Hands-On vs Hands-Off Advising

February 2021 (original twitter thread)

I see a lot of discussion about "hands-on" vs "hands-off" advisors

But I think there are at least 3 underlying dimensions here, each of which is worth considering in its own right:

1) Directiveness—how much your advisor directs your research, in terms of the problems you work on or day-to-day activities

Low directiveness can mean lots of freedom and the space to think big and chart your own path. However, it can also leave some feeling adrift or unproductive.

High directiveness can keep you accountable and set you on a good course, especially early in the PhD, but can limit your freedom and feel micromanagey or stifling

2) Granularity—at what level of detail your adviser engages with you and your research

Low granularity can mean lots of high-level direction and guidance on vision, but can also be challenging early in the PhD if you need help with experimental methods, proofs, or feedback on writing

High granularity means your advisor can help unblock you more often and contribute in more ways

But too much can make you dependent, robbing you of the chance to discover your own techniques or the skills for unblocking yourself

3) Engagement—how much time and energy does your advisor give you?

Low engagement can work well if you prefer a more independent journey, but can be lonely and leave you feeling like you've fallen through the cracks

High engagement can lead to lots of learning and growth, but can be stressful or overwhelming to some

It goes without saying that these aren't immutable categories—advisors, as well as students, change over time

But hopefully these are some useful tools to help folks consider what's important to them in a mentor