From Advisee to Peer

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

November 20, 2012

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Question: A friend of mine and I were talking today about what it's like to be newly minted Ph.D.'s, working on our first jobs. We became more independent of our Ph.D. advisers throughout graduate school and the postdoc period, but we're curious about what comes next. We're both still involved with them in co-authored projects. However it feels a little odd since we're more like peers with our advisers now than we were as graduate students.

What does it mean to be more equal? Do we play different roles? What's the norm, and how big is the range? It used to be that we had "a right" to demand our advisers' time since we were paying students. Do we have those same privileges now?

Jenny: How you interact with your adviser after graduation will depend largely on how the two of you interacted during your training. For some Ph.D.'s, the professional and personal ties they developed with their advisers continue throughout their careers. Others are relieved to be rid of a relationship that may have been fraught with anxiety. And many people's feelings lie somewhere in between. Once you've secured your first academic position, your professional success is now dependent on the new relationships you develop at your new institution and in your field—whether or not you continue to have a warm relationship with your former adviser.

Julie: The adviser-advisee relationship begins to change for many graduate students and postdocs when they are first on the job market. That's often when both parties start to voice divergent opinions about the advisee's career goals. Perhaps you would like to apply to only a few institutions, while your adviser wants you to apply widely. Or it may be that you have unrealistic expectations of how much your adviser should support your job search. Such problems are not uncommon, yet students and postdocs who are in conflict with their advisers often feel isolated.

Jenny: Some departments have strong professional-development programs for Ph.D.'s, offering advice on the job market and having a placement chair who oversees the application process of each job candidate. On some campuses, the career-services office sponsors programs in which professors talk about the academic job search. Be sure to attend those talks. As you listen to professors speak about working with their advisees, note the topics you want to discuss with your own adviser.

Julie: Ideally, and in most cases, your adviser wants you to be successful on the job market. It's a good idea to sit down with your adviser and set some realistic expectations in advance of your search. An adviser may have specific ideas about the kinds of jobs or institutions for which you are best suited. For instance, your adviser may think you would be a strong candidate for openings at teaching-focused colleges but not as strong at top research universities. Or maybe you are an excellent researcher but have decided that a research career is not what you want. Be clear with your adviser about your goals. Knowing your own mind and acting on it is part of being a scholar and being your own person.

Jenny: The most stressful part of the job market is the profound uncertainty of securing a tenure-track position at all. That often puts an additional strain on the adviser-advisee relationship, particularly if you are interested in pursuing a nonacademic career and your adviser is either unable to help or uninterested in helping.

It's a challenging transition to make when your career plans begin to diverge radically from what your adviser might have hoped. Many Ph.D.'s who move out of the tenure-track path find that they need to develop new mentoring relationships with professionals outside of academe in order to change careers successfully.

Julie: If you've had a productive working relationship with your adviser, you may well be able to continue that collaboration once you've started your career. We know of several scientists who landed at teaching-focused colleges near their graduate or postdoc institution. They have continued to work with their advisers, spending some time in the summer in the adviser's lab or encouraging their current students to do research internships there. We know of social scientists who've worked with their advisers to co-write studies based on research that began while they were still graduate students.

Jenny: However—and we'd like to stress this—it's crucial for you as a junior scholar to establish yourself as an independent researcher and thinker early on in your career. That is particularly important if you are in a job where success in research is essential for getting tenure. That means developing projects that are distinct from the work you did as a graduate student or postdoc, and that show that you've moved beyond the work you did as someone's advisee.

Indeed, many job candidates will be asked during the hiring process for concrete evidence that they have projects in the pipeline that will distinguish their work from their advisers'.

Julie: To collect some practical examples, we interviewed a faculty member in the humanities to ask about his relationships with his former advisees.

Initially, he said, most of his former students went off on their own for a while—which is what you might expect from junior scholars establishing themselves as independent researchers. Those students who remained in the discipline and are professionally active are now his professional acquaintances.

Jenny: Don't forget that faculty members grow as mentors; they develop their mentoring expertise over time. The professor we interviewed said he had stayed in much closer touch with his recent Ph.D.'s than with those he'd worked with early in his career, and had been a more active mentor: "I think the reason for this is that, with the first group, I myself just wasn't that experienced, and didn't have too much perspective to offer them. I started directing dissertations pretty much as soon as I started as an assistant professor in the mid-1980s, and some of those students aren't much younger than I and by now they have done most of the things I've done, like chairing their department, serving as dean, and so on. But, come to think of it, as some of them now contemplate those sorts of experiences, I have had requests for advice from former students who never had asked for it before, or hadn't in years."

Julie: He also noted that recent Ph.D.'s seem to seek his advice much more often than students in the past. "With more recent students, I sometimes feel as though they hadn't really left, except that they are in most cases physically located somewhere else," he said. "But especially in the first few years, most of them don't want to take a step without consulting me. I don't think I'm the only one they ask for advice, by any means. Maybe this is more of a networking generation. But I have tended to put it down to the fact that I actually have now been around the block a few times.

"Also, I should add that with recent students I have shared some very close research interests, so the intellectual relationship tends to be somewhat more intense than in the past. But I also put that down to the fact that, just with the passage of time, I have a better idea of what I am doing and of how it fits into the field as a whole.

"Finally, we had a very good job market there for a while, and students had much less anxiety about launching their careers than is now the case. I think this also causes them to rely more on their advisers."

Jenny: We also spoke with a recent Ph.D. in engineering who did a postdoc for about a year before starting as an assistant professor last fall. "My relationship with my adviser remains strong after starting my first faculty position," he said. "I actually just finished submitting a large NIH proposal with him. We continue to collaborate on the research that I started when I joined his lab. Students in my research group have already started to collaborate with students from his lab. There is a natural division of projects which are mainly running in my lab and mainly in his, though things are quite fluid. My adviser has also made a point that there are projects and new collaborations at my university that he won't be a part of, so that I can establish my independence."

He added, "I still contact my adviser for career-advancement questions, and his advice remains invaluable. I believe we will continue to have a strong relationship in the future."

Julie: Before we close I'd like to comment on the reader's statement: "It used to be that we had 'a right' to demand our adviser's time since we were paying students." Most doctoral students are not actually "paying" students. To some extent doctoral students do have an unspoken "right" to demand their adviser's time, but it's not because they are "paying" for it. Most doctoral students are fully or partially supported by financial aid. The enterprise of earning a doctorate is not a situation in which you pay to earn a professional credential in a very structured program.

Unlike students getting law, medical, or business degrees, doctoral students are regarded as almost-peers or emerging scholars right from the start. Just as they develop research projects on their own, albeit with guidance from an adviser, so they negotiate the relationship with the adviser over time.

Jenny: As you finish your degree or come to the end of your postdoc, you'll find that your relationship with your adviser naturally changes. After all, you are moving from a time when the professor has a certain power over you to a time when the two of you will be more like peers. And, in that sense, just as you can't compel other professional colleagues to collaborate with you or provide feedback on your work, you cannot expect more from your former adviser than you might from another professional colleague.

Many scholars, however, continue to have warm relationships with their former advisers. It's not a requisite for professional success, but it does help. The onus is on you to keep your adviser abreast of your work, to network with him or her at conferences, or to seek his or her advice as you move forward.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Send in your career questions to, or post your question in the comments section below.