University of Hawaii Manoa

UH Mānoa Office of the Ombuds

Survival Tips for Graduate Students

Undergraduates often deal with their professor problems by letting them slide or by severing any future ties with that prof.  You may have done this yourself when you were an undergrad.   Maybe you had an instructor who was unfair or a bad teacher, so you dropped the course, or you decided just to get through the course and never take another class from that person again.  If these strategies work for undergrads—and sometimes they do—it’s because they did not need to continue their relationship with that professor.  The student could say, “good bye and bad luck.”

But for graduate students these strategies are far, far less effective.  In graduate studies it is much more likely that you will want to maintain a relationship with a faculty member and therefore much less likely that you can deal with the problem by cutting yourself off from that personOften the person who you are having trouble with is the very person that you need most.  That person may be your dissertation adviser, a thesis committee member, your work supervisor, or the department chair.  Think of this situation as a troubled marriage where divorce is not a good option.

With that in mind, here are some survival tips that help you to prevent trouble and to deal effectively with trouble when it comes along.

  • Get to know your department secretaries and treat them with consideration and respect.
  • Think of your relationship with faculty members, especially those you want to continue to work with, as partnerships and take the initiative in keeping these relationships productive.
  • Early in your relationships with these people, meet in person to establish expectations about progress, feedback, and deadlines.  Also discuss how and how often you will communicate.  It is a good idea not to rely only on e-mail.
  • Use your initiative to get clarity about your progress and the quality of your work.  Don’t waste time trying to read between the lines. When in doubt about how well you are doing, ask.  Don’t assume that you will be told without asking.  Getting bad news that is definitive is better than getting vague news that keeps you floating in graduate study miasma forever and ever.
  • Consider sending to your faculty member summaries of meetings where these issues were discussed.
  • If you are having any kind of trouble that affects your work, explain your situation.  Keep in contact.  Disappearing from the scene just makes things worse.
  • Get help and advice from other students and faculty members in your department.  If you are having a problem with your dissertation adviser, try to get another member of your committee to help.
  • Sometimes things might just not be working out at all even if you use the tips we suggest.  In that case get help elsewhere.  If it’s that bad, it’s not going to go away by itself, and guess who suffers most when that happens?   Two good sources of help:  the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies and the UH at Manoa Ombuds Office.