Skip to content

Take Time to Pick the Right Dissertation Adviser for You

Any senior doctoral student or freshly minted Ph.D. will likely tell you that selecting a dissertation adviser is the single-most important decision made during graduate school. Indeed, several studies indicate that the quality of the student-adviser relationship directly influences the quality of doctoral education.

As commonplace as this knowledge is by the final years of doctoral training, many incoming students are vaguely aware of the inestimable importance of this relationship and have little understanding of how to best go about evaluating candidate advisers. As a result, students all too frequently find themselves frustrated and in an unsatisfying relationship with a poorly matched adviser.

While no approach to choosing an adviser can guarantee a perfect pairing, by employing the following strategies doctoral students can improve their chances of selecting a mentor with whom they can develop a mutually rewarding relationship.

The process of selecting an adviser begins with recognizing the importance of the student-adviser relationship, which is often likened to a marriage, and rightfully so, as few other professional interactions form such an influential and inextricable union between two people.

During graduate school the student-adviser relationship, for better or worse, directly impacts students’ productivity, work quality and professional development as well as their day-to-day experience. Following graduation, an adviser’s evaluation of a student’s past performance and future potential is often a significant factor in the decision to hire or award funding.

Furthermore, as long as a Ph.D. remains in his or her field of doctoral study, his or her professional identity will be defined to some extent by where and with whom the Ph.D. trained. Thus, an adviser’s reputation and standing can directly influence what career options are available to their former students.

The success of the student-adviser relationship depends in large part on how well students’ attitudes, expectations, behaviors and goals mesh with those of their adviser. Indeed, qualities in an adviser that herald a satisfying relationship for one student may portend disaster for another. Thus, the better students understand themselves, their career objectives and reasons for attending grad school, the better they will be able to assess who is the best adviser for them.

The more time and energy invested in this exercise, the more the students will be able to define what qualities they are seeking in an adviser and who will best meet their specific wants and needs.

Armed with this knowledge and awareness, students should set out to compile detailed portraits of their candidate advisers. In this instance, one can never have too much information. It is critical for students to learn as much as possible about an adviser’s personality, temperament, work habits, management style, experience mentoring doctoral students and current funding status.

The best source of information about advisers is their current and former doctoral students. It is best to speak with students face to face as they will likely feel more comfortable discussing their adviser in person and may offer greater detail than they would by phone or e-mail. Also, visiting a university allows students to get a feel for a doctoral program and provides opportunities for spontaneous interactions with other students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty that may provide valuable information and insight regarding potential advisers.

The process of assessing the information gathered about candidate advisers is very subjective, as only the incoming student knows what attributes and behaviors are most critical to him or her. In all cases, however, it is important that the information collected be weighed in balance. A very critical review of an adviser may reflect an isolated interaction that is not typical of the overall pattern of behavior as a mentor. Conversely, students, perhaps fearful of antagonizing their adviser or compromising their standing within a program, may not be entirely forthcoming and may concentrate exclusively on an adviser’s positive attributes.

The impact of the student-adviser relationship during and beyond the years of doctoral education cannot be overestimated. By developing a more keen appreciation of the importance of the student-adviser relationship, thinking deeply about themselves, talking extensively with current and former doctoral students and making a balanced assessment of the information they gather, incoming doctoral students can greatly improve their chances of selecting an adviser with whom they can develop a beneficial and satisfying relationship.

Curtis Balmer, Ph.D., is a senior science writer for Johnson, Bassin and Shaw Inc.