Talking to Your Advisor: Even When You Really Don’t Want To

by Kiri Raber

In shifting from an undergraduate program to a graduate program, one of the biggest changes faced is the new dynamic between students and professors. Professors will range in how they interact with you, from those who now regard you as more of a peer than a student, to those who prefer to maintain the student/professor delineation, and every possible variant in between. One of the most important relationships you are going to form is between you and your advisor, and your advisor can land anywhere on that spectrum. It can be difficult to ascertain where your advisor falls, but it is important to pinpoint where your advisor is so that your conversations are both beneficial and encouraging, and you can quickly build up a rapport. Your advisor is going to be the person to go to when scheduling classes, cultivating research ideas, adding your minor fields, and later working closely with you on your final project (whether an MA thesis or dissertation). Your advisor will help to guide you through graduate school but can also seem intimidating and unapproachable at times. I hope to help ease some qualms and fears about meeting with advisors by delving into my own experiences with mine. Although each person and advisor relationship is different, I’ve learned that it is always better to be open with your advisor than to close yourself off for the sake of comfort.

 For my master’s degree, I had the benefit of already knowing my advisor from undergrad, so I had a good sense of the kind of professor and person he was and I already had an established rapport. He was always open to discuss various things in his office and was generally a laid-back person. Since he was a fairly casual man, our meetings would mostly be casual as well, and it was easy for me to relax and speak freely around him. For my PhD program, though I skyped with my new advisor before I joined the program, I was unfamiliar with how he worked with students and what his academic expectations would be. It wasn’t until I met him in person and took a class with him that I realized my new advisor had a more professional and serious demeanor than I was used to. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but I realized the way I presented myself had to change if I wanted to successfully advocate for my research project. To me, this felt very close to changing my language and the way I spoke to accommodate another person, and I worried about losing my identity in order to conform to the expectation of someone who directly oversaw me. Meeting with my advisor panicked me because I didn’t think I could live up to who he wanted me to be—or rather, who I thought he wanted me to be. As such, I would become nervous and stumble over my words and ideas, and found that when he called into question the foundation of what I wanted my research to be, I was unable to explain or defend what I wanted to do. That moment was truly a low for me, and I worried and stressed incessantly until we finally met again. The next talk I had with my advisor was very candid and needed. He explained to me that he was on my side and believed in my project, but I had to be prepared to answer difficult questions and needed to practice how to professionally defend my topic in a cohesive and coherent way. Talking openly to my advisor and standing strong within my belief that my project was one that was worth doing, allowed for communication and a better flow of ideas. Getting to this point wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  

In most cases, your advisor wants to help shape you into a successful professional and give you the tools needed for you to make your mark on the world. The relationship isn’t a one-way street, though, and learning how to communicate effectively with your advisor and opening dialogues will help you to move forward with both your program and your profession. That being said, it is also important that you do not allow your advisor’s personality to dwarf your own or make yourself small to accommodate them. Remember that your advisor is supposed to be on your team, and though they might push you, ultimately, they have your best interest at heart. If your advisor is not someone who is like that, I recommend reaching out to another professor that you feel safe with and voicing your concerns and exploring your options. Graduate school should not function as an institution that tears you down to build you up, and though certainly it is to be challenging, you should never feel that you are less than or losing yourself because of the demands of an advisor. Sometimes, you have to be your greatest advocate, but opening that line for open communication will help you to reach your goal and gain the most out of the mentorship from your advisor. 

2 Comments

  1. Sometimes second and third years tell you their opinions about a professor, but you should be careful not to pre-judge your advisor or profs until you have a chance to develop your own relationship with them… I remember being told as a first year that my advisor was scary and mean. He was always very polite, supportive and nice to me. I’m pretty sure if you come in a bit more humble and less know-it-all, they are more open to being supportive. Just say’in, they know students. You want to make sure your advisor actually can look forward to talking to you instead of dreading the encounter. Also, they really do not respect procrastinators or excuse makers…

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