Career & Tools

On Wednesday, March 6, the Graduate Division and the Office of the Ombuds co-hosted a workshop on how to navigate the challenges of the PhD student/advisor relationship. Read on for some important takeaway points from the session.

By Graduate Division Staff
Monday, March 11th, 2019 - 7:00am

On Wednesday, March 6, the Graduate Division and the Office of the Ombuds co-hosted a workshop on how to navigate the challenges of the PhD student/advisor relationship. Below are some takeaway points from the session.

Faculty advisors have a lot of influence over doctoral students' academic lives​, including evaluating academic progress, facilitating academic and professional connections, supporting funding opportunities, providing mentoring, setting workload expectations, providing gateways to publishing, and writing letters of recommendation.

Thus, there often exists a significant power disparity between PhD students and their advisors wherein students are largely dependent on one person--their advisor-- for the academic success and future professional prospects.

While there are many positive elements to this close relationship--such as access to in-depth and specialized knowledge, research and teaching opportunities, mentoring, professional connections, and job opportunities--there are also many challenges that might arise.

Some of those challenges include:

  • There is often much more at stake for the student in an advising relationship than the faculty member, but the student typically has far less influence on how the relationship goes
  • Students may often feel reluctant to speak up about problems or say "no" to their advisor
  • There are inherent risks in ​trying to resolve problems through either formal or informal methods of redress
  • These challenges can sometimes result in fear, frustration, stress, or a loss of a sense of control
  • Many international students' immigration status is also dependent on their ability to successfully navigate their programs and advisor relationships

Some elements to consider when approaching challenges in the advising relationship include:

  • Academic institutions are not always set up to be perfectly protective of graduate students, and it's often necessary to take into account the political realities of your department and university
  • Even if there are relevant policies in place to address certain issues, some graduate students may not want to risk the potential or real consequences of appealing to these policies
  • It's important to understand your own capacity for managing your stress and mental health when addressing challenging issues with your advisor
  • ​Be sure to take stock of your long-term goals and the steps you need to take to achieve them
  • Note whether there are personality or behavior patterns that are contributing to the situation

When attempting to resolve conflict with an advisor, the following advice may be helpful:

  • Proceed thoughtfully
  • Consider the impact of different possible approaches
  • Seek advice from others
  • Ensure you are meeting your own obligations
  • Experiment with small steps and gauge reactions
  • Try to negotiate with your advisor's interests in mind
  • Build productive relationships with other faculty
  • Resist the impulse to accuse and assign blame, especially publicly
  • Know your own limits and take care of your mental health along the way

The Office of the Ombuds at UC Santa Barbara provides confidential consultation services to faculty, staff, students, parents, or anyone else with a campus-related concern. The ombuds addresses workplace issues, interpersonal conflict, academic concerns, policy questions, and many other problems, whether as a first step, last resort, or at any point along the way. The Office of the Ombuds is dedicated to ensuring fairness throughout the University and regularly makes recommendations for systemic change. For more information, visit their website.