Professional Development

Getting the most out of your student–adviser relationship

Jenna Hendershot
By Jenna Hendershot
January 01, 2014

I knew from the beginning of graduate school that a strong relationship with your research adviser is pivotal to success. However, when I first started my Ph.D., I found myself unprepared for meetings, unsure of what to talk about, and nervous that I wasn’t going to answer my adviser's questions correctly.

For some reason, I was worried that I would fail some imaginary test and be a huge disappointment. Our meetings were sporadic and usually occurred only when I was really struggling with an experiment.

Over time, we changed our meeting schedule to a more regular pattern. This allowed me to plan and produce agendas with topics to discuss. We exchanged drafts of goals and to-do lists. This made a huge difference in how we interacted and increased the work I was able to complete.

Here are some rules of thumb for getting the most out of your relationship with your adviser.

Make it official.

You should insist on meeting regularly — even if you think you have nothing to talk about. Meeting can help you get around a mental block, and frequent meetings will give you motivation to make meaningful progress. They also help your adviser keep up with your work.

I now share my results as soon as possible, because I then can learn about mistakes early in the process and ensure that I continue to keep my research headed in the right direction.

Schedule the meeting.

Every student-adviser relationship is unique, so maybe a set weekly meeting time will not work with your adviser’s schedule. Early in the mentoring relationship, you should figure out the most efficient way to initiate discussions and share information. With clear communication, you and your adviser should both feel comfortable pointing out areas that could be improved. It takes time and effort from both parties to optimize the relationship for success.

Always allow sufficient time for your meeting, because effective problem solving takes time!

Prepare for the meeting.

Everyone is busy, especially research advisers. When it comes to weekly (or biweekly) meetings, it is important to be proactive. Bring a list of topics to discuss, a summary of your results, a list of upcoming deadlines, and your plan for the future. You may run out of time to talk about everything on the list, but you can always follow up with an e-mail to discuss your less crucial questions.

Drive the meeting.

Over the years, I also learned to be specific. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Do you need help interpreting a result, or are you simply sharing a summary? Be direct with your questions. Soon, I was no longer afraid to run the meeting.

Advisers are not mind-readers, so don’t be afraid to ask about a conference you want to attend or a grant you would like to apply for. Ask for what you want. Along those lines, be sure to address concerns early.

Clear communication is crucial in any relationship, and you are allowed to state clearly objections or concerns to your adviser. Failing to address problems early can lead to increased frustration. While it’s not always easy to talk about problems, avoid the temptation to deal with issues over e-mail, because face-to-face meetings decrease miscommunication.

Establish benchmarks.

Unlike undergraduate studies, graduate school can be unstructured, and it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. Take notes during the meeting, and be sure to set clear goals.

At first your adviser may feel more like a manager and will tell you exactly what you should do next. Know that your student-adviser relationship will change as you grow into an independent scientist.

It’s important to develop a compatible working style and establish open communication. Before long, your student-adviser relationship will feel more like a peer relationship and you will be well on your way to accomplishing your goals.

Jenna Hendershot
Jenna Hendershot

Jenna Hendershot is at Progenity and a member of the ASBMB EDP and Membership committee.

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in Careers

Careers highlights or most popular articles

Investigating public health careers
Jobs

Investigating public health careers

February 21, 2020

If you are a scientist who wants to protect the health of society, consider a public health career. The field is great for those who want to be real-life disease detectives.

A matter of degree
Education

A matter of degree

February 18, 2020

Black biologists are more likely than any other group to earn a master’s degree before enrolling in a Ph.D. program. What accounts for this disparity?

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities
Announcement

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities

February 16, 2020

Use this weekly list to get your ducks in a row.

At these colleges, students begin serious research their first year
Education

At these colleges, students begin serious research their first year

February 15, 2020

A new academic model of first-year immersion is part of an emergent trend designed to provide undergraduates with meaningful research experience.

Inclusive Excellence at Northeastern aims to fix the institution
Diversity

Inclusive Excellence at Northeastern aims to fix the institution

February 14, 2020

The goal is to make the science majors more welcoming to diverse students, including first-generation college students.

Program highlight: BD’s Technology Leadership Development Program
Jobs

Program highlight: BD’s Technology Leadership Development Program

February 14, 2020

The medical technology company BD has a training program for new scientists who want to get experience in different business units and roles. Our careers columnist spoke to a program participant about her experiences.