text or data set
|NOTE: Moderately critical is defined as having an average rating
over all disciplines of 3.5 or greater. There were no significant differences
among disciplines with respect to the average ratings of seriousness or
Understanding the most-valued analytical skills and the
particular ones used in your field can aid in your progress toward establishing
relationships. One Ivy League professor stated, "The concept of utilizing
the chart (below) to stimulate discussion on expectations is a great idea."
Reasoning Skills Rated Consistently
as at Least Moderately Important
|Reasoning or problem solving in situations in which all the needed information
is not known
|Detecting fallacies and logical contradictions in arguments
|Deducing new information from a set of relationships
|Recognizing structural similarities between one type of problem or theory
|Taking well known principles and ideas from one area and applying them
to a different specialty
|Monitoring one's own progress in solving problems
|Deriving from the study of single cases structural features or functional
principles that can be applied to other cases
|Making explicit all relevant components in a chain of logical reasoning
|Testing the validity of an argument by searching for counterexamples
|NOTE: Moderately important is defined as having an average range over
all disciplines of 3.5 or greater. There were no significant differences
among disciplines with respect to the average importance of these skills.
Review the following chart and start a conversation with
"What's valued witin your degree plan?" to clarify expectations. Then
implement the most valued reasoning skills to give yourself greater acceptability
and distinction. This awareness will allow you to demonstrate that you
understand the basic tenets of your department's goals for the thinking process.
Reasoning Skills, Errors, and Incidents Rated as Most Important of Critical
Drawing sound inferences from observations (4.57)
Critically analyzing and evaluating previous research or reports
in a field (4.46)
Generating new questions or experiments to extend or support the
interpretation of data
Applying a formula, algorithm, or other rule without suffcient justification
Being unable to generate a hypothesis independently (4.08)
| Computer Science
Breaking down complex problems ir situations simplier ones (4.62)
Reasoning or problem solving in which all facts underlying a problems
situiation are known (4.19)
Being unable to integrate and synthesize ideas from various sources
Supporting conclusions with sufficient data or information (4.55)
Determining whether the conclusions drawn are logically consistent
with, and adequately supported by the data (4.52)
Clearly identifying central issues and problems to be investigated
or hypotheses to be tested (4.50)
Drawing sound inferencs from observations (4.50)
Making generalizations on the basis of insufficient evidence (4.17)
Confusing coincidence and/or correlation with causation (4.10)
Failing to evaluate the credibility or reliability of a source or
Breaking down complex problems or situations into simpler ones (4.60)
Reasoning or problem solving or situations in which all the needed
information is not known (4.53)
Identifying all the variables involved in a problem (4.40)
Applying a formula, algorithm, or other rule without sufficient
Elaborating on an argument and developing its implications (4.82)
Understanding, analyzing, and evaluating arguments (4.75)
Supporting general assertions with details (4.66)
Recognizing the central argument or thesis in a work (4.61)
Being unable to integrate and synthesize ideas from various sources
Accepting the central assumptions in an argument without questioning
Relying solely on narrative or description in papers and reports
when analysis is appropriate (4.18)
Critically analyzing and evaluating previous research or reports
in a field (4.58)
Clearly identifying central issues and problems to be inestigated
or hypotheses to be tested (4.57)
Determining whether the conclusions drawn are logically consistent
with, and adequately supported by, the data (4.52)
Confusing coincidence and/or correlation with causation (4.43)
Accepting the central assumptions in an argument without questioning
Note: Numbers in parenthesis are the average ratings for each skill, error,
or incident for each discipline.
6. Develop your communication skills. Strive for
good, clear, honest communication with your advisor. As a student, you can
initiate dialogue. But achieving and maintaining communication channels means
knowing how to open a conversion, when to speak and when to listen, and how
to communicate your desires and concerns.
