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IV. Advisor-Student Relationships

graduate program handbook

Advisor-Student Relationships

What to Expect

The key person in the student’s education is the advisor. In our department, the advisor is a mentor to the student, providing much of the training through close collaboration. This training includes guiding the student in setting up a research program and in collecting, maintaining, analyzing, interpreting, and publishing data. The advisor provides the student with most of the specific information and resources needed to become an independent researcher.

Experience and research have demonstrated that the nature of supervision and the quality of communication between graduate students and their advisors are critical elements affecting graduate education. The quality of the dissertation and of the educational experience is enhanced, completion rates are increased, and time in the program are reduced when graduate students and their advisors work closely and effectively together. The guidelines here are necessarily broad, merely suggesting underlying principles and basic procedures that can enhance academic quality, safeguard student welfare, and expedite progress towards satisfactory completion of degree requirements.

The principal role of the advisor is to help the student achieve his or her scholarly potential. The student has a right to expect commitment, accessibility, professionalism, stimulation, guidance, respect, and consistent encouragement from the advisor. In turn, the advisor also has a right to expect commitment, professionalism, and respect from the student. The advisor should be available to help at every stage, from formulation of research projects through establishing the methods and discussing the results, to presentation and publication of the research, and finally to the entry into a professional career. At the same time, as the student demonstrates his/her commitment throughout all stages of the research process, the advisor must ensure that the student's work meets the requisite standards of the department and of the field of psychology.

The mark of a good student-advisor relationship is how quickly the student feels and is perceived as a colleague rather than as a student. Thus, students should not be expected to work for the faculty member, but should instead be expected to work with the faculty member as a collaborator on their joint programs of research. Of course, the relationship is an interactive one. The progression from the role of a student to a collaborative scientist requires the student to take the initiative to delve into the research literature in their field and gain expertise that within sub-areas of the field may surpass that of the advisor. The student should take the initiative when needed to formulate possible experiments that address interesting questions in their field. The role of professional collaborator is not one that is automatically given, at a certain point in time, but one that is earned by self-initiative and dedication to mastering the experimental literature in your field and spending time working on and revising experimental designs.

The relationship between a graduate student and advisor is ultimately voluntary. Either may withdraw from the relationship, although doing so should never be taken lightly. Every student must have an advisor. In entering an advisor-student relationship, both the advisor and the student make a good faith commitment to continue through to successful completion of the degree if at all possible.

The advisor and the student should work together to:

  • Select and plan a suitable and manageable research topic for the student to pursue
  • Establish (with input from the student and colleagues) a preliminary advisory committee, and convene a meeting, normally at least annually, to discuss the student's progress. When there is a conflict in advice or when there are different expectations on the part of members of the advisory committee, the advisor and student are expected to endeavor to achieve consensus and resolve the differences in perspectives.
  • Keep each other informed of matters (such as leaves or vacations) that may affect their joint work and the student’s progress. They should also work together to ensure the continuity of the student’s supervision when the advisor will be absent for extended periods, e.g. a month or longer.
  • Maintain awareness of and share information about current program requirements, deadlines, sources of funding, etc.
  • Acknowledge appropriately their respective contributions in presentations and in published material, in appropriate cases via joint authorship.

The advisor should:

  • Be accessible to the student for consultation and discussion of the student’s academic progress and research. The frequency of meetings will vary according to the stage of work, nature of the project, and desired independence by the student. For many, daily or weekly meetings are essential; for others, monthly meetings are satisfactory. Only in exceptional circumstances should interaction be less frequent than this.
  • Respond in a timely and thorough manner to written work submitted by the student, with constructive suggestions for improvement and continuation. The turnaround time for comments on written work should be short, not normally exceeding three weeks.
  • Be sufficiently familiar with the field of research to provide guidance or have a willingness to gain that familiarity before agreeing to supervise the research. In other words, the research topic must be mutually agreed upon.
  • Assist the student in gaining access to facilities or research materials.
  • Ensure that the research environment is safe, healthy, and free from harassment, discrimination, and conflict.
  • Encourage the student to make presentations of research results within the department and to outside scholarly or professional bodies as appropriate. The advisor seeks such opportunities, works to make them possible for the student and, whenever possible, attends the student’s presentations.
  • Encourage the student to complete the degree when it would not be in the student's best interests to extend the program of studies.
  • Assist the student to comply with any changes needed to complete competency requirements and the dissertation in response to feedback from committee members.
  • Advise and assist the student in finding appropriate placement after the degree.

The list above does not imply that the student is a passive recipient of the advisor’s efforts. It is ultimately the student’s responsibility to fulfill the requirements of the department and of Boston College, to develop needed expertise, to design and carry out research, and, in general, to exploit fully the opportunity afforded by graduate school.

The student should:

  • Approach his or her work as a colleague, and take the intellectual lead as much and as soon as possible. Doing so happens less in the early years, more later on.
  • Acquire the necessary background information for all research undertaken (even if this information is not provided or required through coursework).
  • Initiate contact with the advisor and arrange needed meetings.
  • Consult with all members of the advisory committee individually as well as collectively at formal meetings.
  • Become immersed in psychology in general, and in joint student-advisor research projects in particular.
  • Participate in the advisor’s laboratory or other research projects.
  • Participate in the activities of the department and Boston College.
  • Take what opportunities arise (such as the Research Workshops, Grad Research Day, and conferences) to present research findings, including publication.
  • Strive to complete the program in a timely fashion.
  • Seek to solve problems that arise by discussing them with the advisor.
Handling Problems

We have tried to create a program that minimizes problems, but occasionally troubles emerge. When they do, you have a variety of options. Your advisor is typically the first person to go to. The other members of your committee are other people you can go to, and they are all there to help you in whatever way they can.

If you do not receive the help you need, you can go directly to the Graduate Program Director. Part of his/her job is to deal with students’ problems, and you should always feel free to contact the Graduate Program Director. Any issue you raise will be taken seriously and held in confidence. If you still do not find a solution or for whatever reason these options are not suitable, you can speak to the Chair, again in confidence if you wish. In addition, other offices on campus exist to handle specific problems, and the Graduate Program Director or other members of the Graduate Program Committee can help you find the appropriate office.

Graduate students sometimes as a group have concerns, and we encourage you to voice your collective concerns about any aspect of the graduate program. In the past, suggestions, proposals, and complaints by graduate students have initiated reforms in the program. Participate in the Psychology Graduate Student Council or bring your concerns to the department.

Publication-Related Disputes

Occasionally a disagreement occurs over the publication of collaborative research. Such disputes are rare, but serious. If you face a problem like this that cannot be resolved, contact the Graduate Program Director. The best way to avoid such problems is for you and your advisor to talk openly about your expectations with regard to issues of publication such as order of authorship, and this discussion should take place prior to data collection.

Time-Related Problems

Students are expected to fulfill their requirements – write their second year Research Project, third year Literature Review, Dissertation Proposal, and Dissertation, as well as other research write-ups – in a timely manner. Nevertheless, circumstances can arise that produce delays. Conflicts with advisors and the Student Evaluation Committee can be minimized by bringing these circumstances to their attention ahead of time.

Faculty are expected to return student work in a timely manner as well, with three weeks being the longest amount of time a student should normally have to wait for feedback, provided the student has submitted the work at the appropriate time. The best tactic here is to make arrangements with your advisor ahead of time.

Problems as TA or TF

Any problems you encounter in your role as TA or TF can be brought to one of the committee members or the Graduate Program Director.

Bring Your Concern to Graduate Program Committee

The Graduate Program Committee’s purpose is to serve as a forum to address concerns and questions which students and faculty might have relating to the graduate program. Issues concerning the graduate program are discussed by the Graduate Program Committee before being formally voted upon by the faculty. Topics may be proposed by any faculty or graduate student—so, feel free to bring your concern to either the Graduate Program Director or to any member of the Graduate Program Committee. The Graduate Program Committee makes recommendations to the department chair and faculty with the goal of promoting academic coherence and excellence of the program, promoting responsiveness to needs of the faculty and graduate students, and maintaining a positive atmosphere.

Enhancing Graduate Student’s TA Experience

What Faculty Can Do

As a faculty member working with a graduate student TA, we encourage you to be aware of the role that you are playing as a mentor in the student’s development as a teacher. Most graduate students will have only a limited number of teaching experiences before they find themselves in the role of Assistant Professor. Their experience as your TA could potentially have a very positive impact on their development as a teacher. We understand that mentoring graduate students in their role as TAs can often require an additional time commitment, and the nature of faculty interactions with TAs may vary across different course formats. However, we believe that the kinds of suggestions provided below can greatly enhance your TA’s educational experience, and will allow you to take advantage of the opportunity to positively shape the development of a future teacher.

For all Teaching Assistants

Hold regular meetings with TAs

Faculty and graduate student TAs often meet regularly in order to monitor course organization, grading, progress, etc. Regular meetings can provide a useful opportunity for faculty and graduate students to “check in” with each other and discuss any problems or issues that arise. Meetings also provide opportunities for discussing more pedagogical issues, such as how faculty develop their teaching styles and philosophies, and how to manage relationships with students.

Train TAs in grading

TAs can benefit from training on how to grade papers, exams, etc., to ensure that all TAs (along with the faculty member) have a shared understanding of how to evaluate student work. Some faculty members co-grade a select sample of papers/exams with the TAs to discuss how they evaluate each case, so that they can establish consistency in grading across all members of the teaching team.

