Navigating Hierarchical Relationships in Graduate School

by Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

3 chickens on top of coop

About a year ago, I wrote a post called “Let’s Talk About Money,” because I noticed that conversations in the academy about humanities careers (both the faculty and nonfaculty kinds) typically skirt around the earning potential or exact salary requirements of humanities PhDs.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon happening, in conversations about mentoring and advising. In other words, this post may as well be titled, “Let’s Talk about Hierarchy,” because we don’t discuss it that much either.

There is, of course, a lot of talk about professional relationships. From the first days of graduate school orientation, students receive encouragement to build relationships, and the more the better. Everyone acknowledges that building relationships takes work, it requires you to go out of your comfort zone, and that faculty and senior scholars can seem pretty intimidating to first-year doctoral students. Usually the advice sprinkles in some references to impostor syndrome, along with earnest pleas for students to try harder and be braver.

You might internalize that message, to the point where you regularly berate yourself for not being more successful in cultivating certain key relationships. You notice that relationships with some mentors and advisors are more productive than others, a phenomenon you may chalk up to luck, or chemistry, or the superior mentoring skills of a particular advisor.

The power imbalance between faculty and students means that students may never have thought of themselves as agents in the advising relationship.

Personality traits do, of course, play a significant role in relationship-building. So does luck. We hope for “good” advisors and mentors, and less of the other kind. But to depend solely on chance and chemistry for productive working relationships can be risky business, a phenomenon that becomes evident when students present any number of issues in coaching. Whether it’s struggles with a required seminar, lack of progress in refining a dissertation topic, or frustrations on writing the dissertation, inevitably I find myself returning to two coaching questions: “What do you need from your advisor (or faculty)?” and “What does that conversation with your advisor look like?”

These are simple questions, yet students often look surprised when I ask them. The power imbalance between faculty and students means that students may never have thought of themselves as agents in the advising relationship. They know that advisors are there to help them, but they may have been too rushed or overwhelmed or distracted to consider the following:

  • Students typically understand their needs better than faculty do.
  • Students can and should communicate these needs (and faculty will likely appreciate it).
  • Students can set much of the agenda for precious face time with advisors and faculty.

In other words, students would do well to cultivate a tactical mindset (if they haven’t done so already), in relation to meetings with advisors and other key faculty. Outside the academy, there’s a phrase for being proactive in relationships with your supervisors—“managing up.”

If the bulleted section above makes you feel uneasy, it may be because we can’t guarantee the outcomes of even the most carefully considered tactical plan. Faculty members, as committed as most are, still might not respond in the way we’d like them to. And because we’re dealing with a hierarchical relationship, students often have very legitimate concerns about how faculty might interpret their requests for help, and how those professors might perceive them. Often, students will say things like, “I didn’t want to ask, because I feel like I should know how to do that [read a huge volume of books/create a dissertation prospectus/write a forty-page chapter] already.”

Sometimes (based on what else the student has disclosed about the advising relationship), the next appropriate question is, “Who else can you ask?” More often, however, we stick with the advisor, and the next question is “How do you ask?” For in a hierarchical relationship, the impression you make on an advisor or faculty member can have real and lasting consequences.

Simply reflecting on how to ask opens up a space of agency for students. A student might reasonably assume that only two options exist for communicating with advisors—either not disclosing any problems (“I’ve got this!”) or shifting into full confessional mode (“Help!”)

What’s the middle ground between these two poles? How do you “show up” to your advisor, in way that also gets you what you need? How one “shows up” can also be a premeditated choice, and (depending on the personalities involved, the history of the relationship, and the situation at hand) there could be multiple ways of communicating a need. Here’s just one example.

As we all know, students in the early stage of a humanities PhD (and sometimes well beyond) struggle to manage the great volume of complex reading. Is this a problem you’d present to your advisor? Here are two possible ways of going about it.

  • Option one: “I’m struggling to do all the reading, and not sure what to do about it.” (Note: in a strong and trusting advising relationship, it might be totally fine to say it this way. You be the judge.)
  • Option two: “I’ve noticed that different students in our cohort have different strategies to manage the reading load. What strategy worked best for you in graduate school?”

In option two, you’ve made a decision to show up as informed (you’ve observed what other students are doing) and curious. And never underestimate the power of curiosity in a conversation. Where hierarchy exists, it can have a powerful leveling effect. To demonstrate curiosity about someone honors both their humanity and their subjectivity, and fosters the growth of empathy and understanding.

Plus, everybody loves to talk about themselves.

So as you contemplate your next conversation with one or more of your faculty mentors, you might consider the following: What do you need from your advisor right now? How will you make that ask? And how will you show up?

“Bellevue Beauties” by alansf is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0