How to Work with Graduate Advisors

Finding an advisor can be a daunting process, especially when you can't meet face-to-face. As we approach the deadline to designate graduate advisors in the MS-GMC and MS-ALIS, we've been thinking about what advising means in the humanities. This post provides tips on how to find an advisor and how to work with an advisor effectively.

What do advisors do?

In the most pragmatic sense, an advisor is a sounding board and a mentor for your own independent project development. Unlike in the sciences, where students join a professor's lab and support a professor's research, the humanities are more individualized, where each person is pursuing their own journey when it comes to research.

In the MS-GMC, students have one advisor from Modern Languages and one advisor from Literature, Media, and Commnunication, who work together to help students design an interdisciplinary project and then co-evaluate the Proposal, Prospectus, and Final Submission of that project. In MS-ALIS, students have one advisor in their target language, who supports them in their overall development and evaluates their Professional Portfolio materials, and may advise a summer project if the student chooses to pursue one. Any PhD-holding faculty member in ML or LMC can serve as an advisor.

But an advisor is also more than just the person who evaluates your final project. Advisors can continue to support you even after you graduate, providing letters of recommendation, career advising and support, and lifelong mentorship. Having an advisor who really understands your career goals -- who can help you design a project that's unique to you and support you to achieve your goals -- is one of the unique opportunities that graduate school offers.

What to look for in a potential advisor:

1. Similar interests: Faculty have a wealth of knowledge that helps them steer you toward a high-quality final product in your own work. These can include specific regions of the world, specific forms of media (film, literature, popular culture), methodologies (political studies, cultural studies, gender studies, digital approaches), and major questions (ethics, well-being, global peace, political resistance, sustainability). If your goal is to achieve a professional-level result in a particular area, you want to make sure someone on your committee is an expert in that area.

2. Fitting Teaching Style: Your advisor will be the person you approach with questions and challenges. It's important that your learning style meshes well with their teaching style because that rapport will translate into the project development process as well. Is your advisor a hands-on or hands-off teacher? Do they urge you to get your hands dirty and get started on projects early, or do they assign significant reading and planning before transitioning into the production phase? If you have a great experience taking someone's courses, chances are that you will also enjoy working with them one-on-one

3. Rapport and Relationship: Having a strong relationship with your advisor can sometimes be even more important than sharing similar research interests. The advisor's role is to assess the rigor and quality of the analysis, not the correctness of the content. Indeed, by the end of a successful graduate-level project, the student should know more about the specific topic of the project than the advisor and be able to defend a new perspective. An advisor with different research expertise, who can encourage and challenge you, can be a valuable mentor.

Go with your gut: Developing a project from start to finish is a huge challenge. Handing in your final project will be an incredible accomplishment, and there's nothing quite like the feeling of knowing you created something out of nothing. But the journey there is rife with challenges and setbacks, and you want to have someone who encourages you, who believes in you, and who cares about your work.

How to approach an advisor:

Like any networking, it's important to build a relationship before designating an advisor. It is the student's responsibility to lead this process. Just as with any relationship, a little kindness goes a long way!

We recommend sending an email to invite the faculty member for a meeting and asking them to advise you at the meeting if the meeting goes well. In the email, introduce yourself, explain that you're new to the program and looking for an advisor, share why you're interested in working with the faculty member (point to something in their work that you find interesting), and ask if the faculty member might have time for a brief meeting.

If you already have a general sense of the project you want to work on, you can ask if they could just meet you to talk about the project and provide feedback. If you're not sure, you can ask if they might be willing to help you brainstorm some initial ideas.

Asking faculty for initial advice is a great way to get to know them and for both of you to gauge if they will be a good fit. Even if it is not a good fit, having a conversation with you might help faculty recommend someone else who will be a better fit.