What to Look for in a Dissertation Advisor


What should I look for when selecting the faculty member who will serve as my main advisor on my dissertation? What should I expect this person to do?

[detail of an untitled painting by Mortimer Borne]

Those are two questions from a current graduate student. We might add: what should I not expect this person to do?

We might also add: How common is it for a graduate student and prospective dissertation advisors to meet to discuss mutual expectations as part of the process of selecting an advisor? How do such meetings tend to go? Should this be more common?

There are several factors here: similarity of research areas or interests between the advisor and advisee, how well the supervisory style of the faculty matches up with the supervisory needs of the student, how influential the advisor is in their field, how many other advisees the faculty member has, how past advisees have done in regard to dissertation completion and the job market, and more, as I’m sure commenters will point out.

I think answers from both faculty and dissertation-writing students would be useful here, as would further or follow-up questions from graduate students facing particular issues in selecting an advisor.

 

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elisa freschi
3 months ago

Don’t go for “Prof. Superstar” (they will have no time for you). Look for someone who will read and discuss with you (how do you know? Ask their current students!). Also: Look for one who has a nice group of people already working with them (so that you’ll have more people to discuss with than just your supervisor.

J S
J S
Reply to  elisa freschi
3 months ago

Don’t go for “Prof. Superstar” (they will have no time for you).

There might be a real pattern in the vicinity of this, but it is definitely NOT advice you can apply without exception. Plenty of “superstar” professors give a great deal of time to their supervisees, and plenty who are not superstars do much less for their supervisees than they could. Further, “superstars” are often — though not always — in this position for a reason: they have a lot of knowledge and experience, are skilled in their craft, have an extensive professional network and a nose for what the discipline is looking for, can use their reputation and professional standing to find opportunities for their students and help them to get their work published and to stand out as job applicants, etc. As much as I understand the rationale for pushing against this, if we’re looking for a rough heuristic then “Try to get a superstar professor as your advisor” seems like MUCH better advice than the opposite.

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  J S
3 months ago

Yeah, it really depends on the case. Ernie Sosa was a fantastic supervisor for many of the students he had. (I’m only saying ‘many’ rather than ‘all’ because I don’t know all his students well enough to say; the ones I know speak very highly of him.) And I think the list of attributes J S mentions are part of why he was a great supervisor; he knew the field really well, knew how to advance in it both intellectually and professionally, and getting to be part of the network he had created certainly didn’t hurt.

It’s probably best not to rely on heuristics here. If there’s a star who could feasibly be your advisor, then students who are further along will be either (a) working with them, or (b) have made a conscious decision to not be working with them. In either case, talking to those students about why they are in category (a) or (b) would be useful. The reasons they have might not apply to you (maybe they love working with some other professor who you can’t stand), but it’s still good to get this kind of particularised advice.

Don Ferderick
Reply to  elisa freschi
3 months ago

I disagree – even if Prof Superstar wont’ read your work, you need Prof Superstar’s letter to get anywhere! The best strategy is to get a superstar (preferably a well connected one who isn’t too controversial) to agree to be your primary supervisor, and then get someone who will actually help you as your secondary supervisor. Obviously if the superstar will help you, great, but this strategy is still the optimal one even if they are lazy. ps Regarding the secondary, you want someone who not only will help you, but also who isn’t out of touch themselves. You can get a sense of this by seeing if the secondary has a decent amount of top 5 pubs (that’s defeasible evidence they are able to help you).

elisa freschi
Reply to  Don Ferderick
3 months ago

I gladly accept JS’s suggestion and will emend my initial statement into “Don’t go for Prof. Superstar unless you know through their current and former student that they are also interested in helping their students”.
As for your advice (choosing Prof. Superstar as first supervisor and Prof. Nice as second supervisor), I disagree because it is unfair to Prof. Nice, who gets less credit and a ton of work.

second sv
second sv
Reply to  elisa freschi
3 months ago

Agree with elisa. As someone who has been second supervisor to quite a few (and hopefully falling into the “Nice” category), we don’t get workload allocation for second supervising *at all*, even though I probably spend about 6-10 hrs per months doing it. For first supervising we do, and it’s not usually much more work.

Having a “star” supervisor may be nice, but may not be crucial. There are other opportunities to get to know “stars”, if you really want a letter from them. For the dissertation, work with someone whose personality is a good fit, and whose work you genuinely like at least in certain aspects. If they know people in the field and can introduce you to (some of) them, that’s a bonus.

Always set clear expectations. (In the UK we have a signed “supervisor contract”, which was not the case in the US where I studied, but in certain cases it would have helped.) Unspoken expectations lead to unspoken frustrations that can severe relationships (e.g., how quick of a turnaround would you expect when you send a chapter? How many times do you expect to send / re-send the same chapter? etc. etc.).

