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Your dissertation advisor should challenge you and keep you moving forward.

Some years ago, a friend was writing her dissertation and after long, close work with her advisor was given the go-ahead to take it forward to her committee for final approval.  She had just put in three years of arduous work on her dissertation while also holding down a full-time teaching job and managing a family. Usually, these stories go as planned and an elated, newly-minted Ph.D. walks out of the defence full of pride and elation – officially projected into Doctoral Paradise.  

However, this story didn’t go so well. Once into her defence, two of her committee members, who had long had a bitter and rancorous rivalry with her advisor, suddenly turned and visited devastation upon her research, her assumptions and her dissertation in full. The upshot was that she had to go back to scratch, approach her research with a whole new set of parameters, and rewrite the entire work.  It took her two more years of nail-biting effort before she was finally approved and granted her Ph.D.

A sad tale. In fact a student’s worst nightmare. And whose fault was this temporary debacle?  It certainly wasn’t hers. She was a very effective, disciplined writer and researcher. She had had an easy and friendly relationship with her advisor who was very amicable and spent a lot of time with her chatting about E.B.H.D. (Everything but her Dissertation) over bottomless cups of faculty lounge coffee.  The answer, obviously, is that the eventual rejection of her first completed dissertation was primarily the advisor’s fault. It was her advisor’s role to be rigorous – an advocate who consistently questioned and reviewed my friend’s research and writing. She should have run interference for her with the rest of the committee, discovering problems and disagreements well before the defence.

Settle upon your advisor carefully. Academia can be a great and rewarding place to spend your working life.  At it’s best it is a place of fine intellectual rigour, high standards of thought and accomplishment, and exhilarating and inspiring friendships.  But it can also be a fierce and rapacious place, with rivalries and people who are more than smart enough to come up with complex and sophisticated rationalizations for their own self-interest.

So, make sure that you get the advisor that you really need.  Certainly not one who is abusive and negative.  Nor one who is inconsistent in their advice as to what your dissertation needs.  A good advisor is one who challenges you, rattles your complacency, makes you uncomfortable at times as they question your illusions and delusions.  And one who generously and deliberately propels you to the Ph.D. Finish Line.