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Home  > Article

Avoid Graduate School Hell! Select Your Advisor and Committee Wisely

By Wendy Carter

Selecting an advisor requires you to make an honest assessment of your working style.

Many students think I write article like these because I did not have a good advisor. However, I want you to know that I had a wonderful advisor. He was a tenured professor and well respected in my academic department. He wasn't my best friend; my friend Elsie had fulfilled that role a long time ago. He was intelligent, well respected in the field, and had the reputation of being an advocate for his student advisees. I chose him because he was reliable and a great advocate for me. While some faculty members might be able to serve as mentors, you need an advisor who has power and respect in the department.

Selecting an advisor requires you to make an honest assessment of your working style. What type of working environment maximizes your true potential? Do you need someone to micro-manage every aspect of your thesis or dissertation project? Do you flourish when you are given a task and allowed to work at your own pace? Do you excel when you are allowed to figure things out by yourself? Are you willing to ask for help when you need it? To successfully complete your thesis or dissertation, you need an advisor who complements your working style.

Here are 7 tips to managing your advisor and committee members:

1. Interview Potential Advisors:

Remember, you and your advisor should be enthusiastic about your thesis or dissertation topic. When selecting a selecting a topic you have to think of whom on the faculty is an expert on that topic and would be willing to work with you. Prior to your interview for an advisor, consider writing a three-page draft of a proposal to discuss with your potential advisor. Be sure to ask if the faculty member is planning a sabbatical in the next two years.

Selecting the right advisor is critical to your success in graduate school. Your advisor can propel or hinder your academic progress. As a graduate student you have very little power in your academic department. Hence, you need to select an advisor who can be an advocate for you. To be your best advocate, your advisor should have tenure and the respect of his peers. As chair of your committee, peer respect will be invaluable when your advisor has to supervise the other committee members and facilitate your defense hearing.

2. Interview Fellow Students/Advisees:

Although a faculty member might be respected in his or her discipline, be aware that some faculty members might be difficult to work with; advisors sometimes ask for a draft when what they really want is a polished piece. Some advisors might prefer to work with the same sex graduate student. Others may or may not be willing to co-author with their graduate students.

Your peers are your greatest resource; advanced graduate students are often willing to share information about what it is like to work for or with a particular faculty member. As a possible advisee, you need inside information on:

Availability and accessibility of the advisor

Timeliness and quality of the feedback

His/her expectations.  Are they realistic?

The working atmosphere in the lab

Management style, micro or macro

Facilitation skills during defense hearings

Average time his/her advisees take to finish

3. Be Professional With Advisor/Committee Members:

The quality of the advisee/advisor relationship varies and is based on the commitment level and personalities of your advisor and yourself. Both of you have some responsibility for making this relationship work successfully. You should be as professional with your advisor/committee members as possible.

Let your advisor/committee member know that you value his or her time. Get to your scheduled meetings on time. Don't sweat it if your advisor/committee member is late.

Be prepared with an agenda for your regularly scheduled meetings-- prepare questions ahead of time.

Call and cancel if you will not be able to make your scheduled meeting.

Send a follow-up email confirming any items and resolutions that were discussed during the meeting.

Prepare a coversheet with an outline of your document indicating the type of feedback you are looking for.

Don't get frustrated if they ask for another copy of the latest draft of your document even if you haven't made any changes since you gave it to them last week.

Always bring a hard copy of the chapter to be discussed with you.

Takes notes at all meetings; you won't remember everything once you leave the office.

4. Don't Assume, Ask:

The relationship between you, your advisor and committee members varies by the amount of direction, personal interaction, and psychological support. In addition, the type of criticism given and the frequency of interaction will depend on the type of relationship you and your advisor has established. It is quite possible that each committee member could have different expectations of you.

It is your responsibility to find out what level of participation each member of the committee is willing to commit to. I know of a student who directly asked each committee member what do you need to see in this dissertation for you to sign-off on it.  By asking ahead of time, she was able to address each member's concerns with the help of her advisor.

5. Understanding Your Advisor And Committee Members:

The best academic advisor does not have the time to hold your hand throughout your academic career. The academic advisor's time is limited because, after all, he or she is a professor first and is getting paid to teach courses, advise graduate students, supervise graduate research, write books or journal articles, and serve on campus- and university-wide committees.

Moreover, your advisor went through the same process without much assistance from his/her advisor when he/she attended graduate school. Therefore, the tradition of completing a thesis or dissertation is a lonely process and an unsympathetic advisor does not want to cheat you out of having the same experience he/she suffered through years ago. Hence, your academic advisor's main commitment is to supervise your research project. He/she will not be your friend, therapist, financial aid counselor, or marital advisor.

6. Choose your battles wisely.  Handling Conflicts and Disagreements:

Your advisor is the coordinator of your thesis or dissertation project. While the major role of your advisor is to share his or her expertise with you to help you develop your ideas, your advisor is also supposed to advocate on your behalf as well. Should your committee members give you conflicting advice you should bring this to your advisors attention.

Resolving conflicts among committee members is part of your advisors responsibilities. After you resolve the issue with your advisor, ask if she/he is going to be responsible for communicating the solution to the other committee members. If she/he suggests that you handle that issue it might be prudent to send your advisor an email confirming the agreed upon resolution. You might consider copying the other committee members with this confirmation.

If you and your advisor disagree you might consider writing a more persuasive argument addressing his concerns. Arguing with your advisor is not time well spent. If you spent the time choosing a well-qualified expert, an active supporter and head cheerleader, these disagreements should be minor and short-lived. You need him/her---Your advisor will be writing recommendations for you well after you have left the university.

7. Seeking Feedback And Advice From Your Advisor and Committee Members:

If you are having problems getting timely written or oral feedback from your advisor there are many things that you can do to move this process along. Your advisor and committee members are busy people. Consequently you must make the best use of their time. First, if you cannot get feedback from your advisor, try another committee member to keep things moving along.

Second, when you submit your thesis or dissertation chapters for review you should provide some guidance on how you want your advisor / committee member to read your document. Sometimes you might just be looking for answers as to whether or not your methodology or reasoning is logical and going in the right direction. If you want this type of feedback your advisor might not have to read as closely as he might think if you do not provide any instructions. It would be a good idea to provide an outline of your chapter so that your advisor can get a good overview of what the chapter is about and where it fits into your thesis or dissertation. Without instructions your advisor is likely to place your document in a pile of must-read items. Leave the grammar and editing to an editor; your advisor will give the final grammar edits on your final draft.

About the Author:

As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD TADA! Thesis and Accomplished.

To learn more contact the author at or visit ==>

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