Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dealing With It

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm interested in people's thoughts re: when to tell an advisor about personal issues that may/may not affect your work.

I'm a grad student in a social science at the dissertation prospectus stage. I'm interested in international work but am afraid to spend the 9-12 months needed abroad bc I suffer from major depression and previous long term visits abroad have not been good. However, I'm hesitant to tell my advisor my worries bc I don't want her/him to think less of me and my work.

mathgirl said...

I can totally relate to that feeling. As a graduate student I was totally dependent on my advisor's mood. I was very lucky that my advisor was a very stable person, and very open, if something bothered him, he'd say it right away.

Funnily enough, I do have a more serious problem with my faculty mentor (I'm a tenure track prof). I'm also constantly trying to anticipate what he thinks. The problem is he's moodier than my PhD supervisor, and so I go through bigger ups and downs than the ones I went through as a student.

I have to learn to manage this, but I don't know how. (Big impostor syndrome here!)

Anonymous said...

I was fairly angst-ridden as a grad student and I worried about impressions, etc. Now that I am an advisor myself, I really wish I hadn't stressed about all that so much. There is no point trying to pretend that you're better than you are, and hide all your flaws. Advisors know exactly how how good you are where it matters. Can you think about science? And can you get good science done? That is all that matters, and all the little things you do to hide the fact that you don't know X make no difference at the end of the day. Advisors can see perfectly well that you don't know X, and it really doesn't matter (or you would know it!).

If I hadn't stressed so much about these things, I would have been a lot happier. I thought they mattered, and they don't.

Miranda said...

Does anyone have a good idea about how to deal with this as an outsider? I see exactly the same over-anxious pattern in some of the grad students and postdocs in my group (I am a science postdoc) and I find it extremely draining to hear about the endless complaints ("he hates me", "he hates my project"), when as far as I can see everything is fine (the supervisor is generally enthusiastic, but as all PIs he is constantly busy, so cannot always prioritise the people in his group).

I did my PhD in a rather malfunctioning lab, so I know how difficult it can be when the supervisor-student relationship doesn't work, but these people are expecting their boss to tell them several times a day how great they are doing. And in a group of 15 people, how can it be surprising that you need to push a bit to get the boss to give you feedback on your particular project right when you need it…?

Any thoughts on how to handle this? They are genuinely nice people, but I'm starting to avoid their company as the negative atmosphere weighs me down.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:19 - If you go through with intl work because you are afraid to tell your advisor about possible or likely problems, and then you go into depression (not good for you) and do not function (not good for anyone), your advisor will think even less of you than if you find a different solution. If it is at all possible for you to do a domestic project, work this out now. If you have to do an intl project, why are you in that field if you can't go through with the research? I had a student flame out on an intl project; he could have told me sooner that he couldn't do the work but he was afraid and it was very bad for him, me, and my colleagues that he was so hesitant that he waited until it was a big problem for everyone. I had a very low opinion of his maturity and professionalism, even as I sort of understood his anxiety and hesitation. All this is to say that I hope you will work something out soon.

Anonymous said...

sometimes a situation may look like the the students are over thinking, but sometimes they are overthinking because they are in an abusive/toxic/bizarre situation and trying to prevent negative advisor reactions.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on whether this is related to current grad students being in the right general age group to be part of the generation that was brought up with overparenting (i.e., parents always available and always telling them how fabulous they are)? My jury is still out on the whole phenomenon, but it sounds like people who need cheering up by their PI 5x a day are not in touch with reality.

Anonymous said...

I used to be very quick to get nervous if my advisor looked past me and didn't really pay attention to me as much as he seemed to be paying attn to other students. Now, however, I've figured out that he meets with each student as needed, very quickly and he doesn't hate us if we aren't meeting as much, so long as Work.Gets.Done.

cookingwithsolvents said...

to Anon (and others!):

I can't stress enough that your advisor CANNOT read your mind. I went through a divorce during graduate school and had an extended period of low productivity while dealing with it. Even though I *thought* I was doing fine I certainly wasn't, and my advisor had NO CLUE WHY because I didn't tell them.

Once the situation was clear everything was much better...the boss knew what was up, I had less anxiety about getting everything done, and my productivity increased for a lot of different reasons and I earned my PhD.

I went on to a postdoc and now hold a TT faculty position. I'm extremely fortunate that my advisor and I had the discussion about my personal issues when we did. If I had suffered longer in silence with my boss in ignorance during my graduate studies it might have been too late for the boss to be understanding about it when 'oh, CWS got divorced last year' came up to the boss second, third, or fourth hand.

Anonymous said...

Miranda - tell them to read this post, or find a similar one from a grad point of view noting the futility of being this way.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:12 - I'm a 30-year-old postdoc, not exactly one of these grad students, but obviously close. I'm on the more anxious side. A more parsimonious explanation than 'overparenting' might be coming from students' having grown up in extremely competitive academic environments in which there were many opportunities for feedback (grades!) to jumping into what seems like a more competitive academic environment (everyone wants the same few TT jobs) with highly intermittent and noisy feedback from reviewers and, if lucky, one's adviser. I was used to more clues about whether I'm doing well enough; research is hard, which makes self-assessments difficult. I think this is why many grad students look to their advisers for any information about how the grad students are doing in a more general and objective context. This is especially important before the first few publications come out.

Anonymous said...

No one probably will read this, but I wanted to say I followed your advice about talking with my advisor re: my depression. It went really well, thank you for the advice