How should I navigate this grad school minefield?
September 10, 2014 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I've just begun working on my grad thesis and am having a bit of difficultly connecting with my advisor. I want to proceed in the most thoughtful way possible.

My entire grad school experience has been fantastic. Every professor I've had has been highly engaged, encouraging, and willing to provide meaningful mentoring. Grad school and my thesis have been a passion project, not merely a series of classes. I am extremely invested in my thesis and have long-term plans for my research. This spring, I submitted my initial thesis paperwork and listed two of my favorite professors as possible advisors on the request form. Instead of receiving one of these individuals as an advisor, I was paired with a professor that I had never met. This summer, I made a point of personally introducing myself to him on campus. He was cordial and brisk during the interaction, something I immediately chalked up to him probably being busy.

Several weeks ago, I initiated contact over email with the intent of ensuring that I would be on track for the various registration and committee deadlines. I requested an in-person meeting to discuss my thesis and to talk about timelines. I also asked some specific questions about deadlines. We have been emailing for the past three weeks and have yet to find a time to meet in person. His emails to me are professional and semi-friendly, although he often takes several days to reply. Over the course of five email exchanges, he has yet to answer my direct timeline questions.

Worried about deadlines, today I called one of the campus registration offices. The staff person confirmed that I am behind schedule and asked me why I hadn't been planning my timeline with my advisor. I also spoke with another professor (a mentor who immediately replied to my email), who shared that my advisor is going through some personal things that have been impacting him professionally. She also told me that he is a straightforward person who would probably respond well to a direct conversation.

As I see them, my options are:

1. Contact my advisor via telephone and have a direct conversation about my concerns. I am concerned that an email could come across as passive aggressive, rather than passionate. I am also worried that our conversation will go well enough to justify moving forward, even though I'll have no guarantee that he'll provide the level of engagement that I've come to love throughout my program.

2. Contact the department head and give her a head's up about my concerns. I do not want to cause trouble for my advisor, but do not want to have this type of distracted communication for the next year. This conversation could also include mention of a request for a new advisor.

3. An awesome solution that I have yet to consider.

The world of grad school politics is quite new to me. I want to make sure that I have my needs met, while not committing a major faux pas or misstep.

Thank you!
posted by WaspEnterprises to Education (7 answers total)
Is this for an MA thesis? In what country?
posted by k8t at 7:15 PM on September 10, 2014

my advisor is going through some personal things that have been impacting him professionally

For all involved it sounds like the best solution would be to get a new adviser. This may not be that difficult. I would start with the administration/registration office and ask how to change advisers, particularly since this adviser is not the one you requested. If they give you difficulty or there's not a procedure for this, then I would take it up the chain.

In my master's program (US-based), you selected an adviser for your thesis. One was not assigned to you.

Alternative: Ask your mentor professor how things operate in this regard.
posted by unannihilated at 7:20 PM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is for an MA thesis in the United States.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:21 PM on September 10, 2014

Is there any logical reason that you can glean that this person was assigned to you? Does he do research that is related to the topic of your thesis? My thesis adviser was fairly useless as well (average response time to emails:2-3 weeks); I think it was a combination of him being really busy (he told me at one point that he thought he had overcommitted to various work-related tasks) and also not knowing that much about my topic. If your assigned adviser doesn't know much about your topic, that might be an argument you could make for a change in adviser if you don't want to have the direct conversation about him being unresponsive or what have you.

I think it is worth it to advocate for a change in any case. I did find an attentive, knowledgeable second reader for my thesis midway through who I think would have been a great asset to have from the beginning. So I definitely encourage you to do what you can.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 7:55 PM on September 10, 2014

I'm doing Honours at the moment and at the start of the year we were told that if we're having any kind of issue with our supervisors, we should talk to someone about it. I'm not sure who that person would be in your case, but get in touch with them and say, "I've been emailing my advisor for the past three weeks and he hasn't made time to meet with me. I've tried emailing the questions that I had for him, and he didn't answer them either." Their job should be to either get your advisor to up his game and actually meet with you, or to help you find a new advisor.

EDIT: so yes, I would say you should go with option 2.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 7:59 PM on September 10, 2014

I would call the advisor on the phone. Always make a polite attempt to address issues with your professor first. Only if you have tried and still are not satisfied do you go to the department chair.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:30 AM on September 11, 2014

The right course of action probably depends a lot on departmental norms. In my engineering department, I would have approached one of the other professors I had a good relationship wth and asked to switch. There would not have been any hard feelings from anyone early in a masters thesis process.

In your shoes I would:

1. Lay out to yourself what you want/need from your advisor that you're not getting.

2. Get a feel for departmental norms by asking other grad students what their experiences have been. Is advisor switching relatively common? Does your advisor have a reputation for sensitivity and where does he sit in the department relative to your mentor/professor? Get a reality check about whether your wants/needs from step 1 are reaosnable.

3a. If advisor switching is not unusual and you have a good relationship with mentor/professor, go directly to her and talk about whether working for her is a possibility and what formalities are involved.

3b. Else: Hang out in the departmental communal space. Wait until your advisor ambles by and make contact. Be friendly and ask if he's got a moment. Try to pin down a time if now doesn't work. Have a concise set of questions ready.

4. Elevate to head only if 3b goes badly. I would approach a third professor you have a good relationship with about being your advisor before talking to the head.
posted by pseudonick at 12:44 PM on September 11, 2014

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