University of Minnesota

Difficulties With A Faculty Advisor

Identifying the Problem

Adapted from: The Graduate Advising Relationship: A brief guide for promoting a positive working alliance Matthew R. Hanson, MA and Harriett Copher Haynes, PhD, LP University Counseling and Consulting Services University of Minnesota, July 2003)

At it's best, the relationship between a graduate student and his or her advisor can provide the graduate student with invaluable experiences and guidance through difficult academic and scholarly pursuits while offering faculty members an additional source of academic companionship and opportunity, intellectual capital and an opportunity to mentor the next generation of scholars and professionals.

As in any relationship-personality preferences and communication styles do matter, and can contribute to the relative success or failure of the advising relationship, especially if they are not clearly articulated and acknowledged early.

Characteristics that promote a satisfying advising relationship:

  • Frequent contact (e.g., weekly)
  • Clear, direct and open communication
  • Clearly understood terms of evaluation
  • Clearly understood "Boundaries" 
  • Agreed upon, clear timelines for completing major projects
  • Processing of conflict to strengthen relationship over time

Characteristics that detract from a satisfying advising relationship:

  • Conflict avoided or not discussed
  • Unresolved open conflict; relationship worsens over time
  • Infrequent contact (e.g., once a semester or yearly)
  • Limited or vague communication
  • Casual, inconsistent evaluation without discussion
  • Too much "blending" of personal and professional lives
  • Inappropriate personal needs getting met through relationship by either party

How to Respond:

  1. Create an opportunity to discuss the concerns:
    • If the student is expressing concerns to you about another faculty member, coach the student on how to productively bring up and discuss concerns directly with the advisor
    • Invite other person to have an open, honest discussion focusing not on complaints but on how to improve the relationship
    • Bring in a neutral third party (Director of Graduate Studies, student ombudsperson etc.) to help resolve conflict  
  2. Address specific issues that need improvement:
    A. Contact
    • How often should we meet?
    • Who should be responsible for content/purpose of meetings?
    • How should meetings be scheduled (e.g., by work/home phone, e-mail)?
    • Who should initiate meetings

    B. Personal style

    • How do you (advisee) typically work "best" (e.g., independently, in groups, with one other trusted colleague)?
    • What are your communication and work style preferences?
    • How should conflicts within the relationship be addressed? How will we know when conflicts are resolved?
    • What cultural variables (if applicable) might be important to how the relationship develops?

    C. Boundaries

    • What are expectations (both advisor and advisee) around personal disclosures (e.g., amount of disclosure, privacy, etc.)?
    • What are steps advisee can take if feeling overly stressed, overwhelmed, depressed, etc.?
    • How will multiple role expectations (e.g., as student, employee, etc.) be clarified and managed when advisor is also supervisor (e.g., in lab)?

    D. Evaluation

    • What is a realistic timeline for finishing coursework? Prelims? Dissertation?
    • What are your expectations (both advisor and advisee) for presenting at conferences or doing other professional development activities supplementing graduate work?
    • How will we know (both advisor and advisee) if progress is not satisfactory?
    • What are your expectations (advisor) for performance standards?
    • What is the approximate turnaround time for drafts, revisions, etc.?

University Resources:

  1. Student Counseling Services
    340 Appleby Hall
    Phone: 612-624-3323
  2. Boynton Health Service, Mental Health Clinic (4th floor)
    410 Church St. SE
    Minneapolis, MN 55455
    Phone: 612-624-1444 (clinic number), 612-625-8475 (Urgent Counselor)
  3. Employee Assistance Programs
    (for U of MN employees)
    200 Donhowe Building, Rm B20
    319-15th Avenue SE
    Phone: 612-625-4073
    Fax: 612-626-0243
  4. Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action
    419 Morrill
    100 Church St. S.E.
    Minneapolis, MN 55455
    Phone: 612-624-9547

    To consult about and/or report possible discrimination or systemic barriers to equal access.

  5. The Student Conflict Resolution Center
    211 Eddy Hall
    Phone: 612-624-7272

    The Student Conflict Resolution Center offers informal and formal conflict resolution services to resolve students' campus-based problems and concerns.

Twin Cities Campus: