Listening to Your Advisor

Some grad students will unfortunately experience the following scenario:

I fear my PhD advisor thinks I will fail and wants me to quit. Should I change advisors? What if I’m already multiple years into my PhD program?

Before you take action to switch advisors, I strongly recommend you have a conversation with your current advisor. Below is some advice on how specifically you tackle that conversation.

Ask to meet with them as soon as possible (which these days is likely a zoom call – as long as you can see his or her face). At the beginning of your meeting, explain that you would like to start by listening very carefully to his/her concerns: “I’ve gotten the impression you’re not happy with my performance and/or research. Can you help me to understand why?”

THEN, and this is critical, do your best to restate those concerns as well as (or better than!) your advisor did. There is a good chance you won’t be 100% accurate, and he/she will likely correct you, and then you have another opportunity to restate those concerns even more accurately.

Only AFTER you have shown your advisor that you really understand his/her concerns (or at least are making a valiant effort to do so), should you make any effort to explain your concerns. At that point, your advisor is dramatically more likely to really listen to your perspective – but only after he/she really feels heard.

There’s a common phrase for this approach: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

I think you’ll find that in nearly all cases, this conflict resolution technique will dramatically improve your relationship with your advisor, and most likely provide you the critical information you need to proceed with your PhD and be successful in the end (getting your PhD and then all subsequent goals in life).

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