Graduate school is a big change from undergraduate coursework.  Your interaction with faculty is much closer and more intimate, your courses smaller and the volume of work often larger.  When you reach the point of a dissertation or thesis this interaction explodes even further.  You cannot avoid working closely with your adviser and committee, but you CAN make it work better for both of you.

One difference I have noticed between myself and many other graduate students appears to be one of approach;  I treat my committee as other, more senior professionals in my field rather than some strange form of deity with the ability to control my life.  Implicit in there is the image of MYSELF as a junior professional in the field who is responsible for her own progress rather than a powerless leaf adrift on the breeze.  This appears to be quite a different attitude from many of my colleagues.

I’m sure this is related to being a bit older and having had a career before.  But here are a few things that I have noticed myself doing different from my fellow graduate students and why they would be good habits for you to adopt as well.

  1. Schedule regular time with your adviser.  That doesn’t mean a weekly meeting (although there will be points during your program where that will be necessary) but it DOES mean that you need to sit down with them often enough for them to keep you abreast of what is going on and for you to keep them up to date on your thinking and progress.  There is a student that I know who was starting to fumble her way into her dissertation (really poorly, I might add) who, it turned out, didn’t even KNOW she needed to do her comprehensive exam (a prerequisite) and had not talked to her adviser about it.  She had not filed a program of study (also a prerequisite) and had no idea how she should be proceeding.  Regular time with her adviser, even quarterly, would have gone a long way toward keeping her on track. 
  2. Always go into a meeting with an agenda.  Know what you want to talk about and why, as well as what you need to get out of the meeting.  At the very least you need to provide your adviser an update on where you are and SPECIFICALLY what you need from them. 
  3. Learn the rules.  That means read the graduate catalog, every scrap of information from your department on its process and touch base with your adviser periodically on what changes you  might need to worry about.  I have a spreadsheet in which I store my classes taken, what “concentration” they count toward, as well as tentative graduate dates and all of the deadlines leading UP to that.  I don’t expect my adviser to know all that stuff when it is available to me.
  4. You are the one who cares the most about graduating.  No one else.  There are people in my department who have been floating around for years because they expect someone else to make it happen for them.  No one will.  By learning the rules and following them you can keep the goals and deadlines in the minds of both you and your adviser.
  5. Your adviser’s career is almost as important as yours.  My adviser doesn’t have tenure.  Getting him tenure is the number 2 thing on my priority list, right under graduating.  I keep the pressures that HE is under in my mind at all time and both help where I can and stay out of the way when that is what he needs.  If your adviser has tenure already they are still going to have career pressures.  Make sure you aren’t a totally negative drag on their energy.
  6. Find your own funding.  Look for grant opportunities and apply.  Bringing in money is necessary as an academic and getting some practice now not only makes your relationship with your department far better but also makes your CV stronger when you start to look for jobs.  It’s definitely a win-win.
  7. If you say you will do something, do it.  This is your job.  You have responsibilities and if you don’t live up to them you are wasting everyone’s time.  If you can’t meet a deadline let people know as soon as you realize it.  For example if I am supposed to have my revisions of an article to my adviser by Friday at 5 and realize on Wednesday that I’m not going to be done, the professional thing is to tell my adviser as soon as I realize and also tell him when I will be done.  Not turning is going to annoy him and possibly throw off his schedule depending on what plans he had made around that deliverable.
  8. Ask for feedback and accept it graciously.  You’re not going to get everything right.  I went into my PhD thinking I was a pretty good author only to find out that the academic style of writing is different enough that I border on sucking.  (Note to self:  Avoid adjectives and personal pronouns.)  I almost cried the first time I got a document back from my adviser to discover almost none of my words were left.  My husband was the one who pointed out that, while he had reworded almost everything, he had kept my overall organization scheme.   He wasn’t criticizing my thinking, but rather the details of how I expressed it.  I STILL struggle with this aspect, but by learning to accept even negative feedback as intended to help me improve I am making better use of it and reacting less emotionally.
  9. Ask for clarification.  If the feedback you get is muddy or doesn’t make sense, ask for the faculty member to explain what they mean.  Do so politely, but don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure what you are looking for here”.
  10. Be clear on deliverables, in both directions.  One productivity tip is to always finish a meeting by asking “What are the next actions.”  Use that.  Make sure both you and the faculty member are clear on what is expected, from whom and by when.  If you think there is ambiguity, follow up with an email message.  If you expect them to get back to you with something, make sure they understand your expectation and agree to it.

