Working With a Difficult Doctoral Advisor

CommunicationCommunication (Photo credit: P Shanks)By Samuel Josephs

One of the most frustrating situations to find yourself in as a PhD student is to have an advisor who is not responding to your communication or providing feedback on your work.

You have completed all of the course work and passed all of the exams your department and/or university requires, and are now in the dissertation stage and hoping to finish, but you are struggling and not getting the direction from your advisor that you need. For this reason, choosing your advisor is crucial.

However, sometimes there are limited faculty members to select from in your department (as an advisor), or your advisor may have difficult things going on in his or her life that are affecting the feedback and communication you get.

The first thing that can be helpful is setting up regular meetings with your advisor. If you both know you will meet every week on a certain day and at a certain time, you can get into a routine, which can help you move things forward.

It also gives you a deadline to focus on in working on the tasks you have to complete, such as writing the literature review, and gives your advisor a deadline in terms of providing feedback on the tasks you complete.

If your advisor fails to set up regular meetings, or fails to show up to any scheduled meetings, document everything. This is important if it comes to the point where you feel you must switch to another advisor and/or must speak to the Graduate Studies Chair in your department or the Department Head about the situation.

If you feel that your advisor is holding you back from moving forward in the program, talk to the Chair of Graduate Studies in your department first and explain the situation. That person has probably worked with your advisor and can advise you on how to improve the situation, or can direct you to other forms of assistance.

Before you talk to the administrators in your department about the situation with your advisor, it is important to communicate with your advisor and let him or her know your concerns (in a respectful way!). The point is not to confront your advisor, but to let him or her know what you need and to better understand his or her viewpoint.

Perhaps he or she isn't giving you the feedback you're asking for because he/she thinks it is work you need to figure out on your own, and that figuring these things out independently is a part of becoming a scholar in your field.

As with any relationship, communicating with your advisor is crucial, and the ability to communicate with a variety of people is a part of all working relationships, so developing these skills during your graduate studies will greatly benefit you in your career.

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