It was on her third rotation as a graduate student that Elena Kramer discovered the research topic that would define her career.

“I rotated in an animal lab and then in a microbial lab before I ended up in the plant lab,” she remembers. “I had no experience with plants at all, but I became fascinated by the developmental and genetic logic they use.”

Kramer, now Bussey Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and director of the Harvard University Herbaria, was fortunate to find the right advisor, a faculty member who was not working in developmental evolution at the time but who was interested in moving in that direction.

“My advisor gave me independence and the opportunity to develop my own research program,” Kramer says. “She encouraged me to follow my interests.”

The support Kramer received from her advisor enabled her to remain hyper-focused on her research, to earn her PhD, and, eventually, to start a lab of her own exploring the role of genetics in plant adaptation, development, and morphology. Despite her success, Kramer acknowledges that, as a graduate student in the ‘90s, none of her professors asked her to articulate her professional goals or think consciously about what a career in academia might look like. Now an advisor herself, Kramer tries to fill that gap and help students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences prepare for their future.

The Right Balance

Elena Kramer

In addition to running her own research lab, Kramer also serves as chair of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and director of the Harvard University Herbaria. Her biggest challenge—and responsibility—as an advisor is being present for her students when she is pulled in so many directions.

“That means keeping lines of communication open and being thoughtful about how I communicate with them,” she explains. “And because I know that people don’t always feel comfortable talking to their advisor about certain topics, I try to make sure they know who the other resources are in our department and in GSAS.”

“The reason we use two documents is that I want to make it clear to students that while I have high expectations of them, they should also have high expectations of me.” – Professor Elena Kramer

Part of the challenge is finding the right balance between accessibility and authority, being both approachable and in charge. “You want your students to feel like they can trust you and talk to you about important issues,” she says. “But if you cross over and suddenly become their pal, it makes it much more difficult to provide important criticism.”

To help find and sustain that balance, Kramer uses a pair of expectation documents—one that outlines the roles and responsibilities of the graduate student and one that outlines her roles and responsibilities as an advisor. Originally developed by Stacy Smith at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Kramer, her graduate students, and other lab members have adapted the documents for their own needs, and they review and update them every year.

“The reason we use two documents is that I want to make it clear to students that while I have high expectations of them, they should also have high expectations of me,” Kramer explains.

Developing a Broader Network

Beyond lab expectations, Kramer also encourages students to read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, which was written by faculty at Harvard Business School. While not a science-focused book, she found that it offers an excellent way to approach interpersonal relationships. Two key takeaways from the book are that everyone bears responsibility in acknowledging how they may have contributed to a difficult situation and in finding non-confrontational ways to work through issues.

Kramer also wants students to understand that their advisor is not their entire world. She encourages them to develop a mentoring network that includes other professors and more senior students. This broad approach to advising is one of the best practices developed by The Advising Project. “GSAS encourages faculty and staff to work with students to identify additional mentors, such as secondary advisors, committee members, directors of graduate studies, or other staff members,” says Reba Rosenberg, PhD ’08, director of the project. “This advising village can set students up for success in meeting their academic and professional goals.”

By tapping into a broader network, students are acknowledging that support can come from a multitude of spaces. “No advisor, no matter how good they are, is going to be able to provide everything you need,” Kramer says. “The more people you talk to and the more perspectives you gather, the less overwhelming the challenges you face will seem, partly because you know people who’ve been in the same situation, and partly because you feel like those people have your back.”

What to Expect

Photos by Jared Leeds