10 Tips to Manage Your Relationship with Your Advisor

Photo:  Adobe Stock

Photo: Adobe Stock


1. Set clear expectations...EARLY

There's a couple of things you should talk to your adviser about, sooner rather than later. Getting the answers to these questions at the beginning of your relationship can help you manage any issues that arise later.


Ask your adviser what their advising style is. Are they hands-on or do they prefer to let you do your own thing? How good are they about responding to email? What are their expectations of you as an advisee? How frequently will you be meeting or checking in? If you're struggling in class or have a personal issue that's affecting your work, how should you contact them?


2. Communication is KEY

This sounds cliche but it's so true! When grad students are struggling, that's often the moment that they retreat and stop communicating with their advisor. Not every advisor will be responsive (see #9 for what I mean). But it's worthwhile to try to set an expectation of regular communication. 


If your adviser isn't proactive about checking in with you, make sure you reach out periodically to touch base. Give them an update on what you're working on, and how you're doing (what were the high points and what things did you struggle with). Let them know that you want to make sure you're on the same page and that you're on the right track. Make this a habit. 


3. Advising doesn't always translate to mentorship

I'm a firm believer that advising and mentorship are distinct. An adviser helps you with the basics like selecting course and meeting benchmarks. A mentor will guide you through the various challenges of graduate school while focusing on your growth and development.


Your adviser might not be your mentor. What I mean is that you can't assume that your adviser will be, or is willing to be, your mentor. Some advisers are not interested in mentoring while others see the two as intimately related. The point is that you need to figure out whether your adviser will be just that or whether they can be a mentor.


If not, don't sweat it and don't take it personal! Figure out who you can contact to develop a mentorship relationship.


4. They're human too

This is another one of those things that's obvious but bears repeating. Advisers are human which mean that they will inevitably mess up. They will forget to give you feedback in time, or fail to respond to an email (or several), or they might have a bad day and respond curtly when they see you.


But if we can remind ourselves that they're human, that they're not capable of performing exactly the way we need them to all of the time, we can stop taking their failings personally. They don't hate you, they value your work, and you are important to them. Don't be too disappointed when they drop the ball from time to time. 


5. It's okay to disagree

I know this is harder to do at the beginning of your program. However, you should try to remember that you're not in graduate school to become a carbon copy of your adviser. You're allowed to have your own ideas that sometimes might come into conflict with their ideas. And sometimes, they're just wrong. 


You have the power over your project and your work. And you get to decide what advice you'll take and what pieces of advice you'll ignore.


6. Be a good colleague

We expect our advisers to be there for us--to meet with us, read our work, write our letters of recommendation etc. Yes, it's true that's their job. But we can't deny that some advisers are more committed to their grad students than others. 


For the advisers that are doing a good job supporting their students, it's important that grad students show up for them. Go to their lectures, or attend a lunch where they're presenting a chapter of their work. It builds rapport, and trust me they won't forget it. 


7. Your needs will change

Recognize that as you move from coursework to exams to ABD (all but dissertation) to writing the dissertation, your needs will change. There will be some phases of the Ph.D. program where you might not need your adviser's guidance while at other times you might need to meet with them every week. 


Check in with yourself and with your adviser as you meet different benchmarks. Make sure you let them know when you need them to step in or step back a little more.  


8. Set boundaries

For me, this means not responding to emails after 7:30PM or before 7:00AM. Evenings and mornings are for my friends, family, and ME. I've found that most of the time late-night emails are not super pressing and can wait until the next day. If you find that your advisor is expecting you to work at odd hours, it's time to set boundaries.


I know some grad students also prefer to limit the amount of personal information that they share with their adviser. As long as whatever personal thing is not affecting your school work--you're not required to disclose any personal information.


9. Sometimes they're just difficult

The truth is that there are just some horrible adviser's out there. From micro-managers to absentee advisers, you might get stuck with someone who makes your life miserable and makes it difficult to do your work.


In some cases, their failings are bearable and you can get what you need from other members of your committee or department. In other cases, they're too much of a hot mess and you might need to think about switching adviser's altogether. 


10. Don't suffer in silence

Your relationship with your adviser is just that, a relationship. That means it requires work, it will have its ups and downs, and sometimes you'll just have to walk away. Regardless of the challenges you face, there is always something you can do! You don't have to suffer in silence. 



Ana Rosado is a Ph.D. student in History at Northwestern University. She is the Content Manager of Just Tryna' Graduate. She loves talking self-care, mental health, and work/life integration. You can reach her via email.