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How to Navigate Your Relationship with Your Academic Advisor


As a graduate student, you’ll work with many faculty members over the course of your program — and each will help you in different ways. Your advisor, in particular, is one significant figure.

The best partnerships allow students to develop into accomplished professionals, but, as in any relationship, they require work on both participant’s part. Read below for tips on navigating your relationship with your advisor.

Understand the Nature of the Relationship

Students should understand the purpose of an advisor’s role in order to set reasonable expectations. Your academic advisor is primarily responsible for making sure you stay on track with your degree progress. This person will advise you on which courses to take, and sign off on official paperwork that moves you through the program. They may also be the one to oversee your thesis or dissertation work.

Their intention is to teach you how to hone your scholarly skills and work towards your academic and research goals. Ideally, your advisor will have similar research interests to yours, which makes them a fantastic resource for learning how to work effectively with your subject matter and setting expectations for future funding and job opportunities.

Other Beneficial Academic Relationships

Many academic advisors can become wonderful mentors, who provide guidance both professionally and socially within the field. Mentors are not limited to only your advisor. In fact, you can find a mentor in any faculty member who works in your department. Many students choose to have more than one mentor throughout their graduate career.

A good mentor will provide valuable feedback on your work, help you resolve professional problems, and introduce you to their network of colleagues and peers. Not only do they provide necessary support while you complete your degree, but they also make great references for jobs and can serve as potential collaborators on projects after you’ve graduated.

Use Your Time with Your Advisor Wisely

At the beginning of your degree program, meet with your advisor early and often. This will allow your advisor to get to know you better and understand what direction you wish to take. This will also inform you of how he or she works, and if the partnership is a good fit before you get too far into your program.

Be mindful of your advisor’s time. While they are there to help you, they may have several other students to advise on top of their teaching, research projects, and department service commitments. Make it a point to come to your appointments prepared so your meetings are productive and you can both make good use of your time together.

Communication is Key

Your advisor is here to guide you and provide their professional opinion, but ultimately it’ll be your name on the diploma. Therefore, it is crucial that you are specific about what you need in terms of their support. New graduate students may struggle with this because they don’t want to come off as needy. Nonetheless, your advisor can’t help if they don’t understand what challenges you are facing.

Several issues that can become major problems start out as communication errors. Establish healthy communication habits as early as possible. Learn your advisor’s preferred method of communication so you can effectively connect with him or her. If you’re sending lengthy detailed emails but your advisor isn’t answering them thoroughly, try to schedule weekly or monthly meetings so you can go over your questions in person.

How to Handle Tension and Disagreements

Unfortunately, not every discussion with your advisor will leave you smiling. Their job is to craft you into a better scholar, which often involves constructively criticizing your work. It’s easy to take it personally when you’ve put a lot of sweat and tears into it, but try to consider their feedback objectively as much as possible.

Sometimes, though, personalities clash and it’s simply not the right fit. If you feel that you’re constantly at odds with your advisor, maybe consider working with someone else. This is where you might reach out to a mentor for their advice on who may be a better option and how to switch.

If you do decide to begin advising with someone new, understand that you may still have to interact with your original advisor again at some point, especially if your research topic coincides with their work. Before you officially change, inform your original advisor and let them know you are grateful for the assistance they have provided you thus far. Although you may not enjoy working with this person, take it as an opportunity to learn how to handle uncomfortable workplace situations and practice being professional.

Good advisors are usually the ones who have a collaborative relationship with their advisees. Students who cultivate a strong partnership with their advisor through clear communication and by setting reasonable expectations can enhance their graduate experience and ensure a reliable source of support while getting a doctorate.

If you are looking for more support during your graduate school journey, we invite you to subscribe to our blog — Advancing the Field — or check out our Ph.D. guide, linked below. Best of luck!

Want to know exactly what it takes to apply for and earn a Ph.D.? Check out our digital resource, A Guide to Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program.

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