6 Savvy Ways to Help Your Adviser Help You


You’ve just started graduate school, and now you’re completely lost.

Or maybe you’ve realized that this is your third or fourth (or nth) year. And you’re completely lost.

“What did I get myself into?”

But wait. Before you panic, there is one person who has been chosen as your superhero. Your adviser.

If you’ve chosen to study under this person, chances are your goals are similar to their accomplishments. They can be a gold mine of information if you only know how to ask. But how do you even ask for help when you’re still learning the language?  How do you get their valuable feedback and time when you have a very important person with very important things to do as an adviser?

Here are 6 ways to make it easy for them to help you. The first three are for before you meet with your adviser, and the last three are for meetings with them.

Before the meeting…

1. Start with structure.

You didn’t just come to graduate school on a whim. You have a mission. Take a look at your personal statement. This is the piece of you that convinced your department to take you on as a graduate student. What made you the compelling choice? Write down 3 goals you have for your graduate career. This focuses your mind and nips panic mode.

2. Make a Master Task List

Take those 3 goals you came up with and list everything you need to do to accomplish them. Split the list into immediate (1-2 weeks), short term (3-6 months), and long term tasks (years). This list will get longer as you progress (and certainly after you meet with your adviser).

3. Know what You Want to Know

Your adviser isn’t a mind reader. They don’t know what you don’t know. Their minds are occupied by numerous projects and duties and classes. You have to do the active thinking about what you need to know.  Keep a running list of questions to ask them, and keep it current. Evernote is a wonderful tool for this.

During the meeting…

4. Don’t Waste Their Time

Outline your expectations early. If you called this meeting for a purpose, tell them exactly what that purpose is and what you hope to get out of talking with them. It’s their job to help you (and most are eager to do so). Tell them what you need. Hint: refer back to your Master Task List and Question List.

5. Agree on Deliverables (and then provide them on time)

Advisers are great at providing feedback on something tangible. Agree on a deliverable to have by your next meeting. This does two things: 1) It keeps you on track and focused, and 2) It gives your adviser a way to appraise your work and offer suggestions.

6. Don’t be Afraid to Look Stupid. Just Ask.

You will look stupid at some point. Get over it, and ask your question.

Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Your adviser is there to, well, advise you. Take advantage of their experience and expertise to get unstuck and get going.

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