As I’ve progressed through academia, my relationships to grad students have changed. First, I looked up to them, then I was one of them. As a postdoc, I was friends with and also a mentor to many graduate students, and now as a faculty member I’m an advisor and mentor for my own and other grad students. So now that I am a faculty member, how can I be a good mentor for graduate students? Over the past few years, I’ve realized that I have thought a lot about how to advise my own graduate students, but I haven’t given much thought to mentoring other students.
A few interactions have made me examine this more closely. Over the past several years, I’ve had graduate students come to me for advice- in some cases because relatively serious issues have flared up in their own labs and in other cases to simply talk through more minor situations and brainstorm how to manage their relationships with their own advisors. I’m happy to know that grad students in my department feel that they have a safe space in which to consult with someone. But what is my appropriate role? (I’m talking here about general advice-giving, not more serious issues that require specific reporting actions on my part).
In some cases, I have recommended that the student bring in other people- grad program coordinator, campus ombudsperson, etc. In other cases, perhaps where I’ve had a more direct advisory role with the student (i.e., as a member of their committee), I’m able to direct actions towards specific outcomes. And in still other cases, I’m simply there to help the student talk through the situation and brainstorm strategies or actions the student can take to make their relationships with their advisor smoother. So far I’ve been lucky to have talked through situations with very mature, reflective graduate students. They have often communicated to me that while they are focusing on the negatives in this specific situation, there are also many good attributes of their advisor.
But I struggle with three things. First, I’m only hearing the student perspective on the issue. The advisor may be behaving a particular way for very deliberate reasons- for supportive reasons (e.g., because the student needs a metaphorical kick in the a** to get things done or because the advisor is keeping the larger picture in mind whereas the student is focused on only one part) or for detrimental reasons (e.g., the student is being used to further the advisors goals to the detriment of the students goals). Second, the nature of the relationship depends on the personalities of both advisor and advisee and also can fluctuate substantially through time. I have been fortunate to have fantastic advisors- but there were times during my PhD I really hated my advisor and there were also students in the lab who had more consistently difficult relationships with our advisor than I did. And so while some advisors (or students) rightfully develop reputations as being fantastic, difficult or somewhere in between, those aren’t one-size-fits-all narratives. And third, some advisors ARE much more problematic than others- they are not engaged with their students, they don’t communicate well, they aren’t acting as advocates for their students, they are using their students to further their own research interests only rather than supporting the development of their students as independent researchers, etc., etc., etc.
Because of this, of course there are no one-size-fits-all answers here either. How I advise students will depend both on the specific situation, as well as the lab that they are in. One of the major things I worry about is how these interactions may affect my own relationships with my colleagues. So far, my relationships with my colleagues have not been affected by my interactions with their students. But I’ve been around academia enough to know that it’s only a matter of time. There ARE problematic advisors, so if I’m always the sympathetic ear to their students, will that lead to difficulties in my own professional relationship with that person? And if so, how do I manage those issues given that I will need to interact with and work with my colleague in the future in a number of different contexts? How have other faculty members handled these issues? Have there been situations where your relationship with a colleague has been affected by how they interact with and treat their own grad students, and what did you do about it?