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10 Myths about Being a Graduate Student Advisor- Part 1

When I graduated from graduate school at Vanderbilt University in 2005, I was pretty confident that I could establish a top-notch engineering education research program. At 29, my husband and I loaded up our moving truck and moved to Lafayette, Indiana. As a member of a new department at Purdue University, I realized that an area in which I was least prepared was advising graduate students. Below are the lessons that I’ve learned over the last 10 years. Although these tips won’t apply to everyone, they align well with my “no-nonsense” way of conducting business and allowed me to sleep well at night.

(1) You can’t fire a student.

In this day and age, nothing is free. Trust me when I say that I have worked diligently to earn every dollar for my research group. For this reason, I don’t have time for adult students to use my research funding to “find” themselves. Although it sounds tough, obtaining research funding involves a contract, whether it is explicit or implicit. Twenty hours of financial supports means that your weekly deliverables reflect at least that much work. Producing less than this consistently via weekly deliverables means that a student may not possess a strong work ethic, may not be able to complete tasks in a timely manner, or may not care about my project. Whatever the reason, I am an advisor, and I expect work deliverables to be completed in a timely manner.

Although it’s tough to fire people, the experience doesn’t have to be bridge burning. Before firing students or reducing their research funding, I sit each of them down and explain what the issues are. By the time we have this meeting, they have been warned several times of issues with their job performance and have been given multiple opportunities to meet my expectations.

(2) You can’t set high expectations.

When students enter my research group, I inform them that they can work as little or as much as they want (as long as the “little” meets minimum requirements!). Although they may be supported financially on one or two projects, they are encouraged to learn something about all research projects so that they are able to jump in as needed. As a result, a couple of my students have graduated with at least 20 publications on their CVs, and they have obtained academic positions in some of the top programs nationally and internationally. I’ve found that if I don’t put them in boxes, then they don’t place themselves in boxes either.

(3) Graduate school is NOT like business.

As I mentioned earlier, nothing in life is free. Behind every cent of research funding is hard work. This may involve long nights or endless searches for ideal partners who can fill much-needed gaps for a principal investigator’s (PI’s) project. If a student is hired to work on a project, there is an understanding that he/she is agreeing to meet deadlines and to present the research group to others in a professional manner.

In the same way that an employee in a Fortune 500 company can’t go absent without leave, a graduate student needs to be accountable for his/her presence and absence. Similar to a “real” job, this means informing your advisor or employer when you will be late or absent from a meeting, making sure that your project deliverables show up even when you don’t, and being accountable to others on your project team. If you are the leader of the team, coordinate with your team prior to meeting with your supervisor. If you are a team member, complete your responsibilities in a timely manner so that your project leader can represent your team well.

(4) Adults can’t change.

Children are completely different than adults. As an only child, I have always loved conversing with older people. This may be one of the reasons that my research focus is graduate engineering education and faculty development and not K-12 education.

Graduate student advising involves direct engagement with adults. I’ve found that although many graduate students are set in their ways, they are teachable. For graduate students who see graduate school as an opportunity to enhance their current skills and to learn new ones, graduate school will be quite enjoyable. For those who are defensive and resistant to change, however, graduate school could be miserable. Although I am not telling a student to follow the advice of an abusive advisor, I am recommending that a graduate student enter an advisor-advisee relationship with an open mind.

(5) You are most compatible with people from your cultural background.

Since most graduate students pursuing degrees in science and engineering are not born in the U.S., minority graduate advisors are most likely to advise students who differ from them in multiple ways. Many people think that if you are a woman, you will work best with female students. Although the majority of my students ARE women, I’ve discovered that their backgrounds have been very different from my Alabama upbringing. Since 2005, I have advised no students from the South. I have realized, however, that I LOVE working with students from backgrounds that differ from my own. It has been an honor to learn about other cultures, and I have become a better advisor and person by working with students whose views differ from my own.

These tips are just a few of the ones that may guide you as you establish a research group and standards for your team. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my myths about being a graduate student advisor!

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