(Some Of) What Grad Advisors Wish Their Graduate Students Knew

So, I was curious — following a conversation with some of my peers concerning “what we wished we knew before we went to graduate school” — as to whether or not similar conversations took place among our advisors. Did they ever discuss what they wished we knew before we went to graduate school? It turns out that the answer is a resounding YES.

Here are some of the responses I gleaned from informally polling graduate student advisors — including assistant, associate, and full professors — with the simple question: “What do you wish your advisees knew before they arrived at your door to work with you?” The digested form of their responses appears in the “Top-10” list below. Following that, I have included some of their individual voices, broken down into three sections: “Know Before You Go”; “What To Do When You Get There”; and “Mentoring”. Finally, there is a link to another blogpost on the subject… because grad students love to exhaustively research subjects of interest to them, and what is more interesting to us, than us? ;oP

(Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list, nor true of every graduate student advisor — what follows is based solely on the responses I received.)

Top Ten Things Graduate Student Advisors Wish Their Advisees Knew

  1. Have a solid reason for going to graduate school and be able to articulate that reason clearly when you talk to me.
  2. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.
  3. Choose departments based on the faculty you will be able to work with, not just the ranking of the department. A top-10 ranking doesn’t guarantee there are enough people in your particular field of study to form a committee.
  4. Choose advisors based on subject and specific topic interest, not just big-name recognition.
  5. Actively participate in the mentoring process – don’t just assume that when you have completed your degree requirements, you will have magically morphed into a fully-fledged scholar. If your advisor doesn’t know what areas you need development in, s/he can’t help you develop. S/he can’t know what you need help with if you don’t talk about it. “Suck it up and figure it out” is a bad motto for grad students.
  6. Admit when you don’t know or understand something. Even the smartest and brightest students have areas in which they are not as smart and bright. Ask for help. If you don’t need help, why are you here?
  7. Understand that it is okay to feel insecure, and learn ways to negotiate that fear.
  8. Learn to determine where your passions and interests intersect with the available scholarship, and start filling that gap in knowledge rather than just working on something because it is “marketable.” Make what you do “marketable.”
  9. Understand that criticism doesn’t mean ripping established scholars’ work to shreds, but rather finding your own voice in the conversation and building your own body of knowledge to contribute to, not tear down, current scholarship.
  10. Don’t dissociate required coursework from your dissertation project. Learn to use everything you learn towards establishing a foundation for your work.

Know Before You Go

Some advisors just want you to know why you are in graduate school, what you want out of it, and what you should expect from it, both in terms of the pleasure of study – “For me, it’s something really simple-and perhaps ineffable: understand your relationship to the pleasure of study. If there’s no pleasure in it, think about why you’re doing this” – or understanding the nuts and bolts of the enterprise before undertaking it: “I think people often apply without really having a full understanding of the quality or quantity of work demanded by a good program or dissertation project. So I think students need to understand two contradictory imperatives: the need to really invest themselves in pursuing and exploring a project as fully as possible on its own terms, but also to knowing how to make that project work within a very imperfect academic and scholarly environment. It’s about commitment AND flexibility. I’ve also found Gregory Semenza’s book on Graduate Study for the 21st century helpful for this kind of advising.”

Some professors are concerned that students apply to “top programs” without researching who is actually at those programs and whether or not their projects will fit: “We’ve got a new student in our department, a very strong student, very talented, who applied for French and now wants to work with Creole French. We’re an excellent foreign language program but a small department, and none of our professors works in this area. Who is going to supervise her project? I asked her and she said she just assumed that a top program would be able to accommodate any language project. That’s not always true. The students need to look into who they will be able to study with instead of just thinking oh, I got into Yale/Harvard/Berkeley so I am set. You are not set until you have a professor who can support your work.”

Alternately, as a different professor notes: “you cannot just look at the department website, run down the list of names, see that I do what you want to do, and apply to our program thinking I will automatically be your advisor. That’s not how this works. I may be phasing into retirement, I may be on sabbatical, I may be leaving the university or moving into administration, I may have too many advisees right now to take on another. At the doctoral level in particular, it is not out of order to email me and ask whether I am accepting new students. It’s very foolish to apply to a department for a 5-7 year venture without checking to make sure the professor you intend to work with plans to be there for the 5-7 years. If you are applying because you wish to work with me, you can save yourself a lot of grief by just checking to verify that I will be here, and that I can work with you.”

