Doctoral Student-Adviser Relationships in the United States: International Engineering Students’ Perspective

Nafsaniath Fathema, Auburn University


Using a phenomenological research approach, this study uncovers the commonalities of the relationship between international engineering doctoral students and their advisers in the universities of the United States. It discusses how the advising relationship affects the continuation as well as the completion of doctoral studies of international doctoral students in U.S. engineering schools.

Every year a large number of international students from around the world come to the United States to earn their doctoral degrees from United States universities. Generally, each of these doctoral students is assigned to one faculty member who serves as his/her adviser and who guides and supervises the student’s research and dissertation. In laboratory-based engineering programs, the doctoral students spend several years working in close association with their advisers, and this apprenticeship significantly influences the direction of the student’s career. Understanding the complexities of the graduate adviser-advisee relationship is important, because these relationships can be rewarding for both individuals involved (Punyanunt-Carter & Wrench, 2008). Jeffrey (2009) mentioned the doctoral student-adviser relationship as one of the major determinants of a timely and successful completion of the doctoral degree. The purpose of this study is to explore international, engineering doctoral students’ perceptions of their relationships with their academic advisers and how do these relationships affect their doctoral studies.

Literature review

“Graduate adviser” refers to a single faculty member the graduate student would consider in the primary, formal role of academic adviser, dissertation chair, or research supervisor (Rice et al., 2009, p. 376). Schlosser and Gelso (2001) defined “the advisory working alliance” as “that portion of the relationship that reflects the connection between advisor and advisee that is made during work toward common goals” (p. 158). Petress (2000) described academic advising as a “reciprocal activity,” which takes both the adviser and advisee working together as a team for the activity to fully succeed and mentioned “frequency of advisor/advisee interaction” as one of the seven most important characteristics that allow advisees to be advised well (p. 598).

The relationship with the adviser is one of the most relevant factors of graduate students’ success in the U.S. university environment (Rice et al., 2009). Jeffrey (2009) mentioned, “No two doctoral students are the same and the things an advisor needs to do for each vary accordingly” (p. 1). Schlosser, Knox, Muscovite, and Hill (2003) investigated the perceptions of doctoral students in a counseling psychology program about their relationships with their graduate advisers and found differences in the perceptions of the satisfied and unsatisfied students regarding their advising relationships. They revealed that, as the advising relationship naturally progresses over time and the student matures professionally from student to colleague, the faculty-student relationship is also likely to undergo changes. Knox, Schlosser, Pruitt, and Hill (2006) conducted a similar study focusing on the advisers’ perspective of the advising relationships in the counseling psychology doctoral program and found factors like advisees struggling with research, advisers feeling ineffective working with their advisees, and the presence of rupture in the advising relationship contributed to difficult advising relationships. Rice et al. (2009) surveyed international students from fifteen different colleges, including engineering, science, and liberal arts, on a major university’s campus. They found the themes in advising experiences reflecting both constructive and destructive advising experiences. They found itless easy to detect the complex interrelationships between graduate advisors, their advisees and the undercurrent of advising experiences that signal more or less positive educational outcomes for international students” (p. 389). Bloom, Cuevas, Hall, and Evans (2007) studied the graduate students’ perceptions of outstanding graduate advisers’ characteristics, and the results indicated students perceive the following graduate-adviser characteristics to be most helpful: demonstrated care for students, accessibility, role models in professional and personal matters, individually tailored guidance, and proactive integration of students into the profession.

More than a half million international students have studied in the United States since 1999 (Schlosser et al., 2003). Most of these studies covered the graduate students (both master’s and doctoral) in general across all disciplines, and very few of them focused on the international students’ perspective on the graduate advising relationship. More specifically, previous empirical studies of international engineering doctoral students’ advising relationships appear to be lacking. With the aim of better understanding the engineering doctoral student’s experience and reasons contributing to degree completion and success, this study used a phenomenological research approach (Creswell, 2006) and uncovered the commonalities of the relationship between international, engineering doctoral students and their advisers.



Using purposeful, convenience sampling, this study focused on students from engineering programs at a large, southeastern university. Twelve international engineering doctoral students were selected as the participants of the study. All of them were at least in the second year of their doctoral studies and had been working with their advisers for a year or longer.

Measures and procedures

Approval was obtained from the institutional review board to conduct the study. Data were collected through a paper-based survey and a follow-up face-to-face interview. The survey had eight, open-ended questions to elicit respondents’ opinions about different issues in advising relationships, such as adviser expectations, length of advising relationship, satisfaction over time, strengths and weaknesses of the adviser, etc. The follow-up interview included questions based on the participants’ survey responses. The interviews probed for additional information whenever necessary to develop a more complete understanding of a particular advising relationship. The follow-up interview thus provided an opportunity to ask questions that might have arisen after the open-ended survey and allowed participants to provide clarification and/or alter previous comments. During interviews, the information provided by participants was noted and added to the respective filled-in questionnaire of each participant. Each questionnaire was assigned a code number to maintain confidentiality.

