My e-mail inbox is piling up with questions and concerns, many from graduate (and some undergraduate) student readers with questions about dealing with those mysterious and possibly capricious creatures.. advisors.
I am sorry that I can't give each e-mail a thoughtful and helpful answer. In some cases, I don't feel that I have sufficient information, wisdom, or insight to provide a useful response, even though some of the e-mails are very long and detailed. In some cases, I don't have time to think in a careful way about the situation presented and provide a response in a timely way. I do reply to some, when I can.
Today's post is sort of a general response to a number of similar e-mails from students about possible problems with advisors.
I don't want to seem to dismiss anyone's problems, some of which are clearly very real and worth talking about with someone who knows more of the context and can provide some actual help or clarity (for example, such people might be senior grads, postdocs, friendly faculty, grad program advisors, and such), but I also get the impression that some students spend way too much time trying to (over)interpret, infer, parse, and react to their advisor's every frown or passing remark. This must be exhausting and stressful.
My advice: Don't do it (so much).
You can be aware of your environment and the people in it, including your advisor, without going crazy wondering how everything you say and do (or don't do) affects the equation that adds up to whether your advisor likes/respects you (at all, more or less than the others in the group, more or less than s/he did yesterday or might tomorrow..) and will therefore write you a good letter so that you can get a job after (if) you graduate or whether you are doomed right now.
Also remember that (most) advisors are people with their own stresses, anxieties, and traumas -- professional and personal. Advisors and students should endeavor to be pleasant and professional with each other at all times, but sometimes that isn't humanly possible. Sometimes, it isn't about you. If a usually-pleasant person seems a bit cranky, maybe they don't actually hate you. Maybe they were up late with a proposal, a sick kid, a migraine, or a cat who fell out of a tall tree.
If you have occasional (as-needed) conversations with your advisor about expectations and accomplishments, making any necessary adjustments along the way as the research proceeds, you should be able to have a productive and professional relationship with most advisors. I've written before (more than once) about how my advisor didn't like me as much as he liked the guys in the group, but in the end it didn't matter. I did good work, he respected me, he wrote me positive letters, and I got offers for postdocs and faculty positions.
If you feel that your unfavorable treatment relative to others in the group is completely unfair, unfounded, inappropriate, and/or damaging, that's a different matter. That needs some other kind of action, perhaps involving committee members or graduate program advisors. In my discussion here, I am focusing on lower-level anxieties about advisor-student interactions and misunderstanding. I am also assuming that the advisor is effectively sane and essentially well-meaning, even if not totally clued into how their words and actions are perceived by advisees.
If you have some health, family, or other issue that your advisor doesn't know about or doesn't know enough about, consider having a more open conversation. Otherwise, you will both be unhappy -- for example, your advisor with your possible and unexplained lack of sufficient progress and you for feeling like you are in disfavor. What you can/should do and say will of course vary a lot with particular circumstances and personalities; there are some personal things you may not want to tell your advisor, but it should be possible to have a general enough conversation that you can understand each other better.
I think I have written all this before.. Working out the advisor-student relationship is, however, critical for everyone, so maybe it is worth saying again.
10 months ago