David Wallace
Reply to  elisa freschi
3 months ago

I think the emollient version of all this is “put a high priority on working with someone who will find time to work with you”. I’m not convinced people’s willingness to do that is particularly (anti)correlated with their superstar status (whatever that means). I think the dominant factor is just how many other people the person is working with. If someone already has fifteen advisees, with the best will in the world they’ll struggle to find much time for a sixteenth.

just another burnout
just another burnout
3 months ago

Ideally, your thesis or dissertation advisor (or supervisor, depending on where you’re studying) will not leave inflammatory comments on every draft that you send. Constructive criticism is valuable and is often framed as a question (e.g., “What work is this doing?”, “Where are your examples?”, “How does this contribute to the existing literature?”, etc.). This sort of feedback can be implemented, unlike comments which characterize you or your work in a belittling or derogatory manner without indicating precisely what’s missing (e.g., descriptors such as “absurd” or “vacuous”, both of which I have received from philosophy professors, or glib quips which have no bearing on your argument which I have also received). It is not unusual for doctoral students to graduate without a shred of their onetime passion for the subject of their expertise remaining. The best thing you can do to diminish the likelihood that you fall victim to such disillusionment yourself is to avoid bullies as much as possible. You will inevitably encounter them at some point in the course of peer review but, if you show discernment in your choice of dissertation committee, you will have a better experience than most.

You should also keep an ear to the ground for murmurs about sexual misconduct or other forms of exploitation by faculty. Doing uncompensated labor (or even running trivial errands!) for a “mentor” or being coerced into sex by a faculty member with the power to retaliate against any rejection or recourse to due process by ruining your career is sadly a very real possibility, no matter how well-regarded your graduate program. This may strike some as too obvious to warrant mention but many professors feel threatened by the notion that students should give credence to the testimony of fellow students, even when no professional consequences issue for the subject of the allegations in question. The unfortunate reality is that students stand to lose much more as victims of sexual misconduct than professors stand to lose as perpetrators of it. The same might be said for academic misconduct as the consequences for plagiarism are often steeper for students than they are for professors, even when professors plagiarize their own students.

I wish I had more positive advice to offer but I can’t say my own experience has been particularly positive, so I find myself in a better position to give advice regarding what to avoid than I am to give advice regarding what to pursue.

Hannah
Hannah
3 months ago

I’d greatly prefer a big name Prof. Superstar who merely ignored me to the “student friendly mentor” I chose as an alternative. The person who appeared to be extremely “student friendly” was in fact a domineering narcissist. This person regularly used the tactic of “love-bombing” to court doctoral students away from departmental rivals, then situated themselves in a position of control, poisoning and discouraging relationships with other mentors outside their control, while slowly undermining the student’s self-confidence – the result being to keep a student running around in circles for the supervisor’s approval, instead of actually pursuing a career outside this relationship and this university. All of this was framed as “careful, deliberate mentoring.” I think not all of the students even recognize this as psychological abuse. None of this person’s students have gotten real tenure-track jobs, many have had serious problems finishing their doctorates (which the students themselves are blamed) and none of us feel able to tell the truth about their supposedly “student friendly” reputation: we know no one would believe us. So watch out. The good news is that your dissertation director isn’t (and shouldn’t be) your only contact and mentor.

Joshua Alexander
Joshua Alexander
3 months ago

I think that the best thing to look for are people who are going to take you and your ideas seriously, and who are going to invest themselves in helping you become a professional philosopher. People who are interested in spending time talking with you about your ideas, helping you develop and defend them, and helping you find an audience for them – both in terms of connecting you to people outside of your home department, and in terms of helping you find conferences and journals for your work. The things that helped me the most were invitations to join their reading groups, invitations to work together with them on projects, invitations to help organize conferences together, invitations to join them for dinner with colleagues at those (and other) conferences, introductions to people who were onto the same topics and who were happy to chat with me about my work and share their work with me. In short, you want to find people who want to work with you – who like you and your ideas enough to do all of the hard work that it takes to help someone with good philosophical ideas get a good job in philosophy.

Bonnie
Reply to  Joshua Alexander
3 months ago

I think this is bad advice – let me explain. Most PhD students start out with bad ideas, and nearly all start out with bad ideas that are not strategic for the job market to invest in. I don’t think indulging their ideas is helping them; given the state of the job market, what’s needed is much more paternalism. For example, if a student shows up with ideas for defending some kind of anti-realism about something, I explain that they’re not going to get a job and to stop thinking like that (for the purposes of the job market!) That’s the kind of epistemic paternalism I wish I had in a supervisor; I wish my supervisor did not take my ideas seriously but instead told me what I needed to do to get a job (top 5 pubs, written on certain kinds of topics, in a specific style). That kind of cold hard paternalism is actually helpful in a way that ‘indulging’ their ideas and taking them seriously is not.