Data analysis

Data were analyzed using a phenomenological approach, intended to examine the advising experiences and perceptions of international doctoral students from their own perspectives. The data collected were responses to non-directive, broad questions. Respondents used their own terminology typical of their everyday conversation. After collecting the responses, the data were coded into a set of themes and then analyzed to determine their meaning. By analyzing the coded data and highlighting significant statements, sentences, or quotes, common features emerged to describe the international doctoral students’ adviser relationships within U.S. universities. The responses of the participants led to a composite description and ultimately provided an understanding of their common experiences. The free response to open-ended questionnaires and follow-up interviews revealed a detailed picture of the international engineering doctoral students’ experience and the ways these experiences affect their doctoral studies at U.S. universities.


The participants’ themes and descriptions of advising experiences brought to light some significant features of international doctoral student advising relationships and revealed additional dimensions that should be considered regarding these advising relationships within engineering schools of U.S. universities.

Importance of advising relationships

In engineering doctoral programs, the students generally receive funding from their advisers, whereas in other doctoral programs, students typically work as graduate teaching assistants and receive pay from the department. In engineering schools, therefore, it is very important for doctoral students to develop and maintain positive relationships with their advisers to ensure both financial and academic support for their doctoral studies. According to the students, meeting advisers’ expectations is sometimes difficult, as many demand a great deal from their students. In these situations, students may become frustrated and also concerned about potential conflicts with their advisers, which could lead to termination of their program and/or funding.

Data analysis revealed two very different kinds of advising relationships. Students’ response to the status of their advising relationship ranged from very positive to very negative. Of twelve participants, six (50 percent) were satisfied, four (33 percent) were unsatisfied, and two (17 percent) were neutral in assessing their advising relationships. The data given by the satisfied, unsatisfied, and neutral participants were placed on three different domains. The results were structured on a domain-by-domain basis and helped to identify some of the major concerns these international doctoral students had about their advising relationships.

Expected advising types

Students in all three domains (satisfied, unsatisfied, and neutral) identified similar expectations for their advisers: Appropriate research guidance, a friendly atmosphere in which to work, and constructive consideration for their weaknesses. The satisfied students indicated their advisers arranged regular meetings and gave them proper guidance to proceed with their researches; they were helpful and considered any personal issues the students may have had. On the contrary, the unsatisfied students mentioned that, though their advisers were academically sound, they did not guide them properly. In the words of an extremely unsatisfied student, “My adviser does not give any of his students enough time to understand the study materials and just advises us to run the program (i.e., software programs) and get the output. All of us working under his advisement are working like a machine without knowing the reason for doing it. My adviser wants to write articles and wants to use us as his programming device” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010).

Initial expectations from advising relationship and change in expectations over time

The satisfied students described their adviser relationships as friendly and comfortable. Their advisers did not push them to work on a day-to-day basis nor did they continuously demand their scholarly output or expect the students to stay at the laboratory for extended periods of time. The neutral students related the same feelings. For example, one student mentioned, “My adviser is very knowledgeable; he is ready to help us whenever we need. As he has been advising students for many years he knows how to teach and supervise students. He is very friendly and flexible” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010). The neutral students also mentioned that the relationship with their advisers had improved over time, because both advisers and students had become more familiar with each other’s credentials, capabilities, and personalities.

The unsatisfied students termed their relationship as “negative” or “okay.” Some students mentioned that their advisers required them to work at the laboratory from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. every weekday and sometimes expected them to work on weekends, as well. The unsatisfied students largely complained about their advisers’ bossy behavior and negative attitudes, which they claimed demotivated them to work. For example, one student reported, “Though my adviser is academically sound and technically rich, she has a serious behavioral problem. … Recently she has started threatening me to cut off my salary or to fire me if I cannot give the output she asks for. I know it’s nothing but her attitudinal problem. She does not behave like this only with me but does the same with all of her students” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010).

Advisers’ personalities

In answering the question regarding their adviser’s personality, both the satisfied and unsatisfied groups of students described their advisers as “knowledgeable,” “technically sound” persons. The satisfied students regarded good advising quality and good managing capability as their advisers’ strengths. They also mentioned their advisers were helpful to the students, had huge research funds, and networked well with industry people. The unsatisfied students used the terms “unprofessional,” “inexperienced,” and “behaviorally not sound” to explain their advisers’ personalities. In their opinions, their advisers lacked the managing and interpersonal skills required to advise doctoral students.

