Perhaps the most common theme of questions/laments that I get from readers concerns advisor-student interactions: grad students send me (long) sad tales of dysfunctional working relationships with remote and neglectful advisors, and advisors send me tales of woe about students who are not working hard (if at all). If only the neglectful advisors could be paired with the students who don't work hard (if at all), and the caring, responsive advisors could have hard-working, productive students..
So, what do you do if your advisor doesn't seem to have time for you; i.e., doesn't give you the feedback that you want, when you want it (or ever)?
And what do you do, as an advisor, if some of your advisees make little or no progress with their research, even when given lots of attention (and money)?
If I only I had answers to those questions.
Well, possible answers to the student question are: quit or switch advisors. So I should say, if only I knew effective, good, or useful answers.
But let's see if we can collectively do better than advising quitting. For now, I will only discuss the student lament about neglectful advisors.
Of course, the best approach is going to vary considerably depending on the details of the situation and the personalities of the individuals, but there are several obvious things to do (and clearly most of my frustrated grad readers have already tried some of these steps, proving how intractable the problem can be):
First, try to figure out if your discontent about the amount of time your advisor devotes to you is reasonable. I am sure in most cases it is reasonable -- clearly, some advisors give little to no time to their advisees, even at critical stages. In possibly-ambiguous situations, however, it can be useful to get some perspective on the issue by talking to more senior members of the research group. Maybe the advisor is well known for being inaccessible and unhelpful (something it would have been useful to know before signing on as an advisee), in which case, consider some of the other suggestions below. But, I can't help noting, from the point of view of an advisor, that some students have unreasonable expectations about the timing, magnitude, and nature of assistance from an advisor. For example, one of my readers wrote to me about his unhappiness that his advisor spent too much time writing grant proposals; didn't he have enough grants already? No, probably not; or, maybe enough for this year, but not for next year.
This is where I start to think I have been blogging for too long because I can hear student-commenter voices in my head saying: but the student doesn't yet know what goes into writing (successful) grant proposals and keeping a large research group funded because the advisor hasn't mentored the student about these things. And then I hear advisor voices in my head replying: yes, but students shouldn't be so passive; they should look and learn and ask questions and figure some of this out.
Anyway, advisors should provide clear feedback about these issues instead of refusing to respond to e-mails, keep appointments, or proactively check up on their advisees' progress and well-being, no matter how clueless or high maintenance the student is. The key here is communication, and it is unacceptable for an advisor to go silent or to sit on drafts of manuscripts or thesis chapters for excessive amounts of time, but, in less extreme situations, students shouldn't assume that they know how the advisor should and should not best allocate their time.
Make sure your advisor knows that you do not feel that you are getting sufficient help, feedback, attention, critical input, or whatever your main need is that is not being met. Be professional and clear (not whining and vague). Discuss the situation if at all possible. Make constructive suggestions. If you have deadlines, make sure your advisor knows them. Perhaps you can agree on a schedule or plan for the submission and return of drafts, if that is part of the problem you have been having. Perhaps you can also discuss other sources of assistance for times when you most need it and your advisor is unable to help you as much as you need.
If you are sure that your expectations are reasonable and your best efforts to communicate with your advisor result in no improvement (or even no response), consider discussing your untenable situation with the graduate program advisor or whichever faculty member is responsible for general issues related to graduate studies in your department or unit. To get the most effective help, you might want to present documentation of the problem -- e.g., evidence for how long an advisor has been sitting on document drafts without providing feedback, despite repeated (reasonable) requests and reminders. Although faculty are typically reluctant to micromanage each other's work, if a graduate student's progress towards graduation -- and/or their career prospects -- are being greatly slowed by the lack of response from an advisor, it should be the graduate program supervisor's responsibility to try to fix the problem, possibly by facilitating communication between advisor and student and making it clear that the department supports the student's need to make more timely progress towards completion of the degree.
For those students who are not yet committed to a graduate program or specific advisor, you may want to ask current advisees about issues such as these. Different students are comfortable with different amounts of structure vs. independence, and this balance can vary considerably from advisor to advisor. You may not know in advance what would work best for you, but at least you would have an idea of what you were getting into regarding this aspect of advisor-student interactions.
Does anyone have other specific strategies to suggest? Bleak tales of futile efforts are useful, to provide counter-examples of what doesn't work, but it would be great to hear some examples of strategies that have been tried with some success. These suggestions could be from students who found effective ways to deal with uncommunicative advisors, or from advisors who figured out how best to work with advisees who had varying levels of need for feedback.