Graduate School moves to increase communication between students and advisers

Advising statements can help communication between advisers and graduate students and prevent problems from arising, officials say.

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Morgan La Casse

Illustrated by Morgan La Casse.

Kait Ecker

The University of Minnesota Graduate School will prioritize increasing communication between graduate students and their advisers following a vote earlier this month.

Advisers will be encouraged to create advising statements, which would outline graduate advisers’ expectations of the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who work with them. Communication is essential in having a successful relationship between a student and adviser, said Mary Jo Kreitzer, faculty co-chair of Graduate School Advisory Board. 

Kreitzer said the statements could help students and advisers communicate more clearly and effectively. In graduate education, advisers determine nearly every facet of a students’ work, and every adviser has a different mode of operation.

“I think it can help students know how to effectively work with their adviser, because different advisers have different expectations,” Kreitzer said. “I think an advising statement really helps lay out expectations.”

Advisers’ expectations can include the level of independence of a student’s work, the number of hours a student should put in, sick leave policy, the timeliness of communication and authorship on publications and research. The power imbalance between students and advisers can also cause poor relationships.

“Historically, sometimes the relationships between advisers and students have the potential to be exploitative,” Kreitzer said.

Advising statements could help account for this imbalance, said Scott Lanyon, vice provost and dean of graduate education. It is often the students’ responsibility to start difficult conversations or to find out what expectations their advisers actually have, he said.  

The practice of using advising statements is uncommon in academic settings. Advising statements would make faculty responsible for communicating expectations, Lanyon said.

“It means students can make an informed decision about who would be a good fit as an adviser for them,” Lanyon said.

The power dynamic also plays a role in sexual misconduct at the graduate level, Lanyon said. The advising statement could potentially help establish better standards for a learning environment, said Max Herzberg, the Council of Graduate Students representative to GSAB.

“Hopefully building statements that outline what a respectful learning environment looks like … is going to be a nice baseline for people to use when pointing out that this behavior is not appropriate,” Herzberg said. “Unfortunately, there is only so much that an advising statement can do to mitigate bad actors.”

Herzberg promoted the advising statements at the most recent GSAB meeting after working on the issue since last spring. Herzberg is also working to include information about mental health resources in the advising statements.

Lanyon said when advisers’ expectations are unclear, it automatically leads to stress for students.

“Students are pushing themselves to be creative and the best in their field, so it is naturally stressful,” he said. “But with these sorts of statements I think we can eliminate some of the unintended stress.”

Andrej Zivanovic, a graduate student in pharmacology, said he has an excellent relationship with his adviser. But he has heard of other relationships that have not been as good.

“The benefits of such a system would vary drastically depending [on] different mentor-advisee relationships, because there’s everything under the sun: the good, the bad, the ugly,” Zivanovic said. 

Documentation is generally beneficial, even in good relationships, he said. Advisers can also see the use of these advising statements. 

“We want our students to succeed. We want them to do well,” said Laurie Parker, the director of graduate studies in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics. “Happy students and comfortable and safe-feeling students are productive students.”

The Graduate School will not mandate that graduate faculty to write advising statements, but instead will promote and encourage their use, Kreitzer said. 

This also gives different departments and programs the freedom to customize the statements according to their specific needs. While advising statements can help address many of the problems graduate students face, there is still work to be done in creating best practices for advising. 

“The advising statement is a really important step in the culture change,” Parker said. “But it’s not the only thing we need.”