Managing your Advisor

Advisor styles and methods are as varied as advisors themselves. Some advisors are extraverted, gregarious, social animals. Others are shy, moody, and some even socially awkward individuals. Results from a 2000 national study (Mabrouk and Peters) of undergraduate research students revealed that no matter their personality, a good advisor is someone who is knowledgeable about the research project, enthusiastic, available, and patient.

Effective communication with your advisor is an essential skill. You may be the best research student in the world but if you never tell your advisor what you have been able to achieve in the lab then he/she is not likely to be able to form that same positive opinion of you and your abilities. The principles discussed in this section are ones you will find useful in the long term no matter what type of career you ultimately pursue.

Frequent Communication is Normal, Important and Expected
It is really important to meet frequently and regularly with your research advisor as you begin your undergraduate research experience. Don’t avoid speaking with your advisor because you are afraid that he/she will think you are “bothering” them too much. Be assured that your advisor expects you to have a lot of questions and to need more assistance at the start of your project. If you are experiencing difficulties making progress on your research project, it is perhaps more important to make an effort to communicate regularly with your advisor about your work.

Although this depends somewhat on your advisor’s approach to group management, he/she will likely want to schedule regular weekly meetings with you when you first start your project. This is likely because he/she wants to be able to give you his/her full and undivided attention. Take it as a positive sign and make every effort to arrive on-time and prepared to discuss your progress. Bring your lab notebook and recent data with you and be prepared to open the discussion with a summary of your recent activities and accomplishments in the lab.

What Should I Tell My Advisor?

Be sure to let your advisor know your schedule, any difficult classes you may be taking, any health concerns, and any other information that might help them to understand you, your abilities, and time constraints on your availability in the lab.

Don’t feel that you must confine your conversations simply to what happens in the research laboratory however remember no matter your advisor’s age, personality, or interests, your advisor is your boss. Keep your conversations professional.

  • Do make sure that your advisor knows your career goals and interests. He/she may have knowledge of certain programs and/or other opportunities for which you may qualify. If your advisor isn’t aware of your interests and abilities, they may not think to inform you concerning these opportunities.
  • Don’t share details about your personal life – dating activities, etc. Sharing personal information is generally regarded as unprofessional and inappropriate for the workplace. While you may feel that your research advisor is your friend and mentor, remember that he/she is also your supervisor/employer. If you are experiencing personal problems that are impacting or may impact your ability to carry out your research project and you need a sounding board do approach your advisor and seek his/her assistance.

Understand Your Advisor’s Goals

To be successful it is important to understand what makes your advisor “tick.”

Why do faculty work with undergraduate students? In 2001, Jared Pelligrini and Patricia Mabrouk conducted an unpublished study of chemistry faculty across the U.S. involved in undergraduate research. The researchers found that faculty participate in undergraduate research for a variety of reasons including:

  • Faculty enjoy research;
  • Faculty enjoy working with students;
  • Faculty like solving important problems; and
  • Faculty participation may be required for tenure, and/or promotion, and/or merit raises.

This study also found that a significant number of faculty are motivated because of their own highly positive undergraduate research experiences. So, the bottom line is that your faculty mentor may have very altruistic, idealistic reasons but they may also have very practical, pragmatic reasons for working with you in the laboratory.

Since most faculty support their research efforts in the laboratory through externally acquired research grants, it is important for you as a student to appreciate the pressures and time constraints under which your advisor may work. The duration of a typical federally funded research grant is three years. Each year, the principal investigator, the individual leading the research project, must file a progress report summarizing the work that has been accomplished, describe the plans for the next year, and list the publications that have been submitted and/or which have been published since the previous progress report. Most federal grant programs expect the investigator to submit a list of at least five peer-reviewed publications.

Industrial research grants are typically awarded on a year-by-year basis. The principal investigator may have to submit not only a written report of research productivity for the time period of the award but may also be required to make a formal presentation to the company. Because of concerns related to intellectual property rights, productivity is not normally measured in terms of peer-reviewed publications and meeting presentations.

