Supporting other people’s students

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?

18 thoughts on “Supporting other people’s students

  1. Very thoughtful! Have you ever considered talking directly to your colleagues when issues arise (ideally with the student’s knowledge/consent), or when you see a pattern of problems? That could be one way of avoiding difficulties and improving the situation, though it could precipitate them instead.

    • I absolutely would only talk to colleagues about particular situations with the students consent. But frankly, at this point I’d rather not talk to my colleagues directly unless necessary. In part because, ideally, the student and advisor would be able to communicate amongst themselves how to manage their relationship and so I see my role as helping the student figure out ways to facilitate that, but mostly because I think that puts ME in a really awkward position with my colleagues and I haven’t wanted to go there unless I felt there was something productive I could contribute by inserting myself into that position.

  2. This is a really interesting post! I have had very similar experiences, I think particularly since I’m the only woman in my department, and so the female students often come to me to talk out problems. I really liked that you pointed out that we should always keep in mind that the advisor might have big-picture or ass-kicking motivations that aren’t always clear to the student. That’s something I had to learn in a slightly tricky way.

    Recently my postdoc made the poor decision to confront a struggling student’s advisor directly about the ways in which his advising had failed the student (without even talking to the student first!). The advisor also happens to be the department chair. The chair… did not take it well (understandably). That set off a series of conversations… between me and the chair, between my postdoc and me, and between my postdoc and the chair. We’re all better now, and all’s well that ends well and all that… but for goodness sake, if you find yourself in the same position, READ THIS POST and think hard about all the different perspectives that might be involved before inserting yourself into the situation! There are always at least two sides to the story, and there are ways to address things productively as a colleague that do not involve confrontations.

    • Oy, that’s rough. I’m glad things are good now, but I can only imagine the difficult conversations that were had along the way!

  3. “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?”

    Perhaps I’m just naive, but how could your relationship with a colleague *not* be affected if, over time, you got the distinct impression that they were an a$$hole to their students? I remember being at a conference once, as a grad student, when someone that I knew was routinely abusive to students in their lab (e.g., threatening them with getting their work permits revoked if they were not available at all hours, including weekends) was honored for his research accomplishments. The person who introduced and praised him as a wonderful man was someone that I admired very much, but after that…. Well, I was just sad. Gossip travels fast in small communities, and I found it hard to believe that this person that I so admired had never heard the same stories I had.

    I understand full well that grad students come and go and colleagues stick around a lot longer, but what about the tenets of basic decency, fairness, and morality?

    • Yes, I agree that your relationship will almost certainly be affected, as your perceptions of your colleague change over time. But aside from things such as the introduction you used as an example, there are many smaller ways you interact with your colleague- attending faculty meetings, serving on committees, co-teaching, etc. Those were the situations I was aiming for with this post.

  4. Thank you for this post. I believe one of the major reasons I was able to graduate with my PhD was due the support of several amazing faculty members mentoring me and even intervening for me a few times with my advisor when he kept refusing to communicate with me. I always felt bad sending them emails, going to their offices, and sucking up some of their time, but I’m eternally grateful for them being there for me when my advisor was not.

  5. Partially in response to complaints from female graduate students about interactions with advisors, we’ve started a mentoring program over the past couple of years to pair incoming graduate students with faculty mentors. It actually hasn’t been much work to set up, and we have enough engaged faculty (and a small enough incoming grad class) that I haven’t had to strong-arm anyone into participating. The main goal was to spread the wealth (so to speak) in terms of faculty who become the go-to shoulder for advisee/advisor problems. I ask the participating faculty to take their mentees to coffee once or twice and talk about their questions and concerns.
    Anyway, this wouldn’t solve any problems with regard to relationships with other faculty, but so far I think the program is helping to provide more support to grad students who run into issues with advisors.

  6. Although I want to be supportive of all the grad students in my program I find I have to be very careful about this. As female junior faculty I could literally spend all of my time on dealing with student issues but since this will not get me tenure and which would mean I could only be of help for 5 years, it’s not a good strategy for me or more broadly for students (current and future). Part of this is that students do need to learn what is and isn’t appropriate when asking for help from faculty. Serious issues of academic fraud, bullying, and manipulation can go to faculty but then need to head up the chain of administration. Minor issues of thinking that the edits given on a ms are rude or advice that may be brusque but is intended for the metaphorical a**kicking should be dealt with between the advisor and student. There’s actually a relatively small segment of interactions another faculty can weigh in on or do anything about and students need to be aware of this but often aren’t.

  7. “…but since this will not get me tenure and which would mean I could only be of help for 5 years, it’s not a good strategy for me or more broadly for students (current and future).”

    I don’t mean to pick on you, J, but I hear this line of reasoning quite a bit … and I’m sick of it! The fact is that if you failed to get tenure and were forced to shut down your lab and leave, that would be a major blow … for you. Your students would likely recover. This should be obvious to you and everybody else, given that students often do recover from faculty that leave unexpectedly, fail to get tenure, get sick, even die.

