Advice on Advisers

Sonja K. Foss and William Waters provide guidance on how to create the best relationship with your dissertation adviser.

October 2, 2015

Your relationship with your dissertation adviser affects the kind of dissertation you write, your experience while doing it, the time it takes to complete it and your career options once it is done.

Ideally, you’d like your adviser to invite interaction between the two of you, offer assistance and create a safe environment in which to explore ideas. Not all advisers, however, have or make use of the kinds of skills required to create an effective mentoring relationship.

Does that mean such an adviser doesn’t want to help you? Definitely not. Faculty members generally don’t take on graduate advisees unless they want to work with them and help them succeed. Many, however, simply don’t know what to do to be good advisers. They also aren’t likely to get much support in helping them learn how to improve their advising skills. What this means is that they’re likely to be using as an advising script their experience with their own graduate adviser -- and that can be a limiting and often dysfunctional model.

If your adviser seems to lack the skills of a good adviser, are you doomed to have a troubled relationship? Again, no. The advising relationship is initiated, developed and maintained through communication -- which means that engaging in particular kinds of communication can help you make your adviser someone who will allow you to complete your dissertation and flourish as a professional. Such skills can also help reduce the power differential between you and your adviser and help transform you from a groveling graduate student into a proactive, capable and committed colleague.

The first step is something you know a lot about as a graduate student -- doing research. In this case, it's research on whom to consider as your adviser. How do you go about this? Talk with other students who have those faculty members as advisers. Take classes from potential advisers. Read their books and articles. Serve on committees in your department that have student members so you’ll be able to see various faculty members in action. When you’re getting close to making a decision, interview the faculty members you’re considering. They might be surprised that you are being so thorough and systematic in picking an adviser, but they’ll be impressed, too. You have already begun to demonstrate your professionalism and competence in the relationship with your future adviser.

What should you find out about the potential advisers from your research? All sorts of things:

  • What reputations do they have as advisers?
  • How many advisees do they have?
  • How many students have they graduated?
  • How do they treat their advisees?
  • What percentage of their students finish?
  • How long do their students take to finish?
  • Where do their students get jobs?
  • Do they favor certain kinds of students over others and give them more time and attention?
  • How rigorous are they?
  • How famous are they? Does their fame impact the time and energy they give to advising, or does their fame provide access to valuable resources?
  • What are their schedules like for the next few years? Are they working on books? Planning sabbaticals? Getting divorced?
  • Does your working style mesh with theirs?
  • Are they consistent in what they demand?
  • Do they give credit for work, or will they be first author on articles from your dissertation?

There’s one more thing to find out: whether the potential advisers have directed dissertations before. If they haven’t, use caution. Being someone’s first advisee can delay your progress on your dissertation. He may simply not know what to do and won’t be able to provide you with the guidance you need.

A first-time adviser also can delay you because she wants to prove her brilliance to her faculty colleagues using your dissertation. Jackson worked for five years on his dissertation, going through draft after draft. No version was good enough for his adviser, though. She was a new faculty member who wanted a perfect dissertation for her first student to defend to demonstrate her own competence. Jackson ended up not getting tenure himself because his dissertation wasn’t finished on time.

There are other advantages to a more seasoned adviser. He won’t be focused on trying to get tenure at the expense of helping you. He will be less likely to steal your ideas (unfortunately, not an uncommon practice in academe), and he’ll be more able to protect you in academic conflicts. A tenured professor is also more likely to remain at your university and to see you through your dissertation instead of leaving for a better position somewhere else.

Let’s assume you’ve done your research and have decided on the faculty member you want to have as your adviser. Don’t ask yet. If this is the person you really want to be your adviser, you don’t want to ask before he’s had a chance to get to know you, thus increasing the likelihood that he’ll say yes. Asking too early in the relationship can result in a rejection of your invitation.

So how do you develop a relationship with your potential adviser? Take advantage of any opportunities that are available. Join her research team, attend a workshop she’s conducting, attend the business meeting of an interest group at a conference in which she participates, attend social events in your department, take classes from her and perhaps even work on an independent study with her. Don’t forget the option of inviting her to tea or lunch. Another strategy is to ask your potential adviser for advice on a paper for another class or one that you want to submit to a convention. After several such interactions, ask the targeted faculty member to be your adviser.

