Making the Most of the Mentoring Relationship

Published: Tues., May 1, 2018

Developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with your academic adviser is an essential ingredient for happiness and success in graduate school. Graduate students who feel supported by their adviser report feeling a greater sense of belonging and a better understanding of their academic ability than those who feel unsupported by their advisers (Curtin, Stewart, & Ostrove, 2013). Also, graduate students who feel like their adviser cares about them believe they have a more effective relationship with their adviser than students who do not (Wrench & Punyanunt, 2004). In general, students with stronger mentoring relationships with their adviser tend to be more successful because they feel more comfortable seeking advice as they move through their program.

If you’re reading this, then you’re most likely a graduate student or faculty member who is all too familiar with the importance of the adviser-advisee relationship. Fortunately, advisers tend to value the same things as graduate students. When asked to identify what they most covet in their relationships with graduate student advisees, university faculty identified open communication, mutual respect, and the ability to identify and address problems or disagreements (Knox, Schlosser, Pruitt, & Hill, 2006). It should be comforting for you to know that most faculty advisers aspire to have healthy and productive relationships with their mentees.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with tips for getting the most out of your relationship with your adviser, especially how to develop an open line of communication that can be used to identify and pursue opportunities that are meaningful for your academic and professional goals and how to document key decisions and follow up with your adviser.

Cultivate and Maintain Open Communication

Maintaining regular contact with your adviser is critical for staying on the same page. An encounter with a graduate student at a research conference a few years ago stands out as a perfect example. He was completely overwhelmed about trying to manage two separate research projects. When asked what kind of guidance or support he was getting from his adviser, he said, “I never see him.” Don’t let that happen to you!

Talk to your adviser—calmly and respectfully—about the type of communication you can expect. For instance, would it be helpful to start scheduling weekly meetings? Even meeting once-a-week for half an hour can help keep everybody on the same page. Different advisers may have different expectations for how often they should meet with their advisees, but it is not unreasonable to expect to talk with your adviser at least once a semester or once a month. For students who cannot meet in person with your adviser more regularly, talk about how you will communicate via email. If your adviser is more responsive via email, you may not need to meet in person as frequently. Also, what does your adviser consider appropriate email etiquette? Are there days or times when he or she is unlikely to reply to email? And, what can your adviser expect out of you when it comes to replying to emails? By discussing and establishing these expectations, you can develop an open line of communication that you and your adviser are both likely to appreciate. This open line of communication is the most important element of the adviser-advisee relationship—pretty much everything hinges on it.

Be Your Own Advocate

Advisers want the best for their students and, for the most part, will provide them with opportunities succeed. However, that doesn’t mean you should sit back and wait for opportunities to come your way. Instead, use the open line of communication with your adviser to advocate for yourself, without being too pushy. Identify the types of experiences that you need to have in order to achieve your academic and professional goals. Although your adviser should have your best interests at heart, he or she may not have 100% clarity on the goals that are most important to you. Before approaching your adviser, think of specific experiences that you hope to have. Are you interested in pursuing a teaching-focused faculty position, but lack classroom instructional experiences? Brainstorm with your adviser how to get this experience. Hoping to gain a little more research experience or take on new responsibilities in your research lab? Talk to your adviser about specific responsibilities you’d be willing and able to take on. As long as you approach your adviser politely and with reasonable requests, you should not be nervous about having this conversation. If you dread having this kind of conversation with your adviser, then it’s likely that the line of communication between you and your adviser might not be as open as it probably should be.

Document and Follow Up

After establishing an open line of communication and becoming comfortable being your own advocate, it’s important that you document important decisions that were made during meetings with your adviser and then follow up afterwards. Take notes during meetings with your adviser and then send an email to your adviser afterward that essentially summarizes the important things that were discussed or decided at the meeting. This email leaves a paper trail for you to refer back to later and also provides your adviser with the opportunity to clear up any confusion that might have resulted from your discussion. Without documenting important decisions, you run the risk that your adviser might forget things that are important to you.

In conclusion, advisers and advisees often hold similar values about this important professional relationship. Thus, your relationship with your adviser should be a source of trust and support. Make the most of this incredible relationship. Do your best to cultivate a line of open communication with your adviser. Don’t be too needy or pushy, but also don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Identify specific experiences that you hope to have so that you can achieve your academic or professional goals, then go to your adviser with a reasonable plan for turning those hopes into a reality. And, don’t forget to document important decisions and follow up with your adviser. By taking these simple steps, you can leverage your relationship with your adviser into an invaluable source of opportunities as you progress through graduate school.

For more resources, check out our Mentoring Guidebook.


Curtin, N., Stewart, A. J., & Ostrove, J. M. (2013). Fostering academic self-concept: Advisor support and sense of belonging among international and domestic graduate students. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 108-137.

Knox, S., Schlosser, L. Z., Pruitt, N. T., & Hill, C. E. (2006). A qualitative examination of graduate advising relationships: The advisor perspective. The Counseling Psychologist, 34(4), 489-518.

Wrench, J. S., & Punyanunt, N. M. (2004). Advisee‐advisor communication: An exploratory study examining interpersonal communication variables in the graduate advisee‐advisor relationship. Communication Quarterly, 52(3), 224-236.