One of the perks of being in grad school are the people who are there to help you along your journey—especially those who are experts in your field. Take advantage of these mentorship opportunities by cultivating a relationship with your academic advisor.
You might have an advisor who simply helps you choose classes, or an advisor who will guide you during your dissertation/thesis years. Here are five questions grad students should ask their advisors:
1. What are my required classes?
Before or at the beginning of each semester, schedule a meeting with your advisor to discuss which classes you’re interested in taking, which fulfill needed requirements, and which will add to your academic and intellectual growth. This is a great opportunity to plan out—long-term—which courses to take for each semester in terms of pacing and any other outside commitments, like internships or jobs.
Bring up any points of confusion, as not all school policies and intricacies are usually addressed in a brochure. You’ll get a better idea of where you’re headed and may be able to sidestep any potential complications in the future.
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2. What should I focus on for my thesis?
Speaking with your advisor about required classes generally happens during your beginning years in the program; discussing your thesis or dissertation usually comes later, nearer to graduation. Your thesis, dissertation, or capstone project is the meat and potatoes of why you’re there. Ask your advisor for feedback at various stages of your project. For example, at the beginning, you might ask for help in shaping a direction for your work. In the middle of your project, you might ask for help breaking down larger tasks into smaller ones. Toward the end, you’ll want to ask for specific notes on your research or final paper.
Ask your advisor for book recommendations, outside resources that might be helpful, people to contact who have completed the work you’re interested in, and so on.
3. What kind of funding is available to me?
Depending on your program, you may be fully-, partially-, or not at all funded for grad school. In any case, it’s a great idea to speak with your advisor about how you can maintain or find other sources of income while you’re attending grad school. He or she may have leads you don’t know about, both within the school and outside it. If funding is competitive at your school, ask your advisor for advice on what could make you a more attractive candidate for a scholarship or grant, for instance.
4. How can I start planning for the future?
Especially as a grad student, the future can seem very hazy. You might be interested in teaching higher education, or you may look into going into your field directly, whatever that may look like. Your advisor is likely to have gone down this path as well with many years of valuable experience. Discuss with him or her what’s realistic to look forward to in the job market and what you can do to point yourself in the right direction. He or she may be able to guide you to specific companies, organizations, or even people who could help you along the way as well. Talking with your advisor about future plans may not totally extinguish anxieties, but it can help a great deal as you move toward graduation and beyond.
5. How can I grow in my field?
Ask your advisor how you might be able to excel and develop in your field. This could be related to future jobs, as mentioned, but it also includes your growth in the present moment. Are there opportunities to publish your work, attend conferences, or meet colleagues and/or other experts in your field? What tasks can you do over the summer that will allow you to make the most of that time off? Your advisor will often have really great ideas of how you can challenge yourself in interesting ways.
As a grad student, you may feel isolated in your specific project or topic, but that’s not how it has to be! Speaking with your advisor is a great way to gain a greater perspective of your work, as well as a valuable mentor or friend. Don’t wait until thesis or dissertation year; meet with him or her early on in your program.
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