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Dissertation Help: How to Improve a Doctoral Advisor/Mentor Relationship

Doctoral mentors or advisers are meant to aid a doctoral student in efficiently finishing their degree. Unfortunately there are a few things that doctoral students or professors do that inhibit the finishing of the doctoral dissertation or doctoral thesis. This article is one of a series offering dissertation help to doctoral students faced with the challenges of graduate work and it focuses on the frequently asked question, “What do I do about an advisor who drives me nuts?” Students tell me that they find their mentor or advisor not supportive of their process. When I dig deeper into this kind of frustration I usually find that three types of problems may exist: 1) the Mentor is not considered supportive, 2) the Mentor does not give timely feedback, or 3) the Mentor does not give direct instructions. This article looks into each of these complaints to offer suggestions for improvement.

Not Supportive?

Students and mentors together need to come to some agreement about what types of support will be given throughout their relationship. It is never too late for these agreements to be reached, so if you are disgruntled because you feel as though your advisor is not supportive enough, have a frank conversation with that person. Advising Dissertation help doctoral students is an interesting journey, because on the one hand you do not want to guide them as you would in a class to a specific level of outcome, as, after all, dissertations require that students prove they have reached a certain level of mastery on their own. On the other hand, leaving doctoral students to flounder around for years, as was the old-style of working, did not lead to positive educational outcomes. I believe in charting a course from the beginning of the dissertation process through the end; helping students develop a timeline that will get them finished in time; and then relying on them to come to me when they need specific help.

A doctoral student’s work needs to be 100% their own responsibility. Therefore, even if I grow concerned that someone is not working, I seldom go and chase them as if they were students in the class. Are you are feeling your advisor is not supportive? Ask yourself whether and to what extent you have been willing to manage your own doctoral process. If the answer is that you have been waiting for them to help motivate you further, then take self-responsibility to figure out the process and come to them to gather their agreement to your ideas.

Another way that an advisor/mentee relationship may seem to lack support is if the professor’s feedback is consistently critical. I have written in other articles about the fact that,in the role of working with the student on a dissertation,a professor has a dual responsibility not only to the student, but also to maintain the standards of the University. Some students seem to expect that their work on a dissertation will proceed much as all the work they have ever done on class projects proceeds, without many challenges. It is not uncommon for the first efforts at dissertation writing to be far off the mark, and therefore feedback may seem for while overly negative. Again, this is a matter to discuss one-on-one between yourself and your mentor/advisor.

Lack of Timely Feedback

Students also complain that they don’t get timely feedback from their mentors and advisors. Different universities have different standards, so the first step for any doctoral student who is disappointed in the amount or timeliness of the feedback they receive is to check with the university as to whether there are discrete standards to which they hold their professors. Generally, it is considered timely to get back to a student with dissertation writing within two weeks. This allows for the substantial amount of time they take to read, mark, and give feedback. Professors also likely have several students and classes on their workload and so have to juggle each.

If, after considering the full situation, you still feel as though you are not receiving timely feedback the second step is to begin to manage your communication with your mentor advisor more closely. I appreciate a student who turns in their work and asks me whether or not I can give them feedback by a certain date. Then, as the second step, within a few days of that date they may write a quick e-mail reminding me that the deadline is coming up and asking if that is still possible. In this way it becomes unlikely that their work slips out of my attention, and I rarely miss those deadlines.

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