Betrayed by Your Adviser

February 20, 2006

I have a hobby that even most of my fellow academics think curious: I like to read dissertations. Not just the ones written by my students that I have to read but all sorts of dissertations in the social sciences.

I do so because, in the unpublished dissertation, I have found many useful insights, newly uncovered facts, and cutting-edge theoretical innovations. But I also review large numbers of turgidly written, ineptly executed, or frighteningly anorexic dissertations because I am genuinely interested in the genre -- as a rhetorical device and a barometer of the current state of development of young scholars.

Increasingly, I am alarmed at the rising number of social-science dissertations that I would classify as dead ends. Those sad documents almost always share the following characteristics:

  • They are short. Some dissertations, shorn of tables, citations, charts, and illustrations, probably would not equal the prose volume of an issue of Teen People magazine.

  • They are one-note analyses. Each is basically a study -- usually an experiment or a survey -- of one population, asking essentially one set of questions, with outcomes easily summed up in a few sentences.

  • They offer a minor variation on a narrow field of study. Judging from their references, citations, and quotes, it is clear that they are purely derivative of existing theory and research.

  • They are poorly written. That's probably not because the authors are bad prose stylists, but because they are rushed. Their wording often seems insufficiently fleshed out.

In almost every such case, I suspect that the culprit is not an incompetent or lazy Ph.D. candidate but rather two other human factors that undermine our system of doctoral education.

The first is the haste to finish a dissertation that arises from graduate-school formulas for financing Ph.D. students. Every professor has been faced with a doctoral candidate who insists, "I have to finish by August 1 or I can't take the job I've been offered" or "I need to defend by the end of the semester because that's when my funding runs out." For gatekeepers of academic excellence, it is a perennial conundrum: Do we surrender to expediency or hold fast to standards of quality?

The second source behind the dead-end dissertations, and the one I'll focus on here, is advisers who, for whatever reason, decide to use a student's dissertation as an extension of their own work -- without regard to whether the text will build the student's scholarly skills and career portfolio.

Over the past decade, as I've happened to meet at conferences the authors of dead-end dissertations, I noted how many of them were struggling to earn tenure as assistant professors. They would say things like, "I was only able to get one paper out of my dissertation," or "I'm not publishing much from my dissertation," or worse, "I don't want to ever look at my dissertation again, let alone publish from it." They seemed to believe such productivity impoverishment to be a natural state of affairs.

No one has explained to them that a dissertation needs to be a rich, multifaceted document that can produce a considerable body of the published scholarship that will, in turn, contribute toward their earning tenure.

From those conversations I have distilled a set of warning signs that doctoral students should heed before their own dissertation becomes a career dead end:

  • In conversations about possible topics for a dissertation, is your adviser overly aggressive in pushing you in a particular direction, toward an issue with a familiar research method, that just so happens to be his or her specialty?

  • Does your adviser seem disinterested in or deaf to your own aspirations, interests, and research questions?

  • Is most of the literature with which you are building your scholarship coming from your adviser's work or similar work?

  • If you raise the question of what new knowledge your dissertation will produce, does your adviser frame it as being an extension of his or her own work: "This would be your chance to prove I'm right!"?

  • When you ask about publication of parts of your dissertation, is the response usually in the form of a "we," indicating projected joint authorship, rather than your own solo productivity, which is vital to proving your independent intellectual credentials in your first job?

  • When you ask, as you should, whether the dissertation will produce enough substantive publications to help toward tenure, does your adviser avoid the question or dismiss it?

  • When your adviser outlines the utility of his or her suggestions for your topic of research, are time and ease of completion factors offered as positives: "This project won't be that difficult to do and you will finish it quickly"?

  • Does your adviser instill some sense of urgency about your research topic that might lead you to be suspicious that he is using you to get it done (a) because he is bored with you and with his role as your adviser and wants to get you out of the program and off his hands or (b) he is working on his own project and needs to incorporate "the intriguing results" of your study as soon as possible?

  • When you discuss your projected dissertation with other senior colleagues in your field but outside your department, do they (a) seem glassy-eyed about the importance of the work or (b) talk about it in reference mostly to the existing scholarship of your adviser?

In short, take note when conversations about your career and your dissertation and your scholarship plans seem inevitably to return to being "all about him" (or her).

My intention here is not to induce more paranoia into an already stressful environment. Most scholars takes seriously the age-old system of mentoring and apprenticeship that make up doctoral education. Your dissertation will, of course, be built on the shoulders of your predecessors. As students we seek advisers in whose research we find relevance and direction, and as professors it is logical to advise students whose work dovetails with our own.

But the dissertation is also the first major statement of your individuality, of your potential as a scholar. It cannot be simply a long footnote to the glorious career of your adviser.

Yes, there is a fine line between stewardship and exploitation, and many doctoral students need a strong hand on the rudder of the course of their dissertation. However, you must realize when, consciously or unconsciously, someone is trying to manipulate and use you. And at that point, you need to find the courage to jump ship and look for a new adviser who will help you, guide you, even instruct you, but not divert you into creating a document that makes short-term graduation possible but long-term career development painful.

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and a senior fellow at its Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.