On the advisor-mentee relationship

I had previously given advice about how to find your advisor. But I realize I haven't talked about the advisor-mentee relationship directly before.

The advisor is the window through which the student gets to perceive research and academia from. Advisors imprint the students with their approach to research, taste in research problems, perspective on solutions. Advisors also act as role models to the students in a more general sense. I see that the advisor's qualities often live on the student for a long time --at least through the assistant professorship period. For example, if the advisor is kind and generous to students, the mentee is nice to students, etc. This is a big responsibility for the advisors, and they should be aware of their roles in their interactions with their mentees.

The advisor's main job is to ask questions and guide strategically where and when it matters. Acting as the leader, the advisor should provide purpose, give direction, and occasionally motivation to the student. However, spoonfeeding (providing the answers) and hand-holding (guiding through all steps) should be avoided from the beginning. Through osmosis the advisor should instill some research taste on the mentee, teach the art of asking questions and thinking critically/analytically.

Building the advisor-mentee relationship takes time. This is a professional relationship, personality matches and getting along should not be basis for accepting/rejecting mentees. Both sides should keep this relationship professional in a respecting and understanding way. The advisors should not be controlling, and the students in turn should realize that there are consequences to shirking off their responsibilities. The most important thing in the advisor-mentee relation is open communication. The worse thing that could happen is a fail-silent fault: masking problems/issues and pretending everything is fine, and then failing the other party in the project/effort with little heads up.

For the advisor-mentee relationship to flourish, the advisor should cultivate a peer/collegial relation. I once met a faculty candidate who referred to his advisor as "boss" in a non-sarcastic serious way. That was a red flag. This should be a collegial relationship. The students shouldn't be the yes men. They should be able to defend their positions and spar on ideas. Personally I feel happy (and proud) when my students are able to point out when I am wrong. Better decisions emerge from arguing different approaches/positions. The egos shouldn't get in the way of the search for truth.

Initially it is common to talk past each other as you are unaccustomed to each other's thinking and communication styles. It may take many weeks before you can start communicating efficiently. But magic happens one day, after many months of working together. You start completing each others' train of thoughts. You challenge one another and figure out things together. That feels like jamming sessions of musicians, and that is a very gratifying thing.

After writing this much, I will be amiss if I don't thank my PhD and postdoc advisors. Thank you Anish Arora and Nancy Lynch for being wonderful advisors and role models. From you, I learned to be passionate about research and the importance and power of thinking clearly and in a disciplined manner.


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