The Professor/Grad Relationship



Introduction: The Ideal

In the epic poem, The Odyssey, Ulysses prepares to fight in the Trojan War. Before he leaves, he asks his friend, the aptly named Mentor, to care for his son, Telemachus. Mentor proves a trusty counselor and teaches the young man the wisdom of the scholars and the wiles of the world.

Many years pass, but Ulysses does not return home. Finally, Telemachus decides to search for his father. The evil men scheming to take his father’s place jeer, “Stay home and get your news here,” and plot to keep Telemachus from his journey.

Seeing the young man’s dismay, the goddess Athena takes on Mentor’s form to reassure Telemachus. Encouraged by Mentor’s advice to find his father, Telemachus hurries to prepare for the voyage while Mentor readies a fast ship. Late one night while everyone sleeps, Telemachus joins Mentor aboard ship and together they put out to sea.

The fabled Mentor had taught his protégé well for Telemachus eventually finds Ulysses and gallantly helps his father recover his home and possessions.

The term “mentor,” a catchword surfacing in discussions about leadership development today, is derived from this myth. A mentor is a person with superior rank or authority and influence in his or her field who commits time, emotional support intellectual strength to encourage growth and development in an understudy.

Mentoring is the ideal for the graduate student/professor relationship. Indeed, a successful student does not reach his or her goals alone. Ideally, among the resourceful counselors in his/her relationship networks is ideally one professor to whom the student can refer to as the mentor in his/her life. The professor not only passes onto his protege the expertise he has acquired in his field but also guides the student through the intricacies of the university system, lends moral support, and provides wise career advisement.

Few fortunate students find quality mentor relationships. Two grads described their experiences in this way:

My overall experience [with my advisor] has been very good. The professor made himself available to me and even had my wife and me over for dinner. I wanted some good mentoring and fortunately have received much. (Jim; Economics; Madison, Wi.)

My relationship with my advisor is extremely good. He is young and still remembers what it is like to be a graduate student. He treats others as he would want to be treated himself. I see him as being very human and can work well with him. Clohn; Biochem; MIT)

Unfortunately, grad/prof relationships fall short of the ideal on many major university campuses today. One reason is that over the years higher education has shifted from an emphasis on interactive relationships and teaching to competition within departments and schools with the emphasis on research and publishing. In the 1960s Wilhelm von Humbolt, father of the German academy, described the change:

The teacher no longer serves the purposes of the student. Instead, they both serve learning itself.[1]

The result-a deterioration in personal commitment to grad/prof relationships and the development of a university system that tends to alienate the two groups. Several graduate students expressed frustration about their experiences with their advisors:

My appointment with my advisor is like a “ten minute ticker.” He has a rule-he allows ten minutes for meetings with his advisees. He sets his watch in a prominent position and, at the end of ten minutes, I am told the appointment is over. Just once I wish I could have fifteen uninterrupted minutes without him looking at his watch. (Maty; Polisci; U. Fl.)’

I had a good relationship with my advising professor-and then he left town for another university. My new advisor’s specialty is in a different area than mine, and I am left hanging without the kind of mentoring I need to effectively pursue my course of study. (Kathy; Psychology; U. Washington)

These accounts and many others raise questions about graduate student/professor relationships in academia today. Through input from interviews with grad students across the country and research into the dynamics currently working on campuses today, we attempt to give answers to questions like: How can a student establish a relationship with his/her professor and Can graduate students implement unable resolutions to counter poor relationships? and suggest practical solutions to help build interactive graduate student/professor relationships.

The Problems

Many times, a 180 degree disparity exists between the perspectives of students and those of professors. Two humorous riddles emphasize these differences:

How many grad students does it take to change a bulb?
Just one, but it takes three-and-one-half years.

How does a professor change a light bulb?
He holds the bulb and lets the world revolve around him.

Apart from the humor, these jokes illustrate the vast gulf between students and professors. Mark Stanford, in Making It in Graduate School (1976), describes the damage caused by contentious relationships:

The aspect of graduate student experience that is probably the most debilitating and trying to the soul is the dependency relationship which exists between the student and his professor or professors. At a time when most young men and women are seeking some independence for themselves, graduate students find it necessity to please the powers that be, often without knowing precisely what it is that those powers want. This is a shock to the student’s self-esteem, and keeping faculty at a distance may be a way of avoiding the pains of dependency.

