A Beginner’s Guide to Graduate Advising

Although this guide is primarily intended for students beginning advisor/advisee relationships, I hope that faculty may also find it useful.

Your relationship with your advisor may be the most important collaboration of your graduate career. As with most collaborations, success in graduate school requires team effort. Graduate advisors have much more power than undergraduate advisors. Graduate degree requirements (particularly PhD) are much more vague than undergraduate requirements. Many expectations are not explicitly stated and are left to the discretion of you and your advisor.

Communication is critical to the success of a student/advisor relationship. Clear expectations make life easier for all involved. Your advisor might not have all the answers, but he or she may be able to help you find them.

The following topics should be discussed as early as possible with your advisor. It is important to listen and respond to him or her. Your advisor may seem critical, but remember that they have a vested interest in you, particularly compared with critics you will encounter after graduate school.

A graduate career should be prepared with the care used to devise a grant proposal. A tentative project plan should emerge by discussing these points. However, flexibility and continuous updating of details are critical.

What are your goals during and after graduate school? You may not be able to accomplish everything you set out to, but it is important to have a plan. Besides research, are you interested in teaching? Administration? Scientific journalism? Advising? Industry? Practice? Like a research question guides a grant proposal, your career goals should guide your graduate plans.

Make your goals clear to your advisor; otherwise, he or she might make incorrect assumptions. Remember that your goals and abilities may differ from those of your advisor. You may benefit from the input of additional mentors. Your advisor may be able to point out career options that suit (or don’t suit) you, and to recommend additional people and activities that will enhance your graduate career.

You are a student, thus some coursework is required. Your freedom of coursework selection may vary, depending on specific department/program requirements, course availability, and scheduling. Your advisor may be able to suggest courses and instructors that will best benefit your career.

Who will pay you during each semester, including summers? If your advisor pays you, your job may be directly related to your thesis/dissertation work – but not necessarily. Discuss the balance between income and degree progress with your advisor. Define concrete expectations for completing degree requirements, as well as for other goals. Will you write your own grant? If you have a fellowship or scholarship, what are your responsibilities – and to whom?

What research will you complete as part of your graduate training? What expenses are involved and how will they be paid? Will you help write grants or be responsible for writing your own grant proposal? What will your role be in publications – and where will your name go? Will you attend conferences and present posters or talks? Is money available for travel? Again, it is very important to make expectations clear in defining specific roles, responsibilities, and timelines for both you and your advisor.

Talk with your advisor about how to prepare for the career that you desire. If you want a faculty position, consider teaching experience like guest lecturing, teaching assistantships, teaching-related programs, or a graduate minor or certificate in college teaching. You may also want to pursue service opportunities in student organizations and committees from departmental to international levels (e.g., APSSC).

If your career interest is outside academia, look for appropriate activities to enhance your graduate experience. Your advisor may be able to recommend and facilitate activities and contacts. It is also important to discuss professional memberships. Which particular organizations would best benefit your interests and goals?

Oftentimes you are likely to be low on your advisor’s priority list. Since you are pretty much stuck there, it may be easier to put you off than to postpone other responsibilities. This may present learning opportunities for you that will also serve to reduce your advisor’s workload. Learn by doing what your advisor does. Ask your advisor if you can help write or review manuscripts, grade tests or papers, prepare grants or presentations, analyze data, etc. Since it is often easier to do something yourself than to teach someone else to it, you may not get an enthusiastic “yes” right away. However, if you make it clear that you really do want these things, opportunities may eventually emerge.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it provides a solid preparatory foundation. One of the beauties of graduate school is that it is relatively “custom made” compared to earlier levels of education. Initiative can be quite advantageous. Your advisor is a tremendous resource. The more you communicate with your advisor, the more you ensure yourself an enlightening and prosperous graduate career.

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