Advising With Heart Practices

The Advising with Heart practices listed here help advisors create a caring environment for students. These suggestions are for advising students in their research. This may concern undergraduate students who so research, but for most of the suggestions below the word students refers to graduate students. Many of the Teaching with Heart practices are applicable to advising too!

Please send us your suggestions for additional Advising with Heart practices.

Remember the time when you were a graduate student

As time passes it is easy to forget what it was like to be a graduate student. Reflecting on your time as a student may help grow understanding and empathy for their situation. What was it like to be a student that was new to research? What insecurities did you harbor? What were your challenges? Who or what supported you? What was your greatest disappointment or disillusion? What was your greatest win? Who or what inspired you? What is the takeaway from your time as student that you would like to share with your current students? Remembering where we came from may help us better guide and support those that follow us.

Remember when you were a graduate student.

Learn about the personal situation of students

Conversations with students that we advise tend to naturally focus on their work. Yet, there is much more to our advisees than their research and the classes that they take. It may help to know a little about their life, their life outside school may affect their work. Do they have specific concerns or worries? Some international students have a partner who is not allowed to work and has no health insurance. Students may have a spouse or children that are far away. Do our students have financial worries? And on the upside, do our students have specific passions or dreams? In what activities do they engage in outside of school? As advisor we need to be careful to not invade the privacy of advisees, but we can give them opportunities to share what is on their heart or on their mind.

Prioritze students’ growth over production

The time available to students is limited, and sometimes choices need to be made how to prioritize activities. In practice, graduate students are essential for moving our research program forward, so there is a temptation to prioritize research production over the growth of students. On the short term this seems a logical choice, but there are two reasons to prioritize growth over production. The first is that graduate students are students, which means that they have come to learn and grow. The second reason that the growth of students likely is beneficial on the long term. As they grow, they become more capable and knowledgeable which boosts their production later. In addition, they develop into more well-rounded professionals, which is an important part of their development.

Be aware of the advising needs of individual students

Different students have different advising needs. The diagram measures advising styles along two axes. The horizontal axis shows that advisors can either supervise students closely or they can leave them free. The vertical axis shows that advisors can be either demanding or relaxed. This leads to a plane with four advising styles indicated by four quadrants. Some mixes of students and advisors can be disastrous. For example, a new student who is an insecure overachiever is likely to feel lost and under much pressure when working with an advisor who leaves students free and is very demanding (quadrant 2). Such a student might, however, thrive with an advisor who is relaxed and who supervises closely (quadrant 4). Later in their study, when the student is more confident, this student might thrive when they are left free (quadrants 1 or 2). This means that as advisors we need to adapt our advising style to the needs of individual students and adapt our advising style over time as the student grows. Advising styles are discussed in more detail in Chapter 4 of The Art of Being a Scientist.

Identify students’ hurdle and empower them to jump it

One may be tempted to think that graduate school is all about acquiring new knowledge and learning new skills, and this is indeed an essential purpose of graduate school. But in addition, many students face a hurdle that limits them in their growth. For example, they may have problems communicating, they may lack confidence, they may procrastinate, or they may have difficulty harmonizing work and personal life. We can help students by identifying the hurdle that they face and assisting them to jump over this hurdle. This requires that we get to know the student, that we notice recurring behavior that does not serve them, and that we work with them transcend their limitations. This not only helps the student in their growth, but it may also release a capability and effectivity in research that benefits the advisor.

Build self-confidence

It is normal for students to be insecure, growing self-confidence is an important part of their development. As advisors we play a key role in this growth, but our words and actions can also critically undermine the growth of self-confidence in students. In fact, self-confidence is more easily diminished than it is built up. We can make a student feel insecure by one comment or even a heavy sigh, and it may take a while for students to rebuild their confidence. Everything that we say or do may enhance or decrease the self-confidence of students; every contact leaves a trace. A keen awareness of how we can help students build self-confidence, and how we can avoid tearing it down, helps create a supportive environment for students’ growth.