Strained relationships between grads and their professors give rise to many problems.

1. The basis for most friction is the lack of communication between faculty and students. Communication is the foundation for any relationship, and when little or no dialogue exists, problems inevitably occur. In many graduate programs, little emphasis is placed on open communication by the faculty for various reasons. Sometimes students shy away from breaking down barriers so an impasse results.

2. Some of the breakdown in dialogue may stem from the personalities involved. One student commented, “Good scientists are given people to work in their labs and the frustration comes from the fact that good scientists can make poor managers of people. And the grads suffer (David; Architecture; MIT).” A professor who excels in research or publishing may not have adequate communication skills to advise students.

3. Some professors simply do not take into account the stresses that graduate students face. Amidst the tensions caused by an at-large serial killer at the University of Florida, one student sought empathy from his faculty advisor but was angry over the response:

I approached one professor during the student slayings when fear was prevalent (the atmosphere was so tense that some grads bought guns or hid bats in their offices) and asked him if he could temporarily lighten things up. He simply said, “No way,” implying that the wheels of academia can’t be stopped. (Joseph; Polisci; U. Fl.)

Faculty disinterest in the student’s plight leads to resentments and strained relations within what should be a close-knit community.

4. The size of the university also influences the amount of interaction between students and faculty. As the number of students increases, the potential for informal interaction decreases. The more students a professor has to advise, the less time he or she can give to each person.

5. Another widespread problem is the lack of supervision and guidance for teacher’s assistants. Although there are notable exceptions, most major universities offer little or no teacher training for teacher’s assistants. Carmen Arroyo, Chairperson for the investigative committee on Professor-Graduate Relationships at Yale and author of the “Arroyo Report” explained, “I was thrown into teaching responsibilities as a TA, and became self-taught. But just once I wish my advisor would sit in my class and critique me on content and style.”

The stress of spending hours preparing for and standing in front of a class can be excruciating for an inexperienced TA, especially when he has no supportive network to help him. Although some students strive to excel in teaching, many are forced into the role of instructor; the pain of grading tests. tension with students and abandonment of professors may make the money not worth it. When this scenario is compounded many times over, an explosive situation can ignite.

One recent example involves the tensions between graduate teaching assistants, their professors and the administration at Yale University. Over a three-year period, teaching fellows continued to voice concerns about several issues: the lack of job descriptions, inadequate and untimely pay, no standardization of responsibilities across departments, and no grievance procedure for TAs. Because of resistance to change from faculty and administration, TAs formed a solidarity group in 1987. This group informed students of their legal right to prompt and timely pay. When an outside party, the State of Connecticut, became involved, the university acted quickly to resolve monetary issues.

This victory by TA solidarity convinced many grads that the university would respond to acute problems within the TA system only when presented with organized strength and legal compulsion.[2] This belief widened the gulf between discontented students and faculty.

6. Uncertainty over faculty expectations can aggravate problematical relationships. Lack of definition concerning departmental and degree requirements create considerable anxiety for the graduate student.

Some confusion stems directly from the classroom. This is due in part to poor teaching. Some professors merely regurgitate the textbook. Others dwell on their own specialties without relating the material to the larger academic milieu or to the real world. Classes are turned into rap sessions which do little more than provide entertainment. Many professors fail to prepare adequately or leap from one topic to another in what to them may appear as fascinating intellectual trapeze acts. Such teaching methods only serve to obscure the meat of the curriculum and the requirements for class completion.

Expectations over the graduate thesis can also be baffling. “The matter of how the thesis is graded is so arbitrary,” one University of Washington Electrical Engineering student said, “Half of the battle is trying to find out what the professor expects.”

7. Meaningful contact to clear up the confusion is often lacking. Often times this lack of contact stems from professors who must stay heavily involved in research projects to further their careers; therefore, they do not want to get wrapped up in a time-absorbing, mentor relationship. Or professors may feel that, should they take on such a role, they would compromise their objectivity about the quality of the student’s work because of their personal link with the understudy.

