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“This is a terrifically helpful guide that is thoughtful and comprehensive, while being concise and readable. I feel confident I will be a better graduate advisor for having read it.”
BEGINNING THE ADVISORY RELATIONSHIP
Supervisory relationships formally begin in different ways and at different times, depending on the discipline and the university. The prospective student should be alerted to confirm what this process is before applying, then respect it. Faculty members might or might not choose their own advisees, and if they have some say in the matter, the decision may be informal and may be made months or more into the program. Many programs, for example, admit graduate students in cohorts and require the completion of numerous courses before supervision is addressed. Among these programs, students may seek an advisor, or one might be assigned—although some mutual choosing might be tolerated or encouraged. Other programs, perhaps less commonly, require students to arrange a supervisory commitment when they apply. This information should be prominently available on the department website so that students do not make inappropriate "cold calls" to professors about supervisory places, or fail to arrange supervision when that is expected. In some but not all program applications, students may be asked with whom they might want to work or to express research interests, but without guarantees of a match. At some point, though, the advisor-advisee question arises, and a very powerful relationship begins. It is important to begin on the proverbial right foot. On a recent visit to Las Vegas I was amused by a new version of the classic taunt "What happens in Vegas stays ..." The new ending is "on Facebook and Twitter"! The same applies to graduate advising. What happens at every stage matters in many ways, and it is not private.
The relationship might start with a knock on the door, an e-mail, or a question posed in the hallway. Because of the particular nature of my own program, it's autumn, the graduate application deadline is looming, and unfamiliar senders' names appear in my inbox. The subject line often contains a variation of this question: "Are you accepting new students next year?" Anyone who has ever sold cookies for a soccer team or done telemarketing knows that cold calls are emotionally difficult—at least initially—and they are usually carefully scripted. The question usually follows a few lines about the student's first degree, experience, and general interests, occasionally the name of the person who suggested that she or he contact me, and sometimes a sign that this is not a form letter sent to everyone in the department. The prospective student may have done some serious preparation by having read something I recently wrote or speaking with one of my current graduate students or a recent graduate. If there is any prospect of my adding another advisee, I welcome further exploration, whether in person, by e-mail, or on Skype. If not, I so reply. If I were not the matchmaker, I'd explain how it is done (and probably keep on hand a short boilerplate I could paste in, whether the gist was "Apply, get in, then we'll talk," or "This is a program decision and our graduate committee assigns advisors to students at some specified point in the program").
Whether early or later, by mutual choice or arranged marriage, at some point there is a first contact. Handling it in a friendly and informative way makes a difference. Whatever level of control advisors have over the situation, how can we maximize our chances for a good match?
Working from Strengths
When I meet a student for the first time about the prospect of working together, the conversation follows a rather predictable path. The context of this discussion is, of course, that the student perceives himself or herself as being in the less powerful position and seeking a service that is often in short supply, especially if she or he is also looking for financial support. After introductions and social courtesies such as trying to find out whether we have any common acquaintances in the department or university they previously attended, I make two circles with my thumbs and forefingers and bring those circles together so that they overlap (as a former mathematics teacher, I hope to be forgiven for a digital Venn diagram). "This circle represents my interests and expertise, and this one represents yours. The overlapping area, which can vary in size, is where we can look for our common interests." I then ask them what topics they are knowledgeable about, what special skills they have (e.g., editing, interviewing, analysis, graphics), what they really want to know more about, and in what parts of my background or interests they expect to find the overlap. My goal is to make it clear that I learn from my students; I want real dialogue and look forward to mutually rewarding interactions.
I ask them to carry the conversation for a while. "Please tell me about your responsibilities on any past research projects. When and how did you become interested in research in this area?" Then I tell them how I and my graduate students work, and I suggest a list of our recent publications to read. The central questions I ask each of them at that point or in the next conversation is how their working with me will build on their strengths and take them in the direction they presently want to go, and how and to what extent these will also serve my research interests and commitments. Plans change, but we begin with a sketch of a plan—a plan that, from the outset, benefits both of us.
