Feb 07 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school

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.

22 responses so far

  • Anneliese says:

    My advisor has not been a help to me with my science, though I do think he's a good advisor. He's just having his group do synthetic organic chemistry when he's an inorganic chemist. We also have no post-docs at all in our group.

    I have been using web forums to find a great deal of help. There are many people out there who want to discuss science. Part of becoming a capable researcher is having the perseverance to keep looking for help until you find it.

  • wandering hoosier says:

    As a grad student myself, I find myself expecting more than my supervisor can give me. From my side s/he takes on more than s/he can handle and ends up forgetting an annoying amount about my work. This is probably because every meeting we have is started with hir complaining to my other supervisor about how much s/he has to do. Which makes me stop caring, especially since the complaing mainly about teaching or commitments related to research but aren't actually research. If it was trying to get money or something. Luckily my other advisor is much better about managing hir commitments so I can't complain too much. And even the complaining advisor meets all the deadlines on time.

    I guess the trick is just recognising when you're being unreasonable, which is difficult when you're writing up and can barely remember if you showered that morning 😉

  • anon says:

    I went through a similar struggle as a graduate student, particularly when I transitioned from a main focus on coursework to one on developing my own line of research. From the outside, everyone thinks my advisor is just the sweetest, nicest guy. But while he gives a lot of attention to grant agencies, advisory panels, and such, he doesn't really give much attention to his students at all. For example, I have sometimes gone more than 2 months without meeting with him. And he has rarely read any of my work; I nearly have to beg for feedback on any part of my dissertation. Since everyone says such great things about him, for a long time I felt like the problem was ME.

    Then I met some of his former students at conferences. And they all said that he was a terrible advisor. And that I should do everything in my power to just forge ahead and finish despite his lack of attention. This was revelatory and inspiring to me. I decided to take charge of our "relationship" and to focus on what he was good at. For example, while he doesn't offer any time or attention, I realized that when I asked for things, I often got them. And by things I mean -- research funds, funds for conferences, grant writing experience, and research collaborations. And since I asked for these things, I felt like I had some agency in this relationship for the first time.

    So my advice to graduate students (in situations like mine) is this: give up. Realize that you aren't going to change the advisor and that you may be stuck with him/her for a while. Then think about the things your advisor could offer you that you really want -- other than time -- and ask. And, by all means, talk to former graduate students to get tips.

  • math postdoc says:

    Also try asking someone else for help. Ask someone in your field/group/lab/whatever if you can show them your work so far, show them where you're stuck, and see if they have any helpful suggestions. Do this with as positive an attitude as possible -- you're looking for solutions, not commiseration. If you're lucky, someone will know what to do, or maybe just the process of talking out your problem will help you solve it.

    The key here is to take advantage of the following fact: a confused grad student is kind of cute, and can get away with asking people for help by being cheerful and friendly about it.

  • Anonymous says:

    My advisor has not been a help to me with my science, though I do think he’s a good advisor.

    See, this is part of the problem: students who have no idea what they should/shouldn’t expect. Anneliese, if your “advisor” cannot advise you wrt to your science, then he cannot, by definition, be a good “advisor,” no matter how much of a swell guy you think he is. It’s great that you’re being proactive, but please find some experienced faculty in your dept. that can give you the guidance you need, even if you have to switch advisors.

    Also, I think this:

    So my advice to graduate students (in situations like mine) is this: give up. Realize that you aren’t going to change the advisor and that you may be stuck with him/her for a while. Then think about the things your advisor could offer you that you really want — other than time — and ask.

    is really good advice. If you find yourself in this position during the first year or 2, consider switching advisors. If that’s not possible, or you are further along, or you have already switched once, then just bite the bullet and do whatever you can to get the most out of your situation, and get the hell out ASAP (w/your degree, o.c.).

    You can’t make an advisor advise you any more than you can make a student who doesn’t want to learn learn – don’t waste your energy or time trying.

    • Ecogeek postdoc says:

      I actually strongly disagree that an advisor has to be able to give "science help" to their graduate students in order to be a good advisor. The reality, at least in my field, is that the graduate student may be working on something very different from what the professor is working on, especially at smaller universities. I think the most important thing is that the student learns how to help themselves- not be totally on their own, but learn how to find their own information and resources.

      Communication, as with any relationship, is pretty critical. The graduate student needs to pay attention to the types of support that the advisor is willing/able to give- and they should more or less know what they're getting into before they become committed to the advisor/program. But, the advisor needs to make sure that the graduate students understand more than how to run their experiments, and also needs to be aware of the expectations of the graduate students as they enter the program. If one or both of them aren't clear on their expectations, then it's pretty likely that frustration or resentment will build on one or both sides of the relationship.