Students point out two ingredients that prohibit meaningful dialogue: (1) Professors prefer academic distance from students and (2) Professors lack social skills essential for constructive communication.

8. The pitfalls of a mentoring relationship also may retard closeness. In other cases, faculty create distance because they view graduate students as a threat to their position. The easiest way to deal with such feelings is to avoid the student.

One professor echoed the feelings of colleagues when he said, “I have a desire to be more available to students but don’t know what I will get dragged into.” He cited the case of a friend who found himself dealing with a suicidal advisee. The advisor felt unqualified to deal with this intense personal issue and discouraged further intimate contact with his advisees.

9. Poor relationships within a department may mean that the student must spend more time in the graduate program. In their research on graduate student retention and eventual completion of their degree, Girves and Wemmerus state:

It is certain that a student’s commitment to earning a degree in a particular discipline is continually modified by his or her experiences in that department. What the faculty do to stimulate the student’s interest and to strengthen the student’s commitment may ultimately determine the level of degree progress achieved by students in that department.[3]

Ideally, an advisor serves as a role model and becomes the primary socializing agent in the department. He establishes the standards of performance and the behavioral norms for his or her advisee which are reinforced by the advisor himself, by other faculty, and by more experienced graduate students. When contact is missing or faculty supervision becomes a painful experience, the student is less likely to finish his or her coursework.

10. Some professors allow unrealistic standards of academic success to determine whether he or she will allow time for a student, respect his abilities, or support him. One graduate student commented, “When my research is going well, my advisor is helpful, concerned, and interested; if my research takes a down turn, to him I don’t exist (Michael; biochem; Washington U. St. Louis).” Another discouraged grad said, “I’ve been in this program five-and-one-half years and should be done in four months. But my advisor won’t tell me what is required to complete it. Those who do good work they [the faculty] keep around (Terry; physics; MIT).” These impossible criteria and cross-purposes may hinder degree progress.

To understand the solutions to these problems, we must examine the issues involved. What are the factors that make dynamic relationships essential in graduate programs? Do students consider interaction necessary to achieve their educational goals?

The Issues

Relationships are the bedrock of education. Although books and journals disseminate information, only personal contact between the student and his/her instructor can transmit a well-rounded and focused education. In every field, one-to-one dialogue links the past with the future and spurs on new knowledge. Unresolved problems in communication raise issues that both faculty and students should understand.

1. Relationships are the key element that distinguish graduate from undergraduate programs. Undergraduate programs emphasize assignments done within a class room context-the student attends classes and prepares homework much as he did in high school. The graduate student, however, is expected to read widely in his field and then bring his academic focus to bear on a narrower field of study with the goal of contributing some new knowledge to the field Educational emphasis is on preparing for small seminar discussions with peers and conducting research, and usually involves the writing and presentation of a thesis. Without this vital input from someone learned in his field, many students feel they are merely a collector of facts, lacking experienced counsel.

2. The role of the advisor is crucial for the student’s holistic growth and development. Girves and Wemmerus conclude that the graduate student’s relationship with the faculty, particularly with his or her advisor, can determine success in his academic program as well as in his professional career.[4] The advisor influences the students commitment to his chosen field and to the university Interaction with faculty stimulates academic achievement, intellectual development, and retention in the degree program. The grad/prof relationship provides academic and social integration and a model for future career relationships. A mentor can stimulate his proteges to a higher standard of creativity and professionalism in their field.

3. A student needs an advocate and an understanding counselor for the stresses he faces. Graduate students in particular confront a number of unique pressures, often without any understanding on the part of the faculty.

All too often, faculty are not fully aware of or don’t care about the financial and time constraints which graduate students experience. Faculty have personal pressures to publish that cause them to see graduate students as the vehicle for research. The undergraduate program may have exhausted their families’ resources. Many students are married and have families and their spouses may also be students. Some grads have part-time employment in low-paying TA programs or off campus jobs. With tuition at many institutions doubling every other year and corresponding increases in books and supplies, the graduate student is hard pressed to make ends meet.

