Advising the New Adviser

September 05, 2006

You are a doctoral student, selecting a dissertation adviser. Option A is a scholar who is renowned but imposing, distant, and busy. Option B is a freshly stamped Ph.D., new to the tenure track, near your age, friendly, supportive, interested in your work, and seemingly ready to devote unlimited time to helping you.

The choice is not so simple as it seems.

On these pages, many doctoral students have bemoaned the inattention and even callousness of their advisers, so we won't dwell on that problem here. But attentive cheerleaders, especially young and unseasoned ones, are not necessarily the best selection either. That relationship holds special peril -- for both the student and the faculty member.

Every university has its own system of granting faculty members the privilege of directing a dissertation committee. Some universities have a two-step process, in which a new faculty member is allowed to solo-chair a dissertation committee only after having served as a committee member and/or supervised the work of a master's-level student. Other institutions grant the privilege to all new faculty members who meet certain requirements -- usually completion of the terminal degree in their field -- from the moment they arrive on the campus.

First and foremost, however, policies regarding who is granted chairing privileges -- and when -- should protect both the new faculty member and the student.

For new assistant professors the clearest challenges arise from the best intentions: to give back, to help, to serve. Such enthusiasm leads them to invest a lot of time, energy, and intellectual focus directing a student's dissertation. And that's admirable. But when faculty members overdo it, when they invest too much time and energy, it can leave them overwhelmed and interfere with work on their own publications.

Doctoral students often gravitate to new faculty members who are perceived to be more empathetic and more in tune with current trends in the discipline than established scholars. (More than one assistant professor has become the go-to person for grad-student kvetching and commiseration.)

Sometimes the pairing is unavoidable. Professors nearing retirement or engaged in their own research may refuse to direct, and thus create a burden on younger faculty members. And professors who no longer have active research programs are not attractive to graduate students. Then there are the "problem" Ph.D. students, for whom nobody wants to take responsibility, so they may be foisted off on the unknowing newbie. In any case, the outcome is an unfinished dissertation and lost work time for the tenure-track faculty member.

Newcomers who take on the role of directing a dissertation also risk getting caught in power struggles or school politics. Say you are fresh assistant professor chosen to head a student's committee, but its members include a colleague who disagrees philosophically with you regarding the research method used. Such disputes could come back to haunt you at tenure-review time.

Without adequate knowledge of departmental protocol or individual faculty proclivities, a new adviser may not be aware that another committee member, "Dr. Smith," will insist on seeing every chapter as it is written and will push to have his own work cited and praised. But "Dr. Jones" might demand major rewrites toward her own opposite leanings. And so on, back and forth, while the trapped adviser and student cower like meerkats dodging an elephant tussle.

As one doctoral student explained her situation: "My committee was chaired by a new Ph.D., but two feuding [older professors] sat on it as well. They never agreed on anything and bullied the chair."

New assistant professors also confront issues of emotional attachment to their "first child." James Garand, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University, once said of doctoral students: "Remember, you can't drag them across the finish line."

In other words, we as faculty members can help dissertation writers, but in the end it is their document, their mountain to climb (and return down from). The more inexperienced the professor, the more likely he or she will invest emotional capital in "my doctoral student" to the point of dysfunctional enabling. The student's reputation is not the only one on the line when he or she cannot finish a proper dissertation independently or does not create a document that can pass muster with the rest of the committee.

For the student considering a pairing with a new assistant professor, there are concomitant potential problems. An adviser who is caught up in publication pressures may take an inordinately long time to review dissertation chapters, thus delaying the student's time to degree. That is especially problematic in disciplines that encourage solitary field research (such as anthropology) or when a student is no longer on the campus for other reasons.

Newcomers to advising may be skillful methodologists, but the craftwork of editing and helping structure a dissertation is more likely to be honed over time and with experience. Worse, overeager advisers may want to make everything look like their own work and therefore stifle the student's research creativity.

When a dissertation is in trouble, young advisers may think -- often correctly -- that asking a veteran faculty member for assistance would reflect poorly on their own competence. Finally, while recent Ph.D.'s may be more aware of current trends in the discipline than other, older committee members, they may still give in to outdated ideas held by the seniors because of the power differential. In all such cases, the student's product suffers.

The amount of experience new assistant professors have had leading dissertation committees will depend on their field.

In the physical sciences, doctoral students often have a chance to work on dissertation research immediately after matriculation. Students are accepted into a program with the assumption that they will participate in a specific research project with the senior primary investigator serving as dissertation adviser. Most new faculty members in the physical sciences have postdoctoral training that often includes supervising graduate students and sharing authorship with them.

In contrast, the majority of doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, and professional-degree programs select an adviser with similar research interests, but the student's work is less likely to come directly out of a research collaboration with a faculty member.

That is especially true in the humanities where the dissertation, and most research, is usually a solitary pursuit. Being asked to direct students' dissertations that are not directly related to the faculty member's research may set the new professor's own research agenda back and jeopardize tenure.

The need for guiding new professors on this front cannot be overstated. As new faculty members, we often replicate our own experience in dissertation advising -- good, middling, or bad -- because it's the only model we have. Yet every university has its own policies, and every graduate program has its own culture. To be good advisers, new hires may have to unlearn as much as they have learned. Ensuring that a new dissertation adviser is fully aware of the policies and the prevailing environment is crucial to faculty and student success.

We argue, then, that the pairing of a doctoral student and a new assistant professor in the advisee-advisor relationship should not be thrown to the winds of fate. Departments should take practical steps to improve the odds of a successful result:

  • New assistant professors should sit in on both comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses as an observer immediately upon joining the department.

  • New hires should direct their first two dissertation committees jointly with a senior colleague.

  • Regardless of graduate-school policy, departments should establish safeguards to ensure that a new faculty member will not take on an advisee in the first year of employment. Limits should be set on the number of advisees an assistant professor is allowed before to earning tenure.

  • Individual programs should be encouraged to set written expectations and standards for directing a dissertation.

  • The student should have a clear understanding regarding when committee members want to see drafts.

  • The student and the committee should fix a chronology for completion that everyone agrees to, in order to avoid reaching the defense date and discovering no one is available.

Above all, it is time for programs to discard the notion that a first-year assistant professor is automatically capable of supervising a doctoral student's future. No matter how brilliant or precocious the pair, the intervention of a responsible senior mentor and a rigorous department is vital.

Diana B. Carlin is a professor of communication studies and dean of the graduate school and international programs at the University of Kansas. David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the university's William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications.