January 3, 2017

Seth Stein: You and Your Advisor

Posted by AGU Career Center

Graduate school is very different from undergraduate school. Undergraduate school focuses on course work, whereas graduate school is primarily about research. Graduate school is a complicated, messy, and mysterious process that turns bright and motivated undergraduates into young professional scientists. Although it’s hard to describe, it works surprisingly well for most students.

Success in grad school depends on your energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to go well beyond minimum requirements.  Advisors, departments, and luck are also important. Students spend lots of time discussing these other factors, especially the relationship with their advisor.  This post’s goal is to offer a perspective from the other side—an advisor’s view.  Although it’s based on personal experience and observations, most advisors would probably agree with most points.

Your advisor’s been there.

While in grad school, your advisor had experiences similar to yours. They (“they” is cumbersome, but better than “he or she”) survived hard classes, silly requirements, and qualifying exams. They figured out what to do when data didn’t conform to expectations and computer programs did inexplicable things. They gave their first talks at meetings, and got nasty reviews of papers they submitted.  They applied for jobs they didn’t get. They know what you’re going through, sympathize, and are willing to talk about it.

Your advisor’s on your side.

Your advisor’s goal is to help you grow into a successful independent scientist. That means challenging you so that  you can reach your potential. They’ll give help and suggestions, but won’t do your work for you.

Your advisor isn’t a magician.

Your advisor can help when problems arise, but only within reason. If you haven’t done the homework in a class and get in trouble, or haven’t fulfilled degree requirements, there’s usually not much they can do.

Your advisor sees you as a teammate.

The two of you, and others working with you, are trying to do good science together.  The more committed you are and the more effort you put in, the more help you’ll get, the more you’ll learn, the better your relationship will be, and the better the research will go.  If you do only the minimum, don’t expect much back.  If you do a lot, you’ll get a lot back.

Your advisor is often right

Your advisor has lots of knowledge and experience. Listening to their advice and trying their suggestions often makes things go fast and smoothly. Take advantage of their insight as well as specific suggestions, and ask about what you don’t understand.

Your advisor is sometimes wrong

Because research involves exploring the unknown, it’s not like doing problem sets. Your advisor’s ideas or approach won’t always work. Sometimes you’ll think of something better, try it, and show that it is better. While you’re focused on your own project, your advisor is involved with many things, so as the project advances, you’ll often be more on top of it than your advisor.  It’s best not to gloat too much when you’re right. Your advisor has feelings, just like you—and you might be wrong the next time.

Your advisor can handle the truth

When you come up with a better way to proceed, your advisor will be delighted. Doing so both advances the science and shows that you’re growing as a scientist.  When you spot a problem, your advisor will thank you for spotting it so it can be fixed. Whatever’s going on, talking honestly is usually the best approach.

Changing projects is OK.

The more you like what you’re doing, the better a job you’ll do. If a project doesn’t appeal to you, discuss alternatives with your advisor.  There are many neat problems to work on. You can probably agree on an intermediate goal that will meet both your needs, giving you something to accomplish before switching to a new project. For example, you can take a project far enough for a paper or a qualifying exam project, then do something else for a thesis. 

Switching advisors is OK.

You picked an advisor whom you wanted to work with and seemed like a good match in both science and style.  If the relationship isn’t working, or you’d simply rather work with someone else, switching is fine. Advisors have thick skins—they’ve had students switch before, and know it will happen again. Try to switch gracefully, because you’ll still be in the same department and will interact.  If the switch goes well, you can probably stay on reasonable terms. In many cases, your former advisor will likely be willing to stay on as a secondary advisor—perhaps a member of your thesis committee—and discuss your work.

You can have lots of advisors.

In addition to your primary advisor, develop a network of secondary advisors inside and outside your department. These are people with whom you can discuss your research and get advice on drafts of papers or parts of your thesis. They can be people you met as part of your project or via discussions at meetings. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for advice—senior scientists are used to informal advising.

Advisors are good (and bad) role models.

Once you graduate, it may not be long before you’re advising or supervising other people. Plan for this by watching your advisor and other advisors. You’ll see them do things you may choose to emulate, and things you may choose to avoid.

It’s mostly up to you.

Grad school is tough. Whatever your relationship with your advisor, how well you do is primarily up to you.  You’ll encounter many obstacles and figure out how to deal with them. As an old line says, grad school is like a sewer—what you get out depends on what you put in.

Seth Stein is William Deering Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University and president-elect of AGU’s Natural Hazards focus group.