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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 kn