Good Advising

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein wrote a valuable article for students on the warning signs of being psychologically abused by your professor.

Sadly, some advisers abuse their advisees in various ways: emotionally, physically, and sexually. This exists on a spectrum, of course: a few are serial predators, but there is a long tail up towards people who are just jerks, to people who are generally good but have some blind spots, and so on. I thought her list was a good way to help not only identify abusive professors, but to “score” professors on something like such a scale.

Reading this, I thought about which of my uncodified advising strategies encourage or discourage each of the warning signs. I then used Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s article’s framework to try to write down what advisers should do instead—these rules both help avoid abuse of advisees, and also (I think) lend to good advising.

This list represents my own, aspirational opinion on good advising having now graduated my first “round” of students and postdocs. Some of these items are just “do the opposite of that item of Chanda’s list,” and others are inspired by my own experiences with advisees and their advice to me. I know I fail at many of these (some of those failures inspired some of these points, actually) and some I only really thought of while compiling this list, so they are new aspirations for me.

This list is meant as a complement to Chanda’s: a resource more for advisers who want to improve their advising (or, at least, strive for a style similar to the one I strive for) than for advisees to understand when they are being abused. 

Please leave your own ideas and thoughts on these ideas in the comments.

1) Praise your advisees

Say “good job” when they do a good job. Say “I like that” when they do some work you like. Say “good idea” when they have a good idea. Tell other people, in your advisees’ presence, what your advisees are doing and why you like it.

It can be hard to remember just how hard graduate school is. It is a huge amount of very slow work at a the highest intellectual level sustained for a long period of time. Encouragement is essential, and it’s easy as an adviser to forget that it needs to be explicit or it’s not there at all.

This comic resonates because this is how it feels to get any criticism about your work on a paper. Think about how you feel when you read an anonymous referee’s report: recall how it was way worse than that to get that sort of feedback from your adviser. Don’t make your advisees ask for the parts you liked; lead with that!

Note: I meant it when I wrote “good”; I did not mean to write “great”, ”outstanding”, or “genius”. Even ordinary, pedestrian steps in research are “good” because graduate students and postdocs are pre-selected to be good at research. Give your advisees a sense for what constitutes good work by telling them it’s good work. If you keep the carrot dangling in front of them in a vain effort to keep them striving for better, you’ll give them a twisted sense of what good research looks like. Give them the carrot.  

2) By default, set a positive tone with your advisees

Set a positive tone in personal and group meetings. Make smalltalk (real smalltalk; see points #10 #12 and #13). Don’t frown, scowl, or shake your head as a matter of course. Give criticism constructively and only after saying what you like about something (see point #1.)

3) Take real interest in your advisees’ projects and let them know their projects can succeed

Fist of all, remember what the project is, and where they are with it! Especially for very independent students or when things get very busy, it is surprisingly easy to lose track of what an advisee is working on. 

Even if you don’t know how their project will turn out, find the value in the results they have and state it. See point #1.

Tell others about your advisees’ work and how you’re excited about it. See point #2. If you are not excited about a student’s project, either they need a new project or they need a new adviser.

Show your interest by staying involved with the project. Meet with your advisees regularly (something like weekly, according to their level of independence and need) and monitor their progress. When they send you an email about their work, prioritize that email along with emails critical to your most important projects.

Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics can be a good way for students to commiserate and laugh about the difficulties of graduate school, but don’t let them normalize poor advising. Yes, we are supposed to recognize our advisers’ foibles in Prof. Smith (my PhD adviser once suggested a qual topic for me—months after I had passed my qual and was working on my thesis!) But remember his behavior is not supposed to be a normal part of graduate school.

4) Value your advisees’ opinions

Your advisees will disagree with you. Unless you’re sure they’re wrong for a simple reason (in which case be friendly and didactic about it) take these disagreements well and respect their opinions.