Further, a second voice on the subject warns, “if you haven’t favorably impressed me — or even introduced yourself to me — don’t assume that I’m in your area, so I will be on your committee. I don’t understand why graduate students think this way. You have to ask me to be on your committee. And I have to have a reason to say “yes” beyond the fact that your project is related, or tangentially related, to my area of specialization. This does not mean I have to have taught you in class, but I should at least have MET you before. You should start meeting professors in the department as soon as you arrive. Make a point to drop in during office hours and attend department events to meet us, especially if you think you plan to work with us. We are not obligated to work with you, even if we are in your field.

Along similar lines, another professor notes: “If you applied to the department to work with me, why are you asking me to supervise a project that falls well without the parvenu of my research? Do you know what I do? Or did you just get my name from an MLA search or looking at the list of professors in my department and figure I was highly published in modernism, so I must be good to work with? It really does seem like that sometimes. Yes, I’m a modernist, but I do novel studies. If you want to work on Yeats, you need to find someone who has published more than one article on Yeats to work with. So graduate students should actually research the professors they intend to work with, not assume that since they work in the big “ism” – Romanticism, Modernism, whatever -ism – they can supervise any project in that area of study. Often not the case.”

Another professor simply remarks, “I never fail to be astonished at how many people just show up at my office with no clue how they got there or what they want. I wonder: ‘Did you apply to this graduate program, or did someone just send you here?’ In short – have a purpose, even if that purpose is just to learn more about Biology. Don’t just tell me, “I don’t really know what I want to study” or worse, ask me, “what should I study?” You should already have ideas about this, even if they are just vague ideas! Tell me rather, “I heard about it as an undergraduate, and now I want to learn more about how to conduct computational modeling of biological systems and processes. Can you recommend ways to get started?”

What To Do When You Get There

Several professors remarked that their advisees have an imperfect or under-developed understanding of the nature of research and scholarship; for instance: “I wish they already knew that there is a difference between “a gap in the scholarship” and something that really needs to be done or said. That is another way of saying that I wish they knew it is not only okay but also necessary to write from their passions, Also, I wish they knew it is usual to be anxious but important to learn how to channel anxiety into something that will relieve it while still being productive.” Another professor cautions graduate students against the tendency to try to find their own scholarly voice merely by criticizing others, suggesting instead that they learn from each reading and seek to build their own platform: “It’s much easier to destroy something than it is to build something that works. As you read and as you write, pay at least as much attention to how the thing is built as you do to all the ways you plan to tear the thing down.”

Finally, there were many responses concerning how to conduct coursework as training for your own future plans as a scholar, in particular, how to turn coursework into the base foundation for your dissertation topic: “I knew what I wanted to write about in my dissertation when I started my grad program. A friend advised me to write every term paper as if it could be a chapter of [or contribute to the research / theoretical argument(s) within] my dissertation. I took this advice, and it helped me stay focused and finish more quickly than I would have had I not maintained my connection to the interests that drew me to grad school. I don’t know if revising writing in this way is possible in every discipline the way it was in mine, but building up this trove of material certainly helped me stay on track and expedite the process.”


By far, the most common response was, “I wish that graduate students knew it is fine not to know everything.” As one respondent put it, “1. It’s fine that you don’t know everything, that’s why you are here: to learn. 2. It’s fine to ask me questions or to ask me to read your drafts, that’s why I’m your advisor: to teach you things. 3. No one is impressed when you pretend to know more than you do. 4. If you don’t think you have anything to learn from me and that I am just here to certify that you know what you already know, may I suggest that you find another advisor whom you think might actually have something to teach you.”

Corollary to this first request not to think you know it all (or “fake it ‘till you make it”) are issues of the Imposter Syndrome and actually participating in the mentoring process. Several professors remarked that graduate students are often so concerned that they will be found wanting or seriously lacking, that they are unwilling or unable to take risks or ask for help, lest they be seen as incompetent or not worthy of being in graduate school. This is known in Academia as “Imposter Syndrome” and – as one professor put it, “that is never, ever going to go away. When you publish your first article, you will be relieved, and excited, and proud of yourself, and then shortly afterward you will wonder how long it will take for “them” – whoever “they” happen to be in your particular discipline — to realize you’re a fraud. You will repeat this cycle of self-recrimination and fear every time you publish something. It’s as present with your fifth book as it is with your first book. Learn to manage it while you’re in graduate school. If you genuinely don’t belong here we will let you know, or you will fail your comps, or you will just not finish your dissertation. Otherwise, take it for granted that you are not an imposter. Or, if you are, then so is every tenured faculty member in your department. Everyone worries about what other scholars think of their work.”

