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Dean's Message (December 2014)

Dean Monk's message for Connections (December 2014) titled "Some Thoughts About High-Quality Advising for Graduate Students"

Some Thoughts About High-Quality Advising for Graduate Students

by Dean David H. Monk

I have some vivid memories of advising graduate students in my early days as a university faculty member. I had just completed my Ph.D. program and had arrived at a new institution. One day I was a graduate student finishing up my dissertation; the next day I was advising graduate students. I received no formal guidance about how to make the transition. If the truth be known, I was flying by the seat of my pants: eager to learn, eager to be helpful, but woefully short on experience and knowledge about how to be an effective adviser. If more truth be known, my experience was not unique. I suspect it was the norm in those days for new faculty members to receive little or no guidance regarding their advising responsibilities. I like to think the field has made great progress at helping new faculty members learn how to serve as high-quality advisers for graduate students, but I fear the actual progress has been modest.

While this dearth of guidance might suggest that graduate students are facing big problems as they seek to make progress in their programs, the reality seems to be that in many cases faculty members have learned how to function as advisers and perform very effectively. There is a tendency to “advise as one was advised,” and it appears that this emulation is working fairly well, at least in some cases.

But not always. Over the years, I’ve also become aware of instances where students have been treated badly at the hands of their advisers. The evidence of this mistreatment tends to be anecdotal and sometimes comes with requests that it not be shared for fear of reprisal. Some of the anecdotes are very disturbing and remind me of how vulnerable a student is if he or she gets cross-wise with an adviser. This kind of difficulty became very personal for me recently as I observed a member of my family have serious difficulties with an adviser in a graduate program at a different university.

Granted, I have only my family member’s side of the story, but the concern was along the lines of the adviser being very unresponsive to repeated requests for answers to questions and requests for feedback on drafts. Not only was this adviser being unresponsive, but the feedback when it came was limited and contradictory. While it really is not appropriate for me to second-guess this faculty member’s feedback, there is no question in my mind that the faculty member was creating unwarranted and frustrating hardships for a member of my family. Having to pay tuition for this kind of bad treatment just added insult to injury. I watched this member of my family struggle with figuring out what to do. The adviser had what my family member needed, namely the sign-off on the thesis, and there was not much that could be done other than to accept the bad treatment.

This said, advisees also need to understand that good scholarship requires hard work and that they can expect to receive hard-hitting feedback from their adviser on their work. While advisers have a responsibility to provide tough criticism when it is warranted, the criticism always needs to be respectful, humane, and responsive. Advising is a complex task and things work best when the lines of communication are open and effective in both directions. 

In light of all this, I welcome the interest our Graduate Student Council is taking in helping the College strengthen graduate advising. Our Graduate Student Council is raising awareness about the importance of high-quality advising and recently conducted a survey of all graduate students in the College that included questions about advising. As this awareness has grown, our department heads have taken an interest and are beginning to facilitate discussion with the faculty in our departments about best practices. Indeed, the EPS Department has begun searching the research literature on the topic and is making the relevant studies available to members of the department. Our Faculty Council also is becoming aware of the effort and I am hoping the Faculty Council will take the lead on developing a statement that articulates the faculty’s commitment to excellence in advising practices. We will be working closely with the Graduate Student Council on this initiative.

As part of our effort to raise awareness about the importance of high-quality advising, I recently sent out a notice to our graduate students inviting descriptions of good experiences students have had with their advisers. In my request, I noted that I’d be addressing the topic in this Connections column and that I would not mention names. Within five minutes of sending my message to the listserv, I began to receive responses that included glowing accounts of excellent advising practices. It is very gratifying to me to see instances where our students are describing the positive support they are receiving from their advisers. I am pleased to share excerpts of a few examples with you here:

