Not so long ago, I mused about the so-called helicopter parent phenomenon, at least from the point of view of one professor at a large research university. This started me thinking about whether it is possible to be a helicopter advisor.
Parents never stop being parents, even when their kids have left home for college. We don't call parents of adult children ex-parents or former parents, but advisors typically become ex-advisors or former advisors once their academic children graduate and leave their academic homes to start their own careers. Certainly, advisors need to play some role in the lives of their former or soon-to-be-former students by writing letters of recommendation, but, ideally, our former students will become our colleagues and peers, even if we continue to provide some advice or other support as needed.
While pondering the concept of helicopter advisors, I thought of some possible scenarios based on real examples, all of which relate to Ph.D. students who are/were about to graduate or who have/had recently graduated. This is a time when the ground starts to shift, and the advisor-student relationship is (or should be?) different from when the Ph.D. project is incipient or in mid-stream.
Example 1: What if a near-completion Ph.D. student isn't being as assertive or proactive about seeking career opportunities as he/she 'should' be? Can/should the advisor step in, make some calls, and/or do some aggressive prodding of the student in order to help them get a postdoc or faculty position (or whatever their career goal is)? Or should the advisor step back? I am not talking about withholding advice or other support; I am talking about whether an advisor should take extraordinary measures to try to help a student find career opportunities. Does this situation call for some helicopter advising or is it time for a sink-or-swim advising mode?
Pro helicopter: Advisors care about their students, and have a lot of time and money invested in them. Why not continue to help the students in whatever way possible to get them started on an independent career? Some students may be hesitant to be aggressive about applications and schmoozing owing to a lack of confidence, fear of rejection, or other insecurity, rather than to a lack of initiative or knowledge of what it takes to get a job. Why not help them?
Con helicopter: Enough is enough. You provide years (and years) of graduate training for someone, and if they can't even send out their own applications and enquiries, that's their problem.
Example 2: A recent Ph.D. wants his/her advisor to help with something that the advisor readily assisted with when the (former) student was still a student. It would be easy for the advisor to continue to provide this assistance, but should she/he? The answer will of course depend on the situation, but in one recent case with which I am familiar, the (ex)-advisor refused to help a former student specifically because providing such help would perpetuate the ex-student's dependence on the advisor rather than promoting the ex-student's efforts to establish an independent reputation and career.
Pro helicopter: Maybe the ex-student isn't ready. His asking for help may indicate that more than anything else (laziness, insecurity). Just because the advisor navigated this same research activity just fine as an assistant professor starting a research program, doesn't mean it wouldn't have been nice to get a bit of help. Assistant professors have a lot to deal with as it is. Is the advisor's refusal to help like kicking a kitten off a life raft and expecting the kitten to swim to shore in a raging torrent?
Con helicopter: The ex-student will feel good about his capabilities and independence once he does this research activity all on his own. The advisor did the ex-student a service, especially since the refusal to help was accompanied by a "I know you can do this" show of confidence and some friendly advice. Some cats, and even kittens, do swim. (Google 'swimming cats' if you need visuals for this point).
My opinion: In these and other situations, advisors need to try to find ways to be supportive without turning into the advisorial equivalent of a helicopter parent. That's not to say that we can't continue to be a source of advice and support in some ways, including continuing to help/nudge the less-than-confident, but once our academic children leave home (or are about to move out), it's time for them to do their own laundry, develop their own working relationships (even if we don't approve of their partners), and get their own credit cards.
13 years ago