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Choosing a Thesis Advisor: A Complete Guide

One of the most important choices that you will make about your dissertation or thesis happens before you write a single word. Choosing a thesis advisor or dissertation advisor (often referred to as a dissertation chair) will have a significant impact on your entire dissertation writing experience, and for many years to come. For many doctoral students, their thesis advisor is their single greatest influence in graduate school. 

Selecting a thesis advisor is a big decision with far-reaching implications. The stakes are very high, and it is imperative to choose your thesis advisor wisely. There are many factors to consider when choosing a thesis advisor, from expertise to personality, and it pays to think carefully and weigh your options before approaching a faculty member to chair your dissertation committee . While there are subtle differences between a dissertation chair and a thesis advisor, we’ll focus on the commonalities in this article.

These are commonly asked questions about selecting a thesis advisor: 

  • What does a thesis advisor do? 
  • How should I choose my thesis advisor?
  • What makes a faculty member a good thesis advisor? 
  • What if it doesn’t work out with my thesis advisor? 

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Thesis Advisor Responsibilities

While writing a dissertation is a largely solitary pursuit, a good thesis advisor will be with you every step of the way. While you are very much in the driver’s seat, it is your thesis advisor’s job to keep you off the guardrails. And deploy the airbag, if necessary. There are a few purposes that your thesis advisor will serve during your time together. 

Guidance . While the dissertation process is new to you, your thesis advisor will know it very well. She will help you navigate the obstacles and pitfalls that have derailed many projects–department politics, university regulations, funding, research opportunities, etc. Your thesis advisor will also serve as a sounding board as you distill the nebulous concept of your research project into a fully-formed idea that you can move forward with. 

Organization . A good thesis advisor will run a tight ship and keep your dissertation project moving like clockwork. As a researcher, it’s very easy to get lost in the minutiae of the literature, and it’s not difficult to find yourself trapped down a rabbit hole of scholarship. Regular milestones set by your thesis advisor are a great way to stay on track and maintain forward momentum. 

Mentorship. While an effective thesis advisor will ensure that you see your project to fruition, a great one will be with you for decades. Though I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2012 and I’m now an associate professor myself, my thesis advisor remains a guiding light in my career. Your thesis advisor can be a cornerstone of your professional network. 

red haired student explaining stuff in a classroom with her professor looking at her

Choosing a Thesis Advisor

So, how do you select a faculty member to chair your dissertation committee? With extreme care. Once you have set your sights on a dissertation chair or thesis advisor, the next step is the Big Ask. I remember being very nervous to approach the faculty member who became my chair– it seemed like such an imposition, but, as a grad student in her department, I was already on her radar. Keep in mind, your faculty members are expecting to be asked to chair dissertation committees, and they may even be a little flattered that you chose them. 

While chairing and serving on dissertation committees is a requirement for the tenured and senior faculty members in your department, it’s a lot of work. Make no mistake: accepting the role of your dissertation chair makes them nervous, too. As a faculty member, I can say with absolute certainty that a good dissertation chair will be almost as invested in your dissertation as you are. 

What Makes a Strong Thesis Advisor?

There exists a gulf between what many students desire in a dissertation chair or thesis advisor and what they actually need. While there may be a temptation to approach one of your department’s superstar faculty members to chair your committee, this may not serve you in the long term. Faculty members who have made a name for themselves through an abundance of publications, grants, awards, and conference appearances typically have jam-packed schedules, and it may be difficult for them to make you and your dissertation a priority. 

Dissertation Committee Member Mentoring Student

A safer bet that is likely to have a more rewarding outcome is to work with a faculty member who has already shown enthusiasm for your work. Select a thesis advisor who makes time for you, and one who always responds to your emails. This is the person you want in your corner during the sometimes stressful journey of researching and writing a dissertation. Also, it never hurts to spend some time talking to potential dissertation chairs or dissertation advisors. Get all of your questions answered, and then make a decision. 

What If It Doesn’t Work Out?

The possibility that your thesis advisor is a bad fit for your project or is incompatible for some other reason is a worst-case scenario that lurks in the furthest reaches of every graduate student’s mind. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: this is not a good situation to be in, and it can derail dissertations. The soundest strategy for dealing with an internecine conflict with your thesis advisor is prevention. 