  • My adviser is an incredible and dedicated mentor. I was fortunate to be added to one of her research projects right when I started. This opportunity continues to be a great source of knowledge, experience, and networking, which has been invaluable to my time here. Additionally, she shows support for me in all areas of my personal and professional development. Despite the setbacks I encounter, she challenges me to stay on track and to slow down when I need to gain a new perspective on my work. 
  • Since my first day in the College of Education, I have been impressed by how incredibly attentive and supportive the faculty in my program were. In particular, my adviser has guided me through all the official aspects of my program. While all of this has been much appreciated, it's what he has done that is not part of his official capacity that has really made the difference for me. He is always an open door and is willing to make time to talk, answer questions, or encourage me to see a different perspective. Since the selection of a topic for my dissertation, I can think of many times where he has come across articles related to my interests and shared them with me - without his help, I would feel absolutely lost in this process. I feel like I have someone who is really rooting for me as a student, and truly cares about my success both personally and professionally.
  • She guided me through this process with many conversations and emails that helped me work through ideas, pushed me to think harder and deeper, and provided multiple edits and suggestions for articles, presentations, and the dissertation. She spent time deep in discussions about the nuances of research, teaching, and how to be a good professor/adviser. I feel that I am well prepared to teach and research as a first-year professor next fall.
  • Any student who has worked with my adviser really knows that he takes his mentoring obligations very seriously. Despite his demanding schedule, he always makes time for students, even those who are not his advisees. I owe my first publication in a peer-reviewed journal to the support and guidance that he provided. He also facilitates a study group for graduate students interested in his area of specialization and meets with individual students very frequently, even in the summer. Perhaps most importantly, he is a very approachable, down-to-Earth person who will just as soon talk with you about guitars as he will about his research. I am honored to work with such a fine scholar and mentor.
  • My adviser is the kind of adviser who I want to be "when I grow up." He is a warm, personable, respectful, and caring adviser who always maintains utmost professionalism. Whenever I talk to him whether it is through email or in person, not only is he quick to respond but he is always open to listening to my thoughts/ideas/concerns without judgment. I can feel that he respects my interests and goals. At times when I feel confused, unsure of which direction to take, or overwhelmed with a project, etc., he never fails to encourage me while giving me constructive advice as we plan the next steps together. Above all, he creates a friendly, open, and safe environment. Even though graduate studies can sometimes be quite stressful, he sets a fine example as a professional as well as an adviser and encourages and inspires me to continue to grow.
  • Shortly upon arrival [my adviser] had me engaged in a research study as promised. I have also had the experience of co-teaching a course with her and she has also allowed me to take part in multiple research projects. I have now been engaged in every aspect of research from data collection to publication. The experience that I have had at Penn State has been tremendous, and my adviser has really helped me to make the best decisions for my future career as a faculty member. I can honestly say that I would not have experienced the amount of growth that I have experienced if she was not my adviser.
  • I am in a master’s degree program, and I feel very lucky to be able to work with my academic adviser. We would always be sure to meet each semester and develop short- and long-term goals in line with my career aspirations. When there were conflicts between my graduate assistantship and a mandatory class, my adviser would be very understanding and allow me to switch classes, despite our curriculum being pretty structured. In my last semester, I will be doing an internship, which requires prerequisites that are closely matched with prior experiences in my background. My adviser worked with me to arrange an appropriate accommodation that is tailored to meet my needs. I am very grateful for this attentiveness to my individual needs, interests, and background. I really, really enjoyed my academic advising experience with my adviser. He is very busy but always makes time for his advisees. He is a great help and I hope he continues advising!
  • My graduate program demonstrates its commitment to providing high-quality advice for graduate students by organizing a very helpful introductory class for all new students. The class facilitates interactions with faculty members and provides a very valuable safe zone where students can share personal worries, difficulties, and issues that need to be resolved in order to become mature educators in the field. The course is helpful for all students but is especially helpful for international students like me.
  • I have been lucky to work alongside my adviser for the past four years! During my time as a doctoral student, she has pushed me to conduct research from the ground up, present at international conferences, and publish in prestigious journals. I’ve had the honor of working alongside her as we have together pursued our common interests; developed new interests; and created our own research niche. I owe my professional success to my adviser who supported me both as my adviser but also my friend.
  • Throughout my graduate studies, my adviser has been very supportive of my course work and research interests. In meetings, he listens to my thoughts and concerns, skillfully asking questions that encourage me to reflect and learn from those reflections. He has supported decisions that I have made regarding my coursework and the research questions that I have asked, even if they may not have been the same path he would have taken. Even though I look to him as a mentor and a guide, he treats me as an equal and with respect. I am honored to be able to work with him throughout my graduate work.
  • My adviser is an inspiration to me. Her commitment to her students is unwavering. She is always there when you need her to offer excellent and critical counsel on dissertation research, trends in education, employment opportunities, scholarly writing, and more. In addition, she has responded to sensitive and personal issues that have arisen for me on my Ph.D. journey with understanding and sensitivity. She is a great listener. She advises but always leaves the decisions to me. She is an exceptional role model. At a recent conference, she stopped what she was doing in order to meet with me and a potential employer so she could sing my praises. She didn't have to do that, and I didn't ask. She offered and I accepted! She models professionalism, dedication, and excellence in all she does, all reasons why in my opinion she excels as my graduate adviser; she is a great communicator and relationship builder. For these reasons and more too numerous to mention, my adviser is the embodiment of a great adviser and models how to practice this fine art.

It is important for us to celebrate these successes, but we also must be attentive to instances where the quality of advising falls short. Toward that end, I have a few draft principles I wish to share with the hope that these can facilitate continued fruitful discussions within our departments and within the Faculty Council. In particular, it seems to me that high quality advising has the following hallmarks:

Accessibility

The adviser needs to be reasonably accessible. Advisers should not disappear, but students also need to understand that advisers lead demanding lives and have professional as well as family responsibilities. It is not reasonable for students to expect immediate access at all times.

Accuracy

The advice provided needs to be accurate. Students can reasonably expect their advisers to be knowledgeable and able to communicate clearly.

Timeliness

The advice provided need to be timely. While it is hard to put a precise metric on this, it is also hard to defend making a student wait more than three weeks for feedback.

Criticism

The advice provided can include criticism, but the criticism needs to be respectful and humane. Students should expect constructive criticism to be part of the advising experience. Advisers should strive to serve as “critical friends.”

Standards

Advisers need to set high, but realistic and attainable standards. It is not appropriate for advisers to expect students to reach ever higher standards. Students are entitled to know what counts as an acceptable level of performance for moving to the next milestone in the program.

Responsiveness

Advisers are entitled to expect their advisees to be attentive to the advice that is offered, but not to the point where advisees are expected to slavishly follow all suggestions that are offered. Advisers need to listen carefully to their advisees.

Boundaries

Advisers should keep their relationships with advisees focused on academic and professional development. It is not appropriate for advisers to expect advisees to become involved with assisting advisers with their personal needs.

Remedies

Advisees need to know where they can obtain assistance if difficulties develop with an adviser. Similarly, advisers need to know where they can obtain assistance if difficulties develop with an advisee.

I hope at least some of these points prove to be helpful as these College-wide conversations about high-quality advising continue. We’ll be involving faculty, staff, and students in these conversations, and I’m confident that real progress will be made. While the focus in this column has been on graduate advising, we also need to be attentive to ensuring high-quality advising for our undergraduate students. Let’s also keep our eyes open for ways to improve undergraduate advising as these conversations progress.

In the meantime, please accept my very best wishes for a safe and satisfying holiday break.