Degree In Sight

Managing conflict, the easy way

No relationship is seamless. Given the stresses of grad school, the bond between adviser and student can easily become strained. Students commonly complain that advisers pile on too much work, fail to give them adequate credit for their work or procrastinate on giving needed feedback, for example.

If you face such a conflict, some tried-and-true strategies can help, experts say. Here's what to do:

  • Think it over. Honestly assess the situation, recommends U.S. Naval Academy psychologist and mentoring expert W. Brad Johnson, PhD. "Think about what the real problem is in the relationship and what your contribution might be," he says. "It's rarely only the mentor's fault, though there are cases where that's true."

  • Consult others. Get a range of perspectives from people you respect and trust, advises Linda M. Forrest, PhD, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Oregon. If the complaint is too confidential to raise within your department, talk with people outside the department first. Faculty in your program can also be a good resource, especially if they have worked with your adviser and know what communication strategies work best with him or her.

  • Prepare to talk with your adviser. Figure out what you want to say and how to say it. Don't blame others. Instead, say what's not working for you and take responsibility for your part in the conflict, Forrest recommends.

    The earlier you do this, the better, she adds: "When we don't deal with these conflicts, they can fester and become worse than they need to be."

  • Document your concerns. Keep a paper trail, including a narrative on your discussions with your adviser. "Ideally, those notes should be factual statements—who did or said what, on which dates—without negative attributions, blame or attack of the faculty member," says Forrest. "Factual notes make you look more reasonable and not unduly influenced by heightened emotions, especially anger."

    Keeping such records, which can also include e-mail exchanges, can help you remember key details that would otherwise be easy to forget, she adds. And documentation will be vital if you ever have to file a formal complaint.

  • Use grace. Sometimes, a light touch is all that's needed. If your overburdened adviser is slow to respond to your request for a meeting, for instance, show up with two cups of coffee and a smile and ask when you might meet, says Forrest. In fact, 90 percent of student-adviser conflicts can be handled quickly, immediately and informally, without having to resort to more radical measures, Johnson emphasizes.

  • Follow up. If you didn't air everything you wanted to on the first round, ask for another meeting. These discussions can be stressful, and you may have forgotten relevant points. New solutions may also emerge once you have cooled off.

  • Don't put it off. While you might hesitate to tackle a conflict with a superior for fear of repercussions, "In general, my advice to all students is, 'Take the risk,'" says Forrest. That's because no matter where you are in your career, there will always be someone above you who you'll need to confront on important or difficult matters.

"You might as well get started developing this skill now," she says, "because you'll need it throughout your professional career."


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.