5 Tips for Being the Adviser Your Graduate Student Needs: From the Desk of Academic Coach Taylor

Notes from the Desk of Academic Coach Taylor

[This is a guest post by Academic Coach Taylor, the mashup of higher education and Friday Night Lights’s charming, straight-talking football coach. Find out more about Coach Taylor here, or follow on Twitter at @AcaCoachTaylor.–@jbj

You’re in your office, buried beneath ungraded tests, books to review, rough drafts of your latest article, and lengthy administrative emails. You’ve got your next conference talk or guest lecture fresh in your mind. But then we show up at your office hours, disrupting your honed focus. We ask you to be our advisor, in tones nervous or cocky—it hardly matters, we’re all insecure. You say “yes”, and thus begins what for many grads is our most fraught and tortured long-term relationship, the emotional and professional stakes of which are largely beyond our comprehension.

We, your advisees, know that you, our advisors, are beyond busy, stressed, and tired. We’re not asking for more of your time, but for our time to be put to better use. Have a strategy for dealing with us, a set of guiding principles, and we’ll actually take up less of your time, build better professional relationships, and have a greater chance of success in academia. Some of you, we fear, are hopeless (and some of us, we admit, are useless). But for those of you who want to know what we’re thinking as generational tides turn and the job market looks more dire? Well sit down and shut up, because Academic Coach Taylor has some advice for you.

1) Have a Plan and Keep Our CVs in Mind

Here’s a fact: we don’t know what we’re doing. An undergraduate or Master’s degree provides little training for the professional (rather than purely intellectual) expectations of academia—which is why we need you to show us the ropes. You make our careers exponentially harder when you expect other courses, faculty, and random workshops to fulfill this obligation for you, or when you expect us to “pick it up” along the way just because you did. It is an advisor’s professional obligation to open up opportunities for their advisees. Period. Plan a process that trains us in useful skills. Task us to write an abstract from a paper to go to a grad conference; a year later, toss us book reviews you don’t have time for. The next year, co-author an encyclopedia article with us, then raise our sights to a journal manuscript or a significant grant. Think about how to prepare us to move from the small skills to the big ones, all the while refining our CVs, our confidence, and our aspirations.

2) The Advisor Trifecta: Be Professional, Be Adult, Be Humane

Don’t make us hunt you down, burden us with meaningless work, do personal favors or make us responsible for your emotional baggage. Can’t get somewhere on time? Think it’s fair to make us re-arrange our schedules for you? Flip out over our slightest indiscretion? Never say “thank you,” or don’t know how to act like a human being if we break down crying? Get a hold of yourself. You cannot appropriately lead or mentor if we become objects for you to work your issues out upon, or casualties in your battle with your own productivity. This also means being able to admit when you’re wrong, when you’ve misjudged something, or when you’ve asked too much of us. Don’t cover over your mishaps, bad planning or errors in judgment by avoiding, blaming, or deferring. We get places together, by valuing the professional and emotional investments we make in one another. You set a powerful example when it works both ways.

3) Stop Treating Us Like Graduate Students, Without Forgetting that We’re Graduate Students

When you’re secure in your position and intellectual capability, your confidence speaks for itself. You do us no favors when you lord your rank over us, refuse to let us call you by your first name, encourage or engender obsequiousness, or maintain an artificial distance. All this does is instill a sense that we’re beneath you, which is ultimately crippling on the job market. Departments don’t hire graduate students, they hire partners in professionalism. If we never disagree with you, push back, or wrangle with your advice, you’re failing us. Our careers will be marked by our capacity to negotiate difficult criticism and securely engage in debate with other scholars. These aren’t skills we should be learning at our first job talk or major conference—we should be learning them in your office.

By the same token, don’t forget how many years apart we are: we haven’t read as much as you, we don’t have your experience, and we’re still learning how to be scholars. Expectations should be high, but within reason. Don’t expect us to do the impossible—all you do is defeat us, amplifying our frustration and insecurity.

4) Learn When to Drop the Hammer On Us—And Actually Do It

Know that sometimes we actually need a bit of the fear of God put in us. We need to be told when we’ve crossed a line, turned in shoddy work, or we’re taking up too much of your time. You need to be explicit, firm and a bit unsympathetic—but judicious about these moments. If you’re always mean to us, then it’s impossible to know when we’ve actually erred. If you blow up at us when it isn’t warranted, we won’t believe you when it is. And if “tough love” turns into an opportunity to satisfy your own ego or be a gleeful bully, well, nothing is more of a joke than an “intellectual” who can’t be reflective and honest about their own behavior. Hold us accountable—and if we can’t seem to get our act together, insist upon a face-to-face conversation about what’s going on, rather than just ignoring us until we drift into the land of 8th- or 9th-year obscurity. Trust your own judgment enough to question ours.

5) Teach Us To See Beyond the Walls of Our University

By the time we’re in advanced candidacy, we need allies. It’s quite normal for us to try and measure ourselves against our departmental peers and endlessly pick apart the capacities of our classmates, even in the friendliest of departments. It’s part of the strange incubator of graduate school: we’re always trying to know where we stand. But after a certain point, we’re also wasting our own time. We need you to tell us to pay attention to what’s going on out there, not focus on the incestuous circus of our cohort.

Here’s a fact: if we don’t know the top graduate students working in our field, what universities they’re at, and who their advisors are, we damn well should. Other students are our most natural allies, and we need to understand how to distinguish ourselves from them as well as how to build relationships with the next tier of junior faculty who will help us in our own careers. Advise us to find smart grads from other schools and form panels with them, invite them to a local conference, or send nice feedback about their work. As the market becomes more competitive, those graduate students working in allied projects can help each other survive. Push us in directions that will put us into contact with useful peers.

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