Allow TAs to contribute to exams and other aspects of the course

TAs can gain useful teaching experience when they contribute substantively to the course, such as by developing exam questions and planning and implementing class activities. Such contributions to the course can be especially useful for training TAs when faculty are then able to provide TAs with feedback on their work.

Offer TAs unique roles/responsibilities

TAs can also gain useful teaching experience when they are given special opportunities to work closely with students. Faculty may therefore encourage TAs to work with students by giving them unique roles and responsibilities, such as preparing and leading review sessions, or leading discussion sections.

Plan time for reflection

Consider setting aside time during the middle of the semester and/or at the end of semester to review the class with the TAs, and to provide TAs with feedback regarding their performance. These times can be useful for reflecting on what was learned over the course of the semester; both by the students enrolled in the course and the TAs themselves.

For More Experienced Teaching Assistants

Provide TAs with opportunity to guest lecture

More experienced TAs should be encouraged to prepare and give a guest lecture. Guest lectures can range from as short as 15 minutes in length, to as long as the full class period, depending upon the TA’s level of experience and the demands of the course. Opportunities to guest lecture are most effective in training graduate students when faculty can be present, so that they can later provide TAs with detailed feedback on their presentation (videotaping the presentation may be useful too).

Give TAs a chance to lead class discussions

More experienced TAs may also organize and lead a class discussion. Preparing for a class discussion may be a bit more advanced and time intensive than planning a class activity, as it may require TAs to find appropriate readings, videos, and other materials that can stimulate class discussion.

Talk with TAs about course development

Some advanced TAs may benefit greatly by learning more of the ‘behind the scenes’ details about course development. Consider sharing your syllabus and course materials with your TA, to discuss your decisions regarding course requirements, organization of topics, and grading policies and procedures. You might also ask TAs to think about the kinds of classes they might want to teach in the future, and suggest ways in which they could begin to develop such classes.

Co-teaching

Co-teaching involves the sharing of most teaching duties, including course development, selection of materials, preparation of lectures and grading policies, and overall management of the course. Co-teaching can be a useful way for graduate students to take on more responsibility, while still receiving guidance and mentoring prior to teaching their own independent course.

What Graduate Students Can Do

Graduate student TAs can enhance their training as teachers both by engaging in the kinds of activities outlined above, and in taking time to reflect on their teaching experiences. Graduate student TAs interested in engaging in these kinds of activities should discuss possibilities with the faculty member. Of course, your involvement will depend on your experience, the demands of the course, and the expectations of the particular faculty member. But, as a general point, try to use the TAship as a time for you to enhance your teaching skills and qualifications (through preparing class activities, leading discussions, giving guest lectures, etc.), as well as a chance for you to develop your own teaching style and philosophy.

At the same time, graduate students should also keep in mind that TAs are intended to work no more than 15 hours per week on average over the course of the semester and that engaging in such activities to enhance their training may involve a time commitment above and beyond that required to meet the original duties of the TAship. Nonetheless, even in the event that TAs do not take on additional duties and responsibilities, there are many things that TAs can do to make the most of their teaching experiences.

Reflect on your past learning experiences

As you take on the roles and responsibilities of the TA-ship, try to reflect on some of your best experiences as an undergraduate in classes with professors you came to admire and respect. Think about the kinds of techniques and teaching approaches used by these professors, and how they might inform your own approaches and interactions with your students.

Develop your own ideas of teaching Do’s and Don’ts

Reflect on the faculty member’s approach to teaching (e.g., teaching style, methods for encouraging discussions, ways of presenting ideas and methods for grading and evaluating performance). Along with taking notes on the course material, also take notes on things that strike you about the faculty member’s approach to teaching. From this, develop your own list of teaching Do’s (things you would like to emulate in your own future classes) and Don’ts (things you want to avoid).

Pay attention to the students

Over the course of the semester, pay attention to how students respond to different lectures, class activities, and portions of the course material. Use this information to inform your own ideas for structuring a course. Also, see how the conditions of the classroom context (e.g., class size, physical characteristics of the room, time of day, etc.) may contribute to students’ responses.

Compare your TA experiences

For those of you who have served as a TA for many different courses, reflect on the differences you see in how faculty members structure their classes. Given this information, think about how you might structure your own course similarly or differently.

Engage in discussions with faculty

You might also consider contacting individual members of our faculty to talk about teaching, seeking out those who have different teaching styles and philosophies. We suspect that just about any faculty member would be delighted to have a discussion with you about their teaching experiences and philosophies, and these kinds of discussions can often be useful for discerning one’s own approach to teaching.