Saturday, February 09, 2008

What Makes a Good Dissertation Director?

I've been watching the train wreck going on over at Anastasia's with horror and sympathy, and it's got me feeling... grateful... for my dissertation director. Now the point of this post is not to say, "Oh, Anastasia's got her situation all wrong! People who direct dissertations are great!" Rather, I suppose it's to offer a version of what *good* mentorship (though not without its snags and conflicts) looked like throughout my dissertation process. I feel like I might have done a post about this at some point, but I can't find it, so here it goes. And if this can be a service to somebody who's early enough in the process that it makes a difference, rock on. (Lots of times I know that what undergrads thinking of grad school and/or people early in the process see about grad school or the profession on blogs is pretty darned bleak, and so every now and again I think it's good to recount the positive along with some practical advice. This isn't to gloss over the bleak parts, but an attempt to present one story that is perhaps less bleak than what people see elsewhere.)

Now, before I can begin, I should note that I've not got a warm and fuzzy friendship sort of relationship with my diss director. I do think that he's grown to respect me, but we're in no way close. He wasn't the sort who organized panels with his grad students for conferences, and he's never come to hear me give a paper when he's been someplace where I've been giving one. We've never shared a meal together. We don't "keep in touch" other than the emails that I send him to update him on my activities. As far as I can tell, he's not terribly interested in me. I think he's happy I've done ok, but I am nowhere near the apple of his teaching eye (if anybody is). At least this is my perception.

I note that this is my perception because I think "perception" plays a big role in how we work with our chosen dissertation directors, and those perceptions can either enable or hinder the process of dissertating. So here's the thing: I knew that I would work well with somebody who wasn't terribly nurturing (in a "oh, this sentence you wrote is so lovely!" sort of a way) and in fact that I'd probably do better with a person who was a bit of a meanie (or whom I could construct as such, for actually, in real life, my diss director - Director from this point forward - is a lovely man). See, I don't do terribly well with a lot of warm and fuzzy stuff. Blame it on my Tough Love Variety of mother, blame it on my absent biological father, whatever. I'm sure we could psychoanalyze my choice of Director the live-long day. But the point is, I did have a good sense of what sort of personality would mesh with my work habits, which require a bit of feeling like I've got a really high standard that I must meet and a dash of deep guilt about not meeting my potential. How did I know that Director could produce this?

Well, I think I was certain when I received a seminar paper back from him with his comments, a paper on which I received an A but the comments for which made me cry. I'm a cry-baby and I suck with criticism. That said, his criticisms? They were *specific* and *extensive* and *right*. The comments were not all negative, but the negatives *stung* because they demonstrated that he saw through my attempts to dazzle and confuse. They hit where it hurt most, and yet were also constructive. To be honest, the constructive bits hurt most because I saw where I could have done so much better. Anybody who makes me feel all that with one page of typed comments? Yeah, that's a person for whom I can go above and beyond in the work that I do. And that was why I chose my field of specialty (I was wavering between 2 or 3 adjacent ones) and why I asked him to direct my dissertation.

Now, as you might imagine, Director has a strong personality. He is not the director for everyone. (Indeed, nearly everyone in my cohort couldn't believe that I had chosen him to direct me, for he's a bit terrifying with the brilliance and everything.) But I knew that I'd push myself for him. And I needed a director who would serve in that capacity. And Director did serve in that capacity (and indeed, continues to do so as a a figure that I now produce in my imagination) brilliantly.

Now, the course of my dissertation did not run entirely smoothly. For a full year Director was on sabbatical and half of that time was in Europe and not available to meet and barely available to read anything. (Actually, I can't remember whether he read anything during that period. I feel like he may not have done.) And then there was the full year that I was not in residence and we conducted all of our business but for one meeting long-distance - the last year of the dissertation, when I wrote 2/3 of it and when I revised the whole shebang three times. And before the second of the three revisions, we had a show-down in which he threatened to drop me as his advisee (though I believe that was a calculated thing on his part now, and it resulted in a tearful apology on my part and all was well). So I'm not saying that everything was all sunshine and roses. I don't think the dissertation process is generally that for most people. It's a grueling thing to undertake, and that means lots of stress and some conflict may come with the territory.

