Picking & Working with a Dissertation Adviser
So you’ve gotten into graduate school and now you need to figure out how to compose a committee and select an adviser.
Many programs will assign you to a first year adviser, who may or may not share interests with you; his or her job is to serve as a contact person, to help you navigate the world of graduate school, and to serve as a sounding board as you start to develop your thoughts on your future dissertation and committee. Most programs fully expect you to stop working with your first year adviser as soon as you start assembling your committee — although you might not. Don’t feel like your doing something wrong by not continuing to work with this person.
Picking a Committee and Adviser
Most programs expect you to pick 2-3 members of the department to serve on your committee, as well as 1-2 people from outside of your department. I tend to think that the way you should approach this is by just considering all of these people to be committee members, and you’ll select one of them to be your adviser. Many people approach things the opposite way, selecting an adviser, and then building a committee around that person. I make this suggestion because there’s always the possibility that your adviser will leave — for another job, retirement, illness or death — and you want to make sure that the other people on your committee are suitable advisers as well, and not just people that you picked to fill in topical gaps in your committee. So, from these 2-3 people you have to choose from, here are some things to consider:
1) How much contact do you need with your adviser? Some advisers are very hands on, while others can be quite hands off — and people fall all along that continuum. Do you want to see your adviser every week, every month or every year? It’s not always obvious at the outset what kinds of contact expectations an adviser will have, so ask students that your committee members work with to see what kinds of expectations the faculty have about contact and what that contact looks like (e.g. meetings, phone calls, emails, meals).
2) What’s your work style like? Do you write fast or slow? It’s good to work with people on your committee who have similar work styles. If you’re a very slow writer but everyone on your committee works very quickly, there’s bound to be tensions between you and them (they might think you’re lazy or easily distracted). Or, if you’re very fast and they’re all slow, that can pose a similar problem (they might think you aren’t careful enough). It can be fine to work with an adviser who works differently than you do, but make sure that you have someone on your committee who can serve as an advocate for your work style.
3) Would you want to be stuck on an airplane next to this person? Would you be willing to go to this person’s house for dinner? Members of your committee — and your adviser especially — will be writing letters of recommendation for you for the decade after you defend your Ph.D., whether for jobs or tenure and promotion. So you’ll need to be in regular contact with them, which may mean meeting for meals at professional meetings. If you have a hard time having small talk with a committee member, you might do better to seek someone else out. And if you’re too intimidated by someone to watch them eat ice cream or sloppy noodles, again, they may not be long for your committee.
Maintaining a Relationship
Your relationship with your adviser is really a professional one — since they’ll be writing letters of recommendation for you and mediating your relationship with the rest of your department (when it comes to reporting on your ongoing standing in the program), you want to make sure that you treat him or her with a reasonable about of respect and can interact with him or her naturally (i.e. not quivering out of being intimidated). First and foremost, know what your adviser’s expectations are: how quickly do they think you should get through the program? what do they expect a dissertation to look like and include? how much do they expect you to do (in terms of publications, conference talks, etc.) before you graduate? You can talk about this stuff with potential advisers, but also be sure to talk to students who work with individual faculty to get a sense of their experiences. Sometimes the experiences of students can be significantly different from what an adviser will tell you.
Beyond that, if your adviser sets a deadline, be sure to meet it, even if the work isn’t perfect. But try and make it as solid as possible. And know that you have two meltdown opportunities: once while you prepare for your qualifying exams and once during your dissertation writing; your adviser is not your therapist, after all.
Changing your Adviser or Committee
Like any relationship, sometimes things don’t work out between an advisee and an adviser. And if things aren’t working for you, they probably aren’t working for your adviser either, so breaking it off with them might be best for everyone. You can sometimes shuffle your present adviser into a committee role; and sometimes you need to eject them entirely. There’s no really easy way to go about this, but here are some general tips:
1) Talk to who you want to replace your current adviser, and make sure that he or she is willing to step into the role. If not, then see who is. Once you have that person lined up, they can help with the transition from your current adviser to your future adviser.
2) Talk with the graduate program director and let him or her know about your intentions. This way, if things go south — for whatever reason — they’ve already been primed on the situation and can advocate for you. They might also be able to have a conversation with your current adviser to iron things out and make your transition smooth.
3) Yes, it may be a little awkward for a while, but it’s probably more awkward for you than for your former adviser. Eventually, things should work themselves out. But always remember that your education and professionalization is about what’s best for you, and if that means ejecting someone from your committee altogether, that’s just what you need to do. And if you can’t expect your former adviser to write you a solid letter of recommendation, then you need to trust your instincts and set him or her free.
So much of graduate school — and the rest of your professional life — is managing and maintaining relationships with people, and for the first few years there’s no more important relationships than your committee, who will really see you through the worst of your academic training (your qualifying exams, your dissertation, your first publications, etc.). Make sure you surround yourself with supportive people, and many of the anxieties associated with this stuff won’t be nearly as bad.
Questions? Comments? Experiences? Post them in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation.