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The studENT - Managing Relationships: How to interact and engage with advisors

(posted on behalf of @Ashley Roccapriore, PhD Representative)

Managing Relationships: How to interact and engage with advisors
One of the things most doctoral students struggle with early in their careers is how to interact with those who have been at this career for a much longer time. With the large power distance of more senior faculty and increased imposter syndrome of new students (Keogh, 2020), it’s understandable that students struggle to figure out how to best engage with faculty at their universities and others. While this can be difficult for many, it’s something that is also extremely important for not only junior scholars’ careers, but also for their mental health. In the annual survey of doctoral students by Nature, Ph.D. students said that mentorship, guidance, and recognition from their advisors was what gave them the most satisfaction during their doctoral studies. This mentorship could be not just on projects but career outlooks as well, with 72% of doctoral students said that they had received career advice from their advisors (Woolston, 2017).

Even in entrepreneurship literature we see the importance of having a mentor or advisor on entrepreneurial identity formation (Ahsan et al., 2017), obtaining financial capital (Huang, 2018), or even understanding firm failure (Singh et al., 2015). With this sort of interaction offering such helpful outcomes (both to entrepreneurs and doctoral students), the question remains of how to actually initiate relationships with mentors and advisors. Here are some tips from senior scholars across fields on what they’re looking for in their mentor-mentee relationships (hint: their advice was very similar regardless of their research area!).
Mentors vs. Advisors
Ever wondered what the difference between mentors and advisors is? Typically, mentors are individuals who act as role models that can offer advice based on their own experiences. Also these are usually more informal relationships driven by general advice. Advisors on the other hand offer much more specific advice. Advisors can be role models as well, but these are typically the ones giving very specific feedback about very targeted questions.

Mentors are great for giving career advice, providing insights on general processes (e.g., writing, publishing, etc.), or just being an ear to listen to. You can find mentors at your own university or through other platforms, such as the AOM ENT e-Encounters and AOM ENT Mentorship programs ( These are two great examples of outlets you can use to find a more senior scholar to provide mentorship to you on topics such as those mentioned and are supported by the entrepreneurship division to help more junior scholars. Your advisor, however, is typically within your existing university. This may not just be your dissertation chair, however! It could be another faculty member that you’re working on a research project with or even someone who you are a TA or RA for that particular semester. Neither a mentor nor an advisor is better than the other - they are just different and used for different purposes! Also keep in mind that relationships may be different based on whether the faculty member is at your institution or not. If they’re at your institution they may already have an idea of your work ethic and interests given that they’ve been around you before or know others who have. If they’re external to your institution, it may not be as clear who you are. This uncertainty can influence their decisions (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974), so it’s important to be clear on who you are and the reason you’re reaching out to them. Be cognizant of their time constraints and existing conflicts too - they have students at their own institutions that need their help as well, most likely! 
Approaching Advisors for the First Time
So you have a great idea for a project, have your ideal advisor, but aren’t sure how to engage that person and get their help? Take the leap! Speaking with multiple faculty members! The advice here was the same: reach out, initiate the conversation, be proactive. That said, this advice also came with an important caveat - do some work on your own first. While most faculty are excited to brainstorm and help with projects, they expect you to have done some of the upfront work in order to come in prepared to have a discussion. However, don’t be afraid to have a list of questions for your potential advisor either. As OT scholar @Tim Pollock mentions: “I don’t expect students to know everything, so having questions and being unsure isn’t a sign of weakness. I think some students are sometimes afraid to show that.”

So, if you need to have some work done first, what’s the first step? Newly hired assistant professors and soon-to-graduate doctoral students recommend not waiting until you have the “perfect” first draft, but also to be sure you have something to show the faculty about 1) what your idea is, 2) what the existing literature already says, and 3) why it’s important. Put in some time before reaching out to the faculty member you’re hoping will be your advisor to ensure they see not only the merit in your idea, but also your ability to be proactive and push projects and ideas forward. Further, be sure to be clear about what your expectations are for the faculty member. This is something that faculty members will ask themselves (i.e., “what am I getting out of this”), so sometimes it helps to be clear about what they can expect from you (e.g., you intend to push the project forward, but need their help ensuring the paper is structured right and the contributions are clear). 
Maintaining Good Relationships with Advisors
Now that you’ve started working on a project with a senior scholar, it’s important to maintain that relationship. These are people that you will most likely be working with for years given the longevity of our publication cycles, so it’s important to ensure you are working to foster these relationships once you get your foot in the door. For example, ENT scholar @Melissa Cardon offers the advice: “Get to know the people you are working with. My best collaborations with others have been based on mutual trust, honesty, and genuine liking – with hard work focused on interesting ideas built on top of that.”

This was unanimous among all senior faculty asked - be clear on your expectations and don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations. Many faculty members see you as a current or future colleague. This means that they expect you to act like it, even if both parties are aware that you have a lot to learn! For example, authorship conversations are never easy, but having these conversations early in the relationship and often throughout a project can signal to your advisor that you’re able to discuss difficult topics with grace. Finally, choose a topic area you love, regardless of what your ideal advisor’s topic area is! As OB scholar @Timothy Munyon advises: “Academia has many opportunities, but it is important to find the right situation where a student can thrive... Life is simply too short to live someone else’s dream.”
*Special acknowledgment to @Devin Burnell, doctoral candidate. at Indiana University, who suggested the topic for this issue of the studENT column!
Ahsan, M., Zheng, C., DeNoble, A., & Musteen, M. 2018. From student to entrepreneur: How mentorships and affect influence student venture launch. Journal of Small Business Management, 56(1): 76–102.
Huang, L. 2017. The role of investor gut feel in managing complexity and extreme risk. Academy of Management Journal, 61(5): 1821–1847.
Keogh, M. 2020. How to shake off the ‘impostor’ fears that plague your PhD studies. Nature.
Singh, S., Corner, P. D., & Pavlovich, K. 2015. Failed, not finished: A narrative approach to understanding venture failure stigmatization. Entrepreneurship through a Qualitative Lens, 30(1): 150–166.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. 1974. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157): 1124–1131.
Woolston, C. 2017. Graduate survey: A love–hurt relationship. Nature, 550(7677): 549–552.