    If you and other tenure-track faculty want to prioritize those things that will get you tenure, fine — that’s understandable. But please stop staying that this is really in the best interests of your students, too. Because it’s plain that the best interests of your students are simply outweighed in this case by what’s in YOUR best interests.

    I suppose I’m so sick of this phrase/way-of-thinking because I see it so often used to excuse selfishness on the part of faculty. And as I said, sometimes you have to be selfish, as in when your survival is at stake. But it seems to me that this attitude often continues past the point when the person has been awarded tenure and their selfishness then is essentially inexcusable.

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  9. Even the best advisor cannot be a perfect (or even good) mentor to his/her students. The advisor has a personal stake in the student’s academic outcomes, and because of that it’s impossible for him/her to sit back and reflect with a student in the way that a mentor would. It’s like talking to a teacher/other grownup, rather than your parents, when you had problems as a teenager. It takes a village to raise a graduate student!

    A faculty mentor (not my advisor) singlehandedly saved me from quitting graduate school on several occasions. Yes, I was having problems with my advisor (who was very good, but problems are a part of any relationship), but more importantly, my mentor helped me to put my academic and social experiences into a much larger context, and gave me enough hope that I was able to stay and finish my Ph.D. I never expected my mentor to get involved or to troubleshoot with my advisor. I just needed encouragement and perspective from someone who didn’t have a personal stake in my Ph.D.

    Students should recognize that you, as their advisor’s colleague, will be taking any negative (or positive) thing they say about their advisor with a grain of salt. You have lots of other experiences that form your impression of that professor, and his/her students’ experiences is just one of many pieces of the puzzle. You are not a completely objective third party– if they want one of those, you can help them find one within the university’s counseling or ombuds offices. But your role in the mentoring relationship is not to judge your colleague, it’s to use your wisdom and past experience to help their student navigate the fraught personal relationships that characterize academia. You will keep the conversations confidential. This also means the student should be discreet about sharing that they are coming to you for advice. This helps protect both you and the student.

    If that is not clear at the beginning of your conversations with the student, then go ahead and make it clear. Then mentor away.

    The sad thing, of course, is that this critical role that professors play in mentoring other profs’ students is never acknowledged or rewarded. So you’ll have to decide how much time you want to spend on this very serious, but invisible, service role.

  10. “Students should recognize that you, as their advisor’s colleague, will be taking any negative (or positive) thing they say about their advisor with a grain of salt. You have lots of other experiences that form your impression of that professor, and his/her students’ experiences is just one of many pieces of the puzzle.”

    If you want other people’s students *not* to come talk to you, just say the above to them.

    • Well, the fact that a professor has a pre-existing and ever-evolving personal and professional impression of a student’s advisor, is exactly why students often seek advice from a professor. A prof has extra ‘data’ that the student does not. They can help contextualize student/advisor interactions, and help the student put those interactions into the greater perspective of how their advisor interacts with people other than them. It’s a huge asset, and it’s the reason to talk to a professor who knows the advisor, rather than (or in addition to) an ombudsperson or counselor. As a professor you can be sympathetic and genuinely helpful to a student without actually taking sides.

      I should also point out that this discussion focuses on advisor/student conflicts, but all students need mentoring, even when the advisor/student relationship is fine.

      • “A prof has extra ‘data’ that the student does not.”

        In many cases I have found that profs who think they know their colleagues well and make assumptions about how their colleagues are with their students are woefully wrong.

        “They can help contextualize student/advisor interactions, and help the student put those interactions into the greater perspective of how their advisor interacts with people other than them.”

        This is only useful if the prof behaves similarly with others. Often this is not the case. So hearing that the prof who is torturing you as a grad student and completely failing you as a mentor is a wonderful citizen in the dept and a delight to his colleagues is really not helpful and can be counterproductive, as this can send the poor grad student down a spiral of “maybe it’s me.”

        “As a professor you can be sympathetic and genuinely helpful to a student without actually taking sides.”

        yeah, this is what I find hard to believe. Not that you can’t help a student without “taking sides.” But, more in line with the topic of the OP, how can learning that your colleague is a terrible mentor to students possibly not impact your opinion of them? Would you really be able to say, “Oh well, he’s a shitty mentor but in the grand scheme of things that’s OK because he’s good in all of these other ways.” Too bad about his poor students, eh — all of those other “pieces of the puzzle” that can be ignored in light of the greater good, no? But of course, to the student that is everything!

        To me, your comment is precisely the reason why students should not turn to the colleagues of their advisor for help sorting out their relationships with their advisors. Go to them for scientific help on your project when your advisor is not cooperating, sure. But it’s a bad idea to discuss your personal problems with your advisor with them. Who in their right mind likes to think that their painful confession will be “taken with a grain of salt”!

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