Other professors remarked on the importance of actively participating in the mentoring process. “Graduate students occasionally come in asking you to mentor them, then sit back and wait for the magic to happen,” bemoaned one professor. “What exactly do you want from me? What skills do you think I’m going to help you acquire? Graduate advising is about more than just having people to write your comp exam questions and sign off on your dissertation. But it’s your program of study and graduate school isn’t a one-size fits all enterprise. There’s no “instant assembly toolkit” graduate advisors use to help you develop professionally. We’re not here to clone you into our likeness but we are here (supposedly) to help you learn to be the kind of scholar you want to be. If you don’t tell me what that is I can’t help you become it. Do you want help navigating academic publishing? Choosing courses to support your research? Teaching and pedagogy? Deciding what conferences to present at? Why aren’t you sending me everything you write so I can read through it? Why are you applying to grants, fellowships, scholarships or conference CFPs without asking me for my feedback on your materials? I’m not your parent, I’m not going to tell you “no you can’t do this conference, you can’t publish in that journal.” But as your mentor I should at least know what you are trying to do so I can offer you support and advice.”

Another advisor points out the importance of making intentional choices concerning those serving as their thesis and dissertation program advisors: “I always want advisees to distinguish between an advisor they seek out for personal or personality reasons and somebody who can provide expertise on their primary research topics.”

A third professor adds to this, “this is more for later students — the ones working on their dissertations — but if it isn’t working out with your committee you have the right to change members. Don’t do it often, obviously. But if there is a genuine conflict either between you and one of your members or between the members of your committee, and the committee head cannot or will not mediate or mitigate that on your behalf, then you are sabotaging your own work if you permit it to continue. If you are active in choosing your committee in the first place and instead of just assuming “these three professors work in my field, of course they will be my committee” you ask your advisor ahead of time “how do these professors get along? How well do they work together?” you can avoid personal conflicts and departmental politics being played out in your dissertation drafts.

Along the same lines, a fourth professor remarked: “This is a very specific thing, but: if you ask a professor for help with a project, and that professor points you to some relevant literature, the professor will expect you to have looked at that literature before you meet with them again for more help.”

And — there you have it. Straight from the professors’ mouth. And this blog post itself is proof that if you want to know something, just ask. None of the professors who responded to my call for responses to this question is one of my professors, or even works at my university. They responded not out of a sense of obligation to one of their students, but because they genuinely care more generally and universally about graduate advising, graduate students, and the work involved in helping people develop as scholars. They care enough that some of them are also writing blog posts on the subject. I particularly admire Miriam Posner’s (UCLA) post on the subject, which can be found here: http://miriamposner.com/blog/some-basic-things-you-should-know-about-being-in-a-ph-d-program/

Are you a professor who works with graduate students? Got some further advice to share? Please feel free to comment below and contribute to the discussion!


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Applying to Grad School, General Graduate Student Advice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to (Some Of) What Grad Advisors Wish Their Graduate Students Knew

  1. Mary Valante, Appalachian State University says:

    My advice? Have a plan for what happens *after*. Have Plan A that you really love but does not involve getting hired into a tenure-track position. Look, I know that you have two competing impetuses here: 1. you’ve always, your entire life, beaten the odds — that’s why you are in a PhD program now; BUT, 2. you are also a brilliant and intuitive researcher — which is why you are in a PhD program now. Are you thinking of adjunct work or a community college as your “back-up plan?” Well, stop, unless you want to spend the rest of your life thinking you’ve “settled” for your backup plan. Get those research skills of yours together and get started — what states treat community college faculty well, perhaps even give them tenure? Read the Adjunct Project — really read it and understand its implications. Then look at sites and groups like the Versatile PhD for inspiration; talk to people with PhDs in your field who are not working at universities. Find something to get excited about! Remember that finishing your dissertation is not an end unto itself — it is the beginning of a new chapter of your life. Just like you’ve spent much of your life preparing and getting excited to write that dissertation, start planning and get excited about what will come next.

