Dr. Ansley Abraham tirelessly dishes out support, advice, and love as he helps students succeed. He has spent decades mentoring hundreds of doctoral students as director of the SREB Doctoral Scholars Program. He has seen it all.
The three pieces of advice that he offers are:
- Develop multiple strong mentoring relationships to provide guidance
- Find a community that provides support and honest dialogue
- Don’t wait to ask for help when you are in trouble
More about Ansley Abraham is at the end. Let’s get to the advice.
Develop Strong Mentoring Relationships to Provide Guidance
Every doctoral student, Abraham emphasizes, should develop strong mentoring relationships with a group of people. He calls this your “board of advisors.”
Why? For any challenging and consequential enterprise—and getting a PhD is both of those—it is healthy to get balanced input that reflects different perspectives.
Who are they? These are people who have a “vested interest in your ultimate success, but are not the judges who determine your success.” It is imperative to expand beyond your advisor and dissertation committee members. Your board members are there to “help and guide you through the process of being a student. As long as they have the knowledge, expertise, empathy, and desire for you to succeed, then it doesn’t matter who they are, or where you find them.”
- Faculty members in other departments or your undergraduate institution
- Someone you met at a conference
- Teachers of your favorite classes
- A staff member at your university
Online mentoring services (like MentorNet, the Stanford alumni mentoring program, and the American Psychological Association’s LGBT graduate student mentoring program) can supplement your network. But Abraham is a fan of face-to-face meetings. “You can’t give a hug online.” When you can’t meet in person, then try Skype. Seeing facial expressions and hand gestures helps.
How do you ask? You don’t have to tell someone that you have appointed them to your Board of Advisors. Just do it. The important thing is to invest in the relationship. Ask for advice. (I describe this in the Four I’s of Networking and it is the second piece of advice in Deji Akinwande’s Three Keys Interview.)
Some might interpret deliberately seeking out advisors as political or slimy. “Get over it,” Abraham insisted. (This is one of the 7 Myths About Networking.) “We are all trying to figure out how to get it done. We are all looking for the shortcuts and hacks. It is called work and life. We are all playing that game.” (There is more advice from the University of Michigan about Finding the Mentoring You Need and this 2012 list of best articles about mentoring from Science magazine.)
Find a Community that Provides Support and Honest Conversation
A PhD is too complex an endeavor to go it alone. You need other people to provide sustenance to you as you grow and study and research and advance. Creating a Board of Directors is not enough. You need to find a home with people who are vested in your success. “I think that we all do that in our professional lives,” Abraham observed. “We find places with like-minded people, who are working at the same issues, who see the world the same way. Gotta find people who will support you.” (Sasha Wright offered similar advice in her Three Keys Interview.)
Within that community you share knowledge. Strategies for life. It is a learning network. Abraham noted that he is always learning. If you are not getting input—especially things you don’t want to hear—then you are not growing.
“To be part of community, you ought to be willing to give. That is the yang to the yin,” Abraham asserted. “I absolutely believe that when you are part of those groups, that part of the responsibility in that relationship is giving back to it. If any relationship is one way, it won’t stay around long.” For example, DSP participants offered their hard-won advice for surviving graduate school.
Surround yourself with people who will be honest about your behavior and accomplishments. People who tell you what you are doing well, and provide feedback for continuation. People who won’t sugar coat it when you make a misstep. Candid feedback helps you grow. If you only hear the good stuff, it stunts your growth.
What are the weaknesses in your personality, in your interactions? What are the gaps in your research project, your skills? Honesty helps you grow. Both personally and professionally.
It isn’t easy to hear.
Candid feedback is a gift. As a counter example, Abraham pointed to athletes or celebrities who are always patted on the back. They don’t get honest input about the behaviors that serve them poorly. Unfortunately, too many of them go awry as a result of surrounding themselves with people who only praise them.
Your community is never so important as when things are not going well. These are the people who will help you get the help you need.
This takes us to Ansley Abraham’s third piece of advice.
