|Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash
Dr. Pfirman described what students are looking for in a mentor based on her interviews with doctoral students in chemistry thus:
Students are seeking a professional and friendly mentorship from their faculty advisors. They want to feel valued in their scientific ideas and exploration and have a balance of firm guidance and critique. They want to be trusted to do their research and fulfill their roles in the laboratory yet know they can depend on their advisor to work alongside them at the bench when the occasion arises.
Dr. Pfirman provided a typology of five relationships that can occur between a graduate student and advisor during graduate school:
- “Mentorship” Relationship-In this situation, the graduate student is able to discuss academic, professional, and personal topics with their faculty advisor. Interaction includes formal and recurring feedback. In addition, both people have a similar enthusiasm for research in their field, learning, teaching, collaborations, and the publication progress.
- “Mentorship + Advocacy” Relationship-This is very similar to the “Mentorship” relationship except that the faculty member takes on the additional role of being an advocate for the graduate student. The Cambridge dictionary defines advocating as “public support for an idea, plan, or way of doing something.”
- “All Business” Relationship- Interaction is limited only to research and the interaction resembles that of a “boss” with their employee. The faculty member provides direction for research and the independence of the graduate student is scaffolded as they grow in skills and confidence. In such cases, the advisor's presence in the lab is on more of an as-needed basis than with other relationship types. These partners typically have a shared interest in research, teaching, and collaboration.
- “Autocracy” Relationship-In this relationship, the graduate student is provided directives for task completion that will lead to the thesis or dissertation being completed. The advisor provides the student feedback, but there is not shared agency (feeling of control) or control over the scope of the research work. Mentor and student do not discuss the profession or personal topics. While either party or both may be passionate about research, teaching, collaboration, etc., they do not share this passion with each other.
- “Absentee” Relationship-This type of relationship lacks many aspects found in a “Mentorship” relationship. There is no formal and recurring feedback, no scaffolding of responsibilities, and the graduate student is not helped to grow in skills and confidence and mutual enthusiasm for learning, research, etc., in this type of relationship.
These types resonated with my experiences and observations. While I was lucky as a graduate student to have two wonderful mentors, Dr. David Bahr and Dr. Neville Moody, I saw others who have experienced less productive relationships. When you interview potential advisors, you want to look for signs that you will be able to establish a mentorship or mentorship + advocacy relationship. I spoke with Dr. Pfirman about her findings in the interview below, which I believe offers significant insight into the mentor-mentee relationship.
Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and
Q: I believe that the two most beneficial relationships between graduate students and their advisors are “mentorship” and “mentorship with advocacy.” Can you explain what advocacy consists of in a mentorship relationship?
Q: Can you help us make the leap from research into implementation? What do you think a current graduate student can do if they find themselves in one of the other three types of advisor-advisee relationship? (All Business, Autocracy or Absentee relationships).
Dr. In an “All Business” relationship, a graduate student can be successful, and even satisfied. However, they might have goals outside of the completion of their Ph.D., such as training to be an academic that would require additional mentorship to help the student gain more insight. A student who experiences this scenario, and honest conversations with their advisor have failed to shift any energy and time towards individual goals and aspirations, then it may be wise to work closely with other committee members or outside mentors. In most cases, this will let the student graduate on their current timeline and obtain their goals. In some cases, a student might consider finding a new advisor. One drawback is that this may mean it takes more time to complete their Ph.D. and there might not be funded positions with the optimal advisor for them. However, these may be relatively minor annoyances relative to the collective benefit the student may gain through a new advisor over the lifetime of their career.
A student will know when they are in an “Autocratic” relationship when they are simply told what to do and are always given more tasks upon completion of previous tasks. Little time will be given for discussions or the exploration of independent study by the student. For some graduate students who struggle to develop creative or original ideas in their research, this may seem a tempting route to travel. (And when graduate students hit roadblocks, sometimes they may just want someone to tell them what to do so they do not have to make any more decisions!) However to earn their research-based degree, the student will need to be the “expert in the room” and able to defend their research path and decisions. In addition, most future employers will expect this person to perform independently and not just collect data based on directives. In this situation, the student is best served by first talking to their advisor about altering how they work together. The student can also check with committee members to see if there are techniques they can use to alter the dynamic with their advisor. If this does not yield any changes, the student can again look at seeking a different advisor.
“Absentee relationship” can be the most challenging and frustrating for a graduate student. In most cases, there will be seasons where the majority of a faculty advisor’s attention and energy are turned elsewhere, such as the semester they are applying for tenure, or taking time for parental leave. But if an advisor is “absent” for longer periods of time, the student may not gain the needed training for their degree or future career because there is not much time allocated for it. In groups where the advisor and their group have functioned with this model, the new graduate student may not immediately understand this is the perceived norm. Students can feel like they are “wheels spinning and going nowhere.” For students who want a relationship with their advisor, they should start looking for alternate positions. An advisor who has been successful with the absentee relationship will see little point in changing.
Q: What advisor characteristics should graduate applicants or first-year graduate students be looking for, and what should they be doing to find a research advisor?
Q: Even before you started your dissertation work, you were thoughtful about selecting your advisor. How did you identify the right PhD program and advisor for you? What steps did you take?
Q: The research and research group cultures can be different between fields. How can an undergraduate get a sense of a research culture while in the application process for a graduate program?
Q: What actions should graduate applicants or first-year graduate students take to become good advisees?
Q: Students often come to me after working with an existing mentor wanting advice. How might you suggest graduate students improve their relationship with an existing faculty advisor?
Q: There are so many *management tools* to help students improve their productivity or impact today. Can you highlight one management tool you think graduate students should consider utilizing?
Here are some articles about advising and mentoring that impressed us:
- “Mentoring Advice” in Science Careers by Elisabeth Pain offers a perspective on the differences between an advisor and a mentor.
- Seeking and Selecting a Mentor (Office of Graduate Students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
About the post contributor: Dr. -County Technical College. She initially became a trained chemist (she holds an MS in Chemistry) and then transitioned into the field of engineering and science education for her doctoral studies. She earned her PhD from the Clemson University Department of Engineering in 2018 and was mentored by Dr. Eliza Gallagher.