Understand Your Advisor’s Management Style

Some research advisors are focused on the big picture while others are very detail oriented. Some advisors run their groups using a democratic, non-hierarchical approach while others are authoritarian and may even seem dictatorial in their management style. Some faculty advisors work alongside their students in the lab while others prefer to manage their groups from their offices. To be successful as a research student, it is important to know your advisor’s management style and be able to work with it.

Faculty may place different emphasis on different aspects of the research process depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Overall, as a manager of people and resources your advisor’s focus is likely on the “big picture.” This means that your advisor ensure that the people working in the lab are making good progress on their respective research problems.

In general students are given problems that haven’t heretofore been studied in the past. This means that your advisor will attempt to match each research problem to each student – career goals, research interests, skills, and abilities – to the best of his/her ability. You can maximize your likelihood of success by communicating clearly and accurately to your advisor what your career goals are, time constraints (courses you are taking or plan to take while working on your research problem, any outside job commitments, student activities, etc.), the nature of your technical expertise (coursework, grades, and research experiences), etc. If you find that your research problem is too easy, too difficult, or simply uninteresting, be sure to let your advisor know as soon as possible so that they can modify or change the project and/or resources in order to ensure you make good progress.

Advice on Dealing with Difficult Bosses

If you understand what faculty don’t like, it may help you to understand when your advisor seems to be a difficult boss and why. Like students, faculty have limited time and resources with which to accomplish their goals. So, naturally faculty aren’t happy when students quit unexpectedly, without notice, or fail to meet project deadlines and when precious research resources such as equipment and reagents are wasted or broken. If you encounter difficulties with your advisor, it may be due to a failure to communicate on your end or you may simply have a difficult boss (smile).

Strive to be positive, enthusiastic about your project, and not argumentative when you speak with your advisor. Think about your own experiences. When are you most likely to assist someone who asks you for help? In general, people are more likely to assent to a request when the requestor is friendly and positive.

Expect to receive some criticism. Hopefully this will be balanced with constructive criticism and honest praise. As a student learner, you will be doing things you have never done before and it may take you several attempts before you are successful in mastering some skills, etc. If you advisor reacts negatively, it may be that your boss is frustrated with your actions and/or with the outcome of the experiment. It is also possible, that your advisor may not be sure what the problem is or how to fix it. Some people get upset and react badly when they are faced with situations over which they don’t feel that they have knowledge and/or control. Keep cool and try not to take any criticism personally. Ask for suggestions. If you have a thin skin and find it difficult to accept any criticism, you will find it difficult to be successful in the long term in your career so work hard now to develop healthy, positive coping skills that will allow you to accept and learn from any criticism you may receive.

Don’t be afraid of conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any human relationship. The most important thing is how you react when conflict occurs. If at all possible, don’t attack the person, instead focus on the facts. Depending on the situation, it may make sense to look for a compromise, an action/activity that will meet the needs of both parties involved in the conflict. If compromise doesn’t appear possible, consider bringing in a third party or mediator.

Special Situations: Younger Faculty

If you work with a young faculty member it is useful to know that faculty learn how to be research mentors “on the job.” Most faculty are hired directly upon completing several years of postdoctoral study in which the main focus of their work is demonstrating independent research productivity. This means that normally a new Assistant Professor is not likely to have completed any management training classes or to have any real practical experience in running an independent research group. It also means that most young faculty are likely to model their own management practices for better or worse on those of their (undergraduate – if they did undergraduate research themselves), graduate or postgraduate research groups.

Last Things: Keep in Touch

Important to keep in touch even after your formal research relationship ends as your advisor can provide you with useful career mentoring and may be useful as a reference for future jobs, graduate and/or professional school. Don’t be afraid to send an occasional e-mail message or holiday card or to telephone or stop by to say hello.


Mabrouk, P.A.; Peters, K. CUR Quarterly 2000, 21, 25-33. “Student Perspectives on Undergraduate Research (UR) Experiences in Chemistry and Biology.”