  2. Rebecca J says:

    I’m not sure if my comments are useful since I am not a professor. I’m a fourth year graduate student who has spent nine years in my subfield, and has gotten some of this feedback and honestly… this isn’t helpful to students. It’s discouraging, frustrating, and revealing of the lack of self-reflection in academia.

    There is a troubling tendency among professors to separate their students into successful and non-successful. A successful student is likely to proceed in academia and should get full support, while resources and time shouldn’t be wasted on an unsuccessful student. I’ve seen every point in that top ten list get used to classify students in those categories. Question why you’re at grad school? You’re on the shit list. Don’t know what you really want to research? On the shit list. A student who is momentarily depressed can get aliased as “not really serious”. Asking a busy professor for help on a specific subject can get an “I don’t know” response that devalues the student. Bringing up that you work on something other than research for fun gets an “oh, you’re just going to leave me” response.

    The truth is that professors are overworked. They act to protect themselves and their time, and the easiest way to do that is to discourage students and not come up with solutions, reducing the problem. You can’t expect students to not tear down others as in point #9 when you present an atmosphere of exclusion and then pretend that atmosphere doesn’t exist.

    Every point on the list is phrased in a way that represents this problem: condescending, negative, and offering no other alternative except to leave, all in the guise of “helping”. No consideration is given to the possibility that some advisers might be bad at it, and need to improve.

    Let’s take the example of the French student. Why did nobody talk to her ahead of time about what she was interested in? Why did she choose creole French? Could there be an analogous subject that she might be encouraged to study so she could develop the skills in multiple subfields? Or are these professors so scared that they don’t want to venture into a subfield that they aren’t the smartest in? No, they just give up on her. It is dangerous, small-minded, and restrictive.

    Every bit of this article shows how academia has a bad case of learned helplessness. Again, I get it. It’s stressful, time-consuming, and the pay is bad. But that’s no excuse to be a mentor who doesn’t learn. Part of good management is working with people instead of expecting them to conform and treating them like garbage when they don’t.

    Saying that you care is easy. Proving it is hard.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      Thanks very much for your observations. It sounds as if they are heartfelt and coming from a place of care and possibly also frustration, in at least some sense. It was out of frustration that I initially conducted the discussions that led to this post being written, and while you seem not to find the ideas brought up to be helpful, I have to confess that my own experience was that they were helpful to me to hear as a graduate student, especially as a non-traditional, first-generation graduate student who had little idea of how things worked and how to go about making things work for me.

      I want just to point out that the conversations I had to write this post, four years ago now, were earnest discussions with professors whom I know to care deeply about their work and their students, and to feel frustrated when for a variety of reasons those students have experienced setbacks and failures they thought could be avoided. In response to your specific comment on the French student, from what I recall concerning the French student, that student had not even spoken with anyone in the department about an interest in Creole before applying, it wasn’t listed in the application materials, and that department does not conduct interviews for prospective graduate students–so it was not until the student was actually enrolled and in coursework that the issue was discovered. My understanding–and of course, I was not there, this is just what came out in the conversation–was that the student then berated many members of the department for not accommodating their needs, when the department was never in a position to do so and would have been up front about that, had they known the student wanted that specific kind of training. The professor in question was, therefore, definitely frustrated, but not with the student perse; more so, because they felt they had failed that student by not meeting needs they could not meet.

      I think–at least, for those professors I spoke with–yes, they are overworked and they are incredibly busy, but they do want to be supportive and help their students succeed and have learned, in some cases from many years of experience working with graduate students, that one of the primary roadblocks is that (while sometimes yes, it certainly is the professor’s attitude or manner) sometimes, it is also that graduate students do not communicate well with their mentors and advisors. In none of the discussions that I had which led to the “top ten” list for this post did the professor seem to be indicating that it was “do this or leave”–it was just, what they wish graduate students knew before attending, that would make things easier on the student.

      You seem to be reading negativity, condescension, and door-closing/ gate-keeping into it, and to have extrapolated from this post that the professors involved in its development are “mentors who don’t learn” and as a result whose poor management leads them to “treating [people who don’t conform to their expectations] like garbage” but I can assure you that the original idea was to help graduate students understand up front what was expected of them in order to give them the best possible chance of having a positive experience, and that the professors I spoke to are deeply invested in their students’ success. If that has failed to convey, it is certainly through my own shortcomings as a writer rather than through what you appear to perceive as the collective inadequacies of professors who, in fact, have been extremely generous in mentoring me, and in offering this mentoring-by-proxy to other graduate students.

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