Become a Super-Mentee: 10 Strategies to Improve Your Relationship with Your Adviser

by Erika Martin, PhD, MPH


Become a Super-Mentee

The PhD Comics provide endless spoofs on academic advisers, including deciphering their email punctuation marks, managing their cryptic instructions, endless cycles of paper revisions, and their lack of awareness about your research. Students across disciplines offer colorful descriptions of their dissertation supervisors, ranging from dark villains (Darth Vader, Voldemort) and disordered personalities (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), to superheroes who are too busy or important for the trivial problems of a mentee. Your coursework does not prepare you to navigate the delicate relationship with the person who stands between you and your degree.

Contrary to the lore, academic advisers are (not always, but often) human beings, and there are some tricks to managing your mentoring relationship. This can help you make steady progress, get the ongoing advice and support you need to be successful, and lay the foundation for a lifelong relationship.

What can your faculty adviser do for you?

First, let’s demystify what an adviser can do for you as your mentor. Your adviser can help you in the following specific areas:      Become a Super-Mentee

  • Professional goal-setting. Your adviser is your initial point of contact for existential questions about your professional identity, defining your contribution to the field, and fitting your dissertation into a long-term research agenda. Your adviser can help you develop a plan for where you want to be in 1, 2, and 5 years from now, and how to juggle other responsibilities such as your family and other work commitments.
  • Feedback on different aspects of your research. Research is a long and bumpy road, and you will need your adviser’s feedback at multiple stages: refining dissertation ideas; prioritizing topics; navigating Institutional Review Boards, data use agreements, and other administrative matters; trouble-shooting technical issues such as models that do not converge or missing data; and discussing your findings.
  • Helping you disseminate your work to external audiences. Once your research is completed, your adviser can provide feedback on draft manuscripts, offer advice on selecting target journals and managing the peer-review process, and prepare you for conference presentations. (You don’t need to rely exclusively on your adviser – see JPHMP’s Writing in Boxes tool and strategies for writing cover letters to journals).
  • Navigating the job market. Your adviser can share information about specific opportunities and search strategies, provide feedback on cover letters and CVs, critique your job talk, and write reference letters. Your adviser can help you think strategically about how specific positions will fit into long-term goals, and how to handle constraints such as location or partner hires.
  • Building your professional network. Your adviser can connect you with other university faculty who might serve on your committee; professional contacts who might have expertise in your area, available data, or paid internship opportunities; and scholars from other universities to help you integrate into the field.     
  • Discussing strategies to be successful. For many students, the research is the “easy” part of your dissertation—the most difficult aspect is becoming a project manager. This includes time management; establishing monthly, weekly, and daily goals; prioritizing tasks when juggling multiple work, teaching, and other responsibilities; structuring meetings; and soliciting written feedback. (See my past posts on managing committee meetings and getting better written feedback.) Your adviser can also help you navigate conflicts with other faculty, or other personal issues affecting your progress.    Become a Super-Mentee
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What are your responsibilities as a mentee?

Using your adviser strategically can help you excel in many areas of your doctoral program, job search, and early career. However, mentoring is a two-way street: you also need to devote considerable effort into your partnership and demonstrate that you are fully committed and worthy of their time and energy.

The following 10 strategies can help you cultivate a productive relationship.

1. Be respectful of your mentor’s time. While many faculty deeply value their work with doctoral students, they have competing priorities and deadlines. Respect their time and make your encounters productive. Provide sufficient lead time to review drafts. Come to meetings with written agendas, clear objectives, and relevant handouts. Send concise emails with action items at the top so they don’t have to sift through lengthy prose and attachments to understand what you are asking.