Agreeing on a Vision

You and your adviser each have a view of the dissertation and the process you’ll be using to create it, but these views might not match up -- and in ways you both may not even be aware of. As a result, all sorts of problems are likely to arise as you try to work together. Misalignments that make sharing a vision difficult commonly occur in three areas:

Expectations about roles. Both you and your adviser bring characteristics, identities, commitments and experiences of various kinds to the advising relationship that affect how each of you thinks you both should act. Gender is an obvious example. You might believe, for example, that because you’re a woman, you must adopt a particular role -- perhaps being deferential, putting yourself down or being unassertive. Your adviser, however, doesn’t see that as an appropriate role for you. Or perhaps you’re a young woman who has an older man as an adviser. You may see him in a fatherly role and expect him to guide, support and protect you. But he might not be viewing your relationship in those terms at all. If the perceptions that you and your adviser have don’t match up, you’ll have a difficult time figuring out how to work together.

Expectations about advising. The advising model determines how your dissertation project is planned and developed, the kinds of communication you and your adviser will use, and the standards by which your dissertation will be judged. It’s one of the most important things, then, on which to reach agreement with your adviser. There are three major advising models, and they are all legitimate and appropriate to use. What’s important about the models is not which one you’re using but whether you and your adviser are working from the same one.

In the replication model, you recreate a model that your adviser supplies. She gives you the formula, outline or basic plan for your dissertation. This might mean that your dissertation is on a topic of her choosing, that you ask a research question she’s interested in answering or that you use research methods she dictates. She might also ask you to use her data set. When your adviser supplies the basic plan for your dissertation, you still have choices, but they’re made within a prescribed set of options.

Your adviser’s communication is focused on establishing clear boundaries within which you can work. He provides explicit instructions about what you should do and gives you a lot of information about how to accomplish his view of the dissertation. Your primary communication behaviors, in response, are to listen to his instructions, ask questions when you don’t understand something and perform as close to his ideal as you can.

A second option is the apprenticeship model, where you have some freedom in how to accomplish the tasks involved in the dissertation, but your adviser guides and models for you, much as a master artist would for an apprentice. You select the plan for your dissertation from a range of options that your adviser offers you, and your primary job is to perform an insightful and credible interpretation of whatever option you choose. You are trying out the processes your adviser recommends, listening and responding to her critiques, and negotiating places where your own vision for your study can come through.

In the co-creation model, you and your adviser both contribute in substantial ways to the plan for your dissertation. Together, you create something that neither of you would have created alone and, in fact, what you create might be quite different from the kind of work your adviser usually does because of your input. You drive the research agenda and process in this model. Conversations in which the two of you explore ideas are a primary form that communication takes in this model. And, of course, conversation can’t take place without asking questions, so that’s a major kind of communication in this model of advising, too.

Expectations about dissertations. Another stumbling block to a shared vision is widely disparate expectations of what a dissertation is. Some people see it as a test to be passed. Others believe that if students have passed their comprehensive exams, they are qualified to write a dissertation. Some believe a dissertation is the culmination of an individual’s scholarly work and is the best research a student will ever produce. Others see it as something that simply demonstrates that a student can do research.

Conception of the scope of the dissertation is another potential source of disagreement. Your adviser might think a dissertation is supposed to be a major struggle that takes years to complete, while you see it as a doable project you can accomplish in seven or eight months. Or it can work the other way around.

Your career goals also have a lot to do with the kind of dissertation you’ll produce. Perhaps you want to be a renowned scholar. Or maybe you want to teach at a community college or a teaching-oriented university. You might be getting a doctorate just because you’ve always wanted to and not for anything it will give you in terms of a career. Maybe you’re getting a Ph.D. simply to advance in a career in which you’re already well established.

In sum, different visions of your dissertation can result if you and your adviser don’t agree on the roles you’ll adopt in the relationship, the advising model you’ll be using, and the nature of a dissertation. An effective advising relationship and completion of your dissertation depend on getting your view and your adviser’s view on these issues to line up. You don’t have to completely share the same view as your adviser on all three of these factors to have an effective relationship, but you do want to develop agreement on as many as possible. If you identify some areas in which you and your adviser don’t agree, we encourage you to have a conversation with him or her about those differences.

Such a conversation can go a long way toward making your adviser into a good adviser for you. If both of you are aware that there may be some difficulty in working together as a result of your differences, those differences are less likely to turn into significant obstacles.


Sonja K. Foss is a professor of communication at the University of Colorado at Denver. William Waters is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. This article is adapted from their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, to be published in October by Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

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