Another topic that needs to be part of the initial conversation is how students plan to finance their graduate studies and especially whether they hope for support from research funding that I might or might not have in a given year. If I have funds to entice a student who seems very promising, given that I do have discretion in choosing graduate students who are successfully admitted, that is a strength in my favor. Graduate students who hold a major fellowship from the outset should certainly make this known and count it as a strength in their favor (both for admission and for building a relationship with a supervisor). Next, I tell all potential advisees that they can count on me to work with them to try to obtain a competitive external fellowship, regardless of their financial situation. These awards are kudos for both of us. I indicate what this will entail on their part (e.g., what they will need to do to get published—and I describe how I will help them do this) and what kinds and degrees of success other students and I have had in the past.
These conversations also give potential advisors a sense of the language skills of prospective students, especially but not exclusively students with a different mother tongue. Advisors invest in the writing and presentation skills of all our advisees, and many graduate students will be expected to contribute to teaching or tutorials, so we may find ourselves guiding their spoken language or understanding. There will always be an investment, but as advisors we differ in the size of the investment we are willing to make. Active, live interactions with prospective students—at whatever point our program welcomes this connection—helps us decide whether or not the entry level is acceptable in absolute terms, or in balance with the other strengths a student can bring.
Some advisors are well connected organizationally to their fields, others have exceptionally unique expertise, some are masters at grant writing, others are prolific writers or institutional leaders. Some are proactive in their interactions with their students; others are more aloof or reserved and wait for students to appear with work in progress.
There are several questions that advisors should reflect on every year or so. The answers will change over time, but given publication lags and other circumstances, prospective students might contact us hoping for supervision in an area of declining commitment. Advisors should be ready to answer the following questions every fall:
What are the advisor's current research or scholarly interests? These may have evolved since the publications a prospective student might have located.
What kinds of research methods or techniques are we most knowledgeable about and do we currently work with?
What kinds of equipment or professional staff do we have?
Do we help students develop their writing and speaking skills?
In what circumstances do we direct students elsewhere for primary or backup consultation, such as statistics, editing, or translation?
How frequently do we expect to meet, how formally, and does this vary and adapt? A student might very much want to know that the advisor welcomes drop-in meetings at the office, text messages, or phone calls. Or not.
What do we not like to do? Sometimes students come to our discipline from another very different advisory relationship or institution and do not know about the traditions that apply in our situations.
Students bring strengths in many forms, from knowledge of the same or a complementary discipline to languages and cultural variety, as well as energy and enthusiasm. Students need to know from the outset that they are not merely empty vessels lining up to be filled and then tested for the quality of their contents at the end of an assembly line. Their success includes the value of their ongoing contributions. In all disciplines faculty members have common expectations about what base knowledge a student beginning graduate studies should have. For example, nurses have studied physiology, teachers have taken child development, and economists know some mathematics.
Expect that each graduate student brings unique expertise that can be a special asset to an advisory relationship, whether that knowledge is within the discipline or from employment or even recreation experiences. I ask students if they have any such relevant talents or experiences, such as work or web skills. An occasional reply, after some hesitation, is "bartending"; to this I reply that it likely benefits economic independence, but if the weekend hours are long, then the student may need to plan three years to complete what other graduate students might accomplish in two.
As students meet different potential advisors—at whatever stage our program makes this match—their priorities might even shift. Through personal meetings or taking courses and seminars, students can become aware of new ideas that capture their curiosity or meet a faculty member with whom the personal interaction strikes a welcome chord. Students' most valuable strengths may be somewhat different from or more nuanced than what they have written in their application forms. Ideally, their interactions with potential advisors should help students learn more about themselves and their strengths.
