Advice for Advisors

First of all: thank you.

Thank you for being a caring advisor, and for being willing to improve your skills in this vital area. Proper supervision does take time, but can boost not just your students’ productivity, but your own. The trick is to devote generous time to students at the beginning of their graduate careers, and also when they need help: this not only helps them to be more self-sufficient the rest of the time, but empowers them to take on tasks you might not otherwise be able to delegate, such as helping with grant proposals, organizing meetings and being a mentor to others. (See below for delegation tips.)

In contrast, if your students feel undertrained or undersupported, or if they feel there’s nowhere they can go for help, they are likely to become disempowered and run aground – thereby requiring much more of your time over the long-run.

The first thing to do is analyze your own methods for supporting your students, and identify any barriers or obstacles (Chapter 1.1) that could constrain your effectiveness. Supervision is hard, and no one does it perfectly. Beyond that, there are probably elements in your own situation that are disempowering, including time constraints and people ineffectively supervising and supporting you. Acknowledge your deficits and constraints, make a plan for overcoming them where possible, and do the best you can.

When you start working with a student, ask about her experiences, needs and expectations, and clarify your own. The gap between undergraduate and graduate school responsibilities is often both huge and unacknowledged (perfectionism, again!). Compared with undergraduates, many graduate students have:

*many more, and much harder, scholastic responsibilities
*many more, and much harder, professional responsibilities beyond the scholarship, and
*many more life responsibilities.

And yet, many advisors expect students to leap this gap with little or no help – and judge them harshly if they can’t. If you do acknowledge the existence and breadth of the gap, however, it only makes sense that, even though graduate students are older than undergraduates and have been selected for commitment and competency, they still have a legitimate need for abundant support, particularly at the beginning of their careers.

Also, be aware that many students have the mistaken idea that the same processes and techniques that allowed them to excel as an undergrad will allow them to excel now. Helping your student understand exactly what graduate-level research and writing entails, and the techniques that have worked for prior students, could make all the difference.

Help your student create a time budget and, when she begins her thesis, a plan for research and writing. Familiarize her with your school’s writing center and other resources (maybe provide her with a list, or have your students maintain a wiki). Think of her as having a team to help her, with you being the team leader. (You can refer her to the writing center for help with composition, for instance, while you focus on her ideas and analysis.) Set up a regular meeting time where you can discuss non-urgent matters in a relaxed fashion, while encouraging her come to you promptly with the urgent ones.

The key to helping students be prolific and reasonably independent is to set clear guidelines for them in the areas outlined in this book: compassionate objectivity (antiperfectionism), resourcing, time management, writing habits, internalized oppression, etc. Don’t just give them a copy of this book, however: ask specific questions to uncover any triggers or obstacles (Chapter 1.1) that may impede progress.

A good way to frame questions is this: “Many students find it hard to keep their thesis topic focused because they feel they need to include all their research in their book. Were you thinking about doing that?” (Recall the Joan Bolker quote from Chapter 2.15, in which she invokes a hypothetical diligent advisor asking a student, “Do you really want to take on all of Henry James’s novels in your thesis?”) Remember that simply asking a student how her work is going without delving into specifics is nagging, not support. The student may appreciate that you cared, but you’re not providing the context for a meaningful dialog and problem solving. (You’re probably just making her feel more pressured.)

Be aware that some barriers may be linked to your specific field or your student’s thesis topic. Some students researching intense topics like war or oppression wind up being more affected by them than they anticipated; and some working on controversial topics wind up being more fearful of the career or social ramifications than they anticipated. In both cases, by the way, the student is likely to be either unaware of these fears, or in full-on perfectionist “shaming mode” about them.

One of the most damaging aspects of academia is its hypercompetitiveness. Never compare your students with each other or anyone else, and also discourage them from making comparisons. Remember that even seemingly “good” comparisons can backfire by causing situational perfectionism (Chapter 2.9). Especially discourage irrational perfectionist comparisons (Chapter 2.7), such as those with scholars who have been in the field longer, or who are researching fundamentally different topics, or who are luckier (say, in their personal circumstances or the timing of their work). All of this comes down to explicitly teaching the student how to be an effective scholar and coworker. To not be explicit is to expect your student to absorb the needed information and strategies automatically, just by being around you and other academics – a risky and fundamentally irresponsible strategy.

It’s particularly important that you tell your student you want her to come to you if she’s experiencing productivity problems, or if she has a personal problem that is interfering with her ability to work. Many students believe it’s inappropriate or even ill-advised to discuss such problems with their advisor, and so they retreat into a shame and isolation and underproductivity that only worsens over time. You don’t have to get involved in your student’s personal problems, and probably shouldn’t, but you can provide understanding and referrals. If a student who is falling behind doesn’t approach you for help, you should intervene promptly.

Delegation in a Nutshell: Delegation is not just about dumping your unwanted tasks onto your students, but working collaboratively with them on projects that support not just your team and/or department, but their own growth as scholars. Delegate only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise a student’s own work – which means, delegating only very lightly until you and she figure out a good balance.

As any manager knows, effective delegation itself takes a lot of time. If you give your student a piece of writing that takes, say, ten hours, you should expect to spend two or three hours working with her before, during and after she completes it. (“After” is figuring out how to improve your process for the future.) That’s still a wonderful net yield of seven hours.