By popular demand (= 3 recent mail requests), my thoughts on co-advising, a topic I have only touched on obliquely
before (as far as I can remember, anyway):
One of the obvious benefits for a co-advised student is to have a somewhat high level of interaction with two (or more) professors who can help the student's research, each in a different way. But is that ideal ever attained? How does it work?
My views are mostly from the point of view of the co-adviser
rather than as the co-advised
. I was briefly co-advised at the beginning of my grad school years, but one professor (let's call him "the sane one") was my main adviser and the other (let's call him "the insane one") was fortunately not so much in control of my destiny. If the insane one had been my sole adviser, I might have quit grad school, or at least left that particular one.
On a few occasions when problems with the insane adviser were particularly severe, I discussed the situation with the sane adviser. He mostly gave me lame advice, but when it really counted (e.g., in an exam), he made sure I was treated fairly.
That's an example in which working with more than one professor can be a somewhat negative experience (it increases your chances of interacting with a difficult person), but as long as one adviser is a reasonable person, you're better off than if you have a single insane adviser.
That's a rather gloomy view of co-advising, so let me hasten to say that as a professor, I have had excellent experiences with co-advising, and I think many of my students have enjoyed being co-advised as well. I co-advised as an assistant professor, but I also made sure to advise some students as sole adviser, because I knew that my department(s) valued this. My co-advising has increased in recent years because I have compatible colleagues with whom I enjoy co-advising.
I think that my co-advising experiences have mostly been successful (says me) in large part because I co-advise with compatible colleagues. I think the experience of being co-advised is enhanced if the co-advisers get along with each other and perhaps even collaborate with each other. This isn't necessary, but it helps create a more interactive research environment for everyone.
For research that is highly interdisciplinary, it can be useful to have multiple advisers in different fields, but if one of your advisers is in another department somewhere else on (or off) campus, it might be a good idea to work out a specific plan for interacting with that adviser; e.g. attend group meetings, take a class, schedule some individual meetings. Also, find out your advisers' research expectations; don't assume that all will have the same ones.
When I co-advise students within my department, both advisers have equal status as advisers. I have, however, co-advised students in other departments with colleagues in those other departments, and in that case the other adviser is the de facto
'main' adviser, although we have equal status on the forms.
There are many possible variations in co-advising relationships, with the main factors being the compatibility of the advisers with each other and with the student (i.e., personality factors), the advising styles and expectations of the advisers, and the student's willingness to take some initiative (but not too much; see below) in communicating with multiple advisers. I think these factors are more important than whether the advisers are in the same or different fields/departments and whether one adviser has more responsibility than another.
The fact that I only co-advise with compatible colleagues doesn't mean that we all have the same approach to advising or that we have the exact same type and level of interaction with our students. In fact, more than one of my co-advised students has said, with respect to a particular colleague with whom I have co-advised, that they wish they could "average" our personalities into one ideal adviser instead of being driven somewhat crazy by our different personalities.
In this case, our students are not saying that one of us is a good adviser and one of us is a bad adviser, but instead that we both have positive and negative advising habits and characteristics and that they wish they could experience mostly the positive aspects and avoid the negative ones in each of us. I sympathize with that, but I can also put a positive spin on it by telling them (and myself) that they are learning important people-interaction skills that might serve them well in their careers.
I think that some of our co-advised students have learned to optimize their interactions with us, going to one or the other depending on their mood/needs. In some cases, our students ask us both the same question and then choose the answer they like better, kind of like asking mom and dad a question and choosing the preferred answer. This is (mostly) fine with me because, despite my differences in personality and advising style compared to my colleague, we are seldom in major disagreement about significant issues related to our students.
At one extreme, students may 'fall through the cracks' between or among advisers. Perhaps each adviser thinks/expects the other(s) to be taking care of their co-advised student, but no one is. Obviously there needs to be good communication among the group, such as might be accomplished during a group meeting of advisers and student to make sure that everyone is in agreement about expectations, priorities, and time lines.
The reason I added "mostly" in an earlier statement is because I recall one student who overdid the ask-both-advisers thing. One of the benefits for a professor of being a co-adviser is that you share the time/work of advising. If a student asks both of you the exact same thing all the time
and asks you both to do the same thing so as to choose the preferred result, that is not a good use of our time, especially if we have quite a few advisees.
At some point with this particular student, my colleague and I figured out that he was taking the ask-them-both thing to an extreme. I asked the student to try to reduce redundant effort as much as possible and to use the ask-them-both approach for questions/issues that would benefit from different points of view or for document-editing that really required comments from both of us at the same time. He didn't change anything, so the next time he gave us both something to edit that really only one of us needed to see at the time, my colleague and I sat down together and wrote identical word-for-word edits in exactly the same places with the same pen on each of our copies of the short document. Did the student notice? No, he did not. He was pleased that both his advisers were in such good agreement. He never did stop this habit, but his advisers learned to coordinate with each other so as not to duplicate effort when this was not necessary.
But I digress.
Those students who have previously expressed a wish to average the personalities and advising styles of my colleague and me have said that, once it was over and the degree obtained, they were glad for the experience of working with us both, despite some of the challenges.
There are many different views on co-advising in different academic disciplines and even within different departments of the same academic disciplines. Some may encourage co-advising, some may discourage it. Some may not allow assistant professors to advise a PhD student alone, some may think less of an assistant professor who has not advised a PhD student alone. And so on.
I think co-advising is a good thing, though it needs to be appropriate for a particular student's research and career goals. It's up to professors and students alike to do what they can to make it work well for everyone involved, but when it does work well, I think everyone benefits.
(There will be more on this general topic tomorrow, I think)