Advice for Graduate Students I. Managing Your Relationship with Your Advisor

1. My most important advice for graduate students is to never work for anyone who is cruel, exploitative or negligent. I don’t care how brilliant or charismatic they are – and charisma, by the way, often masks narcissism. I also don’t care how amazing their c.v. is, or how many doors they can open. Also, don’t work for someone who is flaky, irresponsible or a tantrum thrower. Without a foundation of honesty, integrity, compassion and basic fairness in your relationship with your advisor, you are very vulnerable. (Hopefully, you’ll get this advice before you’ve chosen an advisor, but if you’ve already done so, it applies throughout your career, and life.)

2. Delineate boundaries and expectations with your advisor. Honestly, it’s really her job to do this, but she might not know how, or even that she should. So you should. Ask how she prefers to work and communicate with her students, and accommodate those preferences as much as possible.

Set up a regular weekly or biweekly meeting, and save as many of your questions or concerns for that meeting as possible. (Obviously, in cases where you truly need fast input, you shouldn’t wait.) This is true even if you see your advisor all the time casually, since casual conversations are not a substitute for formal meetings.

3. Be a good colleague. Show up for seminars, and participate. If you’re shy or otherwise inhibited, seek professional help, since that can hinder your career.

Join a committee. Forge ties with other faculty members, as well as postdocs, other grad students and admins. Don’t isolate yourself, even if (especially if!) you’re behind on deadlines. Building a broad base of support in and beyond your department is not only a good career move, but gives you protection in case your advisor becomes problematic. There are few people more professionally vulnerable than a graduate student locked in tight orbit around a dysfunctional thesis advisor.

Of course you will need good time management (Part 4) to ensure you’re balancing your responsibilities properly.

4. Especially in times of crisis, give credence to your own thoughts and feelings. If you are feeling undersupported, misused, exploited or discriminated against, you probably are. Seek help, starting perhaps with someone outside the organization (e.g., a coach or therapist who works with other academics).

And remember: you didn’t get this far by being weak or thin-skinned, so don’t let anyone tell you you’re being weak now. Anyone who says that, or that it’s your job to grow a thicker skin (Chapter 7.1), is ignorant, if not an active oppressor.

5. Especially, though not exclusively, for women: watch out for sexism and sexist critiques. Sexism remains rampant in academia, and I rarely meet an underproductive female academic who hadn’t experienced serious – and, in some cases, devastating – sexism, sexual harassment or sexual exploitation. Again, your priorities should be to, (a) give credence to your own perceptions of, and feelings about, your reality; and (b) seek help.

If someone labels your concerns “complaints,” “whines” or “nags,” be aware that those words have strong sexist connotations, and are often used to deprecate women’s valid concerns, and silence their voices.

6. Follow the advice in this book. Make a plan, with deadlines and deliverables, forgetting your degree. Do your time management. Work to eliminate perfectionism. Ask for help early and often. Equip yourself with abundant resources. And, most especially, work in community. Community doesn’t just provide support and grounding, but tried-and-true solutions to many of the problems you’re likely to encounter.

7. Particularly when you’re just starting graduate school, remember that graduate level writing requires a different process than undergraduate writing. Many graduate students I know could write a decent undergraduate paper in a single sitting without breaking a sweat, but when they tried the same trick in graduate school they ran aground (Chapter 2.5). When starting graduate school, adjust your writing process to handle the longer and more challenging assignments. Don’t forget to ask your advisor and others for help!

8. Unionize. It’s a fundamental tool of empowerment. Check out for more information.