Practice active listening to facilitate problem-solving
Active listening occurs when the receiver's impression matches closely what
the sender intended in his or her expression. To practice active listening,
the sender gets tangible feedback from the receiver as to ho v he, the receiver,
should decode the message. After hearing the feedback, the sender then either
confirms or corrects the message. The sender's confirmation is proof
to the listener of his or her "impression" or the correction reveals
For example, when your advisor suggests a direction for
a project you are involved in, repeat their instructions to make sure you
have understood their intent. Should your advisor correct what you have said,
then verbally confirm that correction. Your feedback avoids needless miscommunication
and helps you focus your thinking in the right direction.
Active listening also involves using your interaction
time wisely. When meeting with a professor, be organized. Have dear-cut goals
so that you can make the best use of your valuable time and that of the professor's.
One University of Wisconsin-Madison student suggested that "when given only
ten minutes with an advisor for an appointment, submit the major questions
to discuss the day before. Allow him twenty-four hours to reflect on his
response and suggestions."
Use constructive confrontation when necessary.
Mark Sanford, author of Making It in Grad School, advises, "When the
need arises to confront a faculty member, the personality of the individual
needs to be taken into account. But in almost all cases, it is better to confront
than to avoid."
Your professors are key to helping you reach your goals.
Destructive behaviors, such as ordering, threatening, judging or criticizing
act as vehicles for communicating unacceptance rather than opening doors for
further problem-solving. But confrontation and active listening are important.
Many students have found that constructive conflict helps bring problems into
the open where they can be dealt with. One political science grad described
his experience this way:
My advisor is difficult to get along with because
he has low
social skills. At one point, l was running ten minutes late to get a
stack of exams to his home. When he saw me come up, he opened the
window and yelled out, "I don't want them now. You're late." I
confronted him and explained about my two children being sick and the
next day he apologized. l always vote to confront rather than avoid.
(John; Polisci; U. Fl.)
An electrical engineering student said:
I'm in a slave relationship with my advisor. He's trying
get all he can from me and pushes me to my limits [to contribute to
research]. Finally I had to tell him I couldn't handle it. (I had
developed an eye problem from the stress.) He agreed to let up.
(Sky; Elect. Eng.; U. Wash.)
Using good communication skills will enable you to know
your professors better and help them in assisting you. They have an extensive
network they can tap through the academic village. Create an environment for
dialogue by expressing your concerns and frustrations, as well as your successes,
and listening to theirs.
Second, if you find it impossible to develop a mentor
relationship with your advisor, reach out to other sources within the academic
One University of Florida student we interviewed exclaimed,
"Every grad needs a champion to help them get through the system! " Yet many
new students leave relationship initiation to others. They feel that the faculty
and older students should be the first to approach them. But that can have
1. Seek out other faculty members. Faculty members
usually will not take the initiative to come to you as many feel they should
respect your privacy. But when you initiate the relationship, many will respond
favorably. They will see that you value their advice and experience.
Several students (from MIT, Madison, and Seattle) selected
an "unofficial advisor/mentor." They initiated a relationship with a faculty
member with whom they click.
Give up your expectations of having your advisor as your
mentor and find another professor who has the time and is amenable to advising
you. Use discretion so that you don't insult your official advisor. One student
added this caution: a second mentor can also hold you accountable and pile
on additional demands. But this is a good option for students who don't get
along well with their advisor or have a hard time getting on his schedule.
Many campuses have support groups for graduate students.
If you have difficulty relating to your advisor or others in your department,
search for other groups that can help you. Join these groups and help in working
for the kinds of modifications you would like to see. Realize that you are
responsible for the generation and implementation of desirable changes. A
group of students with similar concerns can do much.
2. Get involved in your department. Involvement
can begin even before going on to the next phase of training.
"Take a lab either before summer quarter or mid quarter
of your first year to preview a possible advisor" says Richard from Ohio State.
"It helps to see if you'll click with overseeing faculty." Some departments
sponsor this activity.
Another grad interviewed faculty in his department to
see whether he would get along with his advisor.
Have an idea of the type of person you would like to study
under. Randy, U.Texas, said, "I looked for an advisor who listens, doesn't
talk all the time, and doesn't attempt to answer questions before you ask
John, MIT, remarked, "My advisor is young and non tenured.
