The Normal Advisor

May 17 2011 Published by under advising

A reader, Dr. Z, has been feeling a little sad that Z's PhD advisor didn't congratulate Z on a recent honor: Z was elected a Fellow of a professional society. Z thinks a "normal" PhD advisor would have congratulated a former student who received such an honor.

"Normal" isn't a word typically associated with PhD advisors in general, but we have to consider this situation in context. Would most PhD advisors congratulate their former advisees on attaining a rather prestigious award or other significant honor? (I know that being elected/selected Fellow varies in importance in different professional societies, but assume that the scenario involves a prestigious example).

First, the PhD advisor would have to notice. The award/honor would presumably therefore be of an academic sort or a high-profile industry/government/foundation award such that it is reasonable to expect a professor in a particular field to notice. Some people keep track of these things; some don't. My former PhD advisor, for example, does not.

Then, if the PhD advisor knows about the honor, s/he has to remember to send -- and make the effort to send -- a congratulatory message, rather than just waiting for the next conference for an in-person congratulations.

It used to bother me that my former advisor did not proactively support me (post-graduation) in the ways that some other grad advisors support their former students. As a member of various committees for professional societies and such, I commonly see grad advisors who continue to support and promote their former advisees. Mine didn't. I am of course grateful that he wrote positive enough letters that I was able to get a faculty position, but at times -- early in my career -- I felt at a bit of a disadvantage in some respects.

But: I was fortunate to have other colleagues who supported me in much the same way that some former advisors do. This completely made up for the lack of such involvement/interest by my advisor in my post-graduation career. It is important to have such supporters, and they don't have to be your former advisor.

Years later, when I'd been doing pretty well in my career for a while, my former advisor told me he was proud of my accomplishments, that I was one of his most successful advisees, and he picked me to give the citation when he received a big award recognizing his career contributions. Some advisors are more proactive about being proud of their former advisees, and some are not; in the latter case, it doesn't mean they don't care -- they just might not make it obvious that they do (until they retire).

I like to think that I am a little more aware of these things than my former advisor is, but I'd also like to think that former advisees don't sit around feeling bad about a lack of sufficient notice on my part of their post-grad school careers and lives. And if I ever overlooked something -- like an award -- I would be happy to get an e-mail from a former advisee saying "I just got elected as a Fellow of the Science Society of Scientists", and I would reply with sincere congratulations, pleased that a former advisee wanted to share this great news with me.

Grad advisors: Do you follow the exploits of your former advisees closely? Have you ever sent a congratulatory e-mail on hearing that a former advisee had received an award, promotion, or other honor? (And if so, do you consider yourself normal?)

Former advisees: If you mostly got along with your grad advisor, how would you feel if your former advisor did not congratulate you about an academic honor? Of course there is a vast array of grad-advisor interactions and personalities and so on, so this is a somewhat meaningless question, but the original question was sent by someone who was bothered by the lack of a congratulatory message from the former advisor, so I ask it anyway.

24 responses so far

  • Mary says:

    I'm going to cheat and answer the inverse of your question to former advisees. I am currently a graduate student. When I published my first first-author paper earlier this year, my (former) undergraduate advisor noticed and congratulated me, and also forwarded the paper to another professor that I was close to as an undergrad, who also congratulated me. I would not have expected it, but it was really nice that he took the time to toot my horn for me and to receive a couple of congrats I wasn't expecting. So I'll say that I wouldn't mind if a former advisor didn't notice an honor, but it really can mean a lot to a student if they do pay attention and take the time to say so.

  • MathTT says:

    My advisor continues to congratulate me for even small stuff (papers completed... he sees them on arXiv... or published). I'm sure if I were to get any kind of academic honor:
    (1) He would know, or one of his other advisees (many are good friends & collaborators) would let him know.
    (2) He would send a congratulatory email.

    I am always kind of surprised when I get these emails from him (he has quite a few students to keep track of... I don't think he has a special interest in me necessarily, but I'm kind of visible in the field and still doing stuff closely related to his work). I don't know if I would feel slighted by lack of acknowledgment. Probably, but only because he has set the precedent of congratulating even small achievements. I would certainly get over it very quickly.

  • anon says:

    Another condition is whether the advisor thinks that awards have a meaning. If they don't value awards at all they might not send a congratulations. That is to say you should not compare advisors, they have different personalities and consider different things as important.

  • studyzone says:

    I have a good relationship with my grad advisor, but I know he will never be the type to offer congratulations - I don't think it is something he is generally comfortable giving [I also know that while he may not say it to his mentee's face, he will certainly brag, in his own way, about their successes to other people]. I've heard a "good job" from him twice in all the time I've known him, and felt like I was on top of the world both times, because praise from him is a rare thing indeed. That said, he has been incredibly supportive of my career, and I appreciate what he has done to help. My current postdoc advisor is the exact opposite - he revels in the successes of all of his former and current trainees, and is always quick with a congratulatory note [and/or or celebratory bottle of champagne].

  • ZooX says:

    My advisor has advised >50 grad students. We have each had only one (maybe 2) grad advisors. I think it is easier for us to keep track of him than it is for him to keep track of us. If he didn't notice that I got an award, I wouldn't think anything of it, though I might tell him about it because I know that he'd be pleased to hear the news.

  • I'm pleased to hear news about former grad students (even ones just in the department, not ones I had a closer advising relationship with), but I don't monitor their work. Since I maintain a grad alumni page for our program (just a list of who they are, when they graduated, and where they are now working), I appreciate news of job changes.

    I would send a congratulatory e-mail to a former student if I heard about something good, but unless they sent me e-mail, I'd be unlikely to hear.

