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How to manage your advisor

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Different Ph.D. programs have different types of committees to support their students, but each Ph.D. student has an advisor. In many cases, the advisor is the person who brought that student into the program. In other cases, the student might have come in without an advisor, and must choose one within his or her first year. The advisor is responsible for guiding the student through the Ph.D. experience. This includes helping choose classes, select research topics, shape and edit papers, and most important, teaching what makes a successful Ph.D. student, and what makes a successful professor.

Unfortunately, advising students is not a professor's main job. No matter how dedicated the advisor, all advisors have many other responsibilities to fit into a day. Besides advising you, they teach, write their own papers, serve on faculty committees, and advise other students. Some of this, like teaching and writing papers, you will help with, as associate instructor and research assistant.

It is ultimately up to the individual student to create the relationships that student wants to have.

There is a balance to the Ph.D./advisor relationship. If your advisor is over-bearing, you could end up working on only that advisor's research, and never distinguish yourself as an independent researcher. If you are too independent, you will not get the support you need to develop and be successful as a researcher. Managing this balance is crucial to finishing your Ph.D.

The other harsh truth is that not all advisors are created equal. Students are brought in for a variety of reasons. Some are brought in just as research assistants to further a professor's own career. Other professors might want Ph.D. students so they will appear more valuable in their departments, making it more difficult to remove them before they have tenure. Over-bearing professors might want to create miniature versions of themselves to sell their ideas to the academic community. The first lesson is your advisor might not always have your best interests in mind. Advisors have their own careers to think about, and there is no guarantee they will put you before their own. This is not necessarily a deal breaker, but it is important to be aware of when undertaking a Ph.D.

Your strategy for managing your advisor will also change over the course of your Ph.D. career, so I focus here on long-term strategies you can work on early in yours that will lay a foundation for the rest of your student/advisor relationship. In the first year, you will likely follow the advisor's lead. If you were brought into the program by that advisor, it is likely you have already discussed the research you would be working on. This is the time to build the relationship and prove you are a valuable asset, and to start learning the research techniques you will need in your field. Besides working on the advisor's research, learn the advisor's responsibilities and schedule. What classes does the advisor teach? What committees does the advisor serve on? Which researchers does the advisor frequently work with? What conferences or journals does the advisor frequently submit to? Who are the advisor's other Ph.D. students?

Understanding your advisor's responsibilities and schedule will help you know the best times to approach this person for help. Perhaps the advisor is completely swamped early in the semester but has more time at the end or vice versa. Understanding who the advisor works with and what conferences the advisor submits to will help you understand how to select your own research partners and conference venues. They might be the same type of people and venues you are interested in, or they might be different. If different, you might want to develop other relationships and seek people with experience in the conferences you are interested in. Knowing who are your advisor's other Ph.D. students will help you ask questions about the advisor and learn the advisor's expectations and gain insight into how these students have managed their own relationships.

It is also essential to learn how your advisor communicates. In my experience, email is the preferred method for most academics, but it is not always reliable. I have heard from many Ph.D. students who write long, detailed messages to their advisors, only to receive a one-line or even one-word response. This can be incredibly frustrating, but it might be a sign that your advisor does not have time to digest that much information in an individual email message. It is likely the advisor has scheduled time to work through email, and does not have time for detailed responses, or is responding to email in the five minutes between a class and a next meeting.

I recommend scheduling a weekly meeting with your advisor. In the case that the advisor does not give detailed responses to your detailed email messages, you can use email for simpler communications, saving the more detailed information for in-person meetings. Even if you have perfect email communication, a weekly meeting is great for getting to know your advisor and building the kind of relationship that can ensure mutual understanding.

Academia is all about politics. It is ultimately up to the individual student to create the relationships the student wants to have. The advisor is an excellent resource, and it is important to learn early on what support you can expect. If you find the support you want is not there, it might be time to find a new advisor. Learning this as early as possible is central to having a good Ph.D. experience.

Andrew J. Hunsucker

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