      • Anonymous says:

        I would strongly discourage anyone from getting involved w/an advisor who can’t give you “science help.” Surely you understand that this is one of the advisor’s major responsibilities!? Your time in grad school is like an apprenticeship – if you want to become a cobbler, it makes little sense to apprentice w/a blacksmith and try to learn all of your cobbling skills from someone (or many someones) else.

        An advisor taking on a student in an area where they won’t be able to provide the student “science help” borders on the irresponsible.

        • Ecogeek postdoc says:

          I think there is far more to being a good advisor than conveying information to students. I think it's much more important to teach the students how to teach themselves, how to solve their own problems, how to develop their own lines of research.

          Please note that I'm NOT saying that the student should be left to fend entirely for themselves- as an advisor, you still need to provide the right environment for students to learn and develop. But, there's also no good reason that sampling methods, analysis techniques, etc should be the main things an advisor teaches their students.

          Scientific reasoning, problem solving, literature searches and use, applying new information to current research plans, developing writing skills, etc. are all skills that prospective scientists need to learn that are applicable in all future settings that student may end up working in, and they're skills that many incoming graduate students are poorly equipped to apply early in their graduate careers. Certainly having an at least vaguely similar field of study is very helpful, but I see no reason that a graduate student should have to find an advisor that exactly matches their interests in order to have a successful graduate and professional career.

          We may have to agree to disagree on this one- we clearly have different criteria for evaluating what makes a good advisor.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I suppose I am by nature an independent person. My advisor did not give me much advice about my research, but the little he gave me was very good. He also came through with support as I needed it. Looking back at my dissertation, I see that a little more attention from my advisor would have made it better, but it turned into a single author publication, faults and all. When I landed the TT job, I immediately started a research program with little input from fellow faculty. Several of my colleagues, whom I think smarter, better educated, and harder working than me, are unknown outside the department. It may be the result of them having been over mentored as graduate students, and not really able to get going independently. So there may be some virtue to being under advised; probably better than being over advised.

  • GMP says:

    I have noticed that a number of students have unreasonable expectations about how much technical guidance they should get. I sometimes have students who want the project defined from the start to the most intricate details, where they would ideally come for instructions, I would tell them exactly what to do, they would do it (nothing would ever happen not to work out), and at the end of it all they would get a PhD. Projects where you can predict everything that will happen from the get-go are by definition trivial and not worthy of publications or a PhD. Such students, who require a lot of hand-holding, are generally not a good fit for my group (I know there are PIs who like to micromanage, so there's a fit for everyone). I try to convey to students that the PhD project is their own, that when they get stuck they should first try everything in their power to get unstuck (including online resources, reading literature, and talking to labmates) before coming to ask me, and that they are responsible for following the literature and developing new ideas, not just doing what they are told and them sitting on their hands awaiting new instructions. While many students appreciate the natural open-endedness of research and the freedom to branch out and explore within the context of their project, for those who are not independent this freedom and lack of rigid structure can be entirely paralyzing.

    Still, ensuring enough face time with students is key. I have weekly individual meetings and a weekly group meeting, and that seems to be enough for a wide range of students. But, students also must realize there are other priorities that creep up. For instance, I usually take pride in returning corrected drafts of manuscripts and dissertations promptly. However, I have been sitting on a paper draft of a student for 3 months now (this is unspeakably slow for me), and it's due to a combination of several proposal deadlines, 4 students graduating (so their MS theses and PhD dissertations took precedent as time-sensitive), and me feeling very ill for months and working at diminished capacity. Sometimes stuff just happens. I think it's important not to dismiss a good advisor just because they are not what you consider to be a perfect advisor.

  • Jen Green says:

    It may be a good idea to look at the format in which they prefer to communicate as well. Does your adviser respond to emails better than voice mails? Are face-to-face interactions impossible except at specific times of day? Would they be able to meet for coffee on the way to lecture? But I do think that higher education has become an independent struggle for the majority, and so learning how to find resources and make decisions without an adviser (while unappealing, and more difficult) seems to be the norm. Thanks for the post.

  • KD says:

    As a graduate student, all I want right now is to have my adviser look at a manuscript in under 6 months. I'd be willing to write it off as a one-time issue of grant writing panic, except that this is standard according to former students. I can be independent in most things, but in this, I need feedback. On the other hand, if he has an impending deadline (especially enforced by someone holding the purse strings), his powers of micromanagement can be quite astounding.

  • queenrandom says:

    I'll echo what some of the other commenters have said: use *all* the resources available to you. Post-docs, labmates, fellow students, people in related areas (either at your institution or outside it), your committee, etc. You don't have to get mentorship from just one source; in fact, it's better for your development as a scientist and as a person if you get different types of mentorships from multiple sources.