He presents a risk if he doesn't tenure and leaves before I complete my Ph.D.
But he treats me like a colleague. l call him by his first name. That's nice."
William another MIT grad, commented, "Find a prof with
similar interests to yours who wants to work on your project." Knowing what
you want will help you find the right relationship to build upon.
Keep involvement high during your years in the department.
Many students get so caught up in their own research and dissertation that
they fail to see how their work relates to the ongoing accomplishments of
the department as a whole. What unique contribution can be made beyond classwork7
How can mutual sharing in the department help to solve others' problems as
well as your own? Visibility will help you build bridges to faculty.
3. Initiate a relationship with a more experienced
graduate student. A person who is farther along in his program may have
weathered situations similar to those you face, or perhaps both of you are
currently confronting the same problems. Such relationships could prove
to be of mutual benefit.
Also work within the system to help older grads free themselves
to help younger students. One idea is to designate a portion of experienced
TA's time to assist beginning grads to adjust to teaching responsibilities.
Then identify and encourage students willing to perform that role.
4. Keep a realistic view of a worsening situation. A grad
needs to be perceptive enough to assess the situation and see when it becomes
too difficult to continue. One student elaborated:
My relationship with my faculty advisor was so poor that this situation prompted
me to lay out a year and change advisors. Now, my relationship with my advisor
is great. It wasn't easy to make that move, but l learned firsthand that without
a good advisor, my situation was simply unbearable. (Gary; Botany; U.Tx.)
Deciding to discontinue in your present program doesn't
come easily, and yet sometimes that is the best solution for an untenable
predicament. Knowing when to persevere with contact and when to move on takes
thought and planning. But don't automatically rule out this option.
Each of these resources can help deepen the feeling
of community you realize from quality relationships. They can give you
a broader and more complete vision of what you can do in your chosen field.
But none of these solutions is a complete answer to the tensions between grads
and their professors. Sometimes you may work hard at establishing quality
relationships, but fractions, contentions and disagreements still threaten
your progress. Although you adjust your expectations, acquire better communication
skills, and develop relationships in the midst of pressure, one element is
more important to your over-all success -- deepening your personal security.
Third, deepen your personal security.
The only ingredient of a relationship you can truly control
is yourself. Without a sense of self-esteem and inner peace to handle stress,
your relationships will not hold up under pressure. Take time to assess your
emotional and mental well-being at least once a term.Time spent in this pursuit
will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life. These suggestions
will help you build security in spite of a heavy schedule and intense time
1. Get involved outside your department with family
and friends. Personal security receives nourishment from varied contacts.
Remember that the graduate program is your main occupation at this time of
life, but that you also need time away from the job just as you will when
you enter professional life. Stay in tune with your spouse and his or her
world. Take time to be with your children during their critical years of growth;
don't deprive them of good times and memories of these years. Cultivate friendships
away from the university. By doing so, you'll broaden your perspective and
2. Realize your other social opportunities. To
what other affinity groups do you belong outside of your departmental interests?
Do you have a membership in a gym or spa where you can meet other people as
well as do some physical exercise? Do you have hobbies which you can share
with other enthusiasts? One graduate student in the humanities became interested
in 18th Century European porcelain. He found others in his area who shared
his fascination and together they formed a tour of some of the famous porcelain
factories of Europe. Together they discovered many common interests.
3. Set short-term and long-range goals. One University
of Texas history major said, "Grad life is not a good environment if you need
strong direction and overseeing You need to learn to set manageable goals
for each semester." Setting a clear direction will help you eliminate avoidable
But setting long-range goals is even more essential. In
the midst of the day-to-day grind, keep clearly in mind what your ultimate
aims are and note your progress. Keep a journal of your advancement or depict
it on a time line.
4. Develop a personal sense of importance and a healthy
self-esteem. This is the key to deepening personal security. Without these
qualities, graduate school can become a nightmare.
