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  • Oriana Skylar Mastro

The Art of Advising

I've been lucky to have great mentors and advisors both as a student and later as a professional. But I also worked very hard to cultivate these relationships deliberately. Not to take away from the time and effort other people put into me, but I’ve never really had the experience in which the mentor took the lead in the relationship.

This may be why I have many views on how to be a good mentee (a post for another day!) but fewer on how to be a good advisor or mentor. And yet, I'm now more likely to be the advisor than the advisee. I do a lot of this informally, but as a professor, I do it formally as well.

But no one teaches you how to ‘advise.’ So as I prepare to advise more students in the academic year, I thought I would take some time to go through my system to be deliberate about how I approach this.

Pay the setup costs. The first step is to ask your institution what criteria they use to define an effective advisor. Some universities have specific resources dedicated to the topic, so that I would read through those. For example, the University of Wisconsin has a whole research agenda dedicated to improving mentoring in research, and they've got some nifty resources. I like their four stages of advising – selection, alignment, cultivation, and closure - and their checklists of what to keep in mind at each stage.

You probably have to do some research for each type of student you are advising, as you’ll have to tailor your approach accordingly. For example, I advise undergraduates, Mas, PhDs, pre-docs, post-docs, and senior military fellows. I'm focused right now on prepping to advise my military fellows, and low and behold, there is a whole field of research on advising veterans.

Put it all together. After reading through all the research, a few things stood out to me.

First, you and your mentee/advisee need a clear understanding of why they are embarking on this journey – the motivation. I always tell people thinking of joining the military that you have to do it for the right reasons, or you'll question your decision when it's 5 am, and you're out in the rain crawling in the mud. Academia may seem less intense, but we've all had those moments when we ask ourselves, 'what am I doing here?'

Second, success seems greatly determined by whether you work with your mentee/advisee on specific strategies to help them achieve their goals. People need to establish clear expectations, but then it seems like most leave their advisees to figure it out on their own. Of course, there is a balance – you never want to do the work for the advisee. But understanding that people's ability to deal with external issues beyond their research capabilities can greatly determine success. So having discussions about what they want to accomplish and why and the potential obstacles that will prevent them from doing that is a good place to start.

Third, break down the steps of the research process for your advisee and then suggest they approach them step-by-step. My professor did this in a qualitative research seminar at Princeton – first, we work to define and measure the dependent variable, then we try to lay out the causal argument, for example. I just completed a book proposal workshop in which the book proposal was broken up into eight parts, and you worked on one each week. It made the whole process seem less daunting and more manageable.

So, in 'putting it all together,' I'm going to put together a program that breaks down the research process into much smaller parts. And I’ve decided to host a three-hour retreat at my house designed to help them devise goals, understand their motivation, and devise strategies to deal with obstacles. Given the research on closure in mentorship, I’ll probably have another session at the end of the academic year.

Produce reminders. I’ll probably set one for every August to review these prepared advising materials and performance notes to make any needed revisions for the next year.

Performance notes. None for now since this is my first time trying to put together a more specific advising plan, but I'll update as I go along.

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