Problem Solving


In life and graduate school, sometimes "stuff happens." Despite your best intentions and thorough planning, complications arise: advisors leave, research stalls, bureaucracy slows you down, etc. It's easy to become discouraged by roadblocks, but in these instances you can draw on your problem solving skills and embrace flexibility. These qualities, which helped you gain admission to graduate school in the first place, will serve you well through your educational and professional career.

In Graduate School Companion, Peter Diffley tackles these issues under the heading, "When things go wrong." He offers advice on your relationships (with peers, family, and your advisor), research problems, and handling the bureaucracy of higher education. So what is a graduate student to do when (fill in the blank) happens?

You're not getting along with your labmates/officemates/other peers. At this point in your life, there's only so much you can do to change or improve your personality. However, it's critical to recognize that you'll likely be working with others throughout your graduate school and professional career, sometimes in close proximity. Starting graduate school is an excellent time to reevaluate yourself. Diffley cheekily points out that while you may have trouble pinpointing your good and bad qualities, "a spouse or immediate family member will be all too happy to help you with that." Work on strengthening your positive attributes and eliminating the negative, while keeping in mind that your ultimate goal is not necessarily to be friends with everyone you work with, but to maintain amicable, professional, and productive relationships.

Your advisor is retiring. If your advisor is retiring and has emeritus status, he or she may continue to co-chair your supervisory committee along with a UNL graduate faculty member. This is also true if your advisor is leaving the University for employment elsewhere and you are already in candidacy. If this is the case, you'll also need the approval of the Dean of Graduate Studies. Of course, you can also talk to your graduate chair for assistance in finding a new supervisory chair. The Graduate Bulletin outlines how you can make changes to your Supervisory Committee.

In the unlikely event your advisor passes away, you'll meet with your graduate chair to find a new advisor. Departments consider each individual student and work to find an advisor who'll best work with you and your topic of interest.

You're having trouble communicating with your advisor. Part of working effectively with your advisor is learning how to communicate effectively. If you find you don't see eye to eye, take a step back. What aren't you agreeing on? What's at stake? Once you've taken stock, sit down with your advisor to implement a plan. As Diffley notes, "Remember that your apprenticeship is officially over as soon as you graduate (it's not like your advisor is family) and that you can endure a lot for a short period of time." Unless your advisor's behavior is illegal, work to maintain the relationship and graduate as quickly as possible. If you're in fact facing discrimination or harassment, discuss the issue with your graduate chair or another trusted university official. At UNL, the Office of Student Assistance will address your questions confidentially.

Your research is floundering. All researchers hit roadblocks at some point, and you're no different. It is important to be able to recognize when you can salvage your work and when it's time to move on. Review your approaches to make sure you're using effective methods for getting your data. If your experiments aren't returning the expected results, ask your advisor or another experienced researcher for help with the procedure, taking note of any differences between their technique and your own. Ifyou've spent a great deal of time on the project, retreat to the point where you were getting positive results and find a new hypothesis to pursue. Finally, as a last resort, you might consider a new project (this option may seem more attractive if you're at the beginning of your project).


Peter Diffley, Graduate School Companion, New York: Random House, 2007.