Bridging the gap with your advisor

Greetings! I’m surprised to find that people from outside our department – and even outside the U.S. – have been visiting my blog. The most popular topic thus far has been the student-advisor relationship, so I’ve decided to repost part of what I wrote in response to a question from a reader. Please keep your questions & comments coming.

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Most faculty genuinely care about their students and want to be good advisors, even if they have no idea how to do that. Every student has a different approach to work, a different personality, and a different career path, so what works for one will not work for another. To make matters worse, faculty don’t generally get feedback from students as to what is or isn’t working, so they don’t know that they need to make a course correction. Or, maybe they’ve made a course correction in response to another student who needed something different.

The very same faculty member may be accused of being either too hands-off or too hands-on; of treating everyone differently or of not recognizing an individual student’s needs. S/he may be ascribed ulterior motives despite genuinely having the students’ best interests at heart. The student/faculty relationship can be further eroded when students complain to each other without providing any context, painting their advisors in the worst possible light. Over time, a well-meaning advisor might feel like there’s no way to win – and might eventually stop trying, thereby further exacerbating the problem. Talk about a culture clash!

My advice to students: 1) Give faculty the benefit of the doubt: operate under the assumption that they *want* to be helpful. 2) Find a way to communicate your needs clearly and non-confrontationally. 3) If you’ve been unable to resolve your issues with a faculty member, seek advice confidentially from your department’s graduate advisor.

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About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
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