Improving PhD Advising & Lab Culture


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Prototyping, Exploratory Research, Surveys, Interviews




Lab Counterculture


The Improving PhD Advising Project aims to explore and design mechanisms that can foster healthy cultures in doctoral advising and lab spaces. It aims to establish and share practices that maintain conducive learning environments within CMU and that can be generalized to other places.


Everyone encounters a bad experience in life. For PhD students, this could mean getting an advisor who is so worried about work that they resort to monitoring your sleep, or who pressures you to get work done even though you’re in the hospital. These are not invented examples; they are real cases of how actual doctoral students have been treated. These individual cases are part of a larger academic culture, an invisible network of unspoken rules and attitudes, that can negatively affect people who are a part of the community. There are a systematic group of problems in academic institutions called dark patterns.  The PhD Advising Project actively works to counter these dark patterns, to improve the quality of advising for PhD students, and to create healthy academic communities.

Fostering Healthy Lab Culture

Our vision of a healthy lab culture centers on community, transparency, and accountability. By community, we mean that the lab aims to meet the needs of all members, not only the most powerful. Every lab member should feel that they have a voice, and that they are comfortable enough to pursue excellence. Furthermore, the roadmaps constructed by leaders of the lab will be flexible enough to adapt to people’s needs and be respectful of students’ different goals. By transparency, we mean that students are able to clearly see the types of people and cultures in every lab and be able to judge for themselves before committing to a lab. Finally, by accountability we mean that labs make their values clear. Students and faculty are able to hold each other accountable when things go wrong, and aim to bring the lab’s actions into line with its values.

Early in the conversation, the team identified two separate problems. First, how could we reduce or remove negative behaviors? This work aims to prevent abuse, and we conceptualize it as “raising the floor” for lab culture. Here, rules, procedures, and enforcement mechanisms can be very helpful. Second, how could we foster excellence? This work aims to “raise the ceiling” and help more advisors be the best they can be. Here, we need to leave room for advisors to be their idiosyncratic selves, even as they adhere to best practices for excellent advising.

Excellence in Doctoral Advising (EDAP)

One work-in-progress piece of this project is to develop an excellence in doctoral advising pledge. This pledge asks advisors to fill out answers to a set of questions and case studies about advising, such as “This is not a situation that I want my students to be in ______.” and “This is how we can prevent this situation ________.” These answers increase transparency between advisors and students, and they provide a mechanism for faculty to be held accountable for sticking to their answers. Additionally, they can help convey tacit knowledge about how to be a doctoral student. For example, Ken has noticed that students often don’t know a lot about funding until they need to be reimbursed for an event. In his pledge, he can include pointers to handbooks and guides so that students know what to do.

In the long term, the team aims for each pledge to be reviewed by experts in doctoral advising. When pledges meet the standards of excellent advising, the advisor receives certification that they can show to prospective students. This in turn may help create a culture where advisors stretch themselves to achieve excellence every day.

Spreadsheet Magic

A second piece of this project is a peer mentoring program for junior faculty, affectionately known as “Spreadsheet Magic.” This confidential group provides a place where junior faculty can share their concerns and work to improve as academic leaders. The more senior members of the group help make tacit knowledge available to the more junior members, and all members of the group share techniques and strategies they have tested in their labs. Not only does this group create a culture of collaboration among junior faculty, it also facilitates the spread of good ideas and the development of a faculty culture that supports students effectively.

Lab Countercul-ture

Another important component in this project has been the paper on lab counterculture. Lab culture is different across different schools, departments, and labs. One commonality that they share is that it impacts the well-being of students and faculty and affects systemic factors in academia. A lab counterculture aims to counter the narrative that individualistic solutions can bring change. It aims to develop specific, concrete, and actionable lab practices that promote supportive, inclusive, and ethical research. In particular, it contrasts factors in negative lab cultures such as the narrow focus on quantitative outcomes, perfectionism, competition, time scarcity, power dynamics, and bias towards maintaining the status quo, and financial stress.

Hopes & Impact

Overall, this project aims to make the HCII department where good things happen and bad things are minimized. Both Ken and Jessica believe that as long as “we exist here, we have power to shape the type of culture our department has here.” They hope that their project will gain enough traction to be implemented across departments and perhaps inspire labs elsewhere to do the same.


Project Leads
Jessica Hammer, HCII Professor
Ken Holstein, HCII Professor