    Also, be persistent and get what you need; learn to manage up. If your advisor is busy, stop by the office, notebook in hand ready to talk when you see s/he is there. Make the most of those 5 minutes s/he passes through the lab (and always be prepared for it). Get hir in the hallway. Do a walking meeting on the way to seminar. Email, phone, IM, whatever. Don't be afraid to be annoying in your persistence. It's going to be a very long, hard career for you if you don't know how to actively go out and get what you need (well, longer and harder than it already is).

  • LadyLobo says:

    To me it seems that the strength of the bond between PI and student depends on the personality of the two people. Of course independent dont need hand-holding, and duh, its not a big issue for them.

    However, less experienced and less confident students need some level of guidance. It is my belief that the PI should be cognizant of this fact when they hire the student. If you (including lab) can't give the student the guidance they need, dont hire them!

    Of course the student is also very responsible for seeking guidance when they need it too. But that point has already been made.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    It's difficult to develop a generic strategy for advising trainees because each person is different and has different needs and expectations.

    Perhaps some (a lot?) of the conflict arises when advisers treat all trainees similarly--either out of laziness or lack of time (to individualize their interactions) or because they think it's unfair to give extensive help to some but not to others. I know some colleagues who consistently provide little help to their students (they adhere to the Sink or Swim School of thought). Other colleagues are just the opposite and spend inordinate amounts of time advising, encouraging, giving feedback to, and even micromanaging all their students. In both situations, some students will suffer.

    In the middle are those advisers who try to tailor their interactions. However, it's very hard work figuring out what each student needs and then finding the right strategy to help them. I know I've succeeded with some, but failed with others. We are expected to be good advisers, but are rarely taught the necessary skills. People often repeat how they were advised (or they do just the opposite, if they hated their adviser's method).

    It's sometimes difficult to get another person to accept guidance. Even if you clearly explain your expectations to students and other trainees, they will hear your words through their individual filters. Some may clamor for your attention and help; but when you give them your best piece of advice, it may be ignored because it's just not what they wanted to hear.

    I don't have a good solution. Success is dependent on both adviser and trainee working to understand each others expectations and speaking up when something is not working.

  • msphd says:

    FWIW, my graduate advisor had a mental health disorder. I did not know this at the time. Sometimes a non-responsive mentor is helping you by forcing you to figure things out on your own, and learn how to get help elsewhere. But sometimes, a non-responsive advisor is off their meds.

    It's usually very hard for students to know when an advisor is being a non-responsive busy person and/or jerk, vs. when an advisor is being a non-functioning human being with serious medical problems. You can't always rely on labmates or graduate program faculty/supervisors to be aware of what is going on, and most people will choose denial before they come around to acceptance.

    My advice is to do as much as you can via all the normal methods suggested here: managing up, getting help wherever you can find it, reading and learning to work independently as much as possible.

    HOWEVER, at the same time, keep a record of the behavior and alert your thesis committee members & program supervisors EARLY AND OFTEN. They want to help you, and they will be more likely to keep an eye open for symptoms or red flags if you tell them what to look for, even though they may doubt you at first. Ultimately, the more witnesses you have, the better off you'll be.

    Don't wait until things get really bad. As with any abusive situation, you have to be able to prove that you took appropriate steps and alerted the proper authorities. The last thing you want is to show up crying in the Dean's office and have that person say, "Well this is the first I've heard about this."

    Instead, do everything in your power to make sure they say, "I'm sorry to hear that. I have a plan for immediate action. Don't worry, we're going to take care of you and make sure you graduate."

  • As a 3rd year PhD graduate student, I think this is a really great post and have already learned a lot from reading all of these replies! It's been suggested by a number of you that if your adviser is not providing the mentorship you desire, then search elsewhere. I would think that your graduate committee may be a good place to start when looking for help and guidance. I imagine potential problems when seeking out help from others without discussing this first with your adviser. I was wondering if anyone has any suggestions on how to do this diplomatically and avoid regretting your decision to find help. Thanks in advance!

  • WMB says:

    I'm working on my masters and my major professor is taking forever to look at my thesis. I'm trying to graduate in the summer but the deadline for thesis submission is June 17th and I highly doubt that's going to happen now. I wouldn't stress about it so much except my MP is going on sabbatical this fall so I'm not sure if he/she will be willing to work on it then. He/she is also leaving for the rest of the summer right after June 17th so I would have to have it defended by then as well. I gave my 1st rough draft to him/her in March and got it back in April. I attempted to have a meeting with him/her 3 weeks ago and was told there was literally no time for a meeting with me. It was the end of the semester but he/she was also leaving for 2 whole weeks that weekend. He/she said I could email it so I did and now that he/she is back I asked if it had been looked at and was told it hadn't been and they "may get some time next week" to look at it. I don't know what to do. Other grad students in my lab get time but I don't. I don't ask for much time either. I turn in my drafts and don't bother him/her any other time unlike other students who are in there weekly if not more than once/week. I dunno what to do.