Guide PhD students to interdependence, not to independence

Advisors sometimes state that they see their job as guiding graduate students to independence. It is indeed important that students grow out of the state of dependence that they may be in when they start their studies. But growing into independence is not enough. Stephen Covey makes the distinction between independence and interdependence. Independence is about being able to do things on our own without the help of others. Interdependence goes further because in addition to independence it includes an awareness that we are part of a network, that it is a game of give-and-take to function in this network, and that we know how to collaborate effectively with others. This is the mindset that we should grow in PhD students. For MSc students their study often is too short to reach interdependence, aiming to wean them of dependence is a more realistic goal.

The 7 habits of highly effective people.

Connect students with mentors

Since students are often educated in a system that promotes individual achievement, they may have a mindset of working in isolation. But the reality is that all of us can benefit from mentors, regardless of the stage of the career that we are in. As advisor we may, of course, assume the role of mentor. But it can be useful to have several mentors. For example, a graduate student might benefit from being mentored by a senior graduate student, to receive career advice from somebody else, and get help on developing a professional network from yet another mentor. Advisors can help their students by encouraging to work with mentors, and by assisting them to find mentors.

Be aware of cross-cultural issues

Research habits vary among different cultures. In some cultures, questioning authority is seen as a virtue, whereas in other cultures a sense of hierarchy is paramount. Expectations on the amount of work that graduate students do may differ among cultures, and initiative may be appreciated differently. When advising students, it is important to be aware that our cultural norms and expectations may be different from our students. For example, a student educated in a research culture with a strong sense of hierarchy may go out of their way to please their advisor, but when this advisor wants to be surprised with creative ideas, this may lead to friction. The moral of the story is that we need to be aware of cross-cultural issues that may arise on the work floor, and that we have a conversation where we discuss mutual expectations between students and advisors.

You are not almighty

Advisors hold much power. They set the research direction, ideally supply resources for the research and funding for students, and hold the power whether a student graduates or not. There is a danger of being seduced by this power and to think that as advisor we are always right and that we make perfect decisions. If that happens, a healthy dose of humility may help us see that we might be wrong in a scientific conversation, or that our expectations of students may not be compatible with the personal situation or needs of students. Humility may help us see that some students simply need time to grow, and that it our job to facilitate that growth. Remember that you are a fallible mortal too!
Paulus de Boskabouter as king

Discuss 2-way expectations

Misunderstandings between students and advisors easily arise when expectations are left unspoken. Many of us seem to think that others either think in the same way as we day, or that they can read our minds. But your students cannot read your mind, and you cannot read their mind either (even if you think you can). For this reason, it us useful to have an explicit conversation about mutual expectations. How often will you meet? How would you like students to prepare for these meetings? What support can students expect from you? How much will you both work on the project? It is useful to have an explicit conversation with students about questions like this. You can use templates for student-advisor agreements as a tool to structure such a conversation.

A student trying to get through to you.

Promote students’ wellbeing

It is easy to limit the conversation of students to the content of their research. In the busyness of doing the research and taking classes, students may forget to take care of themselves. In fact, depending on the culture of the school or research group, students may even take a pride in not taking care of themselves. (Some faculty display such a pride as well.) Yet self-care is important, not only because it serves our wellbeing, but also because a mind works better in healthy body. So be explicit to students that self-care is important, and that we are not selfish when we take of ourselves. Talk about adequate sleep and other aspects of self-care. Discuss health resources on campus. Don’t assign major projects over breaks so that breaks can be breaks. Acknowledge personal challenges that students may face and be available as a sounding board. After all, you are not only the advisor of students; they may also see you as a role model and you may help them set the tone for their career.

Working under pressure.

Take good care of yourself

How do you think your teaching is going when you are sleep deprived, loaded with caffeine, irritable because of stress, or stuffy and stiff because of lack of exercise? As Sarah Cavenaugh points out in her piece They Need us to be Well, it is hard to teach well if we don’t take care of ourselves. This involves sufficient sleep, balanced nutrition, mental hygiene, and physical exercise. It is difficult to reconcile this with the fast-paced life of academia. The book  The Joy of Science, Seven Principles for Scientists Seeking Happiness, Harmony, and Success contains much useful advice. And remember: you are not selfish if you take care of yourself!