Nov 15, 2022

Advising and mentoring for those pursuing a MS or PhD degree

Overview:  Upon entering a research-based graduate program, many graduate students are asked to identify their own research advisor.  This faculty member will direct your thesis or dissertation work, help you select appropriate classes, and share their knowledge about your disciplinary field.  While it is important to select a person with the technical knowledge to guide you on a research program aligned with your research interests, there are other factors to consider.  A strong mentor-mentee relationship will provide you support beyond helping with the design and implementation of a thesis or dissertation project.  This support might include advocacy, sponsorship, and guidance on adapting to the social norms of your disciplinary community. Not having a person helping you to navigate the personal components of graduate school and to prepare for your first professional position constitutes a distinct disadvantage.   The earlier blog post related to setting expectations for advisor-advisee partnerships with Dr. Ulf Schiller was based on our lived experience as both faculty members and graduate students.  This post is based on research and it is cowritten with Dr. Aubrie Pfirman, whose doctoral dissertation focused on understanding the types of relationship formed. 
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 Aubrie L. Pfirman 




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?


Dr. Pfirman: Put simply, a mentorship with advocacy relationship means that the graduate student has an advisor who will advocate for them. There will be some potholes and roadblocks that the graduate student runs into during their graduate program.  These might be related to securing funding for the year or navigating relationships with others in their program or field.  The students at times will need the faculty member to go to bat for them. As well, that advocacy might take the form of advocating for the advisees’ mental health and wellness and helping them recognize healthy boundaries for themselves. 


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. Pfirman:  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?


Dr. Pfirman: [Applicants] should ideally be proactive in finding opportunities to talk to graduate students in their programs and see their potential advisors in action. Seek ways to sit in on research meetings, departmental seminars, lunch meetings, and other venues where you can view how the faculty members engage with both students and colleagues. The conversations and interactions between the advisor and their current graduate students give a great window into how their engagement will play out should they seek to work together as advisor-advisee.  While people change over time, significant change in advising styles are not guaranteed or expected unless the faculty member has a particular reason to make the change. 


Applicants should also seek to meet with various advisors and ask how they work with their students, what their expectations are, and to talk to present and past graduate students. Advisors should be kind, driven, present, active, generally happy in their work/teaching/department, and easy to speak with; these are the foundational characteristics that will likely yield a healthy and successful relationship. I would also add that seeking an advisor with the sole reason being their area of expertise and ignoring all the rest is a very risky maneuver that I do not recommend.  


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?


Dr. Pfirman: As I was finishing up my Master’s degree in chemistry at Clemson, I was looking all over the country for a program that would allow me to move in the direction of science education.  I began reading about programs that offered degrees related to “Curriculum & Instruction” and even Educational Doctorates with a science focus.  And, since this was new to me at the time, I started cold-calling (and cold-emailing) department heads and deans of these programs and asking candid questions such as, “Where do your students go after they complete your program?” and “What kinds of jobs are your students taking after they graduate?”  Their answers really told me that I was looking in the wrong area, because none of those answers were particularly in line with my passions. 


A friend then turned me in the direction of Clemson’s Engineering and Science Education program, and Dr. Lisa Benson in particular.  Somehow, I was initially overlooking this program even though I was currently enrolled in the Clemson Chemistry program. Once I met with Dr. Benson, I had no doubt that this program, which would allow me to use my background in P-12 and chemistry and push my work into STEM education, was the place I needed to be. 


In choosing my advisor, I had some limitations in terms of who was accepting new graduate students at the time because the department was very small and somewhat in flux, which was bit risky.  But I sat down and had coffee individually with all current and past graduate students and they were very open about their experiences.  


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? 


Dr. Pfirman: It is so difficult to get a feel for the culture of climate of a specific program or even research group. 


One suggestion for undergraduates would be to get involved with at least one research project to make some of those connections, observe and take part in the culture of a research program or group, and ask for thoughts on different programs. Graduate students and their advisors and mentors may have friends, colleagues, and connections at other institutions. This can lead to more connections, even if it is a simple email to another graduate student in a program, or the advisor’s thoughts and possible experience with other programs. 


From my personal experience, I can say it is OK to pick up the phone and call! It may sound strange, but that tactic yielded me some instantaneous information and gut feelings.  It was easier when I was doing this (pre-COVID).  With the larger number of workers splitting their time between institutional and home offices (even in academia), it sometimes can be hard to find the right number to call. 


Q:  What actions should graduate applicants or first-year graduate students take to become good advisees? 


Dr. Pfirman: Graduate students should both know their own boundaries and be willing to be flexible enough to make some sacrifices as well. They should approach their relationship with their advisor as one that is mutually symbiotic. Staying organized, being on time for meetings and other obligations for their program and research group, and taking the time to understand how they themselves work under various conditions are important. Graduate students may not yet know what the pressure of conducting research feels like, but being in tune with what tools or supports help them through academically busy or difficult times is important so that they can build a supportive and successful environment. 


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?  


Dr. Pfirman: Open conversations are important! Ideally, having a faculty advisor that is easy to talk to and supports the student as an entire person, and not just a worker or an employee, sets the stage for these conversations to happen. Graduate school can be just as difficult as it is rewarding – and graduate students have entire lives outside of their research and their programs that are sometimes hidden. 


I can recall a candid conversation I had with my mentor, Dr. Eliza Gallagher, when I was deep into writing and analysis:  we were looking at the final timeline, what I still have left to do on my own research as well as my funded assistantship, and we agreed that if we pushed for the earlier deadline in mind, I would have to likely put in very long days. These long days would limit some aspects of my personal life. By pushing for a slightly later deadline to defend and graduate, I could keep more desirable hours and be more present for family. She did not push me one way or the other, but just put it all out on the table what these options may look like realistically, which was so important because often graduate students want to get to the finish line, sometimes sacrificing their mental and physical health. I was clear that my time and boundaries dictated that the later date for my defense would be ideal, and I felt supported in that decision.  


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?


Dr. Pfirman: It can feel really overwhelming to choose the “right” tools, even though I understand that there is never a “right” answer.


Sometimes doctoral advisors have specific tools that have already been paid for and are to be used by all graduate students in the research group or program.  If you do have the option to select a tool, trial and error can be helpful.


With the amount of reading and writing that graduate students undertake, a reference management tool is essential.  I have found that Mendeley is a true lifesaver. There are expensive tools out there, and sometimes universities will have subscriptions for them, such as RefWorks, but as a freeware, Mendeley is phenomenal. With a plug-in for Microsoft Word that allows one to directly cite sources within text, Mendeley means that students do not have to manually add and edit in-text citations and their bibliography.  Additionally, while I recommend the desktop version, the student will create an online account that can be accessed anywhere if they happen to be away from their personal computer. And if a student has multiple folders on their computer full of articles and manuscripts, they can name those folders as “watch folders” within Mendeley, so that anything currently present, and any document that will be saved to the folder in the future, will be added directly to Mendeley.  The versatility of this program is phenomenal.


Here are some articles about advising and mentoring that impressed us:


About the post contributor:  Dr. Aubrie L. Pfirman is an instructor at Tri-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.