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VIII. Maintaining Advisory Relationships

Apr 13, 2011 by Dr Sally

Once you have selected your advisor and established your committee, you will have to work hard to build and maintain these relationships.

Making Allies, Not Adversaries

From the outset you will be expected to take charge of your dissertation and your committee. Your responsibility is to manage the committee members and convince them that you are worthy of their support. Your advisor and committee members are busy people who may view you as a distraction and may wish to minimize your interference. You must develop the relationships and enroll them as allies, as you orchestrate the entire project leading up to a harmonious final defense.

Power, Authority, and Control

The advising relationship inherently involves an imbalance of power and, as a result, control issues often surface. As an idealistic and uninformed graduate student, you may overlook the importance of such matters until it is too late. You may find that you have given away your power and are in a place you never imagined you would be.

The fact that graduate students are almost totally dependent on their advisors and their departments for their livelihood, their certification as scholars, and for future academic positions frequently leads to abuses of power. Doctoral students, especially women and minorities, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, inadequate compensation, plagiarism, sexism, harassment, and prejudice. For example, graduate students may be expected to babysit for their advisor or transport their advisor to and from the airport without reimbursement or even a thank you. Their intellectual work may not be properly acknowledged either. These unfortunate situations work against the successful completion of your dissertation. So your responsibility as a student is to not give away your power to a prestigious professor; instead, speak from the position of the personal power of your own Creative Scholar. 

Your advisor may have role authority over you, but he or she has no more personal control over you than you allow him or her to wield. Be assertive in getting your dissertation done and influencing others to help get it done. And, if you find yourself in a hopeless relationship, discreetly find out what needs to be done to change advisors and take action quickly and quietly. The political fallout is usually much less than what you imagined, and the consequences of not changing can be much more devastating. 

Communication

The success of any relationship depends upon good communication. Many of the complaints between advisors and students develop because of poor communication. The most detrimental communication style is the adversarial one. How can you avoid this trap? The most effective communication is direct and honest, and involves an open exchange of ideas. And the key to effective communication is empathic listening. Empathic listening involves “deep” listening to identify the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and a commitment to understand the message as the speaker intended it--the feeling rather than the content of the message. Empathic listening builds trust and permits an open and honest exchange of ideas because the listener feels that his ideas and opinions are valued. By mutual and sincere listening, both parties then are able to influence the other party and reach a new synergetic level. 

If your advisor is not naturally an empathic listener, you will bear a greater role in the communicative act. To do this, you will need to put aside your own agenda and concentrate on understanding your advisor’s position thoroughly before attempting to present your own position. And avoid responding to the traps. Analyze what is really going on. Is your advisor trying to sugar coat the message to avoid offending you? Don’t be an accomplice to this trap because the danger is that you will not receive the input you need to grow and learn. Let your advisor know exactly what kind of communication you need. Make clear your willingness to receive and accept critical feedback. Gradually, you can help create healthy joint communication that is based on mutual respect and the sharing of ideas--a true collaboration. 

Communication Tactics

Sit down with your advisor soon after he or she agrees to assume the advisory role and articulate your mutual expectations and preferences. 

• How often will you meet?
• Will you brainstorm issues prior to your write-ups or will your advisor serve mainly as a critic offering feedback on what you have written?
• How do you and your advisor see you communicating with other members of the committee?
• Will you submit one chapter at a time for feedback or will you present the entire proposal? (It is to your advantage to submit one chapter at a time, in case you are off track. Also while your advisor reads one chapter, you can begin on the next.) 

Be clear about your needs and expectations and listen to your advisor’s preferences and expectations. Look to find ways to honor both points of view. Begin to develop a sharing, collegial relationship by making roles and responsibilities explicit. 

Keeping in touch with your committee is the key to building and maintaining good working relationships. Thus, your aim might be to create a structure of regular meetings with your advisor, as well as a structure for regular communication with the rest of the committee. It is usually left up to you to set up a structure for yourself and to maintain it. Keep to your schedule, even if you feel that you have been unproductive. It is your responsibility to keep your committee informed both of your progress and of any distractions that have diverted you from your academic focus. Discuss substantive matters that are currently presenting conceptual difficulties for you. 

Create relationships that provide the support and direction you need. To that end, come to advising sessions with an agenda and leave knowing exactly what your next steps will be. In these meetings, listen to your advisor’s valuable insights while, at the same time, maintain your discretionary role. You will want to keep a sense of control over the process so that the dissertation continues to progress in a way that aligns with your own interests.

For doctoral candidates, one of the most difficult, but most useful types of, communication is for you to provide honest feedback to your advisor about the value of his or her advising in terms of both substantive content and support. Always be clear about what you need. Try not to leave a meeting with your advisor without setting up your next meeting and getting what you came for. So that you and your advisor agree upon what was decided, follow-up with a clearly written summary of the discussion and the actions you will take to meet the objectives you have both agreed upon. Many dissertation writers record conversations with their advisor and committee members so that any confusion that arises can be cleared up, and so that they will have an accurate record of what was mutually decided. (Be sure to ask you advisor first if it is okay to record the conversation.) After each meeting, send your advisor a summary of the meeting outcomes. 

If your committee works well as a team, you will want to circulate regular reports to everyone to keep them updated on the direction you are taking, and you will want to meet with each member individually to maintain the relationship and to involve them in the dissertation process long before you have a finished product. 

Seeking Consensus

At each stage of your dissertation process, avoid the temptation to progress to the dissertation proposal until you have a plan that all members of the committee have reviewed and agreed to. As you begin to develop your proposal, seek approval of each chapter as it is prepared. If all of your committee members have a stake in your proposal from its conception, it is highly unlikely that you will encounter difficulties in the later stages of your dissertation. This does not mean, however, that you should overwhelm your committee members with endless working drafts. Nothing should be distributed to your committee until your advisor has approved it. When you receive feedback from other committee members, sit down with your advisor to decide how to address each of the issues raised. Then, respond to each of the committee members to indicate how their concerns will be addressed or to argue why you think a different approach is merited. While this may take some extra effort, if consensus is reached at each stage of your dissertation, you will have nothing to fear at the end of your journey. Consensus building involves ongoing conflict resolution among committee members about the aims and methods of your study; but if you rely on your diplomacy, your flexibility, and some assertiveness about defending your position, you are likely to maintain the support of your committee and continue on your dissertation path.
 

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