Advising grad students is probably the most difficult part of being a professor at a research university. I enjoy it immensely, most of the time, but it is impossible to get the right balance of giving 'just enough' advice and assistance but not too much or too little. Too much = controlling; too little = uncaring, disengaged. And every student is different in terms of their abilities (intellectual, self-motivation etc.) and preference for amount of advisor input. It is a stressful relationship at times. It is very easy to accuse even the most caring advisor of not giving enough information/structure/advice, or being too critical, or of expecting too much.
My advisor was totally disengaged from what his students were doing. He had a sink-or-swim attitude, and many students sank. I thought that all I would have to do to be a better advisor to my own students was to be tuned in, accessible, and encouraging, and to provide them with sufficient financial support to do their research. Wrong.
My approach is to be as accessible as possible, as consistent and fair as possible, and as calm as possible. Or, I should say, that is my goal. My success varies depending on the situation. Some situations are difficult for everyone: students with depression, disabling physical illness, substance abuse problems, family/personal crises, in addition to all the academic problems that can arise even without these issues. There doesn't seem to be a how-to manual for things like "How To Advise a Heroin Addict". I could write one, but it would be short, as the answer ended up being "You can't".
A student once said to me "My therapist says you are passive-aggressive towards me." This student had previously told me that he had been diagnosed with an 'anxiety disorder', and I was glad that he was getting help, but not sure I wanted to know what his therapist thought of me (and what information that was based on). I asked my student to give examples so we could talk about it, but he didn't want to give me any examples. I thought that was rather passive-aggressive of him.. (and no, this student did not finish his degree).
Passive-aggressive is a rather easy (and unfair) label to give to any advisor. For example, I think many of us hold back on criticism at particular times, but are more open with it at others, depending on the context of the situation, but thereby giving the impression that one is 'secretly' critical at some times, only to attack at others.
Fortunately or unfortunately, grad-advisor relationships have years to develop and evolve, and, in most cases, over time we can figure out a way to work well together.
8 years ago