Choosing the Right Dissertation Advisor

Perhaps the most important decision you will make as a doctoral student is your choice of dissertation advisor. Acting as a both a mentor and a supervisor, your advisor's function is to help you structure your work during what could otherwise be a long and lonely process, offering advice and critical feedback, and generally keeping you on track. That's not all, though - your relationship with your advisor is often an entree into academic circles, a way of making helpful contacts and establishing yourself professionally - it is a system of nurturing and mentoring that is as old as academia itself, and is unique to scholarly work.

In more practical terms, though, this means that choosing the right dissertation advisor can be a real headache. Throughout most of your academic life, you've probably been told that the choices you make can affect your entire future. This time, though, it really is true. Just like choosing the right dissertation topic, there is a lot to consider when choosing a dissertation advisor. Perhaps the best starting point, though, is to know yourself. What are your work habits like? Thinking back on all the teachers you have had in your life, which have motivated you the most? Why? Using these questions as a starting point, think about the type of person you would like to have advising you. Be scrupulously honest, keeping your goals in mind. You might be laid back yourself, and enjoy spending time with others who share that quality - but is that really what you should look for in an advisor? You might need someone a bit stricter to keep you on track... or the reverse might be true; if you tend to be tense or anxious about your work, you might benefit from an advisor who can help you put things in perspective.

Next, get to know the faculty and the other graduate students in your department. During the process of choosing an advisor, you should make a point of having productive discussions with as many of them as you possibly can. It's the only way to make a truly educated choice. Ask students who are in the process of writing their dissertation about their advisors. They'll probably be glad to share information, or to 'vent,' as the case may be! Keep in mind that writing a dissertation is stressful for everyone, but make note of any real problems that the students you talk to have come across. These tend to fall into two different categories - advisors who are too busy or uninterested to give any real guidance, and those who are demanding to the point of being intimidating. Keep these and other factors in mind as you talk to the professors in your department. It is perfectly acceptable, in most departments, to make appointments to speak to various professors about your dissertation work; it doesn't automatically mean that you have to seriously consider them as an advisor. You're just doing the preliminaries. Talk to them about their own research and critical orientation, and about yours. Keep an open mind. Though some 'overlap' is required with regard to your areas of interest, it doesn't have to be a precise match. However, if a professor has a strong critical or theoretical bias that you cannot relate to, you'll probably have to strike him or her off your list.

After meeting with the various professors in your department, you should have some idea of whom you would - and wouldn't - like to work with. Before making a final decision, though, there are some practical considerations that can be just as important as your compatibility in terms of personality and research. First of all, how much time does your prospective advisor have? Will he or she be able to give you timely feedback? Is she available during the summer? Second, will the advisor remain on faculty for as long as it takes you to write and defend your dissertation, or does he have a sabbatical coming up? Third, do your best to research your prospect's 'track record' with regard to advising. How long do his or her students typically take to complete a doctorate? Where have they found employment after finishing? Does the advisor in question generally credit his students for any collaborative work that they do? Finally, get a sense of the professor's relationship with the rest of the faculty. Is he or she held in high regard? How does the professor's research relate that that of the rest of the faculty? Have there been any issues regarding ethics?

There are rarely any guarantees regarding the choice of a dissertation advisor, yet this individual is in a position to profoundly affect your future as an academic. It's up to you to approach this issue with maturity, forethought and reflection. Don't be pressured, don't be shy, and don't underestimate the importance of choosing the right dissertation advisor!

Dealing with a Dissertation Advisor

If you are reading this, you are a post-graduate student and convinced that your Dissertation Advisor hates you. You are already into the dissertation process and the pages of your early drafts are covered in either red ink or, you suspect, blood - because the look in your Dissertation Advisor's eyes is suspiciously like the look you have seen in the eyes of Bella Lugosi, in late-night television horror movies. You keep telling yourself you are a brave and courageous, adult professional. It isn't working. All it takes is the thought of your Dissertation Advisor for you to be instantly transported back to the insecurities of a first-grader on the first day of school. This will never do. There is no way you can survive two, or more, years of this. Something has to be done!

Strategy #1: Weeping and Falling Apart

Sorry. That one doesn't work at all! You can weep all you want - sob for hours, days, or weeks - and you still have to do your dissertation, and you still have the same Dissertation Advisor, and he or she still hates you, your research, and your dissertation. The falling apart thing might get you a prescription from your doctor but, in the end, that doesn't work either because it not only costs you money - but produces the same end result: you still have to do your dissertation, and you still have the same Dissertation Advisor, and he or she still hates you, your research, and your dissertation.

