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After you have finished a PhD when does it become inappropriate to ask your advisor for advice, read over a manuscript, or do any other "advisor things"? Presumably if every student an advisor ever had continued to act as if the former advisor was still his/her advisor, the professor wouldn't get anything else done. Basically how should one interact with the former advisor once the PhD is finished?

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I recently wrote a draft of a manuscript, and send it to several co-authors for comments. I incorporated them, and then sent it to my advisor. Without knowing it, in several places he ended up changing the text to match what I had initially written (before the comments from the other co-authors). To me this signalizes that I learned to think like him sufficiently that it's time to go learn from someone new. –  Ana Feb 25 at 20:45
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@Ana It also signalizes that not all suggestions from co-authors must always be uncritically followed. –  gerrit Feb 26 at 15:00

6 Answers 6

up vote 35 down vote accepted

My advisor, at two different points in my academic career, said:

  1. "I am your advisor for life. You can always count on me."
  2. "I think it's time for my old students to start finding new people to comment on their work."

I took away from this that your advisor should always be available at some level, it's part of the point of taking on students. You are part of their scientific (or otherwise scholarly) contribution. At the same time, post-PhD you have to develop your own network of support, which is part of your growth as a scholar.

But how do you know when to do this? I think the best answer is simply to ask your advisor (see, they're always there to answer the hard questions). Hopefully they'll give you an honest opinion - either to keep asking them for help or that they think you're ready to fly on your own. Either, if you don't feel confident that you have enough peers to count on, it's probably a sign that you both can still ask your advisor for help and that it's time to put some more energy into expanding your professional network.

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All the answers here are very good. I'd just like to add one extra point.

There are often two kinds of advice one looks for in one's career:

  • What should someone do in this situation ?
  • what should I do in this situation ?

The first class of questions are things that often get asked on this forum, and are relatively easy for someone more experienced whose advice you respect to answer. And in fact it's useful to cultivate a few such people whose opinions you respect. When you're a student, most of your questions are of this kind.

The second class of questions are much harder: they're not really about the situation but about you. So the person answering has to know both the situation and understand some things about you. Sometimes (and not always) an advisor can provide that dual insight since they are both experienced, as well as experienced in understanding you. Again, this is not true for many advisors, but it can be true.

Of course, the best person to answer the second type of question is yourself :), but sometimes the perspective from outside helps.

What typically happens is that as you "leave the nest", you stop asking your advisor for answers to questions of the first kind, and you might occasionally still ask them for advice on the second kind of question. There are no hard and fast rules here.

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Honestly, I'm not sure if it ever becomes "inappropriate" to have your advisor continue to give you advice, to read manuscripts, or even to help write them (as long as that person gets authorship credits), unless of course, your advisor says, "No".

Many universities however evaluate a tenure-track faculty member based on his or her ability to do independent research, which means that if your entire CV is filled with publications co-authored with your advisor, they will not consider you as doing independent research.

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After the Ph.D. the advice should get more career-y, and less student-y. So less, "hey will you look at this paper for me" and more "i've got this really great paper, but i'm not sure whether to publish it in a Journal X, or just expand it into a book?" Or, "man I hate my first job, but i'm getting close to tenure, do I need to go on the market again and try to move up before I get stuck?" stuff like that.

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A few years after finishing my PhD I emailed my advisors (I had two) asking for advice about something. I prefaced the email with something like, "How long after finishing a degree is one entitled to ask one's advisors for advice?" One of them responded, "When they start asking you for advice, you might want to reconsider."

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Note that something industry has been trying to do is encourage more employees to seek out mentors and/or become mentors -- either in working effectively with the company, or in specific skills (which may result in the new kid teaching the oldtimers).

Try not to waste their time with trivia you could teach yourself, and have the grace to be embarassed if you have to ask for advice on something you really should already know... and accept that sometimes the right answer is going to be "go read X and come back to me if you have specific questions" -- but if someone has the answer you need, there's nothing wrong with asking them how to approach the problem.

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