grad skool rulz #15.2: what can you say to your adviser?

Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.

This is a follow up to grad skool rulz #15: working with your committee. The other grad skool rulz are here.

I was recently asked – what are you allowed to say to faculty members? This is an important question. Students should know what is off limits and professors should have a sense of what the boundary is.

First, you have to be a little honest about your relationship with Professor X. There’s a huge range in what people find acceptable. Some professors treat advisees as quasi-family members. They invite them to dinner all the time, socialize with them, and so forth. Others are much more guarded. One friend had an adviser who was extremely guarded. He would show up to the weekly meeting, discuss his research for an hour, and when time was up, he’d leave. After a few years of this, the dissertation was done, but there was almost no social interaction. I’m probably in the middle. I’m friendly and chatty, but I meet students during business  hours. I normally don’t socialize with students off-campus, unless we have a genuine common extra-academic  interest.

Ok, what can you talk about? You should be able to have a conversation with your professor on the following topics.

  • Intellectual matters: Your adviser should be open to any question relating to your discipline. “How do you prove this result? What do people think about this book? What is your opinion of this hypothesis?” All legitimate, even if she says, “Gee, that’s a good question – I don’t know!” The point of being a professor is knowledge. If you can’t share it with the graduate students, what’s the point?
  • Evaluation of professional work: You should be able to ask – “how good is this?” and get a reasonable answer. Success depends on producing strong work. Your adviser should be able to give you his/her opinion on how you are doing and convey it in a professional manner.
  • Professionalization: There’s all kind of tacit knowledge about how academia works. You can always ask questions like: How does publishing work? What is a “good journal” in my area? How do I get a job? What do people do at academic conferences?
  • Major life crises: Once in a while, really bad things happen. I mean *really* bad things happen. At the very least, your adviser should know why you’ve been slow on email. Some people can sympathize, or even help you. At other times, maybe your professor can guide you in the right direction. For example, I once had an LGBT student who had a very serious issue. I am  not gay, so I thought it was inappropriate for me to advise this person. However, we do have an LGBT counselor on campus whose purpose is to help students. Some faculty have tin ears, but it’s better to have people informed and maybe you can get some help.

Let’s move on to more subtle issues:

  • With most faculty, most small talk is ok. Professors are human beings who watch tv, read the Internet and so forth. Chit chat is ok.
  • I’d tend to shy away from the ups and downs of personal life.
  • I’d reserve complaining for your friends.
  • I’d avoid gossip about faculty and other graduate students. That should probably be reserved for your friends.
  • You can always ask how your personal experience might (adversely) affect your career. For example, if you have some family planning issues, speak up.

Criticism. We all need it, but it’s hard for professors to hear it:

  • If you have a real beef, float it by the graduate director or some other people you can trust.
  • Accusing people is usually bad form. It’s often better to say “Professor X, I appreciate what you’ve done for me, but I was confused by … ” Give people the benefit of the doubt and provide a way for the situation to be peacefully resolved.

The rule of thumb is “be professional.” Unless you have a super touchy feely adviser, you should stick to your research and professional issues.

Update: There was originally a passage that sent the wrong message. The updated post responds to that. If it interests you, the original can still be found in the comments thread.


Written by fabiorojas

September 1, 2010 at 12:23 am

Posted in fabio, grad school rulz

6 Responses

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  1. “if you are female, it’s fair game to ask about family.”

    Really? Men don’t have families that affect their careers? Or men don’t share their work-family worries and conflicts, which helps maintain their privilege as presumably ideal professionals?


    Erin Kelly

    September 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm

  2. Hi, Erin: Thanks for bringing this up. Of course, all people have family obligations. However, the passage you cited is not meant to say that men don’t have obligations. Rather, women face different choices than men, which seriously impact a career.

    It’s important that we get that out in the open and work on policies that will help people reach their potential. Things will only get better if openly discuss this with advisers. Similarly, I recommend that people with other concerns (minorities, low income, LGBT, etc) should speak up. It’s the first step toward a solution.



    September 1, 2010 at 6:05 pm

  3. Good post. Our student group met today to plan out our brown bag lunch series for the year which is sorta like a live version of grad skool rulz. We specifically talked about having “managing your personal life” as a topic in order to avoid trying to start awkward personal conversations with professors on things like marriage, kids, money, etc.



    September 2, 2010 at 12:11 am

  4. Rather, women face different choices than men, which seriously impact a career.

    It’s important that we get that out in the open and work on policies that will help people reach their potential. Things will only get better if openly discuss this with advisers.

    As I read Erin’s comment, her point is that a world where women, but not men, are encouraged to discuss relevant work/family concerns with their advisors helps reproduce rather than ameliorate an institutional environment where women “face different choices”.



    September 2, 2010 at 12:27 am

  5. Erin: Exactly what I thought when I read that line in what was otherwise a great post. And yes, Kieran has the problem right exactly.


    Rachel K

    September 2, 2010 at 2:00 am

  6. What Kieran said.



    September 2, 2010 at 6:42 pm

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