The demands of class and seminars, the need to work and spend time with spouse and family rob grad students of precious hours for research to complete their thesis. One Ohio State astronomy major described her dilemma, “I worked in the lab fourteen hours a day. My studies suffered so l cut back.”

4. Sometimes faculty increase the pressures on students. One grad explained:

My advisor is the chairman of the department. I have a fellowship, and he picked me as his advisee. He could jerk my funding without anyone else’s approval. He’s the most powerful person in my life. (Beth; Pharma. Admin.; Ohio St.)

A student in such a position often has no recourse. One MIT grad complained, “Our government has checks and balances; faculty need checks, and grads need to know their rights.”

5. Despite the lack of constructive relationships in many departments, most grads desire closer contact with faculty. The following comments were made by students who point out the importance of continuing dialogue:

A mentor who knows your field well can serve as an apt counselor when it comes to the area of career advisement. It he is up on his research (and he should be) and knows you well enough, he should be aware of some potential career choices that would be good for you to consider. (Richard; Engineering; Ohio St.)

My advisor is well-connected in the academic village and when he heard I had in interest in a post-doctorate in Japan, his connections made it happen (Aaron; History; U. Tex.).

In a national study of grad students done by the Barna Research Group of Glendale, California, the overwhelming majority of grads (83%) said that there were one or more professors or instructors whoose advice they would seek if they were making an inportant career decision. Fifty-three percent thought that having an instructor whom they could consult on perconal matters was either important or somewhat important. About two out of five grad students (38%) said they would like to spend more time wtih their professors outsie of the classroom.

Some students have experienced the benefits of these non-professional/social interchanges. In several departments at the University of Washington in Seattle, faculty sponsor monthly socials for graduate students in the department. One student described how his department had a gourmet club in which both graduate students and professors could participate. This provided a change of pace from the normal academic activities and allowed student to get to know professors in a different setting. The insights gained often helped in their working relationships.

The Results

An old proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Good relationships between professors and graduate students encourage those who have exceptional intellectual and creative capabilities to pursue degrees in higher education. These people make valuable contributions to our national life as they pursue their various fields.

1. Therefore one result of contentious relationships is a dwindling pool of impassioned, well-rounded graduates to fill the need for leadership and scholarship for our national future.

Some grads have told us that they have pulled back from faculty relationships or even changed their career focus because of bad experiences.

2. The major result of poor relationships is alienation of the student. A low level of communication may foster misunderstanding on the part of a professor or may be perceived by the student as deception. For example, one student told his professor that he was not really ready for his qualifying exams. The professorsaid, “Don’t worry. Go ahead and take them anyway. You can take them over later if necessary.” When the student failed the exams, he was dropped from the graduate program. He never trusted any faculty again.

3. The political nature of some departments may create poor atmosphere for dialogue. When the system stymies personal interaction and dialogue about problems, grads tire of what they perceive as a political game of hoops and hurdles in the department. For example, the unrealistic regulations in Yale University for time to complete degree and the intention of enforcing the rule alienated many grads. One said, “The sense of regimentation and greater bureaucratization (as evidenced by the need to check everything through the associate dean or another officer) is destructive of community and of an atmosphere of common intellectual endeavor.”[5]

With the many barriers preventing positive dialogue, many graduate students do not develop supportive relationships with their professors. Without interaction because of an impersonal stance in higher education and pressures that create barriers to dialogue, some graduate students never find a mentor who can give them the needed guidance to obtain a quality education.

But students can ameliorate even the most difficult situations. We would like to offer some guidelines on how to circumvent the problems and open channels of communication.

The Solutions

No worthwhile project is accomplished overnight. To reach goals, one must understand his/her direction and take one step at a time toward achievement of that goal. Do not expect relationships to happen overnight but plan for creating an environment that will facilitate dialogue, or if that is impossible, plan for alternatives that will help you find a mentor.

The first step is to create an open, non-threatening environment to cultivate potential relationships. If that is unsuccessful, the second step is to develop an alternative by reaching out to other groups on campus that can serve as encourages. Third, a sense of personal security will control environmental disabilities that you encounter.

