How Do I Deal with a Difficult Advisor?

The answer to this question will depend on the nature of your difficulty. Here are some quick ideas. You will find many more answers in the articles and archived newsletters on this site. Consider opening up a discussion on the forum about this issue (see “Forums: Discuss it” in the left hand column of this page.)

  • If your advisor is unavailable, try taking charge and setting up a regular appoinment time. Even if you are not achieving as much as you should, a regular time for meetings will spur you to do more, so don’t procrastinate on setting up these meetings. This is a common mistake that ABD’s make.
  • If your advisor gives harsh and hurtful feedback, ask him or her to tell you some positive things about what you have written. It’s hard to believe, but many people don’t think of saying what their students have done right. You can let your advisor know that his or her feedback discourages you and makes it harder for you to be productive.
  • Ask your advisor for examples of what he or she is looking for in a chapter, if you are getting vague negative feedback.
  • Don’t hesitate to go to your advisor for advice or direction, but think the issue through ahead of time and show that you have educated yourself on the area you’d like to discuss. Have specific questions prepared, outline where you’re stuck or give some choices of direction that you would like feedback on, for example.
  • Find out from previous and current grad students who had this professor as an advisor what their experience was. If they were treated in a similar way, it will help you take your advisor’s treatment of you less personally, If they weren’t treated in this way, they may have some ideas as to what works (and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t) with this advisor.
  • If you are writing your dissertation far from your campus, and your advisor is not returning your emails, don’t take it personally. I have noticed that this is a common problem, along the lines of “out of site; out of mind.” On the other hand, don’t put up with it. After a suitable amount of time, depending on the nature of the communication, write again, then call if necessary. Some clients I’ve worked with have sent emails cc’d to everyone on their committee. It is also a good idea to go back to your campus for in person visits as often as you possibly can. This seems to help the advisor remember you are alive and that you matter.
  • Find an outside reader if your advisor insists only on polished chapters and won’t help with rough drafts. Some of my clients working away from campus have found professors in the city where they are now living, who are willing to help out in this manner. You will need to spell out whether they will actually be on your committee or if they are just readers. Getting your advisor’s OK on this will be important. If your advisor has a good opinion of the reader, it will really help you in the long run.
  • Join at least one dissertation group, so as to get feedback and support. These groups are helpful to all graduate students, but to the students dealing with difficult advisors, they are even more important. Don’t hesitate to join a group on a local campus if you are writing your dissertation far from your own institution.

If anyone reading this thinks of more tips that I can add here, please let me know at Gina [at] AcademicLadder [dot] com.

Posted in: Grad School

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