Location, Location, Location? Make That Advisor, Advisor, Advisor! The Quest for the Ideal Student-Advisor Match

Goal Auzeen Saedi

 University of Notre Dame

There are a number of factors many students examine when beginning the graduate school search.  These range from geographical location to program prestige and reputation to funding allotments.  However, one often overlooked factor is the student-advisor match.  I’m not just talking about research interests, I mean personality and work style compatibility.  Now, while I’m not advocating an eHarmony or Match.com style match, I am suggesting that during email contacts and interviews, paying attention to your advisor’s mentorship style is of the utmost importance.  Here are some reasons why.

The Early Years: Match Made in Heaven

After four years in my clinical/counseling program, I have seen many matches made, and some that have even been broken.  While these may be caused by differences in work-related opinion, more often than not, the issues appear to be work style-based.

For example, in some student-advisor relationships, students have continuous contact with and feedback from their advisors.  They may see them everyday and work through all phases of research details together.  Others advisors, however, prefer a more relaxed, hands-off style and may request you meet with them on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis.  How this works out ultimately depends on you.  Are you the type of student who needs structure and a list of tasks to work on, or are you a self-motivated starter who needs your space to thrive?  When matched with the ideal advisorial style, your graduate career comes to embody a nice symbiotic relationship, rather than a constant tug of war.  So, while many students may be tempted to put finding this match at the bottom of their grad school wish-list, it definitely bears serious consideration.

Mid-Program: Batter Up!

In navigating your graduate school years, you will find that your advisor comes to hold many prominent positions in your career and life.  They are ultimately the ones who go to bat for you at faculty student-review meetings and are the ones who chair your thesis and dissertation meetings.  They help to defend the work you do and are essentially one of your biggest advocates in your program and/or department.  Therefore, getting to know your advisor a little bit beyond research logistics is important.  We are all human, and we all seek understanding and connection.  Thus, while it is normal for undergraduates and beginning graduate students to be anxious around or even fear potential or existing advisors, it is important to try to get to know them beyond research and classes.  They have a genuine interest in you, and so it is alright to be interested in finding more out about them.

Aside from the support advisors often provide with respect to academia, they can also be a great support for getting through graduate school.  Regardless of whether they are junior faculty or have been out of graduate school for decades, many remember their own experiences acutely.  They recall the challenges of their statistics sequences and struggling to make their mark in the research world.  If they had clinical training, they may even remember their first clients and experiences.  Many advisors are more than willing to empathize and to share the struggles they endured when they see you in need of emotional support as well.  While we may be tempted to put on our battalion armor every time we walk into our advisor’s offices, attempting to appear calm and collected at all times, this really is not necessary.  Of course, we should also avoid regularly emptying their Kleenex boxes, but a little bit of vulnerability only shows you are human too.  Thus, don’t be afraid to seek academic and emotional support from advisors when needed.

Advanced Years: The World is Your Oyster

While the protégé model of student-advisorial matches have fallen somewhat out of style, one major advantage of having an advisor is gaining valuable insight into your future career.  Many psychology advisors may come to hold additional responsibilities within a university, such as being a departmental chair, a dean, or even a vice provost.  While in some in cases such factors may moderate the amount of time you are able to spend with them, in other cases this can allow you a sneak peek of sorts into life as an administrator, coordinator, and other roles.

As many students enter graduate school claiming a life ambition of being an academic or scholar, by the end of four to five years, sometimes this is no longer an ideal career match for a number of reasons.  Some come to acquire families and have to budget their time, while for others their interests may change.  Advisors can usually offer a wealth of information on different types of jobs, post-docs, and other such positions.  Being open and honest with them and having a candid discussion of where you see yourself professionally will provide you with untold benefits and far fewer sleepless nights!

Ultimately, one of the biggest decisions you will make in selecting a graduate program is inextricably tied to who your advisor is.  In my personal experience, the last few years have been a wonderful time of learning and exploration due to the flexibility, support, and encouragement that my advisor has provided me.

Having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly with respect to advisor situations, one comes to be very grateful for a strong relationship.  Keep in mind that some programs will tie you to a single advisor, as their funding mechanism (i.e., grants) provides your stipend and financial support; others, however, may fund you departmentally, allowing you to more easily switch advisors should your initial pairing not work out.  But in the end, regardless of what happens, a graduate program in psychology offers so much richness and depth that little is left for the wanting.


About the Author:

Goal Auzeen Saedi is in her fourth and final year as a graduate student in the Clinical/Counseling Psychology Program at the University of Notre Dame.  She has served as the APSSC representative for both Portland State University and the University of Notre Dame, and she has been a reviewer for the RISE Research Award.  She would like to acknowledger her advisor, Dr. Donald B. Pope-Davis, for all of his encouragement and guidance throughout her graduate school journey, in addition to his kindness and inspirational vision. Goal can be reached via email at: gsaedi@nd.edu.