Relationships are not changed or built instantly and one must take small steps toward the ideal. Use the wisdom and experience you have gained to help you establish the rapport you need to open dialogue. These suggestions can help you in your progress:

First, create an open, non-threatening environment to cultivate potential relationships.

1. Define expectations in your department. Each one has its own style and personality. Determine how yours functions and how you can best use the atmosphere to open dialogue. If your professors like informal, relaxed interaction, come prepared to stimulate their way of thinking. On the other hand, if your department runs formally, use restraint and courtesy to your advantage. Get to know the most influential members of your department and understand their preferences.

Actively find out what your faculty expect of you. Know their strengths. Find out if your committee will back you. Geri (Journalism; Columbia) commented, “All my advisor did for me in four years was come through for me at the orals. Then he protected me, steered me and disallowed one dangerous comment that would have hurt me.” She discovered that one quality in her advisor made the difference m passing her orals.

One student describes what he did to define expectations:

I pulled together my committee to ask them what they required of me to get my Ph.D. They responded in silence, with no ideas. But after an hour, they had hammered out a path for me to follow. (Joe; Polisci; U. Fl.)

2. Understand the pressures faculty face. Do you know what kinds of stresses your advisor faces? Faculty, as well as graduate students, are under many forms of pressure. Be sensitive to your professor’s limitations. The majority find themselves working under the “publish or perish” syndrome and are saddled with many other responsibilities as well. They, too, operate under all sorts of time constraints.

3. Initiate social or intellectual discussion with the professor on specialty issues. Begin by asking them questions rather than giving your opinion. Get their feedback on the effectiveness of TA training and how the TA program is functioning You might invitethem to a graduate student function which would also appeal to faculty-but don’t pressure them to commit to something they feel uncomfortable doing.

4. Adjust your perceptions of faculty/student relationships. Girves and Wemmerus uncovered the correlation between perceptions of faculty by students and satisfaction/alienation at both the master’s and doctoral levels. They concluded that students at the master’s level form opinions of their advisors’ concern and usefulness which greatly affect their grade points and degree progress. In a doctoral program, the more quickly a student becomes socialized into his department, the greater his progress. “At the doctoral level,” the authors conclude, “the set of student/faculty relationship variables is powerful enough to indirectly predict doctoral degree progress through involvement as well as to directly predict progress.”[6]

A student’s involvement affects his/her educational achievements. Having a clear picture of what to expect from your teachers, administrators and advisors will help you find a starting point to begin communication and socialization. Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and even to failure. Don’t expect a chummy relationship in what is essentially a business setting. Faculty see students come and go over the years and may not want the kinds of closeness you desire. Be patient with personal characteristics that don’t lend themselves to personal contact. The intellectual traits you admire in your professor may also make it hard for him/her to relate one-on-one. Most of all, keep yourself flexible and adapt to departmental quirks and personality differences.

5. Build on faculty perceptions of analytical thinking. The Research Committee of the Graduate Record Examinations Board listed reasoning as one of the seven basic academic competencies without which “knowledge of all other subjects is unattainable.”[7] Whether analytical thinking skills perform as well as faculty surmise, it’s perceived importance makes it an essential quality for the successful student. A study by Powers and Enright found that certain kinds of thinking skills are more valued in academia:

“Reasoning or problem solving in situations in which all the needed information is not known” was the skill rated as most important overall. Such skills as “detecting fallacies and logical contradictions in arguments,” “deducing new information from a set of relationships,” and “recognizing structural similarities between one type of problem or theory and another” were the next most highly rated skills.[8]

Faculty also agreed upon the most serious reasoning errors and critical incidents. Three of these include: accepting the central assumptions in an argument without questioning them, being unable to integrate and synthesize ideas from various sources, and being unable to generate hypotheses independently.

Faculty also agreed upon the most serious reasoning errors and critical incidents. Three of these include: accepting the central assumptions in an argument without questioning them, being unable to integrate and synthesize ideas from various sources, and being unable to generate hypotheses independently.

Review the following chart and start a conversation with “What’s valued witin your degree plan?” to clarify expectations. Then implement the most valued reasoning skills to give yourself greater acceptability and distinction. This awareness will allow you to demonstrate that you understand the basic tenets of your department’s goals for the thinking process.

