Show Reciprocity

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn the impact that showing reciprocity and gratitude may have on advisors and other stakeholders.


“For a long time, I took for granted the notion that my advisor was more than his work persona. Our relationship really changed for the better when I realized that he was a person with demands and challenges too, and he needed to hear that I valued his advising and mentorship.”

“It sounds so easy in retrospect, but I found I was able to manage my relationship with my committee and other administrators better when I went out of my way to connect with them as individuals also. Helping out in some way that was not expected, asking how their day was going, or even a simple ‘It’s great to see you,’ usually went a long way..”

What's on Your Mind?

Building a strong and effective relationship with your advisor is a central component of your graduate school experience. An additional component worthy of attention is remembering to show appreciation and gratitude for the efforts of your advisor and other individuals who serve as stakeholders in your training. Some researchers1 posit that a relationship characterized by reciprocity and mutual respect is the ideal situation from which scholars grow and learn. In this case, reciprocity implies that you, the student, must remember to also acknowledge the efforts of your advisor and other stakeholders because, just like you, advisors and stakeholders are people first and professionals second. Simply put, we all like to receive words of encouragement and/or recognition for our efforts.

It’s a very useful skill to be able to consider situations from many points of view. By doing your best to understand the perspectives of others, you can keep in mind that even if the efforts by your advisor and other stakeholders are less than you hoped for, they are often doing the best they can under demanding circumstances. As you might already know, when we feel appreciated by others or get acknowledgement that we have done a good job, we often want to continue to engage in similar tasks. However, some research suggests that showing gratitude and being appreciative enhances our own well-being and happiness.2,3 Following this logic, acknowledging the efforts of advisors and others responsible for your training can serve to reinforce not only their positive behavior but also may help you to feel better as well. Of course, this works best if the sentiment and your behavior in the situation are genuine.

What Do You Tell Yourself?

You may be saying things to yourself like, “But I am thankful and it seems to go nowhere” or “But their job is to help me.” You may feel that “mutual respect" involves a relationship between both you and someone else and you may want the other person to respect you more. These are all very important sentiments that offer a great opportunity to return to the problem-solving model, specifically learning to recognize what we can control and those things that are out of our control. Remember that only your own behavior is within your control. No matter how much you would like others to behave differently, you can never make someone act in a particular manner. However, by showing gratitude, respect and understanding to advisors and stakeholders, you are acting in a manner that may strengthen your relationships and may possibly elicit similar reciprocal behaviors from the other person.

Reflections: Am I as respectful as I think I am?

Below is a quiz we’ve entitled, “Oops, I Didn’t Realize That I’ve Been Less Than Respectful.” Read each “oops” and write down the number of the questions that you do now or have done in the past. For each question, think about ways that these scenarios could be interpreted as less than respectful. Once you have thought about them, look at the table below for ideas for “A Better Approach.”

“Oops, I Didn’t Realize That I’ve Been Less Than Respectful” “A Better Approach” (What To Do Now)
1. I’ve dropped by someone’s office and engaged them in a conversation without regard for what they may be currently working on. Request a meeting by e-mail beforehand. If it is urgent, indicate this in your e-mail. This indicates that you respect their time.
2. I’ve sprung a question on my advisor (or another adminstrator) without providing him/her much context. Send questions or problems in writing to your advisor before meeting with him/her. This allows them time to think about the issue and prepare an informed answer.
3. I’ve e-mailed with a question before looking for the answer myself or asking my colleagues first.
This one seems easy, but we all have that impulse to write before doing a little legwork ourselves. Think about how this is interpreted by the other person, especially if they are really busy.
4. I’ve e-mailed impulsively with a number of separate questions and issues rather than queuing them up. Again, this one seems easy, but the reality is we sometimes don’t know when we will have multiple questions in a short time span. One strategy to reduce multiple e-mails is to only send one e-mail per day (that is, of course, if it is not a time-sensitive issue).
5. I haven’t been the best at communicating my progress or lack of progress on a certain task.
Send status updates. It’s hard to know when updates are arriving too little or too often, but some communication is better than none — even if you’ve made little to no progress. Again think of it from your advisor’s perspective. If they don’t hear from you, they have no idea where you’re at in the process. This is also something to discuss with him or her in order to assess how they prefer you to communicate.
6. I’ve outwardly acted frustrated and annoyed with my advisor or other stakeholders.
Sometimes it may be warranted to convey your feelings to your advisor or other stakeholders; however, being assertive and being annoyed and frustrated are two different things. Situations where you are annoyed and frustrated might provide an opportunity to practice “perspective taking.” Who knows, you might be surprised to find that by taking the other person’s perspective you may come to understand the other person better and you may feel better about the situation as a whole as a result.


To illustrate further how expressing gratitude and mutual respect might have an impact on your relationships with advisors and other stakeholders, take, for example, this scenario of a negative interaction.

Professor Zhang is concerned because he has not heard back from his advisee, Kristen, regarding progress on a conference proposal they are submitting together. Since the proposal is due at the end of the week, he decides to write her an e-mail offering to help her with any issues she may be having. Kristen responds two days later that despite a lengthy hands-on discussion between her and Professor Zhang about the complicated analyses that need to be run, that she still does not understand how to interpret the results and will need Professor Zhang’s help to complete them. Professor Zhang offers to run the analyses and write up this final section in the next few days before the submission is due, with the idea that they will have another discussion so Kristen understands the process and learns from the opportunity. Kristen responds to Professor Zhang’s e-mail saying that she agrees to this plan, but waits until the next morning to send the most recent dataset to him. This places Professor Zhang in a situation where he must work late that evening to complete the work needed to submit the proposal by the deadline. When Kristen and Professor Zhang meet to discuss the analyses some time later, Professor Zhang expresses his frustration with Kristen’s lack of communication and asks that she be more mindful about asking for help and sending files when she is struggling with time-sensitive work. From Professor Zhang’s perspective, Kristen acts annoyed and defensive and does not seem to understand the favor he has done for her nor the extra work she caused him by waiting until the last minute to ask for help. Professor Zhang sees this as a turning point in their relationship where he is unsure if Kristen understands the impact of her behavior on Professor Zhang and others. However, had Kristen thanked Professor Zhang for his help and apologized for the time crunch, he says he would have overlooked the situation altogether.

Of course, there are many complicated factors involved in this scenario, not the least of which is evidence that women have an easier time expressing and benefiting from gratitude and that men are less likely to feel and express gratitude;4 however, as you can see, the attitude and approach of the advisee toward the advisor had a lasting impact on the future of the relationship. Remember that advisors and administrators have a whole host of professional and personal demands placed on them. A simple thank you, some perspective taking and/or outward display of your respect for them as individuals and professionals might go a long way. After all, this is likely what you want in return.


Thinking back on Kristen’s story, it is clear that Kristen seems to misunderstand the impact that she is having on the people she works with. Which of the following is/are an example of what could she have done differently?

Best Answer: D. Both A and B are examples of ways for Kristen to show reciprocity to Professor Zhang. C is not an effective way to handle the situation.

CareerWISE Points

A relationship characterized by reciprocity and mutual respect is the ideal situation from which scholars grow and learn. This includes your role, as a student, to convey gratitude and respect. Showing gratitude and respect may not only strengthen your relationship with your advisor and other stakeholders, but it may also enhance your own well-being and happiness. Of course, this only works if it is genuine. Small gestures sometimes go a long way. Sending a “thank you” card or making some extra effort may be recognized as a sign of respect.

CareerWISE Tips

  • Show gratitude and respect to your advisor and other stakeholders when it is warranted.
  • When approaching potentially sticky situations, use the skills you used in “Consider Other Perspectives” to try and understand your advisor or other stakeholders motives. Ideally, this will help you to realize they’re human too and may help your approach.
  • Try to connect with your advisor and other stakeholders on a human level; it will likely strengthen your professional relationships.
  • Try to be respectful of your advisors and other stakeholders' time and commitments. After all, you want the same thing in return.


  1. Nixon, J (2006). Relationships of virtue: Rethinking the goods of civil association. Ethics and Education, 1, 149-161. doi:10.1080/17449640600950766
  2. Adler, M. G., & Fagley, N. S. (2005). Appreciation: Individual differences in finding value and meaning as a unique predictor of subjective well-being. Journal of Personality, 73, 79-114. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00305.x
  3. Adler, M. G., & Fagley, N. S. (2001, August). Appreciation: One path to well-being. Poster presented at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco.
  4. Kashdan, T. B., Mishra, A., Breen, W. E., & Froh, J. J. (2009). Gender differences in gratitude: Examining appraisals, narratives, the willingness to express emotions, and changes in psychological needs. Journal of Personality, 77, 691-730. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00562.x

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Anderson-Rowland
The importance of finding a good advisor and making sure to get everything in writing.

Options for Support
Urges students to seek multiple campus resources for support.

Special Characteristics of Your Advisor and Struggling with Life Balance Issues
Advisor's experiences encourage well-informed career decisions.

Hearing from Students and Having an Impact
The importance of giving back to students and making an impact in their future education and career choices.

Trade Offs and Choices
The tradeoffs and choices of graduate life.

Key Elements in Good Advising
The importance of being open and honest with your advisor.

Stubbornness and Tenacity
Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

We're Having a Baby
Challenges in confronting the advisor with news of pregnancy.


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