Women in Academia: Navigating the Grad Student-Professor Relationship

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.

7 replies on “Women in Academia: Navigating the Grad Student-Professor Relationship”

I don’t mean to make people paranoid, only thoughtful in what they choose to share. I am a professor and saddened by how much faculty gossip about personal information students share with them. Many a meeting has included the phrase “don’t let X know I told you this, but…”. It happens in departments (have worked at 3 universities) and conferences on a regular basis.

The sense of closeness students have is usually a one-way relationship. Profs have been friends w/each other longer than they have known or been “friends” with their students. I don’t know of any prof that vacations with grad students, for example, but know many that do so with other professors in our dept and field. And, I certainly have never heard another prof refer to a student as one of their close confidants.

Some are eager to share salacious information (grad student romantic affairs), sometimes it is well-intended sharing (like a committee meeting where one prof says ‘give this kid a break, she just miscarried’) but the point is that profs think they are not violating any rules in sharing secrets among colleagues. It reminds me of parents talking about their kids with other parents. I don’t like it, but hear it often.

You could never know if your prof is doing this, you are not privy to those conversations, and being sworn to secrecy does not seem to count for much, from what I have heard. At the very least, anyone reading this now has another POV on this issue.

I always say that my supervisor looks at me like one would look at, well, my avatar. A pug in a tutu. It’s cute, but it’s kind of wrong, and you’re not sure whether to laugh or be a little bit disturbed.

This is a great article on a really interesting topic. I think my relationship with my super is a bit like yours – pretty healthy and good, but not that personal. I’m not inviting him to my wedding, for example, though I did go back and forth on that. I think he likes me – he hired me for a postdoc after all – and I make him laugh with my bizarre non-sequitors and self-deprecating Irish humour, but I wouldn’t like, meet his grandkids. Our college system means that we do have the chance to socialise – we have a lot of formal dinners and things like that – but I think last weekend, when a bunch of his students took him out for dinner, was probably the first time in four years I’ve seen him ‘socially’ outside college.

What’s funny is that I worked under a different supervisor at a visiting fellowship earlier this year and I’d consider him a friend as well as a mentor. But that might be because we had SO much in common; he’s only ten years older than me, same nationality, same academic background, similar senses of humour, both big rugby fans. The day he made a Star Wars reference when discussing Libya pretty much sealed the deal on that front.

Like you I know people whose relationships with their supervisors really run the gamut from buddies to polite-yet-distant. I’ve particularly noticed that a lot of my scientist or lab-based friends have closer relationships with their supervisors if only because they’re in constant contact (whereas I once went six months without seeing mine). In my field it’s definitely clear that students and supers tend to be closer when they have more in common – when they’re closer in age, or the same gender. My second supervisor is a younger woman and I think had she been my primary super, we’d be closer socially; I’m starting to work with her on the postdoc project now and I’d say we’ll wind up having a closer relationship by the end of it than I do with my current supervisor, as much as I like him.

(I like this post, btw.)
I’ve seen a pretty broad spectrum of relationships in my department- some students chatting away with profs like it’s no big thing to dish about your personal life, others referring to profs only as “Professor” and acting like they’re a higher breed of human.
I fall somewhere past you on the spectrum, I think, a bit stiffer and more formally awkward. Sometimes I think it would be better if I could open up more, that I would actually be much more impressive and understandable if I would knock a few bricks down from my Super Professional And Respectful Wall (For example, I recently emailed a prof I’m working a lot with a comic! That was relevant to his classes! And that I thought he’d like! And he did! And I didn’t die from it!) but it’s slow going. I feel like, by the time I’m able to speak clearly and confidently to these people as myself, not as some super stiff, overly formal version of me, I’ll have already graduated and be gone.

Perhaps my experience is atypical, but I’ve openly cried in front of my advisor and talked about my personal life and mental health issues with her (and others), gotten drunk with professors, been to baby showers and met faculty families … and I am not as close with the faculty in my program as many of my colleagues (like the ones who once went TV shopping with one of the most senior of our department professors). In comparison to those colleagues, I worry I’m a bit too aloof.

Some of this may be due to the nature of my field – we’re a strong community, professors and graduate students, because we’re an embattled minority in a discipline that at best tolerates us, and at worse, hates us – and some of it may just be my particular department environment or the mix of people involved. I like being comfortable in my intellectual community. It doesn’t mean that anything goes, but in the relationships I know and am a part of, there’s a mutual recognition of the humanity and multi-facetedness of the involved parties; I know personal things about my advisors and they know personal things about me. In my opinion, that’s healthy and good, especially because academia often envisions whole people as one-dimensional article-writing machines.

I do think it is hard to generalize across fields, departments, and individuals what constitutes “appropriate” graduate student-professor relationships. Not everyone is going to have their wedding at their advisor’s house, nor should everyone. You have to do what works for you and what is comfortable.

Hi, are you me? I am/have been friendly and congenial with the professors in my departments, but I keep/have kept a lot of distance between my supervisors and I. I work in a very male dominated area (physical science), and both my supervisors have been male. I am very conscious of how I, as an obvious lady, am perceived, and I worry that any bit of emotion/lack of stalwartness will undermine my efforts as being taken seriously as a scientist. I unfortunately have little helpful to say about how to navigate that minefield, though.

I have cried in my adviser’s office, but I was really embarrassed about it because I am generally not super emotional in the academic context (publicly–I take great pride in my good work and strive to do well, so of course that’s emotional privately). She was mellow about it (I suspect she gets it a lot because she’s very hard and very honest) and we’re still working well together, but I worry that I might need someone a little more supportive in the “you’re so great!” sense. She’s very much about “let’s address these problems to improve” whereas if I could find someone who is serious about my work but also okay with a few minutes of friendly chit chat and some “you’ve been working so hard, so good for you!” type hand holding, that might comfort me a bit more.

I’m much more comfortable being collegial with former professors than current ones, because I am uncomfortable being “pals” with people who are responsible for my education in a formal context (that is, assigning a grade) just as I wouldn’t want to be “pals” with any of my students while my class was going on. But that’s more my thing than my profs’, as far as I can tell.

I’m a pretty independent worker–I don’t visit their offices to work through each stage of my topic invention, research, drafting, and revising as some of my peers do. They might get more out of their professor-student relationships and maybe out of their writing processes, but it seems too forward to me–I imagine my profs are glad for a few independent worker students per class, or their office hours would be constantly flooded.

I guess in general, to conclude this long boring comment, I admire my professors for their success in our field and for the knowledge they’re giving me and I don’t want to mitigate that important relationship (of me being their student) during the term and I also don’t want to burden them with my stuff too much and prevent them from being academically impressive. I see the distance between teacher and student as much larger than a lot of other students do, it seems to me.

This can be tricky. Not only is my adviser male (in a very female-dominated field), but he is Chinese. I like it because I am also very reserved, and not prone to emotional outburst/tirades. A fiend of mine, on the other hand, cannot stand him because of an incident where she broke down crying in his office and he did not offer her emotional support, as she saw it. As long as you have (or find, as in my case) an adviser you work with well professionally, who is interested in setting you up for post-grad success, that’s the best you can ask for.

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