6. Develop your communication skills. Strive for good, clear, honest communication with your advisor. As a student, you can initiate dialogue. But achieving and maintaining communication channels means knowing how to open a conversion, when to speak and when to listen, and how to communicate your desires and concerns.

Practice active listening to facilitate problem-solving Active listening occurs when the receiver’s impression matches closely what the sender intended in his or her expression. To practice active listening, the sender gets tangible feedback from the receiver as to ho v he, the receiver, should decode the message. After hearing the feedback, the sender then either confirms or corrects the message. The sender’s confirmation is proof to the listener of his or her “impression” or the correction reveals its inaccuracy.[9]

For example, when your advisor suggests a direction for a project you are involved in, repeat their instructions to make sure you have understood their intent. Should your advisor correct what you have said, then verbally confirm that correction. Your feedback avoids needless miscommunication and helps you focus your thinking in the right direction.

Active listening also involves using your interaction time wisely. When meeting with a professor, be organized. Have dear-cut goals so that you can make the best use of your valuable time and that of the professor’s. One University of Wisconsin-Madison student suggested that “when given only ten minutes with an advisor for an appointment, submit the major questions to discuss the day before. Allow him twenty-four hours to reflect on his response and suggestions.”

Use constructive confrontation when necessary. Mark Sanford, author of Making It in Grad School, advises, “When the need arises to confront a faculty member, the personality of the individual needs to be taken into account. But in almost all cases, it is better to confront than to avoid.”

Your professors are key to helping you reach your goals. Destructive behaviors, such as ordering, threatening, judging or criticizing act as vehicles for communicating unacceptance rather than opening doors for further problem-solving. But confrontation and active listening are important. Many students have found that constructive conflict helps bring problems into the open where they can be dealt with. One political science grad described his experience this way:

My advisor is difficult to get along with because he has low social skills. At one point, l was running ten minutes late to get a stack of exams to his home. When he saw me come up, he opened the window and yelled out, “I don’t want them now. You’re late.” I confronted him and explained about my two children being sick and the next day he apologized. l always vote to confront rather than avoid. (John; Polisci; U. Fl.)

An electrical engineering student said:

I’m in a slave relationship with my advisor. He’s trying to get all he can from me and pushes me to my limits [to contribute to research]. Finally I had to tell him I couldn’t handle it. (I had developed an eye problem from the stress.) He agreed to let up. (Sky; Elect. Eng.; U. Wash.)

Using good communication skills will enable you to know your professors better and help them in assisting you. They have an extensive network they can tap through the academic village. Create an environment for dialogue by expressing your concerns and frustrations, as well as your successes, and listening to theirs.

Second, if you find it impossible to develop a mentor relationship with your advisor, reach out to other sources within the academic village.

One University of Florida student we interviewed exclaimed, “Every grad needs a champion to help them get through the system! ” Yet many new students leave relationship initiation to others. They feel that the faculty and older students should be the first to approach them. But that can have tragic results.

1. Seek out other faculty members. Faculty members usually will not take the initiative to come to you as many feel they should respect your privacy. But when you initiate the relationship, many will respond favorably. They will see that you value their advice and experience.

Several students (from MIT, Madison, and Seattle) selected an “unofficial advisor/mentor.” They initiated a relationship with a faculty member with whom they click.

Give up your expectations of having your advisor as your mentor and find another professor who has the time and is amenable to advising you. Use discretion so that you don’t insult your official advisor. One student added this caution: a second mentor can also hold you accountable and pile on additional demands. But this is a good option for students who don’t get along well with their advisor or have a hard time getting on his schedule.

Many campuses have support groups for graduate students. If you have difficulty relating to your advisor or others in your department, search for other groups that can help you. Join these groups and help in working for the kinds of modifications you would like to see. Realize that you are responsible for the generation and implementation of desirable changes. A group of students with similar concerns can do much.

2. Get involved in your department. Involvement can begin even before going on to the next phase of training.

“Take a lab either before summer quarter or mid quarter of your first year to preview a possible advisor” says Richard from Ohio State. “It helps to see if you’ll click with overseeing faculty.” Some departments sponsor this activity.