But, throughout all of it, I knew he wanted me to finish. I knew he wanted me not only to finish but also to do the best work of which I was capable. I trusted his judgment about my work, and the reason that I trusted that judgment was because he was such a careful reader of my work, even if he wasn't the most hands-on of presences throughout the process. And, in truth, I think he might have been as hands-off as he was because I work really well independently. (At one point I remember him saying to me that he didn't need to give me a schedule or put any more pressure on me because he knew I already put infinitely more pressure on myself. And it was true: I already had a schedule devised, and I was very... well, I was a bit of a nag with him about keeping me on task, if that makes any sense. So one thing that occurs to me now, years out of the process, is that his approach to me as an advisee may not have been solely about who he is as a person but about what he knew I needed from a dissertation director. Not the same thing. But at the time, I thought he was just a bit cruel :) I needed him to be a monster, and, well, he was one, whether by my invention or by his own inclination or perhaps a bit of both.)

But so, ok. So I finished. And with what I think was the best dissertation I could have written. And that dissertation was good enough for it to be translatable into a publishable book manuscript even with me on a 4/4 load. And so I'd say there had to have been some good mentorship for that to have happened. I also think that what good mentorship I got did have something to do with me and the fact that I knew what I needed from a mentor. So let's get on to the practical part of this post.

What did I bring to the table?

  1. I knew what kind of guidance I'd need from the primary person on my committee. I knew what sort of person I could do the best work for, and I chose that sort of person. I did not choose a person based on field alone, but rather thought about the choice of field and choice of director - and later choice of topic - as all of one piece. I think that really helped me.
  2. I'm very self-directed and self-motivated, and I chose a person to work with who would inspire those qualities in me, sometimes with positive reinforcement and sometimes with tactics that at the time seemed harsh but for which I am now grateful (especially as it's those moments that I remember when I read some reader's report that's less than kind, and I realize that I can handle that with ease).
  3. I was very direct throughout the process about what I needed. This would not have been possible, though, if I didn't feel comfortable with my director and how he'd respond to such directness.
What made Director great?
  1. From the beginning, he was incredibly clear about his expectations. He did not mince words. He didn't try to save my feelings. And sure, that wasn't always easy, but I always knew what I was supposed to be doing.
  2. He was very clear about how he was going to facilitate the process. He saw everything that I wrote first. He was in close contact with the other members of my committee, and when part of the whole was ready, he directed me to send it to them. I also get the impression that he then communicated with them about what kinds of comments they should give to the draft, for when I got comments, they were not in contradiction to his, but rather addressed things that he did not spend as much time on. So, for example, Director's comments were always global in nature - about the broad sweep of ideas and argument and the theory- second reader's comments were always rooted mostly in pragmatic concerns about writing as well as about sources that I should consult - and when the outside reader came in, those comments were directed toward "revisions for the book." This is not to say that there weren't tensions between sets of comments at times - there were - but at the same time, those tensions were not difficult to resolve, and it was always clear which comments carried the most weight.
  3. He was the director that I needed him to be. He played the heavy when necessary; he was kind when necessary. The point always, though, was to facilitate me getting the thing done and done well. It was never about him.
And so, no, the process of dissertating was not all rainbows and unicorns for me, but in the end, it made me a confident and competent scholar. Without a good director, I don't know that would have been my experience. And to some extent, I've got to admit that I was lucky that I was able to choose a good director, as it's not like anybody really gives one good advice about how to do that or what one should look for. I have a lot of friends who sort of ended up working with somebody based on what they felt like writing about, or who ended up working with somebody who was all glowy glowy about their work in seminars and then it didn't go so smoothly during the dissertation process, or who ended up getting stuck with advisors who didn't really want them and whom they didn't really want because their first picks took other jobs or who had too many students or whatever. So it's not like what I write about here is some sort of one-size-fits-all model for choosing a director, because what I outlined might not work for everybody, or even if it would, the best laid plans sometimes don't amount to a hill of beans. But it's worth talking about this stuff I think, if only to begin a conversation about what goes into making what is ultimately a really pivotal career decision.


