Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Advisor/Advisee Relationship

I've always felt a strong advisor/advisee relationship is the single most important factor in a successful PhD career. At its best, the advisor works closely with the student to successful research agenda and help mentor them through their graduate career and beyond. The advisor/advisee relationship can feel like a parent/child relationship that lasts an entire career. Nothing gives me more pleasure as an academic than to see the success of my current and former students.

Take your time when picking an advisor. Don't choose an advisor based solely on research area or because they are "famous". Pick the advisor that will best guide you to a successful academic career.

At its worst, a bad advisor/advisee relationship will destroy your graduate career, making you feel miserable, perhaps dropping out of graduate school or worse, particularly if a student doesn't feel like they are being treated fairly.

Two incidents prompted this post. On TCS-Stack Exchange, a student has authorship issues with their advisor. Unfortunately these kinds of incidents happen more often than one suspects. If you can't work it out with the advisor, go talk to someone about it, another faculty, the graduate or department chair, a grad student ombudsperson if your institution has one. We care about our students, and will work hard to resolve problems.

In a much more tragic event, a student felt it easier to take his own life than feeling that he had to cover up potential academic misconduct. Again, if you ever find yourself in such a situation please reach out. Giving up is never the answer.


  1. Wow. These are terribly sad stories to see. I was lucky to have a wonderfully supportive advisor who I actually had to ask to be a co-author on a paper with my thesis results, because his default position was to grant me sole authorship even though many of the ideas were absolutely his.

  2. The day is not far off - it's here already - where you can literally record everything everyone says. No need for "he said, she said."

    Computer science to the rescue.

    Academia's #metoo moment is coming faster than you think.

  3. " At its best, the advisor works closely with the student to successful research agenda and help mentor them through their graduate career and beyond. The advisor/advisee relationship can feel like a parent/child relationship that lasts an entire career" Unfortunately, I have seen only a very few such idealistic relationships. This depiction is a pure definition of how the adviser/advisee relationship should be like. It makes me cry when I think about the relationships with my own adviser, who makes me feel "miserable, perhaps dropping out of graduate school or worse, particularly if a student doesn't feel like they are being treated fairly.", who is always accusing me on "you are not doing enough work" and "I give you too much time of my own, which I am not have to". If i only could know when I just started my PHD that the other type of relationships exist and that not everything is just my fault, I would leave my adviser immediately. I think it is very important to talk about the good relationships publicly and show an example of which one are the healthy ones.

  4. It's pretty hard to make a well informed choice for an advisor since that's one of the reasons why you *need* an advisor. I mean if I'd been smart, rather than just lucky, I would have asked around with older students but I didn't and just got lucky in choosing a professor whose style fit well with mine.

    I mean I very much agree with you and my point about asking around was that it is possible to find that info if you are motivated. However, I suspect that if we want this to work in the aggregate one can't depend on students going out and finding the info (it's kinda awkward to ask even if it shouldn't be) and we need to encourage interactions between more and less experienced grad students so the information gets passed along. I know I barely talked to any grad student who wasn't in my year or below when I was in grad school and that should be avoided.

  5. There is no doubt that you have to do some asking around before joining graduate school; since if you do not having a supportive advisor, it is pointless to go to a top school.

    If Universities wanted to really pay attention to mentoring it would have been part of the formal evaluation process for promotion with reference letters from prior students.

  6. Long ago, I was in graduate school about to receive my Ph.D. in mathematics. Three of us were sitting around a few days before graduation. The math department secretary asked us if we had any suggestions for things that they could do to make things easier for new graduate students. We all said yes: The department should prepare a list of the faculty. For each faculty member, they should list the faculty member's current students and the previous five or ten students. For each of the previous students, they should note whether the student got a Ph.D. and if they did, the year they got it, and the number of years it took the student to get the Ph.D.

    We said that when we were third and fourth year students, we found out that the faculty fell into two groups. In one group, all (or almost all) the faculty member's students got a Ph.D. in four or sometimes three years. In the other group, many of the faculty member's students students needed five years to get a Ph.D. or didn't get a Ph.D. or transferred to another faculty member. This was quite a surprise to us and something that we had been completely unaware of in our second year when we were choosing advisors.

    The department secretary thanked us for the suggestion.

    Several decades later, I ran into the then head of the math department at my table tennis club where his young son was taking table tennis lessons. We got to chatting, and I told him about the discussion with the department secretary those many years ago. I asked him if they had implemented our suggestion.

    He said they had not. He said it was an interesting suggestion. But, some of the faculty might not like it.

    This person is no longer the head of the math department. He is now the Dean of Science.

    I decided to not donate money to the math department again.

    1. Thanks @DM, this explains a few things for folks who
      actually understand the context and people involved.
      It took me two passes to see.
      Your list suggestion is justified and warranted.

  7. Hi David,

    Its a little complicated, and putting faculty into bins based on just looking at the data the way you described it, is too simplifying. Sometimes a student has done well in a certain course and decides to study that subject, but then after a couple of years is unable to make progress because often they are working on very hard problems. Progress is also hard to measure sometimes, until the problem is totally solved. So just because a student took 7 years to get a Ph.D compared to someone else "who gets them out in 4 years" does not mean that the professor whose students took longer are not as good advisors. Perhaps their students did better in the long run by writing better papers, by being better communicators of their work etc. In the end, its a rather complex picture and many professors have high standards and high expectations of their students. So one should also look at long term success - whose students have placed better in positions etc.

    In the end, its about getting the best work out of each student and getting them to accomplish to the best of their abilities. This is complicated and requires careful mentoring, encouragement, being firm, and setting expectations etc. Some advisors step in and do a lot of their students work, and this does not help the student in the long run. They graduate with a Ph.D. but not an education. I have also encountered faculty whose students graduate quickly, but are not set up for long term success since they never tackled anything too challenging.

    I think talking to a potential advisors' prior students can be a good guide as to what to expect. Every advisor's advising style is different and you have to find one you can work with easily who is able to monitor your progress and find topics that are well suited to your strengths.

    1. There was a big difference in the faculty in terms of their ability as advisors. The third and fourth year students knew this. I knew details of why several of the students had trouble getting a Ph.D., so I knew who was most to blame. Some of the faculty just did not know how to be advisors. They weren't given tenure for their ability as advisors.

      Sure, talking to the advisor's prior students is a good idea. That's why we suggested the department make it easy for new students to do this and encourage them to do it by preparing a list. But, you would also want to talk to the ones who weren't around anymore, which is harder.

  8. This is an incredibly important discussion. Dishonesty on the part of advisors actually precipitated my dropping out of a top research program, as two faculty had delayed my progress by nearly two years. By the time I found I worthwhile advisor (none other than the man himself, Lance), I had exceeded my already generous time limit agreed upon by my spouse. Circumstances have now changed significantly, but I must admit I was surprised that this problem persists in many institutions. I've learned that I must be extremely diligent in my selection of discipline, school, and potential advisors.