Another grad interviewed faculty in his department to see whether he would get along with his advisor.

Have an idea of the type of person you would like to study under. Randy, U.Texas, said, “I looked for an advisor who listens, doesn’t talk all the time, and doesn’t attempt to answer questions before you ask them.”

John, MIT, remarked, “My advisor is young and non tenured. He presents a risk if he doesn’t tenure and leaves before I complete my Ph.D. But he treats me like a colleague. l call him by his first name. That’s nice.”

William another MIT grad, commented, “Find a prof with similar interests to yours who wants to work on your project.” Knowing what you want will help you find the right relationship to build upon.

Keep involvement high during your years in the department. Many students get so caught up in their own research and dissertation that they fail to see how their work relates to the ongoing accomplishments of the department as a whole. What unique contribution can be made beyond classwork7 How can mutual sharing in the department help to solve others’ problems as well as your own? Visibility will help you build bridges to faculty.

3. Initiate a relationship with a more experienced graduate student. A person who is farther along in his program may have weathered situations similar to those you face, or perhaps both of you are currently confronting the same problems. Such relationships could prove to be of mutual benefit.

Also work within the system to help older grads free themselves to help younger students. One idea is to designate a portion of experienced TA’s time to assist beginning grads to adjust to teaching responsibilities. Then identify and encourage students willing to perform that role.

4. Keep a realistic view of a worsening situation. A grad needs to be perceptive enough to assess the situation and see when it becomes too difficult to continue. One student elaborated:

My relationship with my faculty advisor was so poor that this situation prompted me to lay out a year and change advisors. Now, my relationship with my advisor is great. It wasn’t easy to make that move, but l learned firsthand that without a good advisor, my situation was simply unbearable. (Gary; Botany; U.Tx.)

Deciding to discontinue in your present program doesn’t come easily, and yet sometimes that is the best solution for an untenable predicament. Knowing when to persevere with contact and when to move on takes thought and planning. But don’t automatically rule out this option.

Each of these resources can help deepen the feeling of community you realize from quality relationships. They can give you a broader and more complete vision of what you can do in your chosen field. But none of these solutions is a complete answer to the tensions between grads and their professors. Sometimes you may work hard at establishing quality relationships, but fractions, contentions and disagreements still threaten your progress. Although you adjust your expectations, acquire better communication skills, and develop relationships in the midst of pressure, one element is more important to your over-all success — deepening your personal security.

Third, deepen your personal security.

The only ingredient of a relationship you can truly control is yourself. Without a sense of self-esteem and inner peace to handle stress, your relationships will not hold up under pressure. Take time to assess your emotional and mental well-being at least once a term.Time spent in this pursuit will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life. These suggestions will help you build security in spite of a heavy schedule and intense time demands.

1. Get involved outside your department with family and friends. Personal security receives nourishment from varied contacts. Remember that the graduate program is your main occupation at this time of life, but that you also need time away from the job just as you will when you enter professional life. Stay in tune with your spouse and his or her world. Take time to be with your children during their critical years of growth; don’t deprive them of good times and memories of these years. Cultivate friendships away from the university. By doing so, you’ll broaden your perspective and interests.

2. Realize your other social opportunities. To what other affinity groups do you belong outside of your departmental interests? Do you have a membership in a gym or spa where you can meet other people as well as do some physical exercise? Do you have hobbies which you can share with other enthusiasts? One graduate student in the humanities became interested in 18th Century European porcelain. He found others in his area who shared his fascination and together they formed a tour of some of the famous porcelain factories of Europe. Together they discovered many common interests.

3. Set short-term and long-range goals. One University of Texas history major said, “Grad life is not a good environment if you need strong direction and overseeing You need to learn to set manageable goals for each semester.” Setting a clear direction will help you eliminate avoidable activities.

But setting long-range goals is even more essential. In the midst of the day-to-day grind, keep clearly in mind what your ultimate aims are and note your progress. Keep a journal of your advancement or depict it on a time line.

4. Develop a personal sense of importance and a healthy self-esteem. This is the key to deepening personal security. Without these qualities, graduate school can become a nightmare.