Think of it this way: either they are wrong or right. If they turn out to be right and you valued their opinion, then they will gain insight and confidence from the experience. If they turn out to be wrong and you valued their opinion, then they will gain insight and humility from the experience. Either way, you were a good adviser.

But if you belittle or ignore their opinions, then if they turn out to be right, they’ll be bitter, and if they turn out to be wrong, they’ll be demoralized. Either way, you could have handled it better.

5) Admit when you’re wrong.

“If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not doing anything” Show your advisees by example how scientists make productive mistakes (and yes, even unproductive ones). This helps bust the “cult of smart” and teaches what science looks like.

This is especially important if an advisee was involved in the mistake. Make sure your advisees don’t feel blamed for your errors. Take responsibility for your share of being wrong, especially since you are responsible for your advisees’ research. If you screw up with something that makes their life harder, bite the bullet and make it right at your own expense—don’t make them deal with your mess. 

6) Tell your advisees to talk with other professors

Especially your undergraduates. One of the biggest confidence builders is to go to an expert and have a conversation with them about your research where you know more than them, they are interested in your work, and you have interacted as experts do. This also helps break down “cult of smart” myths by humanizing our heroes.

7) Encourage your advisees to start collaborations with other people

Science is a social endeavor. If you’re not sure where to start, start with collaborations within your group, then with other groups in the department, then beyond. Networking is an essential part of professional development. Introduce them to other groups and expect them to collaborate. Send them to meetings with a list of people to meet, and let those people know that your advisee will be there.

Also, many projects require expertise far beyond what you have—astronomy is very collaborative.  When such an item comes up, use it as an opportunity to get your advisee working with an expert on that topic. Introduce your advisee by email, make sure that expert has your advisee on their colloquium-day schedule, send your advisee to their institution for a day to learn that software, schedule a telecon to discuss the issue with your advisee sitting next to you.  Make your network their network.

8) Encourage your advisees to try things independently

Allow them to carve out a fraction of their work time to experiment without your close supervision. This is how they grow as advisees—they won’t be your advisees forever, and independence is something that should be taught and nurtured, not expected to magically appear once they graduate.

An important part of growth as a scientist is having ideas for new projects, so it’s important to encourage your advisees to identify new paths forward. Since most ideas are bad ideas, this means hearing ideas you know won’t work but encouraging the brainstorming exercise anyway. See point #5.

If their idea is too ambitious, keep it real without shooting it down. Aspirational projects are good projects, and students will often surprise you with how far they can take a project. Give them what you think they need to succeed, a realistic timescale for how long it will take, and let them shoot for the moon.

9) Let your advisees have lives outside of work/school, and let them know you don’t disapprove

Take a positive interest in your advisees’ extracurricular activities when they bring it up, but don’t pry. Mention your own extracurriculars to show your advisees that scientists can have outside interests. Be supportive of them having interests outside of work (even if you personally think they are making a mistake). This includes family matters— your job is to support their goals against the background of their family situation, not pass judgement on how to change their family situation in support of their goals.

Also, culture of science activities (communication, governance, inclusion efforts etc.) are not extracurricular. They are service to the profession (which, by the way, are part of the criteria on which faculty are judged for tenure). Support that as part of their professional development, even if it’s not the sort of service you would do yourself.

It is, of course, important to make sure advisees understand time management, have realistic timelines for completion of projects, and know what is needed from them for them to achieve their goals. But this does not mean you should disapprove that their timeline is longer than you would like it to be, and it certainly does not translate to micromanaging their personal time.

This means that except for coodinating while on observing runs or rapid follow up of transients or the like, it’s usually not even necessary to know your advisee’s cell phone number. Email, internet instant messaging, and group chats like Slack are perfectly fine ways for most advisers to stay in touch. A call on a cell phone carries an implication that they need to respond immediatey; especially outside of normal business hours, a student needs to be able to decide privately if and on what schedule they will respond to you.