Anonymous said...

It's a train wreck! It really is. again.

i like this post, though, because no it's not all gumdrop unicorns but it can work. one of my biggest problems has been the lack of choice in directorship...i mean, really, I ultimately had to go with whomever was willing to do it. I also didn't have a chance to work with dr. mentor in a seminar (as her student) so I really had no sense for what she would be like in that capacity. she's great in her office (even still), she's great for hashing out ideas in conversation. and she's a lousy director other than that.

so yeah. it can really go better and with eyes open, a person can try to make a good decision and then after that...hope for the best.

Dr. Crazy said...

I know, Anastasia. That's the thing: depending on the specific situation or the program, one's choices can be more or less limited. I suppose that's one reason I think it's worth talking about.... in that imagine if you'd had this even in a tiny way on your radar when you chose which grad school to attend? One of the difficulties is that people don't realize this is a HUGE issue until it's too late, and then they're stuck. Which of course doesn't help you, but it could help some wayward undergrad or MA student who comes across the blog. That was my thought. And you're right, though, that all a person can do is try to make a good decision and then hope for the best, and sometimes it will *still* be a train wreck.

Keep your head up, and know that you've got a ton of support. You're *not* the problem in your situation. This is *not* your dysfunction.

Psycgirl said...

Good post Dr. Crazy. I think that a lot of people overlook the unique combination of a student's personality and an advisor's personality. As someone who has had more than one advisor, I've realized how important this is. Under my new advisor everyone thinks I have turned over some new leaf and am suddenly a "new and improved" graduate student. Meanwhile, I'm the same student I always was, its just that I finally am working with someone who inspires me and drives me in the right ways (with his own unique combination of positive and negative reinforcement, and some punishment thrown in!) instead of someone who puts me down and treats me like a lesser human being.

At the same time, no one in my program can understand why I chose Dr. Smooth or why we work so well together. We work very well together - but its as if Hamster Guy (his other grad student) has a completely different mentor, because he can't stand Dr. Smooth and the anger is constantly leaking over - to the point where I know Dr. Smooth wants to get rid of him. Its amazing how that combination can be so different for different students. Unfortunately, many academic programs force students to pick mentors so early, or make it so difficult to switch (and impossible to switch without some "stigma" attached to it) that many graduate students have to attempt to work in an environment that ends up being nothing short of academic hazing.

Anonymous said...

let me tell ya about the stigma associated with switching! you are so right, though. choosing early can be a recipe for disaster but sometimes that's the way the program is set up.

and yeah, totally...I see where this would help someone in that position to make an informed decision. it's also a good read on what a good advising situation looks like so if you're in a bad spot, you realize this isn't normal. not that it helps fix it but it certainly helps to know one isn't nuts/stupid/a bad student.

Feminist Avatar said...

I think personality is important but I also think you can shape your advisor to suit you, if they are not too unreasonable. My advice to a new grad student would be to decide on what you want from your advisor (ie are you very independent; do you need set deadlines) and tell her or him. Then you need to ask what is expected of you. And hopefully you can come to some sort of compromise together. And, importantly, don't be afraid to renegotiate this over the course of your studies.

Some depts have guidelines that lay out what the role of an advisor is. Try and get a hold of it as it tells you what your advisor's responsibilities are. Also find out who you go to if things are working out; what is the dept's policy?

It is not a bad idea for this to form the agenda for your first meeting- what are our roles; what are our goals; how are we going to get there. Advisors can be very intimidating, but these are not unreasonable questions and a good advisor should be willing to have this conversation. There is a lot of mystique surrounding the PhD process and it is not unreasonable as a new student to ask for guidance about what it is they are actually meant to be doing.

