Your relationship with your dissertation advisor can make or break your grad school experience. The right advisor can mentor you throughout graduate school and beyond, but the wrong advisor can hamper your progress and hold you back. So how do you pick the right dissertation advisor?

Meet Many Professors

While some doctoral programs will assign you an advisor or require you to choose an advisor before you begin, others allow you to choose an advisor after you've been in the program for a while. If you're in the latter situation, take as many classes as you can with as many different faculty members as possible. This way, you'll learn what faculty working styles and personalities are like. Do you want someone who is hands-off and will let you pursue your dissertation in any way you like? Or do you want someone who takes a heavier hand in guiding your dissertation work? The best way to get a good sense of what a faculty member will be like as a dissertation advisor is by working with them ahead of time. If you need to find an advisor before you begin a program, contact professors, try to meet with them at conferences, and talk to their current students so that you can find out what their working style is like.

Compatible Research Interests and Methodologies

To get the advising that you need to best help your dissertation project, you need to find someone who shares compatible research interests or methods with you. As Richard Reis of the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, your choice of dissertation topic and dissertation advisor are linked. Your advisor doesn't necessarily need to do research on the exact same topic as your dissertation, but it can be helpful if they work in a closely connected area. Or, you may want to work with someone who uses methods that you want to use. For instance, perhaps you want to do an ethnographic project. You may seek out a dissertation advisor who is an expert ethnographer, but doesn't necessarily work with the same group of people that you plan to research.

Read Widely in Your Field

The best way to find a dissertation advisor with research interests compatible with your own is to read widely in your field and identify the scholarship that you like the best. Which are the books or articles that have most influenced your thinking? The authors of those works could be potential dissertation advisors.

Will Your Dissertation Advisor Support You?

It's crucial to find a dissertation advisor who will provide the support that you need. When you are fielding potential advisors, watch out for signs that they might not be present when you need them. Do they often travel for research? Are they close to retirement? If so, they may not be able to provide you with one-on-one support. Dr. Karen Kelsky provides a list of potential advisor red flags – signs that a faculty member might not provide the support that you need.

Talk to Students

Talk to other graduate students, both before and after you get into graduate school. If there is a professor you're interested in working with, seek out and talk to their current advisees. Graduate students can often offer frank, upfront advice about a potential advisor, and warn you of any potential red flags or conflicts. Don't be afraid to ask students tough questions about their dissertation advisors. Students can tell you how long their dissertation advisor takes to read and respond to their work, and whether their advisor is supportive or overly critical.

Make the Relationship Work

Once you have an advisor, you’ll still need to work hard to make the relationship work for you and for your dissertation. Check out Katie Shives’ tips on managing your dissertation advisor on Inside Higher Ed.

If you're not getting the support that you need from your dissertation advisor, give us a call. Our dissertation consultants can provide dissertation coaching and guidance to help you write a good dissertation. A dissertation editor can provide the feedback on your writing that you need. We are your one-stop shop for dissertation help.
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