"I had a nervous breakdown as an undergrad," an MIT aerospace
major explained, "But I learned how to deal with stress early in my MIT experience.
Now I'm more relaxed."
David Stemberg, author of the book How to Complete
and Survive a Dissertation, devotes a special segment to the problem of
"Bewildered and Negative Feelings About Oneself."
The issue of dealing with a diminished sense
of self-esteem is quite common and the author states, "People show a marked
tendency to generalize it (the thesis decision) to questioning their decision
making competence in other areas of their lives -- areas in which, prior to the
dissertation course, they may well have felt confident and secure." As he proceeds
to discuss the various reasons that this academic stage is so personally and
emotionally destructive, there is a most interesting conclusion drawn in the
"Whom can I turn to" segment ..."The Sympathetic, interested professor -- be
he advisor, thesis committee member, departmental chairman or other faculty
person -- is an unreliable, rare, and generally highly problematic commodity
in the dissertation-help stockpile." He goes on to say, "You are to be your
own best dissertation friend."
A healthy self-esteem begins by knowing yourself -- who you
are, what you value, and what you expect from life. Finding suitable answers
to these questions gives a foundation that can withstand outer pressures.
This inner security allows you to evaluate your progress according to the
worldview you have developed.
Part of understanding yourself is deriving satisfaction
from your strengths and your work Concentrate on your accomplishments and
put your failures in perspective.
Do not place a greater or lesser emphasis on your importance
than is warranted. Each of us has a unique role to play and also a common
bond with others who share our path. Understand your place in the community
of scholars. As Annetta (U. Wash.) stated, "I thought I was the only one struggling
with my relationship with my advisor. Now I see that it's a national trend,
a natural and real experience. I was relieved."
Perseverance over the long haul is just as important as
the work itself. What do you see as your limitations? How can you overcome
them? What do you want from life beyond scholastic excellence? Does your relationship
to others in the pursuit of your goals further your personal security or damage
it? Wrestling with these questions and finding suitable answers will give
you a deeper personal security and allow you to also deepen your relationships.
By recognizing the role graduate student/professor relationships
play in higher education, the master's and doctoral student can make his/her
experience to degree more pleasurable, less stressful and more rewarding academically.
Understanding the problems, the issues and the results of poor relationships
can help him/her build bridges to faculty in the department. Recognizing the
vital role that personal security plays, not only in educational relationships
but later in career and social contacts, will give him/her a firm base to
In truth, the community of scholars is a shared vision,
combined intellect, and pooled creativity that gives higher education the
vitality and uniqueness to distinguish it from other levels of training. Developing
healthy relationships expands the frontiers of knowledge and inspires students
to go on in teaching, industry, government service and many other endeavors
with interdependent qualities that enrich themselves and society.
1. Wilhelm von Humbolt, "On the Organization of Institutions of Higher Learning
in Berlin," printed in "The Great Ideas Today--1969," Chicago, Encyclopedia
2. Carmen G. Arroyo, Catherine Brekus, Eliot Brenner, Mark Marmon, David Waldstreicher,
and Eric Young, "Report of the Committee on Graduate Student Life," Yale University
Report, (New Haven, Connecticut: 2 April, 1991): 1-3.
3. Jean E. Girves and Virgirlia Wemmerus, "Developing Models of Graduate Student
Degree Progress," Journal of Higher Education 59.2 (March/April 1988): 186.
4. Girves and Wemmerus, 167.
5. Arroyo, Carmen G., et al., "Report of the Committee on Graduate Student
Life," 2 April, 1991, response to survey.
6. Girves and Wemmerus, 185.
7. The College Board. "Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need
to Know and Be Able to Do," (New York, 1983).
8. Donald E. Powers and Mary K Enright, "Analytical Reasoning Skills
in Graduate Study," Journal of Higher Education 58:6 (November/December
9. Thomas Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training (New York: Bantam Books, 1977):
10. David Stemberg, How to Complete and Survive a Dissertation (New York:
St. Martins Press, 1981): 162, 171, 172.