Kindness is the name of the game
3 months ago

Kindness. Most of the academics who make it through the brutal job market are excellent and able philosophers who will be able to supervise a dissertation. Not all of them are diligent, kind and supportive however. The latter sort of person, if not strictly necessary, will provide you with a much more enjoyable doctoral experience and help you get to the other side. Speak with former supervises to check this before hand. There’s no use having a sparkling referee when your confidence is knocked in the first year and you want to quit.

Patrick Lin
3 months ago

I assume this question isn’t about prospective graduate students but current ones who are about to advance to the dissertation stage.

The former kind typically doesn’t have an informed idea, prior to entering grad school, what they want to write a future dissertation about, perhaps not even the general area of philosophy. So, they’re really in no position to shop for a diss. supervisor.

But the latter kind is in a similar spot: they’re already committed to a program—they’re a captive audience—and likely don’t have the luxury of choosing among good options for a diss. supervisor. Their options are limited to whoever specializes or is familiar enough with their dissertation’s focus at their particular school, which is to say they may have no options.

Also, I would think that, by the time a grad student has reached the diss. stage, they would’ve already had a good sense of how their program’s relevant faculty work or don’t work, e.g., whose working style best matches their own. They would’ve taken several classes with their prospective supervisors before; if they didn’t, I’d question whether those faculty are even plausible/good options.

Basically, once entered into a PhD program, current grad students have no negotiating power when it comes to diss. supervisors; it’s not like they can threaten to leave for another program so easily. As far as I can tell, faculty aren’t even incentivized to supervise dissertations, i.e., they may actively steer you away from them to get out of that work, beyond some minimum target they might be expected to meet.

So, “selecting a supervisor” doesn’t seem to be the sort of empowering exercise imagined here?

But I would agree that it is crucial to set clear expectations with whomever your supervisor is, and do it very early in the process if not before committing to them as a supe. And this can be reinforced along the way, e.g., send target timelines as agreed upon by your supervisor, which can hold both of you accountable and on track.

Good luck!

Daniel Muñoz
3 months ago

This is the “buy index funds” of PhD advice, but: look at whose students are happy and productive.

Steven DeLay
Steven DeLay
3 months ago

At the very least, essential is an advisor who isn’t a professionally jealous psychopath.

Manny
Manny
3 months ago

Find someone you feel comfortable disagreeing with.

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
3 months ago

Ideally, one’s advisor should be a highly respected name in the general area of your research and should appreciate your own approach to the topic. Presumably, you will have read and admired their work so that you respect their philosophical acumen and judgment. Also, ideally, they will have already read and provided helpful feedback on some your own work. By meeting a few times before asking someone to be your advisor (you could meet to discuss one of their papers/arguments relevant to your own research), you can gain a sense of the rapport you will have (or not). From their current students, you can learn whether they are hands-off, invasively policing, or something in between and what, if anything (hopefully not – and I’m not just thinking of sexual favors), they expect in return for their mentoring and recommendation.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
3 months ago

I often give advice to students making prospective campus visits this time of year. One thing to keep in mind is that you are choosing a program, not a supervisor. Sometimes it is the unexpected person who works in a different field who is the best person for *you* in terms of giving you mentorship and guidance in getting a dissertation written. A little ‘space’ in terms of topics can be very healthy. And, you don’t know in advance what will happen in a couple years, when you actually get to dissertation-writing time. The person you thought would supervise you might leave, or retire, or leave the field, or have too many students, etc. So, if you are a prospective, choose a program that is strong in what you want to do, because even if one person leaves, chances are good it will stay strong in that area.

Another key thing to look for is the ‘discussion magic’. When you talk to someone, you don’t have to agree with them on everything. But do they seem to at least get what you are saying? Are you on the same page in terms of being able to keep a discussion going, and lively? Sometimes people whose ideas on paper we agree with are also not those where live-action discussion is helpful. In such cases, look for someone where there is that ‘click’ for the discussion. That is where a dissertaion really comes together – meeting and discussing in real-time where they get what you are trying to do and can push you on it in ways that make sense ot you, and help you become better at writing your ideas out, and clearer in what those ideas really are.

NCFDD idea
NCFDD idea
3 months ago

Since no advisor will likely tick all the boxes, you might also consider the strategy of intentionally supplementing the support you get from an advisor with other mentors. No advisor is likely to have all the desirable qualities listed in comments above, but faculty both in and outside your institution might play different roles for you which your advisor doesn’t or cannot play.

