I’m hesitant to give you the take-home message too soon…but the sooner you hear it the sooner you will have the secret to a positive graduate advisor/student experience. You’ve heard the horror stories of the advisor that is to blame for the delayed graduation, sloppy thesis, 7 - year Master’s degree, and still an unpublishable paper. You’ve also heard the hero stories of the student crediting their advisor for helping them land that dream job, publishing a significant paper, and leading them to the most significant and joyful experiences of their careers. The thing that determines if your graduate school advisor story is either “horror” or “hero” is often just one thing. You. 

I did many things wrong. But I have done enough things right to get me to where I am today. I was a graduate student for 8 years- completing both my Master’s and PhD degrees. And dang- I wish I would have had someone to write this article before those adventures. Frustration, feeling lost, yet determined… sound familiar? I have experienced it all- and it wasn’t because of my advisor. I expected there to be a standard process and I felt that I was the only one left out of the loop. That “standard process” for advisors to guide all students to eliminate the uncertainty? It doesn’t exist. I know that now by having gone through it, talking to hundreds of students and advisors, doing it the hard way when looking back it could have been WAY more enjoyable, and now I have my own graduate students. So here I am to share what I have learned about what TO expect and NOT to expect from your advisor to help overcome the overwhelm.

I have learned that the quality of the advisor is directly related to the efforts of the student.

It seems backwards, I know.  But I also know that graduate advisors are extremely busy while also very caring. Advisors want to see students succeed and to be a part of each journey, but they need students to take initiative and use them as a resource, not a hand-holding graduate school babysitter. 


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So, here are my key lessons of what a graduate advisor IS and IS NOT.  

  •  A graduate advisor IS…. knowledgeable about the boring but critical stuff. They know the academic and research requirements at your specific institution for your specific degree program. They know the policies, procedures, and deadlines for all those required forms.  BUT - you need to ask them. You need to schedule a meeting before school starts to ask them for these forms or where to find them. Some of these are due early in your graduate program and need specific signatures. It is up to YOU to ask, make a calendar for the several-year program so you don’t miss a deadline, and return to this calendar with your advisor at meetings (that you arrange) to keep on task. 
  • A graduate advisor IS…. a resource to guide your thesis or dissertation process. I said PROCESS. Your advisor should be able to give you the guidance and advice you need to start the research process and with writing.
    • Who will you be doing research with?
    • How does that start?
    • What’s your specific project?
    • What’s expected for the thesis or dissertation format?

    This varies by institution - but ask the following questions before you start your program, and then check back in every month to give an update on where you are and ask for input on next steps and for critical feedback. It’s up to you to make sure you are on the right path.

  • A graduate advisor IS…. able to provide recommendations on groups to be part of, conferences, and networking opportunities. Again - YOU need to ask! This won’t just be provided to you. But, if you do ask, your advisor will be excited you asked and help guide you to these networking options.  This isn’t assumed and it won’t just be given to you. Ask the specific question. 
  • A graduate advisor IS NOT…. in charge of keeping you accountable. Those forms that are due in one week? Your advisor is not responsible for reminding you. You need a signature but one of the required people are gone? You should have asked one month before a due date.  The point is that you are responsible for keeping track of deadlines and for doing all the things that need to be done well in advance of a deadline.  Crap - I needed 3 copies but only made 1!  Details.  Find out the details.  The sooner you know these - the more peace you will have knowing you are capable of figuring out and doing things on time.
  • A graduate advisor IS NOT… your personal statistician.  You will need to find a statistician even if you are doing your own stats to help you when you’re stuck, need clarification, or someone to check your work. Do not expect your advisor to sit down with you when you’ve collected all your data and tell you what do with it. Your advisor can give you recommendations on who to work with, but do not expect them to know all of the statistics or to do it for you. Again - YOU must do the work.  Do you see a pattern here? 
  • A graduate advisor IS NOT… responsible for what you do after graduate school. It’s very unfair, and common, for students to march into their advisor’s office near the end of their programs expecting them to have defined options for what they do after graduate school. It’s not up to the advisor to find your next step. Advisors are more than happy to help discuss options with students throughout their graduate program. Job? Internship? Additional school? A good advisor will lead you to various doors if you ask. The advisor is not responsible for pushing you through that door.  

My tips are either good news or bad news… no graduate school advisor is the same and there are no set rules on what they do.  Having this knowledge is meant to help push you to take control and action for your unique graduate experience.  If you know what to expect, it removes the fear. There are so many opportunities throughout graduate school if you are willing to put in the extra efforts to use the resources around you. Ask your advisor for guidance, but also offer your help. Showing that you are eager to serve and not just constantly asking to receive is an excellent way to build your “hero” advisor story.  Turns out - the hero has to be you. 

Ask for guidance. Offer your help. Share what you know with others that are lost. Be a leader. Heroes stumble many times because they put themselves out there even when it’s terrifying, but they get back up and move forward. Do that.

Dr. Kari Morfeld is a Wildlife Endocrinologist, Reproductive Physiologist, Teacher, and Mentor. She helps environmental professionals on their career journey at karimorfeld.com with weekly tips, resources, and motivation direct to your inbox.