This is why it is vital to do your homework and put a lot of thought into choosing your thesis advisor. Find someone you are compatible with and make sure you’re on the same page. Check in with them regularly, and keep them updated. Clear communication is a great way to ensure a solid partnership with your dissertation chair. Don’t forget, your dissertation chair should also be making your success a priority. You should be comfortable enough to ask questions and let them know what’s on your mind. 

The good news is that a bad fit isn’t likely to happen. Most grad students have a completely workable relationship with their dissertation chairs, and for many it turns into a long friendship built on mutual respect and admiration. Personally, every time I serve on a doctoral student’s dissertation committee, I feel a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction when they take their place in the academic world. It’s truly an honor to help them achieve such a major milestone in their academic career, and I’m delighted to be part of it. 

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Courtney Watson, Ph.D.

Courtney Watson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Radford University Carilion, in Roanoke, Virginia. Her areas of expertise include undergraduate and graduate curriculum development for writing courses in the health sciences and American literature with a focus on literary travel, tourism, and heritage economies. Her writing and academic scholarship has been widely published in places that include  Studies in American Culture ,  Dialogue , and  The Virginia Quarterly Review . Her research on the integration of humanities into STEM education will be published by Routledge in an upcoming collection. Dr. Watson has also been nominated by the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Rising Star Award, and she is a past winner of the National Society of Arts & Letters Regional Short Story Prize, as well as institutional awards for scholarly research and excellence in teaching. Throughout her career in higher education, Dr. Watson has served in faculty governance and administration as a frequent committee chair and program chair. As a higher education consultant, she has served as a subject matter expert, an evaluator, and a contributor to white papers exploring program development, enrollment research, and educational mergers and acquisitions.

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Student and Advisor Responsibilities

Responsibility

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A thesis is required for all programs leading to a Plan A master’s degree, and a dissertation is required for the doctor of philosophy degree. This manual was written by the Graduate School to help you and your committee members to prepare theses and dissertations. Its purpose is to define uniform format standards. The word “thesis” refers to both the thesis and the dissertation unless otherwise noted.

Advisor’s Responsibility

Your advisor serves as a mentor both while you are doing the thesis work and while the results of that work are prepared for the thesis. Although you have primary responsibility for the content, quality, and format of the thesis, the advisor and the Graduate Advisory Committee must be consulted frequently. They approve the final document before it is submitted to the Graduate School. Advisors are particularly asked to insure that the abstract summarizes clearly and concisely the major points of the thesis.

Student’s Responsibility

Your are responsible for making all arrangements for the preparation and submission of the thesis as well as any additional copies required by the department. you should also consider the following:

1. Consult a style manual approved by your department for correct format for quotations, footnotes, and bibliographical items. 2. Refer to the Graduate School Thesis and Dissertation Formatting Guide for guidelines regarding correct format for thesis presentation (including illustrative materials). 3. Edit draft for correct sentence structure, grammar, paragraphing, punctuation, and spelling. 4. Prepare tables in the form in which they are to be printed. 5. Furnish numbering and legends for all tables and illustrative materials. 6. Proofread final copy and check to see that corrections are made accurately. 7. Present a copy to the Graduate Advisory Committee for their review. 8. Submit the final committee approved version electronically.

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  • Advising Senior Theses

Every thesis writer and thesis project is unique, and arguably the single most important thing that you can do as a thesis adviser is to get to know your student well and to be supportive and attentive as they work towards their spring deadline. The amount of structure that different concentrations offer their students can also have a significant impact on how you think about your role as an adviser. In some cases you may feel like an extension of the department’s undergraduate office, encouraging your student to follow its well-articulated pathway towards completion and nudging your student to heed (albeit perhaps with some discretion) its recommended proposal or draft deadlines. In other cases you may be the one responsible for translating the concentration’s somewhat vague guidelines into an actionable roadmap of recommended thresholds and dates. It’s well worth establishing a healthy line of communication with the concentration’s undergraduate office (and with anyone else involved in advising your student’s academic work) from the start of your advising relationship.