The National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development posted an article on Monday entitled, “There Is No Guru” which may be worth checking out. The author says:

“Instead of focusing on any one particular person, we’re suggesting that you imagine an extensive web of support that you create by identifying your needs and proactively getting them met. If we could construct an ideal mentoring network to support new faculty members, it would include all of the following: 

  • A broad array of mentors and sponsors that are located within and beyond your current institution,
  • An excellent coach (or therapist) to help you transition…
  • A local and extended network of friends who you can rely on for social support and stress relief
  • A group of scholars in your field with whom you can share drafts and ideas,
  • A supportive community that meets your unique accountability needs and celebrates your successes…”
Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
3 months ago

Without reading every comment in this thread (yet) I will venture to say: Some of what you are looking for is not an intrinsic property of the advisor but a property of the relationship you have with the advisor. You want whomever it is to make you happy to present work to them and to keep going with the work you are doing. Obviously intrinsic properties play into this, but different advisors will be better and worse for different advisees.

FWIW I think this is the most important property in an advisor – enabling an advisee to keep going in a productive way. And it depends of features of the advisee as well as the advisor.

check the placement record and do a bit more
check the placement record and do a bit more
3 months ago

One rule I think some aspiring graduate students can follow is something like this: check the placement record (there are independent good reasons to do this) and work back and see whether your preferred supervisor has supervised any of them.

new doctor
new doctor
3 months ago

Something I thought would be worth adding that hasn’t been mentioned so far is that not all advisors value all the knowledge or skills you may want by the end of the phd – not all advisors think you should focus on history, not all advisors think you should work on possible journal submissions, not all advisors think you should engage with relevant work in other disciplines, and so on. it’s another thing that may be good to ask past and current advisees about when trying to find the right advisor for your dissertation project, trying to find an advisor who values cultivating the skills or knowledge you hope to acquire.

also, something you may want to find out about a possible future advisor is how they are viewed by their peers – sometimes hapless phds can get unknowingly saddled with the baggage of a pariah advisor.

harry b
3 months ago

One student whom I’d hardly talked to told me she wanted me to supervise her because “I don’t work well with many people and I’m anxious and I’ve asked around and I think you will be someone I can deal with”. She said it nicer than that. Intellectually I wasn’t the best fit, but in the end I think it was a smart choice for her. The point of the story is just that different people need different things from an advisor and she knew that most of all what she needed was someone who would be nurturing. She also knew that her work ethic meant she would be fine with someone who is easy-going.

There’s one thing you can find out before choosing a program which is this: what is the culture around co-advising? Not to market ourselves but there’s a culture in my department of seeing all the students as ours, so that you can go to people who are not your advisor for support and advice; they’ll have time for you, and your advisor will be glad of it. Not true everywhere.

Kapto
3 months ago

The profession is structured so that your dissertation advisor serves both as your mentor and your evaluator to the rest of the field. There is no reason that the same person would be ideal for both positions, and getting the second one wrong is far more costly. So the best advice is along JFK’s lines: “Ask not what your advisor can do to please/impress you, ask what you can do to please/impress your advisor.” This is NOT how it should be, but definitely how it is; you should choose someone whose stated opinion of your work will help you the most. That means not only someone who will “get” your work and appreciate it – which is first on the list – but someone whose assessment of your work counts to others in the field. Only after these are satisfied should you worry about how they will mentor you, how much time they’ll have for you (this is really last on the list!) and all that babying kind of stuff, keeping in mind that your work during grad school will benefit far more from researching, writing and presenting stuff to others, including peers, than from any mentoring. I was lucky to have an advisor who was great on all fronts, but that’s not the norm and you should know what matters most.

doris
3 months ago

Agreed with intimations above that people think carefully about the rest of your committee as well, and seriously work with them. Not everyone can be everything, and your philosophically brilliant director might not be professionally worldly, or the other way around. The non-director members of my committee were outstanding, and absolutely crucial in my degree and job search.

The advice extends to any non-departmental committee members — in my case this person has had as much influence on my career as the departmental members.

If this advice is good, it underscores another piece of good advice: avoid selecting a grad program where you are mostly interested in working with only one person (who you may or may not end up clicking with).

Finally, it’s an excellent idea to have at least one member of your committee be a junior person. Often, the junior person may be better able to vividly appreciate current professional realities at your career stage, and help “translate” for more senior members.

(Aside: I completely agreed that diligent non-advisor committee members — called “minor members” [!] here at Cornell — often don’t get the institutional credit they deserve. It is, however, part of the job, and one of the good parts.)

Graham Harman
3 months ago

If I were doing it all over again, I would simply choose the most intellectually stimulating and challenging member of the department. You can probably find a topic close enough to their areas of interest to make it work. As for the job market, I’d simply let the chips fall where they may. If you primarily want a sparkling career, academic philosophy probably isn’t the right choice in the first place.