10) Respect your advisee’s privacy

Unless they go missing for several days without notice or you are otherwise genuinely concerned for their personal well being, don’t snoop. Don’t cyberstalk, don’t contact their friends and ask where they are, don’t try to learn about or participate in their extracurriculars, don’t monitor when their “online” light turns green on social media, and don’t keep track of how often they email you at odd hours.  Your advisees are not your young children and you are not their guardian; they are adult colleagues in charge of managing their own time and personal lives.

That said, you are one of the first people in your advisees’ lives that will notice if something is wrong (and grad school is hard—things often go wrong). When this happens, you need to notice, you need to be there to support them in a professional way, and you need to ask how you can help. But don’t confuse that with snooping.

I used to think social media muddled this issue, but most platforms have privacy controls that let your advisees prevent you from seeing anything they’d like to keep from you. If you connect on social media (“friending”, “following”, etc.) make it clear that you expect that they will use those controls to maintain the level of privacy they want (i.e., you won’t snoop, and they shouldn’t feel bad having lives you don’t know about).

11) Accept your advisees’ judgements about what they need and how they feel

Make sure your goals for your advisee are consistent with their goals for themselves. Your advisees aren’t you. You are not printing out copies of yourself. Your advisees have their own priorities, values, and goals. Help them realize those, or else get out of the way.

This means that if your advisee tells you that they want you to change your advising style or stop behaving a certain way, don’t take it personally and don’t chastise them for it. If you really don’t want to accommodate them, think about why and whether they need a new adviser. Don’t tell them they’re wrong about how they feel and definitely don’t blame them for hurting your feelings.

This also means if an advisee is not working well with someone or has some personal reason for not pursing an opportunity you think is great, trust them. If they tell you they’ve been treated poorly by someone else, believe them.

This is especially true if they tell you they’ve been harassed or discriminated against in a way you haven’t been. They know better than you, and it is your job as their adviser to support them. If as soon as an advisee tells you they have been mistreated, you suddenly become an independent, objective trier of fact protecting the rights of the accused, you are not being a good adviser. Don’t interrogate them about whether they are sure or how they must have misinterpreted—guide your reactions by the premise that what they are saying is true. This can be especially hard if they have been mistreated by a colleague with whom you are on good personal terms. Do it anyway.

12) Keep the advisee-adviser relationship professional

Some advisers and advisees become lifelong friends. Others don’t (quite the opposite sometimes). That’s fine—it’s the same with any colleague. But no matter what, you have a professional obligation to support your advisees careers consistent with their goals.

This means keeping the relationship professional while they’re your advisee. Even if you’re becoming good friends (or the opposite) your advisee needs your objectivity, and the profession needs your professionalism as long as an advisee-adviser relationship exits.

Note that “professional” doesn’t mean “distant and unemotional.” It’s fine and good to have fun when with your advisees—group celebrations at your house or downtown etc.—and I consider it good practice to acknowledge the joy, pain, frustration, nervousness, and other emotions scientists feel as part of their jobs.

This all means different things to different people. Different advisers have different styles, and that’s fine. Rules on things like hugging, one-on-one lunch (or dinner) discussions, drinking together, leaving the office door open during meetings, and so on will vary from adviser to adviser and advisee to advisee, and will depend on factors like each person’s cultural background, comfort zones and personal space, familiarity with the other person, environment, and a lot more. It’s complicated because science is a social endeavor and social interactions among people are complicated, and hard or impossible to codify.

But no matter who you are, you should not lean on your advisees for emotional support (they may need yours, though), and certainly you should not discuss sexual topics. If you find that your advisees are the only place you have to go for such interactions, you need to remedy that situation or stop being an adviser.

Finally, some advisees will come to you with personal issues, from minor home-life matters to major life crises.  This rule should not be construed as saying that you should avoid helping them. The personal often becomes professional, and it is your professional obligation to help the students through it by supporting them, encouraging them, and giving them the tools they need to succeed (see #15). It is often a “last-chance encounter with a faculty member who [takes] the time to listen and give support [and] encourage[] them to hang in just long enough to surmount their immediate problems, and to persist” that keeps a student in the field.

