As all graduate students know, it’s tricky trying to navigate the advisor/professor”“graduate student relationship. I mean, when your advisor is both a boss and a mentor, how should the relationship look? How formal should you be? How much should you tell them about your experiences with your research and graduate school? When can you go to them for advice?
It’s tough to figure this out because these relationships are about as varied as the people in them. Some advisors throw potlucks at their house for their students, while others prefer to maintain more distance. When going to speak to a professor, some students lay out all of their thoughts, while others try to keep more in. On the one hand, the professor can be an excellent source of advice and guidance, given their greater experience and knowledge of academia and their field. On the other hand, there’s some level of boss-employee dynamics going on, making it difficult to gauge exactly how the interaction should unfold.
Even though my department is pretty laid back, I tend to fall on the more self-contained and reserved side of the spectrum, to the extent that my reserved nature has been remarked upon. While part of this is due to my own definitions of what makes for a professional work environment, quite a bit of this decision is fueled by my desire to not be seen as weak or emotional. I know that these are terms often associated with women who show any emotion whatsoever and in an attempt to avoid that label, I have worked hard to try to maintain a relatively collected exterior. I’m not saying I’m an automaton ““ I have a list of work-approved emotions, like “happy” or “stressed out because my plants keep dying” (actually, this just makes me sound MORE like an automaton) ““ but I cannot imagine going to a professor and treating them like a general mentor. I can ask for advice on my research and writing, but I cannot ask for advice on how to juggle academia and life.
Some of my colleagues have no qualms about doing so. I know students who have broken down in their advisors’ offices, who have cried, who have talked about their general problems with graduate school, family, and life. I do not judge people for having a more “mentor-mentee” relationship, but I also cannot imagine myself doing this. I suspect that it is an over-correction on my part, but it’s an attempt to not be brushed off as an overly-emotional lady. I want to be taken seriously, and I am concerned that any little move I make that fits in with the BS the stereotypes about women (emotional!!) will undermine me and my attempts to build a strong academic career.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t have a congenial or friendly relationship with the professors in my department: I do make small talk and chat whenever the occasion is appropriate. But it does mean that I censor myself more than may be necessary. I wonder to what extent it’s my attempts to stay away from the stereotypes about my gender that dictate these relationships. To that, I don’t have an answer. I am very interested in hearing about your experiences with professor-grad student relationships, and where you think the line of professionalism should be drawn.
Let me just make one clarification: the interaction should always be professional. Navigating an unprofessional relationship is something that absolutely no one should have to deal with. Universities vary in how they address those problems, so if the relationships with the advisor or in the lab are unhealthy or unprofessional in anyway, look into the information provided through your university’s office of graduate studies.