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DeWitt Scott received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.



One of the most important decisions you will make as a graduate student is choosing a dissertation advisor. Excelling at coursework, identifying a great research question, and teaching undergraduate courses are all accomplishments that can be nullified if you select the wrong advisor. There is no relationship that will be more pivotal to your doctoral success, completion, and post-graduation prospects.


With such high stakes riding on this decision, it is important that graduate students approach the decision with the importance it deserves. Below are a few key points graduate students should consider when deciding on a graduate advisor. These suggestions are intended for the general graduate school experience and are not specific to any particular discipline.


Search for mutual research interests. The most important criteria to consider when deciding on a dissertation advisor are the research interests of the faculty members in your department. Ideally, a graduate student should select a dissertation advisor who has a successful, active scholarly agenda in the area the student is researching. A professor who shares the same, or similar, research interests as you will have a better understanding of the questions you are trying to answer and the contribution you are attempting to make to the field. You can benefit from the professor’s expertise on the subject matter and trust that he/she knows what will be the most effective way for you to approach your research. If you are not able to secure an advisor who shares your interests it will be imperative to have someone on your dissertation committee who does.


The “superstar” professor may not be your best bet. A number of graduate students enter graduate school with the hope of working with the professor in the department who is internationally known for his or her  scholarly work and contributions to the field. This professor’s books are typically front and center at the campus bookstore, he or she travels the country giving talks and keynotes, and may even have an occasional television appearance. Be leery of exclusively seeking this type of advisor.  Superstar professors tend to be extremely busy people who may not have the time to give significant attention to the theses of their dissertation students. If you are the type of student who needs consistent, sustained attention and feedback from an advisor you probably will not get it from the faculty member who gives four keynotes per week. Having his or her name on the cover page of your dissertation may not be worth the anxiety you experience as a result of working weeks at a time without hearing from or receiving feedback from him or her.


Ask about professors’ completion track record. It is great to have a dissertation advisor who understands your research and is responsive when you ask for feedback, but all of that doesn’t mean much if you don’t get to the finish line. There are numerous professors who are wonderful people and great scholars but who do not graduate their advisees at an acceptable rate. Inquire about a potential advisor’s success rate and average time of completion for dissertation students. Speak with current and former dissertation advisees and ask them about their rates of progress throughout the process. If a professor seems to be a quality scholar and collaborator but does a poor job of graduating students you may want to think deeply about your ability to complete with that advisor. On the other hand, if it seems a particular professor may be a bit of a challenge to work with but is known for producing graduates at a high clip, you may want to consider selecting that person.


Does the advisor understand your desired career path? There are plenty of stories about dissertation advisors who expect and push their graduate students to exclusively pursue faculty positions at Research I institutions after graduation. While having high expectations is great, tenure-track positions at major institutions may not be your particular goal. Research I positions just don’t fall out of the sky like snowflakes in January. They are competitive positions that typically yield hundreds of applications per job opening. You may desire a career at a teaching institution, an administrative position, or an alt-ac career altogether. Your advisor must be clear on your goals and be willing to support you in whatever you decide. Having an advisor who continuously tries to force you in a direction you do not want to go can lead to a contentious relationship that may do more harm than good during the writing of your dissertation.


Can you see yourself spending the next 3 (or 4, or 5, or 6) years working with this individual? It helps tremendously if the personalities of you and your advisor are compatible to some degree. You will spend the next few years after completing your exams working closely with your advisor. If your advisor is not someone you can get along with you will have a hard time enjoying and completing your dissertation. Writing a dissertation is stressful enough; you do need to add to this stress by interacting with an advisor who is routinely condescending, aloof, or blatantly rude. Consider personality types of potential advisors and ask yourself if you can have an amicable working relationship with this person. If not, strike him from contention and move on to the next candidate.


Choosing the right dissertation advisor can make or break your graduate school career. Do not take this decision lightly or depend solely on the suggestion of someone else. Take the time to ask questions and make a thoughtful decision. Doing so is the only way you will get what you need from the experience.


Do you have any tips for graduate students on seeking dissertation advisors?  Did you have a positive relationship with your advisor?


[Photo courtesy of Google Images user Pixbay and used under the Creative Commons license]

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