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Notebook and Pencil

10 Myths about Being a Graduate Student Advisor- Part 2

No matter how many conferences or workshops you attend about being a graduate student advisor, you may never feel prepared to mentor and advise graduate students. I offered initial tips based on my experiences in Part 1 of my post and conclude by thoughts below.

(6) People Will Respect You Automatically Because You Have a Ph.D.

I really didn’t want to be negative with this point, but I would be remiss if I wasn’t honest about my personal experiences. Being the first African-American female professor in engineering at a prestigious university didn’t automatically come with a congratulatory banner. I found that I had to prove myself to majority students, to minority students, to minority staff, to majority staff, to colleagues, and to almost anyone who had never interacted with a feisty, direct female faculty member in engineering with my personality and drive.

For some reason, others’ rejection and doubt motivate me. When someone assumes that I can’t do something, I am driven to achieve even more. As a result, within my professor life, I have worked diligently to stay up long nights writing grants, to push my students to write more papers than they thought they could, and to engage in collaborations that forced to me get out of my comfort zone. I took on some leadership positions that no one else wanted, and I confronted people and issues that no one wanted to confront. As a result, I was threatened by students who didn’t like the decisions I made, I was undermined by a colleague who overruled by decisions as a graduate advisor, and I was even approached by a delusional woman who didn’t like how I treated her husband at a statewide conference for undergraduate students. The point of all of this is that having a Ph.D. didn’t prevent heartache and trouble. Having a Ph.D., however, did remind me that I am stronger than any obstacle that comes my way, and when I put my mind and heart into an activity that is near and dear to my values and beliefs, I can emerge victoriously.

(7) Your colleagues will always have your back.

I found my graduate school environment to be quite supportive. Once I graduated with my Ph.D. and became an Assistant Professor, however, I found that I was no longer automatically on a collaborative research team. This means that I had to develop my own organizational structure and rules of engagement with students and potential colleagues as I developed my research enterprise.

Since I began my career in a cohort with two other Assistant Professors in a newly created department, I quickly realized that the competition was on as never before. Early in my career, I invited a couple of my departmental peers to partner with me on a small internal grant. Unfortunately, we soon learned that in a field with limited resources and emerging visibility, being a member of a team would not earn us brownie points. This realization hit home for me when, during my second year as a professor, I competed with three other colleagues in my department for a prestigious grant. Given governmental funding patterns, the reality was that one, or at most, two of us, would earn funding. One of my colleagues reminded me that it would not be wise for us to help each other since all four of us would not earn an award. From that day forward, I realized that I was in a “sink or swim” environment- a place where there would be no guarantee that the rules of the professoriate game would be played fairly.

The positive aspect of this is that although I didn’t create and maintain lasting research relationships with colleagues in my department, I did branch out to form relationships with people who represented diverse perspectives inside and outside of engineering. The blessing is that I never entered a comfort zone in my environment, and I pushed myself to meet new people who could offer new insight about innovations. When life (seemingly) gives you lemons, build a lemonade factory.

(8) You have to know all the answers.

When I first began my career as a professor, I was nervous. I wondered if I had enrolled in enough research methods classes or had studied enough  theoretical frameworks during graduate school. In the end, I realized that I didn’t have to have all of the answers once I earned my Ph.D. I just needed to have enough gumption to admit when I didn’t know the answers and to seek out the resources that would help me to obtain the answers that I needed. Over time, my graduate students have taught me much of the content that they have learned in their classes. Toward the end of their Ph.D. processes, my students have become the content experts, and I have become the “student”. Start your advising career realizing that there is always something new to learn, and you will never be insecure about not having all of the answers!

(9) All of your students will be ethical and will care about the welfare of you and your group.

Although the majority of my students have been amazingly generous and great contributors to my research enterprise, I’ve had a few bad experiences. One involved my engagement with a male student who seemed to have issues working with women in authority positions. I had to remind him that I was the graduate advisor, and he was the student, meaning that if I offered a suggestion about how we would approach a problem, this was the vision for the project. He also wanted to work alone and not engage with other members of my group. Since teamwork is a foundational tenet of my research group’s success, his work style didn’t work well for me, and we eventually parted ways.

Another issue that has occurred continuously for me is having to “bail” students out of tough situations that could have been avoided with some foresight and consideration. These situations might involve students working with other faculty who I know have questionable reputations with students or students committing to a project and later leaving that project without completing tasks sufficiently.

In the end, I realize that graduate school is a learning process for students even if they are adults. Making decisions as graduate students and as adults can require different skill sets, and at the end of the day, I’ve concluded that I sometimes must facilitate conversations with students about deeper, political aspects of higher education and collaborations.

(10) You can advise students the same way.

There is no one-size-fits-all model of graduate education. This the beauty and the frustration of being a graduate advisor. As soon as you think that you have things figured out, you find yourself having to develop a completely different framework for student engagement.  The key is to see each student as an individual with a unique background and with different career goals. This means that some students will be stronger writers or better idea generators. Others will be phenomenal team members or leaders while others may be somewhat selfish and isolated in their work styles and preferences. In the end, it is the responsibility of the advisor to be flexible and to see the bigger picture. Create a vision for your research enterprise and manage your team based on your goals and objectives. Communicate this vision and your leadership style to your team as early as possible by utilizing feedback from current members of your team (See mine here.).


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