Three secrets to share with your graduate school advisor

Posted July 8, 2020

By Fallon Goodman


Strong advisor-advisee relationships matter

Two people holding hands in a supporting manner
Spoiler alert: You are a human. Humans have emotions and passions and interests and fears and pet peeves and quirks. Successful mentor-mentee relationships will allow space for any and all of these to unfold and unravel as they may. One key to flourishing in grad school is to recognize—and ensure your advisor recognizes—that you are more than your academic interests and productivity.

In doing so, you can cultivate a strong relationship with your advisor that is not dependent on your work or workplace behavior. Before I offer suggestions for how to build this relationship, there are two things you need to know about grad school.

First, graduate school is long and filled with unique stressors. Depending on your field—and if you tack on a few victory lap years—you might be in school the better part of a decade. Most people complete grad school during their twenties and thirties. Life is happening. Quickly. Relationships are forging and severing; children are popping out of the womb; houses are being purchased; Ikea coffee tables are being built. You are changing, your life is unfolding, and all the while you are working hard towards building a career. At best, you are making a barely-livable stipend. At worst, you are paying your way through grad school and accumulating mountains of debt. A strong, supportive relationship with your mentor can help you navigate grad school throughout these transitions and milestones. It will provide you the space you need to attend to your life outside of graduate school.

Second, advisor-advisee relationships are complicated. As a graduate student, you are, in part, dependent on your advisor. They guide you, teach you, open doors for you, and, hopefully, advocate for you. Your advisor is also, in many ways, dependent on you. Graduate students are often running studies, spearheading lab projects, and mentoring research assistants. In some ways, your advisor has power and influence on your career (e.g., recommendation letters, departmental evaluations). In other ways, you are operating as same-level colleagues, working together to produce exceptional science. Your advisor might be a respected scholar that you’ve long admired from afar, and now you are transitioning from distant observer to working colleague. Age can compound complexity. Your advisor might be several decades older than you or perhaps younger than you, potentially creating challenges such as managing power imbalances and cultural misunderstandings. Issues will arise, and a strong mentor-mentee relationship offers space for difficult conversations.

So how do you wade through these murky waters to develop a strong and lasting relationship with your mentor? Consider exploring the following three questions.

Three questions to explore with your advisor

1. How do you spend your Saturdays?

A person lounging by the pool in a hat
It sounds pointless, perhaps even invasive. But Saturdays hold the magical place between the slog of the prior week and anticipation of the next. They can illustrate what people value and how they construct their time around those values. Of course, we can observe the same things in people’s lives during the week, but Saturdays are (typically) not bloated with the standing structures of academia: meetings, classes, clients, and so on. Saturdays are blank spaces with possibility and opportunity.

Are you slicing oranges preparing for your child’s soccer game? Are you guzzling down mimosas and fried eggs with friends at brunch? Are you churning the soil of your amateur garden? Are you binge-watching your latest Netflix flick? Are you setting out for a camping weekend at a nearby national park? Are you—gasp!—working on research?

Sharing tidbits about your life outside the workplace will show and remind your advisor that you are a multifaceted, complex human. Your identity is not only a graduate student. You do not only work. You are not a machine. You are beautifully human.

2. What scares you?

A picture of a microphone - ready for public speaking
I study anxiety, so I am mildly to moderately biased, but sharing sources of anxiety can facilitate a productive working relationship.

For example, a common fear that pops up in graduate school is fear of negative evaluation. For better or worse, evaluation runs rampant. You are evaluated before you enter the door (i.e., your application materials). Upon arrival, you will be evaluated by your graduate advisor, department, teachers, supervisors, and frankly, your peers. When you submit a paper for publication, you are evaluated. When you give conference talk, you are evaluated. Comprehensive exams, master’s theses, dissertations… on and on the evaluation goes. If you are struggling with fears of negative evaluation, it might be helpful to discuss with your advisor. For example, do certain situations create more anxiety than others? You can strategize with your advisor to vary up the performance situations you enter, mixing up ones that feel manageable (e.g., giving a departmental talk) with others that are highly anxiety-provoking (e.g., giving a conference talk).