“I had a nervous breakdown as an undergrad,” an MIT aerospace major explained, “But I learned how to deal with stress early in my MIT experience. Now I’m more relaxed.”

David Stemberg, author of the book How to Complete and Survive a Dissertation, devotes a special segment to the problem of “Bewildered and Negative Feelings About Oneself.” The issue of dealing with a diminished sense of self-esteem is quite common and the author states, “People show a marked tendency to generalize it (the thesis decision) to questioning their decision making competence in other areas of their lives — areas in which, prior to the dissertation course, they may well have felt confident and secure.” As he proceeds to discuss the various reasons that this academic stage is so personally and emotionally destructive, there is a most interesting conclusion drawn in the “Whom can I turn to” segment …”The Sympathetic, interested professor — be he advisor, thesis committee member, departmental chairman or other faculty person — is an unreliable, rare, and generally highly problematic commodity in the dissertation-help stockpile.” He goes on to say, “You are to be your own best dissertation friend.”

A healthy self-esteem begins by knowing yourself — who you are, what you value, and what you expect from life. Finding suitable answers to these questions gives a foundation that can withstand outer pressures. This inner security allows you to evaluate your progress according to the worldview you have developed.

Part of understanding yourself is deriving satisfaction from your strengths and your work Concentrate on your accomplishments and put your failures in perspective.

Do not place a greater or lesser emphasis on your importance than is warranted. Each of us has a unique role to play and also a common bond with others who share our path. Understand your place in the community of scholars. As Annetta (U. Wash.) stated, “I thought I was the only one struggling with my relationship with my advisor. Now I see that it’s a national trend, a natural and real experience. I was relieved.”

Perseverance over the long haul is just as important as the work itself. What do you see as your limitations? How can you overcome them? What do you want from life beyond scholastic excellence? Does your relationship to others in the pursuit of your goals further your personal security or damage it? Wrestling with these questions and finding suitable answers will give you a deeper personal security and allow you to also deepen your relationships.


By recognizing the role graduate student/professor relationships play in higher education, the master’s and doctoral student can make his/her experience to degree more pleasurable, less stressful and more rewarding academically. Understanding the problems, the issues and the results of poor relationships can help him/her build bridges to faculty in the department. Recognizing the vital role that personal security plays, not only in educational relationships but later in career and social contacts, will give him/her a firm base to build upon.

In truth, the community of scholars is a shared vision, combined intellect, and pooled creativity that gives higher education the vitality and uniqueness to distinguish it from other levels of training. Developing healthy relationships expands the frontiers of knowledge and inspires students to go on in teaching, industry, government service and many other endeavors with interdependent qualities that enrich themselves and society.

1. Wilhelm von Humbolt, “On the Organization of Institutions of Higher Learning in Berlin,” printed in “The Great Ideas Today–1969,” Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannic, 1969.
2. Carmen G. Arroyo, Catherine Brekus, Eliot Brenner, Mark Marmon, David Waldstreicher, and Eric Young, “Report of the Committee on Graduate Student Life,” Yale University Report, (New Haven, Connecticut: 2 April, 1991): 1-3.

3. Jean E. Girves and Virgirlia Wemmerus, “Developing Models of Graduate Student Degree Progress,” Journal of Higher Education 59.2 (March/April 1988): 186.

4. Girves and Wemmerus, 167.

5. Arroyo, Carmen G., et al., “Report of the Committee on Graduate Student Life,” 2 April, 1991, response to survey.

6. Girves and Wemmerus, 185.

7. The College Board. “Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do,” (New York, 1983).

8. Donald E. Powers and Mary K Enright, “Analytical Reasoning Skills in Graduate Study,” Journal of Higher Education 58:6 (November/December 1987): 369.

9. Thomas Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training (New York: Bantam Books, 1977): 55-56.

10. David Stemberg, How to Complete and Survive a Dissertation (New York: St. Martins Press, 1981): 162, 171, 172.

Nick Repak is the founder of Grad Resources, a faith based service organization addressing the needs of graduate students. He is also the founder of the National Grad Crisis-Line (877.GRAD.HLP).