Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ADVICE: Top 10 Ways to be a Better Advisor for Graduate Students

A graduate student recently asked me for advice on how to deal with problems she was having with her research advisor. It occurred to me that I had already written extensively on this very subject. It was one of the first tasks I took on when I became a CSWA member and an editor of the AASWOMEN Newsletter. In fact, the Top 10 Ways to be a BetterAdvisor for Graduate Students was the issue that inspired the CSWA Adviceweb page, but that was back in 2006! A whole generation of grad students had come and gone, but the advice we came up with back then still appears to be relevant. The graduate student mentioned above thought it was helpful for her case.

CSWA members discussed ways to make sure this advice remained available to the current generation of grad students and advisors. We decided to try a once-per-month blog post, i.e., an advice column. We’re starting with the Top 10 Ways to be a Better Advisor for Graduate Students. If you have points to add to our Top 10 list or other topics that we should cover in future posts, please leave a comment or contact any CSWA member.

How do we learn to be a good advisor? Our grad students don't come with an instruction manual, but perhaps they should! Sometime we learn to be a bad advisor because we had a bad advisor. Sometime we expect our students to know everything we do. Sometimes we make the same mistakes over and over again.


A 2006 discussion at the CfA Women in Science group led to a Top 10 list of how to be a better advisor. Special thanks to Kelly Korreck, Andrea Dupree, Saku Vrtilek, Lisa Kaltenegger, Stephanie Bush, and Lynn Matthews for feedback.

Please feel free to post this list on bulletin boards and web sites. You can make copies and put it in department mailboxes. If you're a grad student, make sure your advisor has a copy. If you're an advisor, make sure you follow *all* the rules, not just the ones you're good at. Also, we would like this list to evolve and improve, so please send comments and suggestions.

Top 10 Ways to be a Better Advisor for Graduate Students

1. Try to see each student as an individual; they will all have different backgrounds, talents, and goals. Do not expect them to be 'just like you' or like people you work with. It is crucial to realize just how important their work with you will be to their career.

2. You are responsible for guiding your students' research: helping them to select a topic, write a research proposal, perform the research, evaluate it critically, and write the dissertation. Set up a weekly meeting with your thesis advisee to give *constructive* (not personal; not necessarily positive) feedback on research work.

3. Identify student's strengths and build on them; identify weaknesses and help students overcome them.

4. Students need to know what to expect; these expectations will change as the student gets closer to graduation, but some important considerations include coursework, degree requirements, funding, comprehensive exam, thesis, etc.

5. For new students: help them set up their class schedule for each semester so they fulfill their requirements for (a) graduation and (b) the comprehensive exam in a timely fashion. Help students find the right balance between coursework and RA/TA duties.

6. Take your students to conferences and introduce them to your colleagues. Do not assume that they know how to network; they will need your help to develop this vital skill.

7. Encourage your students to present posters at a conference starting from their first year. Make them rehearse until they are comfortable with the material and the background. Ask them *why* they did this work. Ask them questions that you know they might be asked. Bring colleagues over to their poster and introduce them. Then stand back and let them do the presentation; step in only if they need you.

8. Your students rely on you for financial support: RAs and TAs, but you can also help them to find fellowships and summer positions.

9. Your job continues as graduation approaches: help them to find and apply for postdoctoral positions, faculty positions, and/or jobs in industry. They will need letters of reference. Have the student write ~3 bullets with short paragraphs explaining their work and its importance. Use this information in your letter. Do *not* include personal descriptions like 'she's cute.' Do not send a generic letter that you use for all students who ask for references.

10. It is *never* appropriate to develop an intimate relationship with one of your students. If this should happen, you must not continue to advise that student (whether the relationship continues or not).

1 comment:

photon said...

I am truly sad that it is March of 2013 and we still need to say this to people in positions of power in our field:

9. [...] Do *not* include personal descriptions like 'she's cute.' [...]

10. It is *never* appropriate to develop an intimate relationship with one of your students. If this should happen, you must not continue to advise that student (whether the relationship continues or not).