practical phd

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One way my career before graduate school helped me was preparing me to “manage up.”  When we think of the word manage, the process that most often comes to mind is a supervisor monitoring, training, and evaluating a subordinate.  But management really happens in both directions in the workplace.  Supervisors give assignments, but their employees have to advocate for themselves (e.g., we agreed to rotate this type of assignment and I did the last one) and ask for clarity on priorities (e.g., I now have 3 reports with the same deadline, which one should be my top priority?).  The advisor-grad student relationship is very similar to supervisor-employee in many ways, so managing up is an essential skill that all grad students need to protect themselves in that relationship.  

Even though an advisor or dissertation chair is not a boss, they have power over graduate students.  Advisors can decide you’re not ready to take a qualifying or comprehensive exam.  They can require a change in your research design before they will sign off on your prospectus.  They can even contribute to your reputation in the department by what they tell other faculty.  Abusive advisors aside, most faculty think they are being helpful and contributing to a student’s training by the advice they give and the actions they take on the student’s behalf.  But being well meaning doesn’t always mean that an advisor is doing what works best for you.  This is why managing up is an important skill to bring to the graduate school process.  There are times when you will need to advocate for yourself instead of blindly following the prescriptions of your advisor.  I’ve seen this happen commonly around unreasonable expectations from advisors, unforeseen delays in research, life happenings that interrupt work, and advising needs mismatch.  

Unreasonable Expectations 

Student A meets with their advisor to discuss progress on their dissertation.  Advisor says “Great!  Let’s meet in a month to discuss that chapter.  Send it to me two weeks before the meeting.”  So Student A has two weeks to crank out a draft, which could still require significant data analysis.  Even if the draft is further along, the advisor didn’t inquire about the timeline, so Student A may have a conflicting deadline, event, or commitment.  

Unreasonable expectations for deadlines usually come up for a couple of reasons.  (1) Advisors sometimes only think about their availability and don’t ask students when they can get something done.  (2) Advisors think students are only working on their dissertation/exams when students are in fact also juggling other commitments and responsibilities.  (3) Advisors are not accounting for how long it takes less experienced researchers and writers to complete research and writing tasks.  From an advisor’s perspective, the fix is easy: Ask students about timeline.  Say “I can read your draft in two weeks.  Is that enough time to implement the changes we discussed?”  Ask “What else do you have on your plate in the coming weeks?”  Take a minute to sync calendars to come up with a reasonable deadline for both parties. 

If your advisor doesn’t ask these things, you can and should speak up for yourself and ask for a different timeline.  One way to approach this is to punt the conversation by saying something like “I need to figure out how long the remaining work on the chapter will take.”  You can then follow up via email to propose a more realistic timeframe.  Alternatively, you can tackle it in the moment with something like “I have another deadline in the week leading up to that so I’ll need more time” or “The data analysis still needs quite a bit of work.  Let’s meet in two months so I’ll have enough time to sort that out.”  By pushing back on timelines to ensure you’re not agreeing to unreasonable expectations or overworking yourself to meet unreasonable deadlines, you might find that your advisor starts to expect a discussion about deadlines instead of prescribing them. 

Unforeseen Delays

Student B had plans to collect never used before records from an archive for their dissertation.  They can’t tell a lot about the records from the documentation provided because the records haven’t yet been processed by the archivists.  However, the student has been assured they will have access to the boxes.  After traveling to visit the archives, they realize the exciting records are not exactly what they expected.  Before they can move forward with the project, they now need to reassess whether these archives are an appropriate source for the questions they would like to answer or whether they can answer a different set of research questions with these particular records.  This may mean a change in schedule.

This scenario is one in which Student B will have more insight into the problem than their advisor, having actually reviewed the contents at the archive.  Their advisor will have suggestions and advice, but Student B will need to be assertive about their preferences to maintain a project that they are excited about.  They will need to decide whether they are committed to the original research questions and would prefer to visit other archives for better suited materials, or if they are excited about the new research questions they can potentially address at this archive.  They also need to consider whether they have funding, time, and energy for a trip to another archive and how changing their research questions will affect their timeline to finish.  All of these factors are fair to consider in deciding how to move forward, which means the student is the best person to finalize the decision.  

You can certainly discuss the options with your advisor.  In fact, it is often helpful to do so, but don’t be scared to manage up to let them know you will be considering the options and making the final decision.  Simply telling your advisor you need to consider how much the decisions will affect your timeline or that you need to review your budget to determine if you can afford another trip is an easy way to remind them that you need to make the final call.  

Life Happenings

Student C experiences a death of a close family member.  They took time off of their research for the funeral.  Since then though, they haven’t been able to work and have been overwhelmed with grief.  They know that attempting to just push forward will not be productive and that they need to process their grief first.

Life tends to pop up during grad school in ways we have no control over.  This is another situation where the grad student knows best.  So while it might seem unprofessional to share what’s going on with your personal life with your advisor, not doing so means they have no information and may misinterpret changes in communication and completion of deadlines.  That said, what you communicate is up to you.  Advisors don’t need all the details.  They need enough information to know that you aren’t able to meet work deadlines right now, but don’t need to know the intimate details of what you’re dealing with if you’re not comfortable sharing them.  At the bare minimum, Student C could email their advisor to let them know they had a death in the family.  But if Student C is comfortable enough to share more, they might also explain that they’re having a hard time and need to take a break from their research deadlines to recover.  Either approach signals something is going on that is interrupting work, which is what the advisor needs to know.  

Advising Needs Mismatch

Student D connected with their advisor early in their time in grad school.  Their advisor communicates well, provides good feedback, and supports them.  But Student D is finding they need more structure now that they’re working on their dissertation.  While their advisor expects a progress update once a semester, there aren’t deadlines in between.

This situation is an easy fix with managing up.  Student D can reach out to their advisor and ask for a meeting to set a month-by-month plan for their dissertation research with deadlines and deliverables to send to the advisor to help them stay on track.  In the conversation, they can also discuss what feedback the advisor can provide during the semester on the deliverables and in what form.  This is also a situation where the grad student and advisor should sync schedules to meet both of their needs.  

While Student D had a situation in which they needed more structure, some grad students may need less structure or more or less feedback.  Taking on a conversation with your advisor to explain what you need is the first step to getting your needs met.

No matter what your situation, know that your advisor is likely to both know some of what you’re experiencing from their own firsthand experience even if they don’t get all of the details.  Even the faculty member who completed their PhD before you were born may have had to revamp their whole dissertation due to a data source problem or experienced a life happening that set back when they finished their dissertation.  If they aren’t able to adjust their expectations or push you to work through an emotionally challenging time after you’ve communicated your needs, that might be the sign that they’re not the right advisor for you.  In that way, your advisor’s response to you managing up is important intel as well.  

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