As undergraduates, students most often interact with professors at a distance during classroom lectures; if professors and undergraduates do interact one on one outside classrooms, they typically do so in brief office visits or elevator conversations. Unlike undergraduate students, graduate students interact with professors much more often. Ideally, graduate students will develop close academic relationships with mentor professors, who can use their higher academic rank and knowledge to help students negotiate their programs, their opportunities for professional development, and the world of academia. Mentorships with professors are very important for the academic success of graduate students, particularly when graduate students write their theses or dissertations. Unfortunately, many factors threaten healthy academic relationships between graduate students and professors. These factors include (a) competition within departments, (b) different perspectives and opinions between students and professors, (c) professors’ forgetting students’ struggles, and students’ misunderstanding professors’ struggles, and (d) lack of communication, resistance to change, unclear expectations, and potential prejudices on either side. To avoid any of these issues with potential mentors in graduate school, you can try the following:
Remember that you are the one factor that you can control concerning academic relationships in graduate school. The most important thing you can do to maintain healthy relationships with your professors in graduate school is to improve your sense of self and your self-esteem. You can improve your sense of self and your self-esteem by maintaining a healthy social life with your family members, friends, and partners, by setting goals for yourself and rewarding yourself when you achieve those goals, and by being confident in what you have accomplished and how you can contribute to further academic progress. You can also improve your confidence and sense of self by working on your own communication skills, which will benefit you for your entire academic and professional careers.
If possible, try to find or create academic environments (e.g., classrooms, clubs, meetings, support groups, etc.) that are open to and welcoming of dialogue. You can help create academic environments that facilitate conversation by understanding your professors’ expectations of you, by researching their interests and their classroom and communication styles, and by acknowledging the pressures they face within their own departments. When a good opportunity presents itself, you can also use your improved communication skills to initiate intelligent and informed discussions with your professors.
If you have tried and struggled to improve communication with professors in your department, you can reach out to other sources of academic support, including faculty and professors in other departments as well as other graduate students. Healthy mentorships in graduate school can take many forms. You can improve your chances of maintaining healthy academic relationships in graduate school if you remain open to and positive about potential sources of support.