Improving the Advisor/Advisee Relationship
Improving the Advisor/Advisee Relationship

Improving the Advisor/Advisee Relationship

Academic mentors are not necessarily natural managers. Their graduate students often bear the brunt of this shortcoming.

Angela E. Boag and Nathalie Isabelle Chardon
Feb 1, 2021


Professors are managers. They manage projects, classes, and often personnel, many of whom are graduate students. Some advisor/advisee relationships are positive and very productive. Others can be downright destructive.

Unsurprisingly, this variability produces some graduates who are confident critical thinkers, while others have their educations and careers derailed by a shockingly common poor professional relationship. Witnessing wildly different advising experiences while in graduate school, we talked with a dozen university colleagues and friends in North America and Europe to identify common problems as well as potential solutions. Through informal conversations, we gathered viewpoints from current and former graduate students of diverse races, ethnicities, and genders across academic disciplines.

Poor graduate student/advisor experiences can largely be chalked up to one thing: there are few specific expectations or standards for professors when it comes to managing their graduate students. This needs to change. Adopting basic principles for good management will enhance productivity, promote higher-impact research, and boost graduate student mental health. 

Poor graduate student/advisor experiences can largely be chalked up to one thing: there are few specific expectations or standards for professors when it comes to managing their graduate students.

Some people we spoke with had wonderful advisor/advisee relationships, but others had conflicts, which at best held these students back from making meaningful progress toward their degrees, and at worst caused them to leave their programs. Some students were suffocated by extreme micromanagement. Others had advisors who did not even ask what their research interests were when they started their graduate program, let alone give them any guidance on navigating program requirements. Regardless of the personalities involved, a productive professional relationship can be established by setting clear expectations for both professor and student from the beginning and creating formal opportunities to discuss and revise these expectations. 

Our colleagues and friends also broadly agreed that poor management is partly responsible for the mental health crisis plaguing graduate students, who are six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared with the general population. Unsurprisingly, feeling valued at work leads to better physical and mental health. Widespread belief by graduate students that they are imposters, undeserving of their achievements, adds to this problem, as it makes some students less willing to reach out to their advisors for help for fear of being perceived as incompetent.

Institutional changes focused on improving advisor/advisee relationships, such as taking graduate students’ ratings of their advisor into account during professional reviews, could also help to incentivize faculty to develop their managerial skills. Highly innovative companies, including Google, recognize the benefits of good management. Executives at the internet search giant found that effective managers create a more productive work environment. We combined key managerial behaviors that Google identified with recommendations from graduate students we spoke with to create a list of five concrete ways to improve advisor/advisee relationships.

1. Set expectations: Communicate research and managerial expectations between students and advisors at the start of the graduate program, and continuously check in to adjust these expectations.

2. Track performance: Set a meeting schedule to track project accomplishments and goals. 

3. Coach students: Graduate students, regardless of work style and personality, will thrive with advisors who coach and challenge them, as well as express interest in their success and personal well-being. 

4. Avoid micromanaging: Professors must strike a balance between providing advice, showing students they trust them, and empowering them to develop as independent researchers who may soon be managing their own research groups. 

5. Foster a positive environment: Professors and students should endeavor to create an environment where everyone understands that failures are inevitable and OK. Framing academic challenges in a more positive way allows students to feel comfortable discussing issues early and often, enhancing mental health and research productivity.

Many graduate students inherit the advising style that they experienced, so effective and communicative graduate student/advisor relationships would go a long way in producing successful managers who can go on to propagate future generations of scientists. These skills will also benefit the roughly half of US science and engineering PhDs now employed by the private sector, which tends to value project management skills more than the academic sector traditionally has. Whatever young scientists’ futures hold, they will fare better if they are supported by their mentor and trained to be a capable advisor themselves. 

Angela E. Boag is a policy advisor for climate change, forest health, and energy at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Nathalie Isabelle Chardon is a postdoctoral researcher in the Community Ecology Unit at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Switzerland.