  • Timo Kiravuo says:

    Without other information about the relationship and people, I think it would be very unreasonable to _expect_ an advisor to follow the career of former students. It is of course very nice if they do. Furthermore what is prestigious to one may not be to another.

    For a happy life, I recommend accepting people having different values and not expecting them to follow too many norms. Rejoice the good qualities and overlook what is missing in others.


  • Mimi says:

    I was my advisor's first PhD advisee and she keeps very close tabs on what I am doing, including continuing to read papers, offering advice, taking me to congratulatory dinners at conferences, etc. My hit, from talking to a few other students who she advised after me, is that she does not do this for all her students.

  • JCP says:

    My advisor died a year after I received my PhD. Count your blessings.

  • qaz says:

    I'm in pretty close email contact with both my advisors and my graduated students and postdocs. But I don't sit there tracking them, nor they me. A situation like this would usually entail student sending an email to advisor ("Hey, guess what! I won this award.") followed by an email from advisor to student ("That's great. Congratulations!"). Often this would be followed up by a series of catch-up emails about the lab, the family, current work, etc.

  • becca says:

    Well, if your advisor is still alive to see it and doesn't recognize your Nobel, you should totally call them up to gloat. Otherwise, it seems not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things.

  • Cherish says:

    Jorge Cham gave a talk at my university recently. He made the observation that a lot of grad students worry what their advisors think of them. He said students shouldn't worry because most advisors don't think of their students at all. I think if you go into the relationship with that expectation, these sorts of issues won't be issues at all.

    That being said, my MS advisor does pay attention and does congratulate me on these sorts of things. He seems to be an outlier in that regard, though.

  • My advisor was a flake, so that limits my expectations of him. But it took me years to realize that he is a flake, and to what extent. I never heard Jorge Cham give that advice, but after I realized that my advisor wasn't giving me time because he simply has time management problems sometimes, and not because he didn't think I was a worthwhile advisee, things got better, at least on my end.

    That being said, he's a polite flake. I'm sure that if I were to get an award of some sort, and bring it up to his attention, he'd be genuinely happy for me.

  • Bonnie says:

    I had a good relationship with my PhD advisor, but I would never expect her to keep up with my career if I don't keep her updated. She's busy, ya know?

    I've always assumed the proper thing to do is send your former advisor an email whenever you get a cool award or publication or whatever, because they probably enjoy hearing from you even if they don't obsessively google-stalk you.

  • Busy says:

    I think it is the responsibility of the student to keep his supervisor as well as other potential reference letter writers abreast of any awards and prizes. There are just far too many students and awards to keep track of.

    Having said that, if I ever chance on an award notice for a former student---or a friend for that matter---I will fire a congratulatory note at once.

  • SLAC prof says:

    It never even occurred to me that my advisor would ever offer congratulations on my accomplishments. i am very likely his most successful graduate student and I am pretty sure that he is not aware of most or any of my accomplishments because I have switched to a tangentially related field.

    Since I had never thought about this question until now which means that i am obviously not that close to my advisor.

    On the other hand, I have formally mentored numerous faculty and I always send them congratulatory notes when I see that they have published a paper or gotten a grant.

  • Karen says:

    I'm just a lowly MS student, but if I got an award I'd go bouncing into my advisor's office with "Look what I got!" and get a hearty congratulations -- maybe even a hug -- in return. But he probably wouldn't know about it unless I told him.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Seriously people? This is what keeps you awake at night?

    But yeah, I try to go out of my way with congrats to everyone in my field that I know reasonably well. We get kicked in the teeth enough by results and seems a small thing to do...

  • SR says:

    I'm a current grad student. My advisor does not congratulate me on awards even now. In fact, when I got my first publication (which was a single-author, small paper, but still a nice milestone in my career), he told me it was not important. So it would be genuinely funny if he congratulated me on anything after I leave.

  • GMP says:

    I'm am with DrugMonkey here -- whenever I hear good news (grants, fellowships, tenure, misc award) about someone I know somewhat well (student, former advisee, colleague), I will send a congratulatory email. I know I appreciate them whoever they come from, and these nice occasions are so few and far between that it's nice to acknowledge them.

    My former advisor and my close collaborators do congratulate me sincerely when they are aware I received something; but you can't expect people to keep track of everything. If you have something brag-worthy, shoot off an email to people who you think are in your corner -- I know that always results in a number of warm congrats.

  • anonymous says:

    Clearly, whether one is disappointed or not depends on whether one *expects* your former advisor to be the kind to be informed and to congratulate, and Dr. Z clearly expected it. So in that case, maybe it is a snub! I've always been a bit disappointed that my advisor didn't keep closer tabs on my work, and by extension, my career. It makes me feel like he doesn't find my work relevant or interesting, and it's not like I've changed fields or anything. But I've been pretty successful, and he's certainly proud of me, so I don't have any real complaints, I guess. Just wistful, maybe.

  • Alicea says:

    My first graduate advisor passed away unfortunately. The second was a great advisor in many ways, but him noticing an award I got would not happen even in a dream.

    Yes it is a disadvantage to not have former or current advisors boosting your career but it seems it's not a deal breaker.

  • Confounding says:

    As a current graduate student, I have a very supportive advisor.

    But in the grand scheme of things, if I'm generating things that *should* generate praise from a former advisor, I think things are going well enough that I'm not going to sweat it. More/bigger things to worry about.

  • quit for a reason says:

    "Congratulate"? Getting a reminder about an administrative deadline, let alone any feedback at all, would have been more in the way of interaction than I learned to expect from my advisor, or department, for that matter.