Situational Interview-Based Investigation of Advisor-Advisee Communication Conflict in U.S. Chemistry Graduate Education

by Tingting Qu and Jordan Harshman

Research Design: The central component of chemistry Ph.D experiences in graduate school rests upon the research group, where advisors are the managers who have the potential to affect students’ professional development and career path. Current literature reports note that communication conflictsbetween advisees and their research advisors will directly affect the advisor-advisee relationship as well as students’ academic and research performance. Therefore, it’s important to learn more about how chemistry doctoral students communicate with their advisors and what factors impact their communication styles when potential conflicts happen between them and their advisors.

We interviewed 18 chemistry PhD students to see how they would respond to an advisor who was jeopardizing their graduation date by not providing feedback to their dissertation. We found several strategies that were consistent with communication theories that deal with conflict-causing scenarios. Several graduate students reported that they would directly communicate with their advisors, but others were afraid of speaking with their advisors but asked a third party to bridge the communication even at the expense of delaying their graduation. We investigated why this wast he case and identified several factors that students considered when deciding the most appropriate course of action, such as students’ perception of their advisors’ personality, business, and authority/power over the advising relationships.For example, when deciding whether they would communicate with advisors or not, some students discussed the impact of advisors’ friendly or harsh personality: “If they (advisors)'re nicer and understandable, I would feel more open to reaching out and saying, hey, and speaking honestly...But then if they're harsher, or hard to get into contact with, I might instead talk to like a fellow grad student...”here were also participants who attributed their communication apprehension with advisors to their believed power imbalance between them and their advisors. They claimed that“there is like a power imbalance in our relationship, I just might not feel comfortable asking them to do something like that. ”Some of them emphasized that negative consequences could occur if their actions made advisors feel uncomfortable or get angry:“ For whatever you're going to do in your future, this is someone who you need letters of recommendation from. So they might be resentful and not give us good feedback in the immediate consequences. And then more long term, it might affect how they talk to your future employers about you.”Beyond that, participants reported their general perceptions on advisors. Some students emphasized their negative perceptions on advisors: They thought that (1)“My advisor basically does not believe in deadlines and gets an extension on everything”; (2) “If they are tenure track professors who are not in a rush to quickly publish the papers to get may not be as important for them to publishmore number of papers per year”;(3) “Advisors only really think about the research group and they can forget that the goal for us is to finish our dissertations and move on.” There were also some students who looked at their advisors in a positivelight: they believed that (1)“I'm always thinking that the reason my advisor is not replying, that's always a really good reason. It's not because it's a bad person or there's like hates[me]or whatever”; (2) “He (advisor)'s trying to help us out... In the end, obviously he wants us to succeed and get out of grad school eventually.” These results help us understand how the relationship between the advisor and advisee functions and the potential consequences if that relationship breaks down. Because of our understanding, we can now investigate on a greater scale the extent to which students view their advisors in positive and negative perspectives. This investigation can help us make suggestions for both students and advisors to improve the quality of the advisor-advisee relationship.

This work was carried out in the lab of Dr. Jordan Harshman in the Auburn University department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.