But while it can help to open up here about your own experiences, this is not an opportunity to stop being professional. Indeed, it’s the time when your advisee needs your professionalism the most.

13) Respect your advisee’s personal characteristics

Unless you are very sure that you are on sufficiently familiar terms with the advisee that you will not give offense, avoid any comments about any personal characteristics, except perhaps for obvious platitudes (acknowledging a new haircut or injury, for instance). Especially avoid comments about uncontrollable aspects of their physical appearance, body parts, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, pronouns, disability, mental health, religion, or family. Obviously negative comments are bad, but even positive comments can be gauche or misinterpreted.

It might be tempting to frame such advice as guidelines for professional behavior (“I don’t think you should give your dissertation talk with your hair dyed that color”; “people will find that tongue stud distracting”), but strongly resist such “advice” except when you really think it’s essential and the advisee genuinely does not appreciate the concern you have (“profane T-shirts are not appropriate at group meeting”).

This does not mean that you should not “see” race, gender, and other personal characteristics. You and your advisee need to be aware of how society’s perceptions of these identities will affect your advisee professionally, and this can and should be a topic of discussion. As an adviser you also need to be aware of and respect how your advisees are affected personally by these identities, especially those you do not share. But have these important conversations in a general way and let the advisee insert themselves into the topic, instead of presuming to know how they relate to their own identities.

14) Model professional behavior, even when it isn’t strictly necessary

Imagine that among your advisees are potential future bad advisers, and teach them by example every day not to be that way.

I had some downtime after the birth of one of my children in the hospital while the baby was asleep, so I opened up my laptop and started working. My wife very wisely suggested that I not send any emails to any of my group members lest I imply that I expected people to work even the day their kids are born.

So even if you’re buddies with a colleague, use a professional register when emailing them and your advisees are cc’d, give a proper not-embarrassing introduction before their colloquium, and save the not-for-the-office banter for when you’re not in the office.

Set a good example for all of your advisees in group meetings by being maximally professional. For instance, ask questions respectfully, disagree gently, don’t interrupt (especially don’t interrupt quiet people, women, or others that are often inappropriately interrupted), and don’t let others interrupt, even if you might have a more free-wheeling conversation with that person in a one-on-one setting. Don’t let your advisees behave rudely—model how you hope they will act when they see inappropriate behavior at, say, a conference.

Candid shot of a typical weekly meeting with one of my students as we deal with a referee’s report.

15) Be your advisees’ advocate…

Fight for your advisees’ future. Find out what they want, what (other than themselves) is stopping them from getting there, and how you can remove those obstacles. Ask what you can do, listen to what you’re told, and do it. Bring up their work with your colleagues. Introduce them to important contacts at meetings. Use your weight to help them win bureaucratic battles.

16) …and do it transparently (i.e. don’t be a puppetmaster).

Strive to only have conversations about your advisees you would be comfortable having them overhear. Make sure they know about and approve of any plans you have for them. If you are working behind the scenes, greasing wheels, or machinating for their benefit, keep your advisees fully apprised of your actions (except where you are bound by some sort of confidentiality). This includes mentioning them as job candidates, suggesting they work with a collaboration on a project, and getting funding to support them. Pulling back the curtain shows your advisees how science works and lets them know that you are working in their interest, and lets them give you feedback on your efforts.


16 points is a lot to remember, but Sharon Wang boiled them down to specific examples of the two indispensable, orthogonal qualities of a good adviser: respect and responsibility. If you are embodying these qualities in all of your interactions, you’re probably doing all right.

This list has benefitted from input from Fabienne Bastien, Sharon Wang, Angie Wolfgang, and Jason Curtis.

One thought on “Good Advising

  1. Dryson

    Criticism in astronomy is based on particulars already having been proven and established as fact that has entered debates as sound evidence when the data does not meet the councils strict guidelines for what is excepted as fact to ensure the faculty remains at the top of the mountain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *