Advisers. You can’t live with them; you can’t live without them. Actually, most of the time, your adviser is a good ally to the dissertation project. This person—for some reason—has opted to work with you for a lengthy gig that may take a few years. That’s quite a commitment to you and your potential! At some point, hopefully, you had (and still have) a good relationship with him or her. Sometimes, though, the relationship sours, and you may need outside help figuring out how to manage this important association. It’s important to remember that your adviser is not a writing coach. She’s not a therapist for writer’s block or marital problems. He’s not a doctor of medicine to figure out whether any malaise you experience is physical or psychological. Your adviser’s primary job is to advise you on the topic and the written product of the dissertation. That means you need to do the work and provide the dissertation to him or her in whatever form is required. Some advisers want to see the chapters as they are written; others want to see whatever you’ve gotten done in perhaps a month or two months; while still others only want to see the entire piece. But advisers also owe you something. Most dissertation students still pay tuition while they dissertate. That means you’re a paying student who is entitled to your professor’s time and feedback. To that end, it is the adviser’s job to provide you with timely face-to-face, Skype, or phone meetings and written or other feedback on dissertation chunks. When months go by and the adviser hasn’t responded to your request for a meeting or for feedback, something is badly wrong. If you have provided your best efforts to write the dissertation and don’t hear back from the adviser in a reasonable time frame (hint: months of no contact is not reasonable), you should change tactics and get your needs met immediately. Yes, you are entitled to this help!

Action Steps:

  1. Begin with an adviser with whom you can work. If forced into a relationship that is less than ideal (and, yes, this does happen—often for political reasons in the department), find an ally right away who can help you plan to manage the relationship. A writing coach is one person who can help.
  2. Be accessible to your adviser, keep him or her in the loop of your progress with regular (bi-monthly, at least) emails or calls, and be appreciative of the time you receive. Be polite and lean more to formality than informality in emails because one day they may become evidence of a relationship that isn’t working as it should.
  3. If the relationship sours, try to figure out what, if anything, you can change about your own approach to the interpersonal dynamic or to your dissertation writing. Some responsibility will be in both camps. If changing your own behavior isn’t sufficient, try talking to your adviser honestly and without undue emotion (you can cry later!) about what you perceive to be wrong and what you need for the relationship to work.
  4. Talk to another committee member who may be able to provide you with the guidance you need, but don’t pit one committee member against another! That makes problems worse and you’ll most likely lose. Remember that eventually you’ll move on with or without the degree and university colleagues will need to keep their relationships cordial with or without you.
  5. If all else fails—if you cannot get a response from the adviser or if you and he or she cannot get along—go to the graduate dean. The university has something invested in your graduation, and you’re a paying student. You do have options other than to suck up a bad relationship. Be prepared to outline the problem; state fairly and clearly what you have done to mitigate it; describe what results your efforts have wrought, if any; and ask for what you need in order to finish the dissertation successfully. If possible, offer your choice of a reasonable defense date for completion or, if needed, make a request for a new adviser.
  6. Managing the committee and working well with the adviser are core skills you’ll need in any academic or professional life after the PhD. Take charge, think and act carefully, and enjoy what you can about your future colleagues. They’ll respect you for your efforts.
  7. If you need help, call a coach who can walk you through the challenges of navigating adviser communications and interactions. You don’t have to go it alone!