Strategy #2: Storming the Administration, waving the post-graduate manual, and demanding that your Dissertation Advisor be changed.

Well - you could do that, and would probably be well within your rights to do so. However, you had better think long and hard about such a final move. The first thing that is going to happen is that you are going to give yourself a reputation as a troublemaker. Remember, these same people are going to be giving you recommendations after you graduate. Any time you think that will never come back to haunt you - more fool you. That kind of move has the potential to eat your lunch years into the future. The next thing that could happen is that the university decides not to allow you to change Dissertation Advisors. Now, you will really be in an adversarial relationship with the old bat and, in this world, the bat wins every time. The worst thing that could happen is that you do get a new Dissertation Advisor and he or she is worse than the one you had in the first place. No way are they going to let you change again, so your only option, at this point, would be to change schools or go back to Strategy #1.

Strategy #3: Go to someone else on your Committee

Chances are, there is someone on your Committee whom you like and trust. Taking your problem to them is a good option. You might be able to work something out so that they can take over as your Dissertation Advisor without causing too much of a fuss. If your Dissertation Advisor truly doesn't like you, or doesn't like your work, they would probably be as happy to get rid of you as you would be to get rid of them.

Strategy #4: Attempt to make your Dissertation Advisor a friend/mentor

The strategy that is most used and works best when dealing with a difficult Dissertation Advisor is attempting to turn them into a friend and/or mentor. The reason this strategy works best is because it can be real or an illusion. You have to remember that there is a two-pronged goal here. First, you want to do good work/research. Second, and equally important, you want your Ph.D. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. However, you may have to tweak one a little bit in order to get the other.

Let us suppose that your Dissertation Advisor can actually be turned into a friend and/or mentor. That would be the best of all possible worlds for you at this time in your life. Pull out every conflict resolution skill and technique you have and get to work on this relationship. You might have to swallow a little pride in order to investigate why your Dissertation Advisor is giving you such a hard time but, in the end, if you are able to resolve the problem amicably, everybody wins. You get your Ph.D. and life goes on the way you always dreamed it would. Believe it or not, it is possible that your difficult Dissertation Advisor, the person you thought was Bella Lugosi reincarnated, can turn into your very own, personal champion. It is also possible that you just might make a friend for life. One particularly disagreeable Dissertation Advisor was known to curse his students at a distance of about two inches from their noses. Most ran for the hills. However, those who stayed soon realized that the man actually was mentally ill, but that he would become not only their beloved major professor, but also a dear and precious friend for life. You just never know what the real problems with difficult Dissertation Advisors are until you take a little initiative and try to resolve them. I think they call that professionalism and it is a characteristic, after all, to which you, as a Ph.D. candidate aspire.

Let us now suppose that your Dissertation Advisor is really Bella Lugosi, reincarnated, and you have to create the illusion that they are your mentor/friend. Yes, I know he or she is destroying your manuscript, and may even be damaging the integrity of your work. However, this is the 21st century. Why can't you keep a copy of your real work on your computer and simply deal with your difficult Dissertation Advisor with another copy as needed? Think! Once you have your Ph.D., where is your dissertation going to be? In the university's library archives. Who is going to actually read it? Nobody. Where are you going to be? A Ph.D. in your chosen profession. And what do Ph.D.s get to do? Ph.D.s get to publish whatever they want! So, keep your eye on the prize. Get the Ph.D. If that means you have to learn to schmooze with Bella Lugosi, pucker up. Before long, you will be the master of your own ship and that Dissertation Advisor will still be plagued with students and mad about it. See? There is justice in the world after all.

Strategy #5: Lose the Attitude - Arrogance Does Go Before a Fall

Some of the strategies discussed in this article have been a bit "tongue in cheek." However, anyone seeking a Ph.D. has got to realize that attitude, when dealing with a difficult Dissertation Advisor, is everything. Most post-graduate students are already adults and already functioning, with earned graduate degrees, in their chosen professions. In many cases, the working, post-graduate student is even earning a higher income than their Dissertation Advisor, and both are well aware of that fact. There is no reason for any post-graduate student to bring arrogance, professional or otherwise, to the dissertation process. That is inviting trouble and showing a personal characteristic that makes one wonder if that student should be allowed through the process at all. Bring your professionalism to the table and give respect where respect has been earned. If you can do that, many of your problems with difficult Dissertation Advisors will be no more than a bad memory.


Dealing with a difficult Dissertation Advisor has a number of solutions, all of them simple. If your Dissertation Advisor is a problem, you can:

We, at Custom Papers, wish you the best in all of your post-graduate relationships!

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