Reprints Dissertation Advisor User’s Manual

The key to finishing your dissertation is a good working relationship with your advisor… problems with your research can be frustrating, but problems with your advisor can be fatal to your degree. On the other hand, a good relationship as co-researcher can be of long term mutual benefit to you both. But don’t expect your advisor to structure the interaction, energize the relationship, or resolve advising problems. Relating well is entirely up to you.

Most advisors are interested in coworking with bright people on ground-breaking research–that’s why they became graduate professors. But they aren’t particularly interested in working with students, or on student research projects. Moreover, few professors really enjoy dissertation advising. That’s not what they were trained to do, not what they were hired to do, and usually not what they want to do.

In academia, advising gets little credit toward salary increases, promotions, or prestige, so few professors feel it’s important. The result is, they lack motivation to advise well, and are diffident about their advising relationships. It’s your advisor’s lack of involvement with the advising role that places sole responsibility with you to set up and sustain a good advising relationship.

Setting Expectations

To generate a good relationship, you need to hold reasonable expectations for your advisor’s role functions, as well as his or her attitudes and behaviors. Without understanding your advisor’s role, you won’t know what to ask for. Without perspective on appropriate attitudes and behaviors, you won’t know how to evaluate your advisor’s performance. Moreover, without balanced expectations, you’re liable to be easily disappointed without cause, and you won’t sense if your advisory relationship starts to sputter.

As important as it is, achieving realistic expectations is difficult, mainly because there’s a woeful lack of recognized advising standards against which to gauge your interaction.

Lack of Advising Standards

Most institutions don’t define reasonable expectations of advisors. Other than a general code of ethics and a quota on how many students advisors can supervise, most don’t set standards for advising, and don’t monitor the process. The few available guidelines are generalized role descriptions (e.g., meet with students as needed, read and return drafts in reasonable time, monitor students’ progress, etc.). This allows advisors considerable latitude in carrying out their advising duties, of which they take full advantage.

Recognizing the vacuum in standards, ASGS presents a group of “reasonable expectations” in this issue, derived from numerous authorities and years of working with students and advisors. Armed with these–preferably at the outset of your advisory relationship–you can discuss with your advisor what your expectations are. If there’s a difference of opinion, you can negotiate (or find another advisor). Later, your knowledge of reasonable expectations will help you detect hints of problems as they arise, and give you a better perspective on how to solve them.

The Imbalance of Power

To keep your advising relationship humming over the several years a dissertation takes, you must perceive and resolve problems as they arise. Solving these problems is touchy. The power imbalance between you and your advisor limits your course of action. Practically speaking, you need to start with a positive, businesslike attitude toward your advisor and make changes and improvements, using suggestion and negotiation.

But you also need to keep your advisor’s role in perspective. Advisors traditionally convey the notion that they’re all-powerful, that they’re doing students a favor by advising them, and that students have no option but to kowtow to their wishes. Advisors promote these ideas to retain their near totalitarian control over the advising process, and students believe them.

The facts are, advisors do have final approval over the dissertation, but they’re not all-powerful; they can be influenced, and they can be replaced. Professors are not doing graduate students a favor by advising them. Even if advisors aren’t rewarded for it directly, they’re paid to advise students along with their other professorial duties. Students pay their institutions, and through them, their advisors, for advice they receive. Moreover, unquestioning acceptance of the “suggestions” of an advisor can scuttle your dissertation. You may have a better grasp of your topic than your advisor does, and you’ll probably remember your study better from one meeting to the next. If you blindly follow your advisor’s directions, you might get hopelessly confused, or worse, you may begin to feel the dissertation isn’t yours, and lose motivation to finish.

It’s Up to You

Students naturally focus on the advising relationship more than their advisors do, and the more successful students take control of it. Knowing the operating procedures for relating well with your advisor helps you get the advice and support you need. In the area of advising, professors don’t come with batteries included. We suggest you start winding that key.


The Dissertation Advisor User’s Manual is extracted from Dissertation News No. 8-1993, published Dec, 1993. Other articles in this issue include:

  • ASGS Defines “Reasonable Expectations”
  • How Do Others Define Reasonable Expectations?
  • Avoid Problems by Managing Your Committee
  • Advisor of the Year Uses Tough Love to Get Students Through
  • Creating Your Advising Relationship
  • Solving Problems With Your Advisor.