I survived the Ph.D. from hell. I can attribute this success to a number of factors, including my own persistence and hard work. However, there is one factor without which none of the others would have mattered. I had outstanding dissertation directors.
It is natural to assume at the outset that our dissertation experience will go smoothly, that you will not be plagued by department politics, or problems with your dissertation topic. Whether or not that turns out to be the case for you, having a good dissertation director will both get your dissertation off to a good start, and benefit you in the event that you run into hurdles along the way.
Having a good working relationship with your dissertation director is integral to your success in graduate school. To help you find the best match possible, I offer the following seven tips to help you select your director.
- Know yourself and your work style.
How do you work best? Are you an internally driven, self-disciplined person who wants a lot of room to pursue your research independently? Or are you someone who is most comfortable with more frequent interaction and feedback? Are there certain areas where you know you will need guidance and mentoring? Do you favor certain critical or methodological approaches in your work? You want to work with a director—and a committee—whose work style and expertise suit your own. Take time to get to know the faculty in your department before making decisions about your director and your committee. This may mean looking beyond who is most amiable, popular, or even unpopular. For example, it may be that a faculty member with an international reputation and an impressive publication record no longer has the time to provide feedback on early drafts of your work. Do all you can to obtain accurate information so that you can make the most informed decision possible. Compatibility in the above areas can go a long way toward easing the tensions that are inherent in the dissertation writing process.
- Choose a director who is supportive of your topic.
Before committing to working with a faculty member, take the time to talk with them about your research, and pay attention to their reaction. Are they enthusiastic about your proposed research? Do they make suggestions to help you expand your project or offer additional perspectives that you may want to consider? Or do they express reservations, concerns about the viability of your proposal? Obviously some such concerns may have merit, and it is important to assess whether the issue is a potential pitfall in your research, or a fundamental difference in approach that could leave you at odds with your director and unable to get to that all-important defense date. Though some differences of opinion with your director are inevitable, you want to be working with someone who is invested in you, who likes your work, and who wants to see you with those three letters after your name.
- A good scholar does not necessarily a good director make.
It can be very enticing to work with that hot scholar, to have that big name attached to your dissertation. But take a moment to think about the skills you bring to your research, and those you use in your teaching. Though of course there is overlap between the two,each of these areas requires its own specialized skill set. A good scholar reads, analyzes, synthesizes his or her subject matter, and shares the results of that work in scholarly writing and presentations to fellow experts. A good teacher on the other hand, is able to convey their knowledge to non-experts. They take time to carefully read students’ work, and to provide detailed, constructive feedback. And of course, some faculty members enjoy mentoring more than others, and their graduate students feel the difference. All the expertise and scholarship in the world is irrelevant if your director does not take the time to set clear expectations, read your drafts, give you feedback, and provide the support you need at the different stages of the dissertation process.
- Seniority is a factor to consider.
Students are often attracted to younger scholars. Younger faculty members may seem more cutting-edge. They may appear more energetic, accessible, and relatable. But they also have the most to prove and the most to learn. Do you want to be among the first graduate students mentored by a faculty member? A very junior faculty member may not yet be familiar with deadlines and other policies and procedures relevant to the dissertation-writing process in your department. Furthermore, they may not yet have enough experience or clout to shield you and your dissertation from department politics, should that need arise.In addition, the early years on the tenure track are tough ones. Junior faculty must work hard to establish themselves, as professionals, as scholars, and as teachers. They must accumulate as many solo authored or first-authored publications as they can. As a result, they may be less generous with their time, and authorship on collaborative projects than tenured faculty.More established faculty on the other hand, have generally passed these hurdles. They have already formed their professional identity, and thus their work with you is less likely to be influenced by their own professional needs. Conversely, they may also be less motivated to take on new projects with a graduate student. For more on this, see tip 5 below.
- Think carefully before choosing a director who is nearing retirement.
Yes, this may seem to be in direct contradiction to tip number four, but it is not. While working with older, more experienced faculty is often advantageous, you also want to work with someone who will be there all the way to your defense date. Changing directors midway through can be trouble for even the best dissertations. With a new director come new expectations, sometimes expectations that are in direct opposition to those set by your original director. Such a change can even result in nearly finished dissertations being aborted or significantly delayed in favor of a new topic that conforms more closely to the approaches of the new director. If, as I did, you decide that you do want to work with a faculty member who is nearing retirement, plan ahead. Discuss the situation with him or her at the outset, and have concrete plans in place. One strategy that can work in such a situation is to have co-directors if the primary director’s retirement is immanent, or if s/he is in the early stages of retiring gradually. However, if you choose this option, make sure that your co-directors work well together.
- Choose a director who will be in residence during most of the time that you are writing.
This tip is similar to Tip 5. While Professor Extraordinaire might normally be an excellent choice for a director, if they plan to be out on sabbatical for a long period of time while you are writing, they might not be the best choice for you. Unless you have a very solid working relationship with your director, try to avoid placing yourself in a situation where all your communication must take place via email. Though email is a wonderful tool that has made many aspects of our lives easier, it also has its limitations. Most of us have at some point had the experience of sending or receiving an email that was misinterpreted, causing confusion, anger, hurt, or other difficulties. Moreover, Professor Extraordinaire may not have regular access to email, which means longer turn-around time for draft submissions and other questions. Clear communication is critical. To avoid unnecessary delays, endless revisions, and mounting frustrations,choose a director who will be readily available to you from start to finish.
- Choose a director who understands that graduation is the goal.
Though it may seem like I’m stating the obvious here, it can happen that students get caught up in the trap of the idea-generator, that professor who is constantly coming up with new ideas, suggesting new approaches or models, rather than helping you wrap up chapters in progress. After graduation, you will have many opportunities to perfect or expand your dissertation. The objective at this point, is to develop and successfully implement a research project that meets the professional standards of your field. Naturally this will involve some revisions, and this is to be expected. But there’s a big difference between revising your work, and incorporating new approaches. Steer clear of dissertation directors with a reputation for demanding last-minute theoretical or methodological overhauls.
If you are unsure of how best to implement these tips within the political and scholarly landscape of your department, you might want to observe the students who have gone before you. Who has defended successfully? Who has had a positive dissertation experience, and who has not? Don’t assume that you will be different from everyone else. Take the time to observe carefully, and to talk in a professional manner with other students. Get the lay of the land before you make your decision.
Of course, all of these are general suggestions. Finding a good match will require dilligent detective work and an honest analysis of your own mentoring needs. However, paying attention to these factors before you begin is likely to result in a smoother and more enjoyable dissertation experience.