Another useful tool is to always send an email after each meeting clarifying what you are going to do next and what you think your advisor is doing (if appropriate). This ensures you both know what you are doing and that you can prove you have done what was asked if worse comes to worse (this is actually dept policy at my uni).

Remember that you can help shape your advisor to your needs. If you need deadlines then bring it up each meeting and make sure you have one before you leave. If you want to know when you'll get work back, make sure you get them to tell you when you should expect (and what they expect you to do in the meantime). If you need more structure or specific things answered, it is always helpful to email your questions in advance of a meeting, then bring an agenda with you. Hey, even write an agenda for your meetings (with the flexibility for the advisor to add things). Tell them how long you think you will need to discuss all your issues (If you really need an hour or two then tell them and if you're cut short, ask when that conversation will be resumed). Yes, this means be a bit bolshy, but it's not a bad skill to learn in academia.

I think that a lot of students go in to the PhD not knowing what is expected of them or their supervisor and by the time that becomes important it seems to late to ask. But ultimately, its the student's responsibility to ensure he or she get his or her PhD and sometimes that means taking control of the agenda. It is also the case that different students have very different needs and advisors can't be expected to mind read- they are only going on past experience and what they themselves wanted.

Sorry for thread hijacking.

Dr. Crazy said...

Not a hijack at all, FA - this is exactly the sort of discussion I hoped would get going. All of your suggestions are good ones, and I think they are ones that some people engage intuitively, but it's good to have them outlined as you've done. Actually, when I advise undergrad research projects now, I typically use the first meeting to talk about my style/expectations and to talk about what they can expect from me in meetings and in terms of feedback, and also to ask about what the student hopes to gain from the process or what they think they need from me. That way we begin on the same page and it eliminates the stress of not having discussed the process and then feeling like it can't be discussed later. Again, that sort of organization tends to be the way I'm wired, though, and that's not how all advisers are, so if the student can initiate that sort of conversation up front it can be really useful.

Feminist Avatar said...

Well, some of that advice was learnt painfully!! So I hope it is useful to someone else.

I think that when you are bright, as most/all grad students are, academic advisors sometimes assume that we all know what writing a PhD is about and what each other's roles are, but if the PhD is about anything it's learning how academia works!

Now I am an early career researcher, I am having to learn a whole new game, which is what is my relationship with my fellow academics? Am I allowed to ask people to read my work and who? What is the quid pro quo? How do I show that I am available to read others work? These seem obvious questions, and I think the answer is about developing relationships, but each step has a whole new set of challenges. At least when the relationship is formalised as in the phd, there are some rules to make life easier!

Psychgrad said...

I think this is a very good post. It is easy to scroll around on blogs and find negative stories about graduate school and supervisors, so it is important to read the positive ones too. Or, at least posts that have a balance of good and bad because there are a lot of good advisors out there.

I mentor students interested in applying for graduate school and I'm always trying to convey the importance of there being a good match (of both research and personality) between students and supervisors. I think at the point when people are applying for graduate school, they're just happy to be accepted. It isn't until the relief wears off and work begins that you actually begin to realize how important your supervisor can be. Come to think of it though, this may be more of a Canadian model because acceptance into programs here is usually determined based on a supervisor wanting to work with you.

I think I may write a similar post -- what a good supervisor is. Even though he and I may disagree, I really am quite lucky to have a good supervisor.

flacius1551 said...

Thank you for writing a post that considers that the prospective graduate adviser may also have some rights to be him-herself or have his own interests without serving solely as a screen for the projection of the problems of the dissertator. What I am about to say will no doubt seem unsympathetic, but after reading blog after blog complaining about doctoral adviser incompetences it gets frustrating. Obviously, I don't know any blogger's individual situation, but nonetheless, some patterns have emerged in my own experience of dissertators.

