University News

Grad students navigate imperfect advising system

Doctoral students face difficulty switching advisors, providing anonymous feedback

senior staff writer
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

While the University has boosted its attention to the undergraduate advising system in recent years, advising is even more central to the academic experiences of PhD candidates. As the University looks to grow graduate programs across the disciplinary spectrum, it may have to devote additional attention to advising, which plays a major role in doctoral students’ intellectual development and future success but currently lacks a centralized, formal feedback mechanism.

An advisor’s role

Though PhD candidates are expected to conduct self-driven, original research projects, most work closely with designated faculty advisors to shape their research and make a name for themselves in their chosen fields.

“For the doctoral student, the advisor is a crucial figure, serving as the point person for academic supervision and support,” wrote Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell in an email to The Herald. He added that a “larger network of support includes other members of the dissertation committee and other faculty (members) with whom the student has studied.”

“In general, advisors do play a major role in graduate student success,” wrote Aislinn Rowan GS, the president of the Graduate Student Council, in an email to The Herald. Advisors may encourage students to continue with research when faced with obstacles and help them develop critical thinking and experimental planning skills, as well as give advice on career aspirations and provide professional connections for students in a certain field, Rowan added.

Others described the influence advisors wield over their doctoral advisees’ work and ultimate success in starker terms.

“An advisor is a benevolent dictator because you depend on their whims to succeed, and they do have the power to really (mess) up a grad student’s opportunities,” said Sean Monahan GS, a PhD candidate in political science. For Monahan, the relationship between graduate student and advisor is one of “arbitrary authority that has a very heavy personal element, which isn’t a problem when the advisors are good people.”

Advisors “play a huge role in intellectual development and career prospects,” said Ryan Emanaker GS, another PhD candidate in political science. The success of graduate students in earning their doctorates is “almost entirely dependent on you pleasing your committee led by your advisor,” Emanaker said.

Monahan and Emanaker compared the advisor system to a “feudal guild structure.” In antiquity, most professions were governed by guilds, and Monahan equated the life of a PhD candidate to that of an apprentice who is “subject to a master as (they) go through the pipeline and learn the secrets of the trade,” Monahan said.

For master’s students, the relationship with an advisor much more closely resembles that of undergraduates and their advisors, said Andrew Jones GS, a former Herald science and research editor and a master’s student in computer science. Jones said his advisor must approve his course schedule but does not conduct research with him.

“I’m not interacting with my advisor everyday like a PhD student; it’s more a meeting once or twice a semester to go over classes,” Jones said. 

Providing feedback

The graduate student handbook outlines mechanisms to provide feedback on advisors. Graduate students are advised to provide feedback to their department or program’s director of graduate studies, who is “the faculty member responsible for overseeing graduate training in each graduate program or department,” Campbell wrote.

Graduate students may take several different routes when experiencing a strained relationship with an advisor. They can speak directly to their advisor or to a mentor from the Brown Graduate Resources for Improving Professional Structures, a new peer resource group for master’s and PhD students. Additionally, they can go to the University Ombuds Office, which “provides an independent, confidential, neutral and informal resource” for graduate students who have concerns about their studies at Brown, according to the office’s website. Graduate students are also able to provide feedback on training, advising, mentoring and professional development through the graduate climate surveys conducted on an annual basis by the Office of Institutional Research, Campbell wrote.

“We don’t have a formal feedback mechanism because it would be almost impossible to be anonymous” due to the small number of graduate students that each faculty member advises, Rowan wrote. For example, Rowan’s principal investigator’s lab only has two graduate students.

Graduate students may also raise serious concerns to a program director or department head, who would “typically keep this information anonymous if asked,” Rowan wrote.

“I would say I’m not fully informed on what’s in place to provide anonymous feedback,” Jones said in terms of the computer science department’s system.

Emanaker and Monahan were also not aware of any method to provide feedback about advisors in political science.

“This is a new Graduate School administration, and we will be working to improve practices and mechanisms for students to provide feedback on these relationships,” Campbell wrote. For example, Campbell plans to use the new graduate student newsletter to “remind students that they have multiple avenues through which to give feedback, and that we will solicit ideas from them to make the process better.”

Selecting and switching

It is possible to switch advisors within a department. “At the request of the student, Graduate School deans can work with their programs to advocate for students who are exploring taking on a new advisor or can advise students and provide a sounding board and offer support,” Campbell wrote. Advisor switches may happen when there is a change in topic or interests, an advisor leaves the institution or “there is a poor match or there is an even better faculty match available.”

In the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, it is possible to switch laboratories if there is an issue, though it is rather uncommon, Rowan wrote. These switches are not always due to irresolvable problems with an advisor but instead may be due to problems involving research.

Departments use different methods to match graduate students up with advisors.

Emanaker said he chose to pursue graduate studies at Brown in order to work with his selected advisor, but other students may not select an advisor until their second year.

“It is helpful to be clear about who you want to work with on your application,” Emanaker said. When applying to be a graduate student in the political science department, applicants indicate what subfield they hope to pursue, and faculty members decide on their acceptance into that specific subfield.

“At a bigger university, there would be three or four faculty members to pick from, but in our department, there is only one or no faculty member” who specializes in the field of study a graduate student may want to pursue, said Maria Florencia Chiaramonte GS, a second-year PhD candidate in Hispanic studies.

In Hispanic studies, graduate students pick their advisors based on what regions and time periods of Hispanic literature about which they intend to write their dissertations. The process is carried out during a student’s second or third year.

In the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, students do eight- to 10-week rotations in three different laboratories to “get a feel for the environment and the research being done in the laboratories of interest,” Rowan wrote.

This system helps to “uncover any potential advisor-advisee problems before a student commits to a laboratory,” Rowan wrote.

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