Ask for Help Right Away When You Are in Trouble
When trouble is brewing, ask for help right away. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it is a measure of strength.
Abraham has helped a lot of students who were in trouble. With their advisor. With their department. With their families. Sometimes things are almost unfixable by the time the student reaches out to him. It breaks his heart, because if the student had reached out for help earlier, disasters could have been prevented.
“It is hard to ask for help,” Abraham recognizes. “We ALL will need help at one time or another. Or more than once. That is part of being human.”
Do you need to go home to take care of a sick parent? Do you need time to take care of yourself? Do you need money to handle an emergency (automotive, dental, family)? Is a relationship with a faculty member on the rocks? In most cases, you are not the first person who has had this problem. You don’t have to figure this out alone. Universities are dedicated to helping students succeed. There are people who are willing to help if you give them the heads up.
There is usually a right way and a wrong way to proceed. Do you need to leave school for a few months to help your sick mother? You can take a formal Leave of Absence, and return in good academic standing and with your funding intact. Don’t just go home without telling anyone, Abraham stressed. Going AWOL can create a host of problems.
Ask. Ask around. Who are the problem solvers? The shoulders to lean on? Those who hug and help?
Ask a bunch of people. Your school dean’s office. The graduate dean’s office. The counseling center. The graduate life office. The religious life office. The international student center. The financial aid office. Your departmental administrative assistant. Someone will step up and help you figure out what to do.
If you ask for help, and it doesn’t come, then the natural reaction is not to ask for help again. Abraham is emphatic, “Try again.” What do entitled people do? When they don’t get help, they scream louder. So ask again. Ask someone else.
Asking for help is sometimes harder for students from minority and underrepresented communities. You feel the responsibility of demonstrating that people like you—students of color, women, Muslims, first generation—can succeed. Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. You don’t want to expose a chink in the armor. He acknowledged that if all your peers look like they are doing ok, you don’t want to be the one that looks weak. (This is sometimes called the Duck Syndrome, and it is a form of Pluralistic Ignorance.)
You may be reluctant to ask for help in your department. After all, they are the people who make decisions about your future; that is not a place to reveal your fears, concerns or problems. This reinforces the importance of Abraham’s first two pieces of advice: develop a mentoring network and a community of support.
* * * * *
Ansley Abraham emphasizes community as a critical tool for success in graduate school. You didn’t get to this point alone, and you certainly won’t earn a PhD by yourself. Seeking out mentors and a community of supporters and critical friends will prepare you for the rigors of advancing knowledge. Proactively building a community will help you weather the inevitable bumps in the road and emerge with your degree.
Ansley Abraham is a product of the 1950s and 1960s. He grew up in Florida, and the racial segregation and fights for integration of his childhood have shaped his world view. He earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees, all in sociology, from Florida State University.
Ansley Abraham joined the Southern Regional Education Board in 1985 as a research associate. His initial work at SREB covered perception of campus climate by minority- and majority-group students on historically black and predominantly white campuses and studies on statewide assessments and placement, college-level standards and the need for developmental education. In 1993 he became the founding director of the Doctoral Scholars Program; its goal is to increase the number of minority Ph.D.’s seeking careers as college faculty members. The program grew out of a two-year study identifying the barriers underrepresented students encounter when seeking doctoral degrees.
Under Abraham’s direction, the Doctoral Scholars Program has developed into a nationally recognized program for producing minority Ph.D.s who seek faculty careers. The program annually hosts the Compact for Faculty Diversity Institute on Teaching and Mentoring — the largest gathering of minority Ph.D. scholars in the nation. Since its founding, the organization’s State Doctoral Scholars Program has served almost 1,500 scholars at 100 institutions in 28 states, with more than 400 scholars enrolled currently and more than 850 program graduates. He is undoubtedly on the Board of Advisors for many, many of these students. He serves as a mentor and critical friend. He helps them create community. He is unambiguously in their corner.
Published: April 4, 2017