Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 26: Bringing Up Advisor


As the soap opera continues and the world turns, the drama of Chapter 24 (George's impending departure) and Chapter 25 (Daphne's abrupt resignation) has subsided some, but the latest casualty of war--not a fatality, fortunately, just an injury--is my advisor, Jeff.

Things in the lab have calmed some since Daphne's exit stage-left. She found herself a new group to belong to. (Actually that happened prior to her quitting our lab, but that's another story.) The rest of us have been left to pick up the pieces and begin to move forward with the same advisor, slightly altered.

Battered and ego-bruised, my advisor was in a state of shock when Daphne submitted her resignation. He hadn't the slightest idea that she was so disenchanted with him, her work, or graduate school. He knew that things weren't going particularly well with her project; he knew that this was not because there was any lack of effort on her part, but he didn't realize that she was taking it as badly as she apparently was. Although we all have weekly meetings with Jeff, I guess she never voiced her basic discontent about her project, though I've heard since that she had given voice to her discontent about other things.

As I said before, the group had been under the impression that Daphne was Jeff's favorite, and that she seemed to have everything under control. It seems that Jeff, too--though he won't admit to favoring her--thought all was well in her world. Not so, Jeff, not so. ...

I actually feel sorry for Jeff. Prior to these recent episodes, our relationship had started to improve. I told him, finally, in the midst of a heated conversation, that I hated my project ... this after hinting as much for months ( Chapter 19 and Chapter 20). Once this was out on the table, Jeff was responsive and open to discussion. He even remembered that I had been dropping little hints about my unhappiness. We even discussed dates when I might start on something new, provided nothing stellar happened and my discontent continued. He was open to allowing me to spend some of my time (and his money) exploring new avenues. Generally, he wanted to make sure I was happy about my science. Shock and Awe.

After Daphne's departure, Jeff went into damage-control overdrive. No longer was he the apparently oblivious and noncaring advisor that I have long known and ... well, not loved. It's too bad that it took such a jolt for him to find out that something was wrong, but we all--those of us who are left--seem to have benefited.

Soon after Daphne's departure, Jeff sat us all down, one by one, and talked to us about our status in the group. What are we happy with? What should he work on? How could we move forward from this unfortunate period in the group's history?

What should he work on? Have aliens taken over my advisor's body and released him from emotional oblivion? Given the chance to critique and assist, I did not let it pass me by. Jeff and I had some excellent conversations about how he, as the advisor, appears to us, the students, and how that affects our daily interactions with him. Communication is key.

Pause, Rewind, Repeat ... Loudly: Communication. Is. Key.

It takes a while--and some effort--to get to the point where you can tell someone, especially your boss, that something in the lab is not working, without feeling like you are at fault, or having your advisor think you are. I told Jeff early on that I often felt as if only the good results were worthy of the light of day. You can often read his enthusiasm, or lack thereof, on his face, and no one in the lab wants to see disappointment. Jeff just didn't realize, apparently, how important positive reinforcement is to us relative beginners. In talking to some of my fellow students, I noticed how they, too, seem frustrated by their lack of results but aren't comfortable communicating this fact to their advisors. Communication is key.

I also told him--Jeff--that it would be nice if he took some interest in us outside of our work. This surprised him, because he thought he asked the right questions and gave us the opportunity to discuss how things were going outside of lab. He thought we didn't say much because we didn't have much to say. In fact, it was (I think) because, once he asked the questions, he didn't seem to care much about the answers. He never followed up with more questions.

There is an intimidation factor that leads us students to believe (erroneously, possibly) that our advisors don't care about us personally, that they care only about how our research is progressing. If our advisors don't show an interest early on in us as human beings, it's difficult to know that they even care. The vaguer the question asked about our personal lives, the more the answer is likely to veer toward research. The more our advisors learn about us--the more they learn what's important to us--the easier it is for them to ask specific questions that indicate that, no, they're not asking about lab. Anyway, they can always follow up with more specific questions.

There needs to be a disclaimer here, for the sake of you P.I.s out there. Yes, it's true: Many of us would like to know that you care about us as human beings. But we're all different from each other, and some of us might not want to chat about our personal lives. If you ask, and we don't, you'll get the hint if we give a lame answer and veer back to research or something nonpersonal. Learn about your students and ask anyway.

These conversations with Jeff have continued, and I feel the group is moving to a stronger position that will improve communication and productivity, and boost morale. We're still trying to get him to understand that activities outside the workplace can help with that. Hopefully he'll get it soon. As for me, I'm just happy he was willing to deal with the situation and not brush it aside as just another casualty. He will learn--he has learned--and he'll be a better advisor for it.

Any comments, tips, or resources on "bringing up advisor" or "managing through crisis" would be greatly appreciated. Wish us luck. ...

Micella can be reached via email at

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