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Advisor-advisee stress: It goes both ways

It's About Time:  Managing the Dissertation Advisor-Advisee Relationship During The Chaos of the End of the Semester

Grad student:  “I put so much work into this draft!  What does she want from me?”

Advisor:  “How many more times will I have to tell him before he gets it right?”

Grad student and advisor:  “Aaaaack!”

This is a stressful time of year for academics. A friend of mine used to say that we go from "Mad March,” to "Awful April," and then finally to "Mellow May," and “Joyous June.” 

What makes this season so difficult?

  • Full drafts of theses and dissertations are coming in from this year's graduates
  • Future graduates are preparing dissertation and thesis proposals and beginning to start their research
  • Classes are at their most intense workload for both students and professors.
  • Job talks are ongoing, as are hiring decisions
  • For many, it’s nearing the end of two long semesters, so people are even more depleted than they were in December.
At times like this, it's important for both graduate students and professors to remember that the stress goes both ways.  This is a time when emotions are high, and there is a great deal of pressure on both sides of the advisor-advisee relationship. 

Students may be upset to learn that they still have more revisions to do to their drafts, and advisors may be frustrated when they get that second or third revision and they still find the work not ready.  These frustrations can mount and put strain on what can already be a tense relationship.

For students, remember that if your advisor is requiring another revision, is pushing you to reconsider your argument, or even, in the worst case scenario, is telling you to postpone your proposal or dissertation defense, that person is most likely not being mean.  She or he is trying to work with you to get your work to the next level, and that often means taking you through more drafts than you're used to and commenting on work in a way that may be very different from what you've previously experienced. 

This does not mean that you are a bad writer.  It just means that your work is not yet ready for moving forward. 

Here are some ways to make it easier for your advisor (and yourself):

  • Respect your advisor's time and make sure that what you're submitting is ready for review.
  • Don't ask for endless meetings
  • Don't send numerous or lengthy email messages. 
  • The best way to get on your advisor's good side is to take complete responsibility for your ideas, your prose, and your career. 
  • Find out what you can on your own and work as hard as you can, and then approach your advisor with specific, carefully chosen questions.
  • Don't disappear either; there's a midpoint between going AWOL as a student and being annoying. 
  • Remember that your advisor is probably just as busy as you are, if not more so, because they're likely doing all the same things you're doing--and then some.
For advisors, here are ways to help your advisees (and yourself in the long run):
  • Remember that your students are still learning.  Yes, you may sigh at the level of their writing and you may start to wonder how much they've written before, and what it was they wrote.  But remember that if the student has been accepted into the program, it's likely he or she has the potential to do the work, once expectations have been clearly communicated. 
  • Try to give feedback that is concrete and specific and try not to characterize the student's work.
    • Try to refrain from saying things like "this writing is atrocious!" or "I don't know how you've managed to get to this point with such substandard writing." 
    • Calmly and directly communicate what is lacking in the prose and don’t forget to praise what is already working.
    • There is a reason for this advice.  However well intentioned your harsh feedback is, psychologists know that bringing a person beyond the optimum (medium) level of anxiety causes lowered levels of performance.  Take it from me – most grad students meeting with their advisors are on the edge of the anxiety cliff.
  • In some cases, it may be a good idea to recommend that the student seek outside help, such as editing or a consultation with the campus writing center.  I advise all foreign-born students to have a native English-speaking editor go over their work.  Such help will allow you to focus on content concerns and alleviate the stress of time-consuming sentence-level commenting. 
  • It’s best if you're not always in the position of being the student's first reader.  Encourage your students to find at least one other set of eyes before they share their work with you. 
  • Some of the best advisor-advisee relationships have developed when advisors created dissertation groups for reviewing the students' work, where students can work together to talk through ideas and give each other feedback on their written drafts.  This kind of peer-editing structure can reduce your workload and help students learn where the specific problems are with both their research and their writing.
Finally, both sides need to remember that some tension is inevitable, even at the best of times.  The advisor-advisee relationship can be a strange, uncomfortable dance, particularly if one party disappears or expects too much from the other.  So try to communicate respectfully and professionally, try to refrain from using emotional language, and be very specific and concrete about what you need from each other. 

In the end, the advisor is still in charge and still has the final say. But the more responsibility the student takes, the better the relationship will be.  And when that moment finally comes, when the advisor says, "Congratulations, Doctor," or hoods that master's student, both parties can take pride in the achievement.

And who knows?  Down the line, the two of you just might end up collaborating on a project together. So consider the possibilities that this relationship may be a temporary one, but in the best case scenario, could be an enduring and fruitful partnership.


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