2. Don’t ask questions that you can find answers to on your own. Although this relates to the above point, it is worthy of its own bullet. This includes administrative paperwork, program requirements, your university’s dissertation formatting rules, the schedule of classes, and anything else where you can locate information through other sources. You should ask clarifying questions when needed, but do your homework before coming to your adviser.  Become a Super-Mentee

3. Be professional at all times. Treat all interactions with your adviser as you would with a boss in a professional work setting. Your adviser is the most important person to your professional career because their letter of recommendation carries the most weight. Proofread all emails and respond in a timely fashion (1 or 2 business days maximum). Acknowledge receipt of their emails, particularly when they send feedback. Proofread all drafts of the products that you submit for review. While the ideas in your drafts don’t need to be perfect, the products should look polished (eg, grammar and general proofreading; logical organization of ideas; clear and succinct descriptions, versus meandering paragraphs; your name, the document title, and a date at the top; page numbers; and professional-looking formatting such as bullets, headings, page breaks, and clean tables).

4. Be respectful and show appreciation. This does not mean that you should be obsequious or lavish gifts. (In fact, for many faculty, particularly those at public universities, it may be an ethical violation and/or a perceived conflict of interest to receive gifts. Instead, write a heartfelt note in a card expressing your appreciation—it doesn’t need to be long, but I promise it will be meaningful to the recipient.) Rather, be courteous and polite. Thank your adviser for their time. If you noticed an improvement after implementing their advice, let them know that it was helpful. You should voice your opinions and you are allowed to disagree, but do so respectfully. Be mindful of the tone in your emails. If you are feeling upset or frustrated, have a neutral friend review your email before you send it.

5. Take responsibility for your degree program and career. While your adviser can provide you with feedback on different aspects of research, ultimately you need to do the work. Invest sufficient “sweat equity” into reviewing the literature, learning the research methods, and addressing your committee members’ comments. Learn your program’s administrative requirements (eg, submitting Institutional Review Board paperwork and annual progress review forms), and manage your own deadlines. It is not your adviser’s responsibility to remind you to submit forms.

6. Be proactive with your mentoring relationship. Provide regular updates on what you are working on, including areas where you are feeling stuck. Ask your adviser how they would like to receive your updates and their preferred communication style (eg, monthly email reports or during scheduled meetings). Take responsibility for reaching out to your adviser to schedule meetings to discuss your work. Be clear about what kind of feedback you want to receive.

7. Be responsive to feedback. Faculty become aggravated when they spend a day reviewing a draft and providing careful comments, and their feedback is not incorporated into subsequent drafts. Intentional or not on the part of the mentee, it can be perceived by faculty as a lack of commitment and/or lack of respect. If you are unclear about how to address feedback, schedule a meeting to clarify the comments and develop a strategy to address them. On occasion you may disagree, but if you decide not to incorporate the feedback then explain your rationale respectfully so that your adviser can see that you did consider their comments.

8. Follow through on your commitments. If you promised to provide a draft on Monday, do not send it on Wednesday. It is far better to under-promise and over-deliver. But following Tips #3 (professionalism) and #7 (responsiveness to feedback), it is better to miss a deadline than to provide an unpolished product. Still, you should send your adviser an email with a status update per your original deadline.

9. Create energy and enthusiasm. Convey your excitement over your research and professional goals, and demonstrate your enthusiasm and eagerness to take the next steps. Don’t complain about challenges you are experiencing: frame them as growth opportunities and solicit feedback on the best course of action. If you are an introvert, you don’t need to change your personality- simply be mindful to share positive remarks about what you found exciting in your latest regression models or something interesting that you learned at last week’s conference. In short, be an energy producer and not an energy vampire.

10. Be realistic about your expectations. While your adviser can provide you with a lot of value, at the same time your adviser cannot do everything and they are likely supervising additional students and postdocs. Furthermore, they are not experts on everything. It’s in your best interest to seek advice from multiple individuals with different perspectives. In identifying other mentors, be sure to clarify what you need (eg, short-term advice on negotiating a job offer, semester-long mentorship on teaching a specific class, or brokering connections to senior scholars in your field).

These tips may not resolve all problems, and sometimes the best solution to an unproductive mentoring relationship is to switch advisers. But most of the time, these strategies will set you apart as a superb mentee that your adviser will be eager to support.

Read all columns in this series:

Doctoral Mentoring Two-Way Street

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of MedicineJournal of the American Medical AssociationHealth AffairsAmerican Journal of Public HealthPublic Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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