Yes, this requires vulnerability and you want to be intentional about what you share (see Caveats section below). I would argue, however, that in this vulnerability is an opportunity to tackle your anxiety, wield social support, and thrive in your career.

3. What are your levers?

A picture of a gear shift in a car
This question is the hardest of the three to answer. It is about figuring out what motivates and drives you versus what keeps you stuck. Reflect back on why you chose to enter this field. What are you hoping to accomplish in your career? For example, in psychology, some people are motivated to enter patient care to directly improve the quality of individual lives. Others want to advance scientific knowledge; others want to disseminate that knowledge. Maybe you are motivated by all three.

This question is about knowing your why: why are you choosing to spend the majority of your waking hours on one of thousands of possible professions?

When you know what drives you, you are more equipped to tolerate the ambiguity of graduate school. It is often filled with empty space—blocks of unstructured time, blank research slates, unclear guidelines, no productivity ceiling. Inevitably, you will feel like you are not doing enough, or not even sure what “enough” looks like. Within this uncertainty, reflecting back on your sources of motivation can help recalibrate you.

Knowing your why can help navigate advisor-advisee relationships. Your advisor will (hopefully) have opportunities to delegate amongst lab personnel: invited symposia, research papers, consulting gigs, media interviews, etc. If they know what you are passionate about, they are better equipped to find and provide opportunities that align with your passions and career interests. They can also help “unstick” you when are running into deadends; when we are down a rabbit hole and have lost the forest for the trees, a trusted confidant can help us reset.

Caveat caveat caveat

Conversations about these types of topics need not move into territory that feels unprofessional, counterproductive, and/or hostile. Advisors and advisees differ in their preferences for working relationships. A wide continuum of comfort exists, and it will be important to find the zone that works for you, your advisor, and the relationship. Boundaries matter. Clear and consistent expectations matter. I am not advocating for over-sharing or feeling compelled to reveal parts of your identity you wish to keep confidential; some parts of your life do not belong in the workplace. Instead, I am suggesting that facilitating an open dialogue about who you are outside of your academic profile can help build a lasting relationship with your mentor.

I also recognize that, sadly, there are many instances of abuse of power in academia; especially against people of minority status(es). I am fortunate to have had two advisors who treated me as a deserving colleague. We built strong foundations early on, which made it easier to manage major setbacks during my 7-year grad school tenure—losing the person who inspired my career, battling a months-long illness, 6 moves (not recommended), and so on. When these came up, I did not have to explain myself or make excuses for any lack of productivity. I was treated as a human first, researcher second. I know not everyone has this luxury, often for no fault of their own. As in all types of relationships, you need two willing participants with some shared valued system.

Come as you are

I have one sign in my office. It reads: “Come as you are.” Everyone in my lab and classes, regardless of their academic interests or status, is invited to bring their authentic selves. Work and “life” are often artificially divorced from one another; the message of finding a magical “work-life balance” implies that people have to turn off a part of themselves at work. I am committed to viewing each member as a whole person with a life both inside and outside of the lab/classroom. I operate from the assumption that during a person’s life—and likely during their time in my lab or class—there will be significant life stressors. In order to have successful and meaningful careers, these stressors ought not be ignored. My graduate school advisor wrote this in his lab manual: “Our personal growth, joys, and triumphs are celebrated, and our pain, failures, and frustrations are felt and understood.” I share this sentiment.

A picture of a woman smiling with her arms raised, standing in front of a storefront with a banner that reads "Viva la vie"


Fallon Goodman is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, where she directs the Emotion and Resilience Laboratory. She earned her Ph.D. from George Mason University and completed her predoctoral clinical training at Harvard Medical School. Her research examines connections between anxiety and well-being, including barriers to social connection and strategies for building resilience. Fallon is passionate about increasing public access to science and has written for Harvard Business Review and co-designed two books for National Geographic. She once took a nap on the summit of Mt. Fuji.