Advising Takes Different Forms
When talking with prospective students about working together, whether the link is made for us or we are in charge of the decision, we should use the terminology of our current institution, not the institution from which we or the student graduated or at which we previously worked. I prefer the term advising but use it interchangeably with supervision in this book. I also use dissertation and thesis interchangeably, but in some institutions only a master's dissertation is referred to as a thesis. I also use research and scholarship interchangeably; for me, both refer to processes for advancing knowledge in or among disciplines, whatever the methodology.
Beyond the words we use, when professors or students talk about research advising, each often envisions different activities. Many graduate research students undertake field placements and internships as part of professional programs or specializations. In psychology, social work, education, law, and engineering, programs should directly inform prospective and new students about whether the research advisor's role overlaps with these other activities, formally or informally. The extent of an advisor's formal responsibilities will affect the frequency and nature of contact. Among my departmental colleagues in counseling psychology, the PhD dissertation advisor is also responsible for contact with the professional field supervisor. In our school psychology PhD, however, professional supervision is overseen separately, and the advisor addresses only the student's research. Everyone is happier when mutual roles are clear and understood from the beginning.
Although the dissertation is the common connection between professors and research students, there are other links that replicate, approximate, or extend the relationship. The advising commitment may encompass comprehensive examinations, musical or dramatic performances, teaching assistantships, field trips, practicum placements and internships, and methodological, statistical, or other degree requirements.
Some university fields of study, such as education, management, business, journalism, and performing arts, permit or even encourage part-time doctoral dissertation-stream studies while students are employed full or part time. Students' work sites can generate good applied research questions and dissertation data. Students in this situation need to know, before they are fully committed to the program and a particular advisor, what their research advisor's relationship will be to any field-practice requirements and what rules or preferences facilitate or inhibit using data from their work in their thesis.
This book addresses the interpersonal parts of advising, not the mechanics of helping students complete specific parts of a research degree. Therefore, most of the advice I offer applies equally to the full range of advisory relationships. The purpose here is to establish a clear mutual understanding, a foundation of mutual respect, between the advisor and advisee regarding what will and will not be included in the advisory connection.
COMPLEMENTARY ADVISING OPPORTUNITIES
At orientation our new graduate students are invited to talk to anyone in the department, indeed to seek out any expertise they wish across the university and beyond. However, potential advisors should be up front with prospective students about the extent to which they want to be consulted about advisees' volunteering or working for pay with other professors, and whether they expect to give permission as well as advice. Also, do we welcome students advised by other professors into any formal roles connected to us or to our advisees?
Students benefit from having wide access to faculty members. Apart from knowledge gained in other scholarly connections, most students eventually need strong reference letters. I have lost count of the number of wonderful students I have met who had trouble identifying more than one or two people in the university who knew them well enough to give an enthusiastic recommendation. Sitting in the first row of a class helps, but extended scholarly interactions help more. Although students usually have a single or primary advisor, they need to forge relationships with other faculty in the department. I love to benefit from fresh perspectives from other advisors' students, and they appreciate another faculty member's opinion on their work. It's a win-win situation.
ADVISORY MODELS AND STYLES
When potential students are asked what they expect their advisor to do for and with them, replies typically fall into three categories. Each creates different criteria for success. If the prospective student cannot clearly articulate these expectations, or has not yet thought about them, advisors can describe and discuss expectations in terms of the following scenarios. Doing so makes the entire supervisory process more predictable and reduces student anxiety. Do any of these fit how you see yourself as an advisor? It is important to know and be explicit about which roles we are most comfortable with as advisors. I suspect that most of us, especially those of us who have been around for a few decades or more, are especially comfortable with the first of these three, but all can be rewarding under suitable circumstances. If we ever wonder why a student is unhappy working with us, and there has been no notable provocation, the answer may lie here, in mismatched expectations about overall roles.
Pedigree. Sometimes students seek a recognized expert in the student's chosen field. Their priority is to work with a well-known specialist. These students are typically open with regard to a dissertation topic; a particular challenge is ensuring that they know or learn how to develop it.
Excerpted from THE GRADUATE ADVISOR HANDBOOK by BRUCE M. SHORE. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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