The fact that a graduate advisor handbook advocating a student-centered approach has been recently published is probably not surprising. The uneven quality of advising is an open secret in graduate education (Barnes & Austin, 2009), so it was with anticipation that we reviewed this book. The first author is a mid-career graduate advisor who contributes to the scholarship of graduate education; the second is an early career graduate advisor focused on the experiences of minority graduate students. Throughout our own academic lives, we have observed invigorating graduate advising activitiesas well as the opposite. This book may provide insight into why.
The book is written in an informal manner, unburdened by scholarly citations. The author, a professor emeritus with over forty years of experience across faculty and administrative roles, takes a come sit by my side approach and broaches a number of subjectssensitive and otherwise. Although the book targets advisors responsible for guiding graduate student research activities (an emphasis not immediately apparent from the books title), the author surmises that graduate students may also be drawn to the book because of their potential professorial life. If so, they will not be disappointed: the book does not flinch from addressing the sometimes-difficult realities associated with graduate advising.
Chapter One begins by considering how the research advising relationship is initiated. At some institutions, the student selects an advisor; elsewhere, the advisor recruits the student, or advising occurs within student cohorts. However the advisor-student relationship comes to be, the author offers sage advice from his own practice to direct the unfolding interactions. He describes a Venn diagram representing his interests, his students interests, and overlapmaking clear that research advising interactions must benefit both parties, not one over the other. The advisor is not a consultant on topics tangentially related to his or her own interest areas, and the student is not a hired hand for research. Rather, advisor and student build a relationship founded on shared intellectual curiosity about topics compelling to both.
Chapter Two opens with the simple statements: Its about them. This is the essence of being student-centered. Graduate education is about students as emerging colleagues
(p. 21) The authors contention that advisor benefit is a consequence of student benefit (p. 21) soon follows. This returns the reader to the books central thesis: in student-centered advising, advisor and student fates are interwoven. What benefits one, benefits both. Advisors can facilitate this mutual benefit through multiple avenues. Some are obvious, such as helping to secure financial support for graduate study, being accessible, and acting with academic integrity. Others are less so. We found the powerful discussion on imbuing students with a strong sense of ownership of their research projects to be particularly noteworthy. Active and meaningful engagement in researchsoon after program entry and often thereafterpromotes the ultimate goals of graduate education: the development of independent scholars and competent future colleagues. Collaborating closely to create new knowledge is immensely rewarding and inherently risky; personal and professional lives should be reasonably integrated and compartmentalized (p. 47) to maintain boundaries in routine interactions. Graduate studentsand advisorsare adults with full lives in and beyond the academy, and respect for both domains is essential. Graduate students are keen observers of faculty life (Austin & McDaniels, 2006); graduate advisors can model professional behavior when socializing at home and at professional conferences, managing workloads and expectations, and delivering what the author terms hard news (i.e., communicating dissatisfaction with others). We appreciated the simple language the author provided for consideration when readers must deliver their own hard news.
Faculty life and student advising are unfortunately filled with quagmires and sticky situations, the topic of the fourth chapter. Advisors can be adversaries to each other, leaving students feeling like commodities. Graduate students can be equally adversarial, leaving advisors feeling torn. The author does an admirable job addressing these realities in a forthright way. Other pitfalls, such as procrastination (and its evil twin, perfectionism), conflicts of interest, and sexual attraction between advisor and advisee are tackled with aplomb. Of particular interest was the categorization of students termed refugeesstudents who, for whatever reason, are stranded without an advisor. Honest dialogue about these students, who are found in most departments, is often nonexistent; this chapter could provide a starting point for difficult but necessary discussions.
Most graduate programs offer professional development opportunities beyond the fixed curriculum that immerse students in authentic disciplinary work. These opportunitiespresenting at conferences, reviewing journal articles, brainstorming on grant applications, editing drafts, etc.are the bedrock of career support for students. This chapter also addresses three topics of enduring interest in graduate advising: writing (or not) a reference letter, publishing together, and mentorship. The authors discussion of how to effectivelyand with integrityrespond to requests for reference letters from students (not all of whom merit equally strong letters) was intriguing, given our increasingly litigious society.
The final chapter considers how to institutionalize a culture of student-centered advising, a task easier said than done. The author includes appendices for additional readings, a sample graduate advising contract, a sample contract of mutual expectations, and a student-centered advising checklist. The checklist was particularly interesting as it challenges advisors to determine their level of agreement with advice statements and if the advice is congruent with their actions. The chapter is a refreshing and candidif somewhat wishfuladdition to the literature in this area.
Reading between the lines of this text, it is plain to see the many ways an advisor can unwittingly hinder more than help, largely by being more advisor- rather than student-centered. This book offers common sense approaches to not only advising, but also mentoring and socializing graduate students in a fair, responsible, and professional manner. As such, it can be useful to advisors who intend to be a part of the solution, primarily by highlighting ways that even pretty good advisors can improve.
Austin, A. E., & McDaniels, M. (2006). Preparing the professoriate of the future: Graduate student socialization for faculty roles. Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, 21, 397456.
Barnes, B. J., & Austin, A. E. (2009). The role of doctoral advisors: A look at advising from the advisors perspective. Innovative Higher Education, 33, 297315.