Melanie Nelson

President at MRN Consulting

Handling Your Imperfect Adviser

Full vitae advisor

Image by iStock

Venting about the failings of your graduate supervisor is a time-honored pastime. I indulged in it myself back in the day, despite the respect I have for my thesis adviser. Sometimes the vent describes something serious: No one, for example, should feel forced to tolerate harassment or abuse to get a degree. More often, though, the complaint is about your mentor’s less-dire failings: unrealistic timelines, vague requests, and insufficient technical guidance, to name some of the most common.

You will never find an adviser without such failings, just as your supervisor will never find the perfect graduate student. Still, given that advisers get little or no training in management or mentorship, universities could and should do more to help faculty do the best possible job for their students. While we’re waiting for that to happen, you can make the best of the situation (assuming you want to) by taking the opportunity to learn how to handle your imperfect boss.

In short, that means learning the techniques to improve a bad situation — or how to “manage up,” as the business world calls it. Those skills will come in handy, no matter what you do after graduate school.

The adviser-student relationship in graduate school is unlike any other employee-supervisor relationship. It is extremely lopsided in power, but there is also an explicit expectation of training not found in most other employee-supervisor relationships. The lopsided power ratio makes managing up particularly difficult in academe, but the expectation of training provides an “in” to start the process — because most managing-up strategies look a lot like asking for advice.

Managing up involves two main things:

  • Drawing boundaries around your work and getting your supervisor to respect them.
  • Getting the resources you need to do your work as well as possible.

The first step is believing that you deserve to draw boundaries around your work and have the resources you need. And you do. Everyone does. Unfortunately, we don’t always get the things we deserve just because we deserve them. Managing up is about getting what you deserve without getting an undeserved reputation as whiny or unprofessional in the process.

Next, figure out where your own interests and your supervisor’s are aligned: You both want your research projects to be as successful as possible. From that point, identify which of your interests are not being met, and think about why. Does your adviser not know what you need? Do the two of you disagree about what you need? The better you understand the underlying causes of the problem, the better your approach to resolving it is likely to be.

Pause, if necessary, to work through any anger about what’s happened in your relationship in the past. Holding on to that anger, however justified, is not going to make your interactions with your adviser any more productive.

Then open a conversation about what you want. Present the issue, but also present your proposed solution. That tends to frame the conversation, in your supervisor’s mind, as substantive rather than petulant. Your adviser may not agree with your proposed solution. In that case, ask for his or her preferred alternative. If that solution works for you, great. If not, point out where it falls short of what you need, and then either suggest a modification or ask for advice on how to bridge the gap.

All of this sounds straightforward but it can be difficult, and even a little terrifying, to do face-to-face. These conversations get easier with practice, though, because you build up a repertoire of explanations and responses. This is where the training aspect of the adviser-student relationship comes in handy. If the discussion starts to go poorly, you can always fall back on asking for advice.

It will be easier to start practicing the managing-up technique with some examples to follow, so I’ll describe a few of the most common issues and how you might respond.

  • Your supervisor suggests a new project. You feel that you are already fully booked, so your first instinct may be to just say “no, I can’t do that.” But that will probably frustrate your adviser, who must have had a reason for proposing the idea. And saying no too often may give you a reputation as uncooperative. Instead, try saying: “Yes, but I am already busy on Project X and Project Y. Which of those projects should I put on hold to pick up this new one?” As a graduate student, you have a goal of finishing your degree — not just pleasing your adviser. If the new project seems like it will derail your progress toward completing your degree, you can try asking for advice: “Project Z sounds really interesting, but I am not seeing how it fits with my thesis work. Can you explain what link you see?” These questions will not resolve the problem, but they will put the discussion into a frame that acknowledges that you are only human and cannot do an unlimited amount of work.
  • Your supervisor recommends an idea or technique that you don’t understand. First, do an hour or two of independent research to see if you can grasp it on your own. If that works, problem solved — and later on, you can ask for your adviser’s feedback on what you’ve done. If you aren’t certain that you’ve grasped the technique, or if this is a particularly time-consuming or important piece of work, use the results of your preliminary research to sketch out a plan. Don’t worry if your plan involves training or purchasing a new tool. Take the plan to your supervisor and ask for feedback on it, and then use that conversation to reach a mutual agreement on how to approach the task. If you are completely lost, even after a couple of hours of research, try saying something like this: “I am excited to try this new approach, but it is so new to me that I don’t know how to begin. Can you point me to some resources to help me get started?”
  • Your adviser makes a lot of last-minute requests. If you frequently find yourself scrambling to respond, arrange a meeting with your supervisor and try to get a better understanding of how your projects fit into your mentor’s overall schedule and plans. Frame it as a request to better plan your own work and be able to deliver higher-quality results — which it is. If that does not work, you can lean on the training aspect of your position. Since your supervisor is supposed to be helping you develop into an independent scholar, you can also frame the request as coming from a desire to learn more about the work you are being trained to do.
  • Something has gone wrong, and your are behind schedule or unable to complete something. Your first instinct may be to hide the problem. That is almost always a terrible idea. News will reach your adviser at some point, and if that news comes from another faculty member, your adviser is likely to feel exposed and defensive, which can lead to worse outcomes for you. Instead, try to make sure that your adviser hears any bad news about your project from you first. That gives you the chance to explain what happened, and to present your plan for fixing it. If you can’t see how to fix the problem, just present the problem as clearly and succinctly as possible and ask for advice.

All of those scenarios provide opportunities to develop your skills at managing up. You could argue that in each of them, you are compensating for your adviser’s failings, and you would have a point.

However, if you could step back and impartially view the full scope of your interactions, you would undoubtedly also find times when your adviser has to compensate for one of your failings. That is the nature of working with imperfect people. It’s why we all have to muddle through and make do with each other.

So when conflicts occur, try to identify the issue — noting where your interests overlap with your supervisor’s and where, perhaps, they do not. Then think about how you want to proceed and present that as a plan that is open to adjustment. If you don’t know how to proceed, ask for advice. That may never feel great, but with practice, it will feel less strained. And you’ll probably discover that things go your way more often.

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