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Do’s and Don’ts for a healthy student-advisor relationship

Parul Anup

Parul Anup recently completed her PhD from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. In this next article in our PhD Café series, she talks about the expectations that graduate students and Principal Investigators (PIs) have from each other, and how keeping these in mind can help in building a healthy mentor-mentee relationship.

What do students and advisors expect from each other?
What do students and advisors expect from each other? 

Most relationships have unexpressed underlying expectations which, if unfulfilled, can give rise to frustration, resentment, and misunderstanding between the people involved. Such expectations are prevalent in both personal and professional relationships and an inability to fulfil them could be harmful, particularly in professional scenarios. This is because personal relationships often have a lot of room for acceptance, compromises, and freedom to overcome such issues, which may be missing from professional relationships.

A few years back, my department took a novel initiative by bringing all the graduate students and thesis advisors together in the same room to address these underlying unsaid expectations on an open platform. The plan was to break these expectations down and discuss their importance and feasibility for both advisors and students. 

Looking back, I think it was a great initiative. The points discussed in that meeting were very helpful for both students and advisors. In my own experience, realization of those expectations as a student has helped me significantly in developing a healthy relationship with my thesis advisor as well as my thesis committee members. Some of the advisors present at the meeting have also expressed that the discussion helped them gain useful insights into students’ expectations that they can work upon. 

I am penning down some of the points emerging out of that meeting here, in the hope that other students, and perhaps advisors, see the value of such open discussions. 

What do advisors expect from their students?

The first point I realized was that most advisors expect their students to take responsibility for their research projects. Trust me, nothing puts them more at ease than a student taking full responsibility for the project, which includes being consistently involved in the project, from conception to completion. It also means keeping up with the literature and bringing in new and relevant insights. 

On a daily basis, this responsibility includes thinking about the experiments and potential interpretations of the data, troubleshooting, and planning the next set of experiments. Another very important expectation is that the student should take the initiative when it comes to discussions with the advisor and should come to such discussions with a clear agenda in mind. 

None of these expectations seems unreasonable, particularly considering that it is the student’s project and his/​her own scientific journey. However, the catch here is maintaining a balance. Both of these scenarios can be actively harmful — (1) doing everything by yourself without factoring in your advisor’s expertise, or (2) not thinking at all and relying on your advisor for every little thing (and blaming them when something does not work out). 

To strike this balance, one must understand the personality and philosophy that their PI operates on. For example, some PIs might just want to know the broad experimental plan, while others would like to see a detailed breakdown of each of your experiments with a timeline. Frequent and consistent communication with the PI comes handy in this situation. In fact, a lack of clear communication can stress out both advisors and students. 

Many students think that expressing their thoughts and expectations regarding experiments or their journey as a graduate student and plans for the future might leave a negative impression on their advisors. However, this is not true at all. In fact, most advisors appreciate such a discussion, because it suggests that the student is indeed invested in his/​her journey as a graduate student. 

Such a discussion also keeps surprises off the table and helps in opening dialogues on potential points of disagreement that can be worked upon slowly to reach a compromise that would favour both the student and the PI. Such discussions, though they can be uncomfortable at first, go a long way in maintaining a healthy student-mentor relationship.

Another expectation that the advisors expressed during the meeting was an understanding on the part of the students that PIs are busy people with many other responsibilities, such as doing administrative work, writing grants, and monitoring the progress of other graduate students. Advisors, therefore, expect students to organize themselves such that most of the student-mentor interactions are time and value-effective. 

This means that one should avoid abrupt plan changes as far as possible, like cancelling a pre-scheduled meeting, sending an abstract/​poster/​presentation for revision a day before the deadline, asking for a recommendation letter only a few days before the submission deadline etc. Additionally, it helps to send regular reminders, in case something important skips the PI’s mind. Being organized (time-efficient) also includes giving your advisor frequent, succinct and structured updates of your data.

While we are on the subject of data, advisors obviously expect students to follow ethical guidelines with regards to data generation, analysis, and organization. Since no advisor can micromanage a student at the level of experimentation, they particularly appreciate it if they can rely on the ethical lab practices of a student. A good lab notebook keeping practice is both a starting point and an indicator of such good lab practice. Advisors also expect that the student’s data is readily accessible, replicable, and can be traced back to the original experiments. Being honest with the advisors about mistakes or errors while doing experiments also falls under good lab practice. 

Lastly, and very importantly, advisors expect students to maintain a healthy and scientifically sound environment in the lab. Research students spend a lot of their time in their labs (sometimes >12 hours a day). It is therefore essential that students invest and put consistent efforts in maintaining an environment that is apt for their mental fitness and growth. This includes openly discussing experiments, ideas, and scientific studies, helping each other, and being receptive of critical feedback from peers. In research, one is likely to feel frustrated for various reasons, and a healthy and supportive lab environment can cater to exactly such situations and help sustain an overall positive environment. 

What do students expect from their advisors?

When it came to students, a common theme was immediately apparent: the students attending the meeting expected their PIs to be mentors, rather than just scientific advisors. They expected a mentor-mentee relationship with a more balanced power equation, rather than a boss-employee relationship. To students, being a mentor meant that the advisor would be more open to the student’s ideas about experiments, science, careers, or their journey as a researcher or as an individual. 

Another aspect of mentorship that came up during the meeting was PIs treating their relationship with their students as a partnership. This also involves extending empathy (not sympathy) to students for the troubles they faced and providing support (not hand-holding) when required. Students also want their advisors to understand or at least take into consideration the student’s point of view, strengths, and weaknesses before assigning them a project, or while assessing their performance and guiding them through the research program. 

The students expressed that when advisors act as mentors, it gives them (the students) a sense of lowered communication barriers, more freedom, and independence. The students understood that mentorship required more time and effort on the part of the advisor and conveyed that if advisors are open and willing to put some effort in this direction, they would feel reassured. 

Besides this, surprisingly, many of the students’ expectations were similar to the advisors’ expectations. Students expected advisors to value their time equally. They would also greatly appreciate if advisors send revisions on important documents including synopsis, paper drafts, abstracts, posters in time or otherwise inform them about the delays, if any. Students also expect advisors to be sensitive to the fact that students have limited time to finish their PhD or projects. 

Following ethical practices was another expectation that was similar between advisors and students. Additionally, students expect that advisors would work towards giving a healthy, happy and safe working environment which is unbiased with respect to gender, nationality, origin or background of the students. 

Finally, students expect that they would be given their own physical, mental and emotional space where they can exist as individuals free to follow their passions, hobbies, or personal lives, and where professional and personal boundaries are respected. 

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I don’t know if listing all these points out in the open transformed the mentors and students but it definitely made them more aware and sensitive to each other’s expectations, which is the basic foundation of a healthy environment. I hope such open discussions would be adopted by more institutes who strive towards a healthy working environment.

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