So, after all this, what do you do if you pulled a bad one.  There are lots of graduate students with horror stories about faculty who ignore them, treat them dismissively, are verbally abusive, constantly change what they want so that the student can never get it right and even actively work against the student.  What can you do?

  • Be professional.  Whine and cry on your own time.  When you are in that situation behave as an adult and try to avoid getting overly emotional.
  • Address the situation EARLY.  This is a big one.  You don’t want negative behaviors on either side to become a habit AND you don’t want to be well along in your program to the point that you can’t change things before you start to deal with this.  Nip it in the bud.
  • Speak directly to the offending faculty member about the problem.  There is a faculty member in my department with a reputation for treating students badly.  He is dismissive, abrupt, and basically assumes they are all idiots and incompetents.  He was also my original adviser.  I had an early discussion with him where I basically told him that treating me like that wasn’t acceptable.  I explained that that sort of demeaning behavior wasn’t productive and made some suggestions on how we could be sure of getting what we both needed (such as agendas and deliverables).  He never did it to me again.
  • Document, Document, Document.  Send the faculty member meeting notes in email phrased as confirmations.  “I want to make sure I understand what you are looking for and by when…”  Be consistent as soon as you detect even the slightest problem.  This will make it easier, as the process moves along, to explain to others both what has been happening and that you have made every reasonable effort to deal with it yourself.
  • If the faculty member doesn’t respond well, speak to another professor whom you do trust.  You will take lots of classes and some profs will click more with you than others.  If you are having a problem with one particular faculty member, go to another and ask them to mentor you on how to deal with the troublesome faculty member. 
  • Speak to the department chair.  Make an appointment and again, be professional in your presentation of the problem.  The department chair may be able to make suggestions as well, and they will almost certainly present your concerns back to the faculty member in (hopefully) a productive way.  If you are calm and obviously seeking a win-win solution to the conflict, the department chair will almost always work with you.  [Conversely if you go in whining and crying they are likely to be more sympathetic of the faculty member, so it is critical that you keep your cool.]  Bring your document and present it as your attempt to resolve the problem on your own, not as an accusation against the professor.
  • Speak to the graduate college.  Often the graduate college can help resolve issues where a faculty member either doesn’t know or doesn’t realize their responsibilities in terms of moving you forward.  They can also help advise you on working the system so as to accomplish your goals.
  • Consider removing the faculty member from your committee.  The aforementioned faculty member who was my original adviser has a very different idea of what comprehensive exams should include than almost anyone else in the department.  I am therefore forming my official committee without that person, even though they were originally assigned to me.  Your committee is your choice and it should be a strategic one.  If this faculty members goals and attitudes are not in sync with yours than BOTH of you will be happier if you don’t include them.
  • As a last resort, consider transferring.  I have heard horror stories of abusive faculty who end up as chair’s of someone’s committee.  That person lets them get away with it for years until it turns out that the faculty member has decided this person will NEVER be good enough and either refuses to let them graduate or stops responding.  The best idea is to remove the person from the committee and find someone else, but in a small department or sub-specialty that may not be an option.  In that case consider transferring either to a new school or a different department/sub-specialty.  It might set you back a bit but in the long run it might be your only option.

The bottom line here is to behave like a professional, not a supplicant.  Yes, they have a certain amount of power and control over your future, but you have some control and power as well.  Exercise it in an adult, professional manner and both you and the faculty members with whom you interact will be happier in the long run.