    • GMP says:

      WMB, is Master's going to be your terminal degree? If so, it looks like you may be on the back burner because you are only an MS student (I know, that shouldn't be the case, but often is) plus you are not pushy enough. It's nice that you are trying not to be bothersome, but that's obviously not working. It looks like your advisor is not paying attention to the deadline, so you have to push and insist as much as you can until you get him/her to give you what you need (feedback) on your time-sensitive thesis.

  • maya says:

    I have been in a situation where my advisor LEFT for a sabbatical after admitting me into the program and his lab. In my program we had no rotations so I started off in his lab. He never told me about the sabbatical when I interviewed for grad school. He his this information and no other faculty members alerted me. I don't even understand WHY they let him admit a grad student if he was going to be on a sabbatical. Anyway, I started my research almost entirely on my own. My advisor did nothing more than making vague ambiguous statements and did his best to avoid meeting with me. He was busy with grants, Nature papers and publicity and press releases and his own interests. I informed the Director of Grad studies and the Chair of the dept. and they were UNHELPFUL. "This is just the way it is" He was famous with lots of grants and a "star" so they didn't even believe me at first. On top if that when my advisor learned I had gone to the Chair, he spread bad things about calling me a bad student even though I was a admitted as a top student in the program. He didn't let me switch labs and the bad publicity meant no one else wanted me either.The post docs in the lab were of no use. There was only one grad student in the lab who hardly showed up but somehow managed to publish a Nature paper because he gave her all the attention (because it was a Nature paper). The post docs in the lab were abusive. They brought their personal lives into the lab-divorces etc. and 2 of them started dating each other. They were abusive towards me and made sure I was left out of things (lab meetings, equipment etc.). It was a bad situation in every possible way. I ended up leaving after 1.5 to my utter relief and ended up at Harvard in another program.
    After I left, the other grad student also left his lab which opened up skeletons in his closet. The DGS and Chair realized there was truth in what I had told them but it was too late then. Anyway, I got my happy ending.
    MY point is, when in a bad situation like this. Do everything. If that doesn't work. LEAVE. Safe your life!!! SAve your time. It is precious. You might end up in a much better place.

    I do hope he pays his karmic debts and I get to watch.

  • Liz Evans says:

    I am an undergraduate researcher and have been in the lab for two years now. Recently I made a mistake and the PI said I was not allowed to make mistakes.

    Lately I've been feeling disillusioned and depressed, I thought I was in the wrong career, and I'm beginning to hate science.

    The PI is available when needed, but the lack of understanding that I have been through medical issues and even the most basic civility makes actually doing work difficult.

    I am considering changing labs but I may have a first author publication, and no doubt he would write me a recommendation that would be average but not great.

    Please help.

  • social science phd student says:

    Dear SP/SFP,

    I am a third year phd student in a social science program and I am having similar problems with my advisor. I have made attempts to set up scheduled meetings with him, but he seems disinterested in doing this. In fact, there was on time when I had scheduled a meeting with him and he scheduled it during his office hours for one of his other classes and so there were several students, which came in and so it would seem that he cannot even bother to schedule an exclusive appointment with me. Another time, upon my third time meeting with him that year he told me that we had already met more than what is typical for his other graduate students. Despite this I haven't let it stymie my progress, I sought out other professorial help and have networked enough that I have good support from other professors in other universities as well as I have found a new unofficial advisor who helps me greatly and I am very appreciative of that.

    My complaint is that other graduate students in my department seem to be getting an inappropriate amount of help and are reaping the benefits of that. There is one professor in particular in my department, which I know writes and submits abstracts for his students to conferences/journals even if the underlying paper is not started or written yet. He also gives them data (which is not a terrible offense) but, then gives them the problem to solve and then subsequently holds their hand in solving their problems. As a result his students have received awards and speaking opportunities at conferences.

    I have had first hand (and extensive) experience with one of his advisees in particular who repeatedly copied my work our first and second years, both in class work and research. Amongst other graduate students his has built a reputation for being a major free-rider and as a result most students will not work with him nor do they trust his work. He is known to be the type of student which only seeks opportunities in which he can take advantage of others.

    I have been struggling with this issue especially since I have had personal experience of being taken advantage of and it bothers me that this one particular student seems to have been given an upper hand in opportunities and potentially in the job market not because of merit, but because of taking advantage of the right people at the right time. My question to you as a professor is, are the professors usually unaware of students like this? ie. these students have bad reputations among graduate students, but does that ever trickle up to the professors. Also, what is your opinion and what have you observed of students like this after graduating? Do you know how successful they are and do these students ever face a day of reckoning despite being good at manipulating others? Lastly, what can I do to help/protect myself in my dissertation work and future job opportunities?