Regardless of the precise structure and obligations surrounding your position as an adviser, there are a number of things which you can do to help just about any student have a meaningful, and successful, experience with the senior thesis. Here are five key contributions which you can make:

Manage expectations

In an ideal world, every student would enter the thesis process fully prepared for every aspect of scholarly work. They all would know how to ask an analytical question suitable for a 60- or 100-page paper, how to find relevant data, how to draw lucid figures, how to format every footnote or methods section, … . Likewise, we might wish that every thesis topic lent itself equally well to the particular constraints of Harvard’s resources and academic calendar. If only that essential cache of Russian manuscripts existed in a published English translation in Widener! If only this experimental protocol took two weeks rather than four months! In reality, however, every thesis involves some compromise—perhaps significant compromise. One of your most important jobs as a thesis adviser is to roleplay your student’s future audience, and to help your student understand that the most successful theses ask questions that are not only meaningful, but that can be answered at least somewhat plausibly by the set of skills, resources, and time that is available to a Harvard undergraduate. Insofar as a student is determined to tackle a dissertation-sized question, the adviser can at least remind the student that it will be important to frame the results as a “partial” answer or a “contribution towards” an answer in the introduction.

Encourage self-knowledge

As with the previous point about managing expectations, it is important that an adviser be able to remind their student that the senior thesis is not, and will not be, the moment when students magically become “better” people than they already are. Students who have been night owls during their first three years of college are unlikely to transform miraculously into the type of scholars who rise at 6am and write 1000 words before breakfast—no matter how much they yearn to emulate some academic role model. Students who have participated actively in a sport or other extracurricular are unlikely to be able to simply recoup those hours for thesis work—cutting back three hours/week at The Crimson is at least as likely to translate into three more hours spent bantering in the dining hall as it is into three hours spent poring over the administrative structure of the Byzantine Empire. The point is that students can benefit from being reminded that they already know how to do the kind of work expected of them on the thesis, and that it may be counterproductive—if not downright unhealthy—to hold themselves to new or arbitrary standards.

Motivate to start writing early

With relatively few exceptions, most of the writing projects assigned in college are sufficiently modest that students can wait to start writing until they have figured out the full arc of what they want to say and how they want to say it. It’s possible, in other words, to plan and hold the entirety of a five-page essay in one’s head. This is simply not true of a senior thesis. Theses require the author to take a leap of faith—to start writing before the research is done and long before they know exactly what they want to say. Students may be reluctant to do this, fearing that they might “waste” precious time drafting a section of a chapter that ultimately doesn’t fit in the final thesis. You can do your student a world of good by reminding them that there is no such thing as wasted writing. In a project as large as a thesis, writing is not merely about reporting one’s conclusions—it is the process through which students come to figure out what their conclusions might be, and which lines of research they will need to pursue to get there.

Model strategies

While academic research and writing can and should be a creative endeavor, it is also undeniably true that even professional scholars draw upon a relatively constrained set of well-known strategies when framing their work. How many different ways, after all, are there to say that the conventional wisdom on a topic has ignored a certain genre of evidence? Or that two competing schools of thought actually agree more than they disagree? Or that fiddling with one variable has the power to reframe an entire discussion? Students may struggle to see how to plug their research into the existing scholarly conversation around their topic. Showing them models or templates that demystify the ways in which scholars frame their interventions can be enormously powerful.

Keep contact and avoid the "shame spiral"

As noted above, the senior thesis is a long process, and while it’s rarely a good idea for students to change their work habits in an effort to complete it, it is important that they be working early and often. Occasionally students do become overwhelmed by the scope of the project, and begin to feel defeated by the incremental nature of progress they are making. Even a good week of work may yield only a couple of pages of passable writing. Ideally a student feeling overwhelmed would come to their adviser for some help putting things into perspective. But for a student used to having a fair amount of success, the struggles involved in a senior thesis may be disorienting, and they may worry that they are “disappointing” you. For some, this will manifest as a retreat from your deadlines and oversight—even as they outwardly project confidence. They may begin bargaining with themselves in ways that only serve to sink them deeper into a sense of panic or shame. (“I’m long past the deadline for my first ten pages—but if I give my adviser a really brilliant fifteen-page section, he won’t mind! Surely I can turn these four pages into fifteen if I stay up all night!”) One of the best things that you can do as an adviser is keep contact with your student and make sure to remind them that your dynamic is not one of “approval” or “disapproval.” It is important that they maintain a healthy and realistic approach to the incremental process of completing the thesis over several months.

For more information...

The Art of Thesis Writing: A handout for students

Harvard's Academic Resource Center on Senior Theses

Senior Thesis Tutors at the Harvard College Writing Center

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  1. Choosing a Thesis Advisor: A Complete Guide

    thesis adviser meaning

  2. Choosing a Thesis Advisor: A Complete Guide

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  3. Choosing a Thesis Advisor: A Complete Guide

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