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Advisor-Advisee Conflict Management

Flowchart addressing advisor-advisee conflict management


Managing Advisor-Advisee Relationships

Healthy relationships between Ph.D. advisors and advisees are valuable to the well-being and careers of both parties, and valuable to the campus climate and the research and educational missions of the university. Healthy relationships can be developed and maintained by following some basic guidelines and best practices:

  • Advisors should set clear expectations and boundaries consistently for each member of their research group.
  • Advisors and advisees can create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) to help clarify expectations, goals, and timelines for scholarly activities and advancing through the graduate program.
  • Advisors and Advisees should communicate on a regular basis, and both parties should document agreements about activities and timelines. For example, the advisee may send an email to the advisor after each meeting to summarize the discussion and confirm next steps.
  • Advisors and advisees should review the UC Merced Graduate Student Rights and Responsibilities, Graduate Mentorship Guidelines, and Principles of Community at the start of their relationship to ensure a shared understanding of overall expectations for advisor-advisee relationships.
  • Advisees often benefit from networking with a team of mentors. The advisory committee is often a core part of this team, but mentors may also include more senior graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty collaborators. A team can help enrich and provide context for the advisor-advisee relationship.

Success for the advisor is aligned with success for the advisee, and vice versa. Advisors benefit from advisees who go on to successful careers, and advisees benefit from being trained and mentored by successful faculty members. More broadly speaking, the department, university, and discipline all benefit when advisor-advisee relationships succeed in contributing theories, methods, and results, and when they advance their field and help to grow the knowledge workforce.

Conversely, it can be detrimental to everyone when advisor-advisee relationships break down. Conflicts can grow to have adverse effects on the well-being and careers of advisors and advisees, and conflicts can adversely affect other students and faculty in the research group, graduate group, and department. Therefore it is important to recognize when conflicts arise and take measures to defuse them as needed, so they do not grow into larger problems that impact the parties involved.


Guidelines for Managing Advisor-Advisee Conflicts

The conflict management diagram below was created to help advisees navigate issues and conflicts with advisors, and it is a reference for all faculty, staff, and graduate students. The overarching principle is to address conflicts as locally and informally as possible before they grow to require intervention, and possibly grow beyond repair and lead to dissolution of the advisor-advisee relationship. Either party has the right to terminate the relationship at any time, but advisors and advisees invest years of time and effort in training, research, scholarship, and professional development leading to publications and dissertations that launch graduate student careers and help faculty to advance their careers. Terminating an advisor-advisee relationship acrimoniously can adversely affect the benefits of these investments.

View Conflict Management Flow Chart PDF 

The conflict management diagram describes a series of steps to consider when conflicts arise. Steps may be skipped for various reasons, but the normative approach is to follow the steps to avoid escalation when possible:
  1. As in other kinds of professional relationships, advisors (faculty adviser) and advisees should communicate their concerns to each other respectfully, with the intent of resolving issues and conflicts, maintaining goodwill, and continuing academic progress. These communications can be challenging, and it can help to talk with their peers and mentors for advice, while being careful to keep matters confidential as needed.
  2. Advisees may seek guidance from the Graduate Support Staff or Graduate Academic Counselor in the Graduate Division at any time. Both are knowledgeable about a wide range of policies, procedures, and resources on campus, but support staff are especially expert in matters local to graduate groups, departments, and schools, whereas the counselor is especially expert in campus-wide policies, procedures, and resources. The Graduate Academic counselor is also trained to coach and mediate to resolve conflicts amicably and productively.
  3. If conflicts persist or professorial advice is needed, advisors and advisees may discuss matters with other members of the student advisory committee (faculty committee who are overseeing the student’s academic progress), and with the graduate group chair or department chair. The chairs are also academic leaders and may provide advice and guidelines in their administrative capacities.
  4. It is sometimes difficult for advisors or advisees to discuss matters with other peers and faculty because doing so may exacerbate problems in other relationships in the graduate group or department. If the prior steps are not sufficient, advisors and advisees may seek counsel from the Graduate Dean or School Dean. Faculty may also seek guidance from the Associate Vice Provost for the Faculty.
Advisors and advisees have access to several campus resources available for reporting and filing in different situations and circumstances, which are listed and briefly described within the orange ovals in the diagram above.