I used to complain a lot about my doctoral adviser, until I became one myself and began to understand the pressures that come to bear on dissertation advisers. To wit, you really don't want an adviser who doesn't want to work with you, but it is not always possible for various reasons for an adviser to articulate explicitly his lack of interest in advising you. For all but the most powerful people this creates an insurmountable political problem. Thus we sometimes say yes out of responsibility to our departmental colleagues in situations where we would prefer not to because the cost of saying no would be too high for us in our departmental context. If you think your adviser is not enthusiastic about your project you are probably right and in that case you have two choices: get a project about which he is enthusiastic or get another adviser. You should especially do the second if it seems like it is you he is not enthused about as opposed to your research. This doesn't mean thrashing around to four different people, it means making a principled choice to switch one time to someone else--in the vast majority of programs, one switch of adviser will not be a stigma and no one will think you are crazed, unless of course you have already shown signs of that. Also, it is hard for me to have sympathy for dissertators who want their advisers to set the whole program for their studies--whether or not this might be necessary in order for the dissertation project to be finished. I have a hard enough time completing my own research, and I get tense when advisees seem to expect me to do theirs as well. I have supervised a number of thesis projects where it seemed I was more interested in the primary sources involved than the dissertator was. To some extent what one is supposed to be learning during the dissertation is to go off alone and do the research without a lot of guidance. (I know that this is harder now that a lot of places have eliminated the MA thesis as a practice exercise in doing that). Also, I get tired of graduate students who seem simultaneously to want me to babysit their research, then fight with me about what the necessary components of the research question are. You want the benefit of my experience of the field, then maybe you should listen to what I have to say. Also, by and large you are not going to get a detailed edit on your work from your dissertation adviser. (By and large the comps are supposed to mean that you don't need this anymore.) I didn't and most people I know who are now employed didn't. The point of being the dissertation adviser is that you are supposed to help the advisee to see the larger context of his or her research in the field and help to address methodological issues. We are not teaching essay writing. And by the way, if the doctoral student doesn't develop some direction by the time he-she is dissertating, it is almost impossible to impart it after that point.

Dr. Crazy said...

I don't actually perceive what you're writing here as unsympathetic - I think that it adds an important voice to the conversation, one that I couldn't myself give since I don't work with doctoral (or even graduate) students. What you outline is first the complex factors that go into taking a student on (often central to a professor's own standing in his/her department) and second your expectations for the role of the dissertator. I think where problems can happen is when these things are taken to be "obvious" and that grad students should just "know" that this is all of what's in play without being told. The reality is that many graduate students don't have this basic information, and so their expectations/perceptions don't match that of the adviser, and then they flounder. That, to me, isn't the fault of the student.

I suppose all of this is to say that there needs to be open communication on both sides, throughout the process. The adviser will have his/her own agenda, as will the student, and the dissertating process seems to be one of negotiating those agendas in order for there to be success for both parties. Success for both parties should be defined, I think, identically: success is a passed dissertation. In that regard, it shouldn't be about the advisor's personality, for the advisor should have the experience to know that the student is going to project a lot of crap onto him/her in aiming toward that goal, and I think that comes with the territory to some extent, but also I think that the *student* should be able to recognize, if only intellectually, that it's not all about his/her personality either. Ultimately, the central thing in both is the *work*, and the exercise of the student mastering a lengthy, independent project. The advisor is (I think) responsible for guiding the student through that, for giving the student the tools to do that independent work (for the advisor is ultimately teaching the student the skills to do that work), but the student is responsible for, well, becoming an independent researcher, thinker, and writer.

I'm blathering on, but again, I liked your comment because it communicates an advisor perspective, and nobody's really talked about that yet.

Psychgrad said...

As I was saying, your post really resonated with me. I spent some time thinking about my own situation and wrote this. I may have more insight into my own contribution when I've finished my Ph.D. For now, I'm trying to recognize a good thing when I have it.