New ABDs – Deadly Mistake Number 2:

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Think it’s not important to be proactive in your relationship with your advisor? Think again.

Not Being Proactive in your Relationship with your Advisor

I cannot count how many of my ABD clients have struggled with their advisor relationship. Don’t let this happen to you!

Of course, some aspects of your relationship with your advisor are out of your control. You can’t change this person’s personality, habits, or attitudes. I will focus on the aspects of the relationship that you CAN control.

I will assume that you have already chosen your advisor. Choosing the wrong advisor would be another deadly mistake.

For the sake of political correctness, I will alternate male and female pronouns in the next few sections.


What can you expect to get from an advisor? (See future newsletters for what your advisor should expect from you.) Here are some roles that your advisor would take, in a perfect world. She would:

  • Make sure that you know your program’s requirements
  • Help you set long- and short-term goals
  • Meet with you regularly and engage in both a formal discussion of your dissertation and an informal scholarly dialogue about your thoughts and questions
  • Provide feedback on your writing in a timely manner.
  • Keep you apprised of her schedule (vacations, conferences, sabbaticals)
  • Help you with your dissertation committee relations
  • Help you find resources (funding, research, etc.)
  • Help you network
  • Write great letters of reference for you
  • Help you find a job
  • Help you throughout your career

Observe and Learn

You will want to know your advisor. A little preparation can help. If you haven’t already done this, ask around. Here are some questions to ask.

  • Ask his current and former students how to best deal with him
  • Ask about his personality strengths and weaknesses
  • Inquire about his communication style (so you won’t take gruff remarks as personally as you might otherwise, for example)
  • What are his scholarly preferences (e.g., a chronologically-oriented dissertation as opposed to a theme-oriented one)
  • Read other dissertations he’s directed

Proactive Communication

In order to work well with your advisor, you need to have an open line of communication. Here’s how to achieve it.

  • If your advisor doesn’t suggest it, arrange to have regular meetings. The frequency is up to you, but I suggest no less than once a month. While you’re at it, find out her vacation or conference schedules.
  • Talk to your advisor about her expectations of you. For example, it’s good to know how she likes to be contacted (email or phone,) whether you can submit portions of chapters and how rough a form is acceptable, and whether she has any preferences about when and how you share drafts with other committee members.
  • Ask your advisor to help you set deadlines. Knowing that she is expecting to get a draft of chapter one a week before your meeting can focus your mind wonderfully. The sense of accountability is one of the big things that coaching provides.
  • Before the meeting, send an email to your advisor to remind her of the meeting.
  • When you give her your draft, include a note reminding her of the changes you’ve made, telling her the questions you have, or otherwise orienting her towards your needs.
  • It’s always a good idea to take notes of what is discussed in your meetings with your advisor. If you find that your advisor doesn’t remember what is discussed, you may find it useful to send a summary of her suggestions in an email following the discussion. This doesn’t have to be done in an adversarial way, just informational.
  • Acknowledge ways in which your advisor is helpful. Try not to get into power struggles. Thank her for her time and her help.
  • Remember that a good relationship with your advisor is extremely important not just for your dissertation, but also for your career.

What Stops People From Following the Suggestions in this Article?

Many graduate students find it difficult to engage their advisor in this way. But why? Here are some underlying reasons, each followed by a response.

  • “He’s too busy.” Part of a professor’s job description is to be an advisor. He is paid for doing so. He might not be rewarded professionally for advising you, but that’s beside the point. It is your right to have regular meetings with your advisor.
  • “I haven’t done much work. I won’t have anything to say.” If you were to tell a friend what you are wondering about, what you’re confused about, what’s blocking your progress; you’d have no problem. Share these thoughts with your advisor. Try your best to do some writing, even early on, so as to focus your thoughts and give something to your advisor.
  • “He’ll think my ideas are dumb. He’ll say it’s already been said.” I hope your advisor is not an inhumanely cruel person in how he gives feedback. Nevertheless, it’s better to find out now that your ideas are poorly formed or hackneyed. We’ve all been through it.
  • “I don’t think we’re compatible in any way. I hate him. I don’t like his research approach.” Time to consider changing your advisor, before it’s too late.

Avoid Avoidance

It should be clear by now that it is not in your best interest to avoid interacting with your advisor. Keep open lines of communication, so that you can benefit from all that your advisor has to offer. Your future as an academic may well depend on it.

© Gina Hiatt, PhD.
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully. Get Gina’s free assessments & ezine at

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