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Key to graduate school

August 15, 2012


Rebecca and Leah.

(l-r) Rebecca Ropers-Huilman and Leah Hakkola. Photos by Patrick O'Leary.

The University of Minnesota is focusing on advising

By Bill Magdalene

Across the nation, a startling number of students who begin Ph.D. programs don't finish. According to recent studies, close to half of doctoral students fail to complete their degrees. Students cite advising as key to success or failure.

The University of Minnesota has begun to focus on developing and rewarding outstanding graduate student advising. At the April 2012 Graduate and Professional Education Assembly, for instance, faculty members, students, and U leaders shared ideas on the topic.

Below, four U of M students and their faculty advisers talk about their work together.

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Leah Hakkola and Rebecca Ropers-Huilman met in a class Rebecca taught in summer 2008. Their advising relationship began when Leah entered the Ph.D. program in the College of Education and Human Development, about two and a half years ago. Leah is about to defend her special paper and move through oral prelims.

What makes this relationship work?
Leah: We both work at connecting with each other during the semester. I can't emphasize enough the importance of both the adviser and advisee communicating with each other to clearly and deliberately establish boundaries, expectations, and goals for each semester. The process of communicating through emails and face-to-face meetings has been invaluable.

Rebecca: In my view, it is really the doctoral student's passion that drives the advising relationship. Leah identified me as a good adviser for her needs. To do this, she had to know herself well and get to know other faculty in the department. She initiated conversations and took part in projects with high degrees of enthusiasm, competence, and dependability. She tells me when things are working for her and when they're not. She also is explicit in asking about my expectations when she is unclear.

What challenge(s) have you worked through together?
Leah: While Rebecca is the chair of my department, she is not a professor in my track. Thus, even though our interests and values aligned quite well, and I highly regarded her as a scholar, educator, and person, it was difficult for me as a student to challenge the traditional policies of my department … to request for Rebecca to be my official adviser. Rebecca was extremely supportive of my decision to have her as my adviser. At the same time, she respectfully asked me to provide a strong justification in order for her to agree. In addition, she spoke with my track coordinator in support of my decision prior to making any official changes.

Rebecca: We have worked through some challenges in collaborative projects. We recognized that people do not always have the same work patterns and expectations even if they are very invested in working with each other. First, it was important to have an open and honest dialogue about differences in approaching collaborative work. What are the norms, assumptions, and tendencies of the collaborators? Second, it was important to "trust people to be who they are" and honor the strengths of each.

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Andy Halpern-Manners and Rob Warren began working together when Andy entered the graduate program in sociology in 2005. They collaborated in research right from the start. To-date they've coauthored half a dozen peer-reviewed papers and have a handful in progress.

What makes this relationship work?
Andy: For me it's been tremendously important to have an adviser who shares my interests and who I can relate to on a personal level. It might sound obvious, but everything just seems easier if you get along. It makes the working relationship more comfortable. It allows you to communicate more effectively. And, it speeds up the transition from research assistant to collaborator and intellectual equal.

Rob: Hard work (mostly by Andy), money (mostly to give Andy time to do research), and a little good luck. Most of the collaborative projects we have initiated have worked out and led to good research papers. But he wouldn't have had time to devote to our collaborative projects if I hadn't been able to get (or help him get) financial support. Andy works extremely hard, he has usually trusted me when I have laid out what seemed at first to be hair-brained research ideas, and he and I have similar views of what constitutes high-quality research.

What challenge(s) have you worked through together?
Andy: Sometimes research projects don't work out the way you would hope. Rob and I have collaborated on a number of papers that, for one reason or another, fizzled out. It happens. In some cases, the data just haven't been up to the task. In other cases, things outside of our control have brought about big changes to the project. As researchers, we try to adapt as best as we can, but sometimes it just doesn't come together like we expected. That can be a real challenge.

Rob: Failure. Andy and I both invest a lot of time and emotional energy into our research, and research projects do not always pan out. Papers get rejected. Well-conceived research designs fail for reasons out of the researcher's control. … Because I've been doing this for two decades, I see the bigger picture and the broader perspective. One paper does not make a career. One failure is not the end of the world. But like many junior scholars, Andy doesn't yet have that longer term vision. That's been a challenge.

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Mark Herr and Valerie Tiberius have worked together since late 2008, right after Mark's qualifying exams in philosophy. Valerie helped him put together his dissertation proposal and advises him now as he writes the dissertation.

What makes this relationship work?
Mark: Being able to rely on Valerie, both when it comes to large things but also the smaller day-to-day aspects of the relationship.

Valerie: Regular meetings are important, and the meetings should be long enough to have a natural conversation about the topic at hand. I like to have a rather unbounded conversation about the questions that my students are writing about, particularly at the early stages of the project. … I make an effort to help my advisee develop his or her own position. At the same time, students do need guidance: suggestions about how to proceed, help with narrowing a topic, information about what avenues are likely to be dead ends and so on. So I think that striking this balance between respect and help is very important.

What challenge(s) have you worked through together?
Mark: I had trouble over the past two years maintaining a steady level of progress towards completing my dissertation due in large part to an untreated medical condition whose severity I had, in retrospect, underestimated. Dealing with that has probably been the largest challenge that we've worked through together. The most important thing for me was being able to trust Valerie enough to speak candidly with her about the problems involved. Without that I think things could have worked out differently.

Valerie: There was a point at which Mark had a lot of trouble getting work done. I've had many students who've had periods where they couldn't write or couldn't make any progress, but Mark had a particularly serious case of it! Mark trusted me enough to tell me why he was struggling and I trusted him enough to know that he was really trying to solve the problem. Trust is important in general, in my view. You have to trust your student to do a good job without your micro-managing every step.

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Gina Quiram and Ruth Shaw, a faculty member in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, have worked together five years, from the time Gina visited campus as a prospective student. Ruth, along with her EEB colleague Jeannine Cavender-Bares, now co-advises Gina as she finishes writing her dissertation.

What makes this relationship work?
Gina: Ruth has always been very supportive while providing constructive criticism for all aspects of my academic development. She has high expectations for her students, but is always willing to help students identify resources they need to succeed. She has been available despite traveling and fieldwork over the last five years.

Ruth: Gina and I interact with mutual respect, and we share the commitment to learning from her research.

What challenge(s) have you worked through together?
Gina: Early in my graduate career I had two experiments completely fail. Ruth was very effective at helping me redirect my energy toward moving forward and adapting my plan to accommodate what I had learned.

Ruth: Gina undertook a complex, ambitious research program. Despite her very hard work, there have been several setbacks. After each of these, we have put our heads together to think through the best way to proceed, maintaining focus on the overall goals of her project.

Tags: College of Biological Sciences, College of Education and Human Development, College of Liberal Arts

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