The students were also asked to mention their advisers’ weaknesses. One satisfied student reported that her adviser assigned work to his students too close to the due date, thus creating immense pressure as the students struggled at the last minute to complete the work. The same students had begun the relationship with much idle time. Two satisfied students mentioned that their advisers were too busy, and they were only able to meet with them once per month, which did not allow sufficient time for the students to receive proper research guidance.

The unsatisfied students mentioned their advisers’ attitude problem as their major concern. One unsatisfied student mentioned, “My adviser’s personal temperament is unpredictable; she has a negative mentality and she always underestimates her students. She applies excessive punitive measures and all of her students are scared of her” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010). The student also mentioned, “I am becoming less confident of my capabilities day by day as she always points out my faults and never appreciates my credentials.”

Cultural issues

Five respondents worked with international advisers, and all mentioned a cultural gap between themselves and their advisers. Sometimes poor communication skills created problems in sharing and understanding views with each other. One student said her adviser lacked the power to speak her mind openly to her colleagues in support of the student if the student wanted to do something different from the norm. She added, “As me and my adviser grew up in a completely different culture, it is tough for us to understand each other properly …” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010).

Change of advisers

The satisfied students wanted to continue working with their current advisers and complete the doctoral study under the current adviser’s supervision. One student remarked, “I am lucky that I got the opportunity to work with such a helpful and well behaved professor. I feel bad when I see some of my friends are passing hard time working with their advisers” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010). All of the unsatisfied students were willing to change advisers, if given the chance. The unsatisfied students reported that their advising relationships had become worse over time. Students felt that a significant gap had been created, which would be difficult to overcome while continuing to work with the adviser. The students were unsure they would persist toward completion of their doctoral program as they are always under threat of being fired by their advisers. In the words of a very unsatisfied student, “My adviser would not have behaved like this if I were a domestic student. As I am international, she always threatens me of firing and putting me in an ‘out of status’ (visa) condition” (survey participant, personal communication, March 2010). The unsatisfied students also mentioned they would change advisers but cannot, as their advisers are funding their studies.


This study provides insights into advising relationships based on the experiences of international engineering doctoral students. The study found that the level of professional interaction with advisers and the advisers’ experience in advising play significant roles in developing a sound advising relationship between advisee and adviser. It supports factors addressed by Schlosser and Gelso (2001), who stated that rapport, apprenticeship (in advising), and identification are important factors in determining the advising relationship (p. 164).

The current study revealed that unsatisfied students feel a clear gap between themselves and their advisers, a finding similar to what Schlosser et al. (2003) observed in their study. Bloom et al. (2007) mentioned in their study, “… students appreciate advisers who demonstrate that they care, not only by being available, but also by being accessible and approachable on professional and personal issues” (p. 33). The participants in this study stated the same view. They expect friendly behavior from their advisers and expect their advisers to be considerate of their problems and limitations. The financial support (research assistantship) issue, advisers’ bossy behavior, and forced office hours scare the students. The students expect their advisers to be friendly, flexible, and helpful. Advising types, interpersonal relationship between adviser and student, level of professional interaction, adviser personality, and cultural issues play significant roles in determining the doctoral student advising relationship in U.S. engineering schools. These factors largely affect the advising relationship, and the advising relationship largely affects international students’ continuation and completion of doctoral studies in U.S. engineering schools.

Based on the above study, engineering graduate schools should take more seriously the kinds of issues related to relationships between international doctoral students and their advisers. More specifically, engineering graduate schools would be better served to revise their advising practices to ensure improved relationships between international students and their advisers. For example, the schools might present faculty members with dedicated training sessions on international student advising relationships as well as sessions on adviser-advisee adjustment issues with the international doctoral student in mind.

Limitations and future research directions

Several limitations can be noted. This study assessed only students’ perspectives. Additionally, students who reported directly to their advisers may have feared rating their advisers in a negative light, though there were no identifiable data collected from the students. This may have affected participants’ responses as well as the study findings.

This study opens the door for further research using complementary qualitative and quantitative approaches. Collecting data from the students and their advisers and comparing their views about the advising relationship in engineering doctoral programs would largely help identify the gaps in perceptions of the students and the advisers. Moreover, comparative studies could be done to collate the advising relationships of domestic doctoral students with those of international doctoral students in engineering programs. Comparing the advising relationships of students across multiple disciplines would be another exciting future research direction.


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About the Author(s)

Nafsaniath Fathema, Auburn University

Nafsaniath Fathema is a doctoral student at Auburn University in Auburn, AL. She can be reached at

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