Spring 2016
A Guiding Hand

The thesis adviser plays a big role in every grad student’s life. Alice Hutton Sharp writes about how to make the most of this complex relationship


Profile photo of Alice Hutton Sharp

Courtesy of Alice Hutton Sharp

One night, while preparing the initial draft of my first dissertation chapter, I had a dream in which I was a student at the 12th-century school that was the focus of my research. My adviser was Anselm of Laon, the school’s director (d. 1117), and my anxiety was rooted in the fact that I was forbidden from telling incoming students how to avoid being accused of heresy. I was convinced we would all be condemned.

This is an extreme and medieval example, but this efflorescence of anxiety is a shared experience in academia. This is one of the burdens of agreeing to supervise a dissertation: no matter how approachable, you are destined to figure as a primary character in an advisee’s psyche. It’s unavoidable, and it can also distract both students and advisers from the primary purpose of their professional relationship: mentorship and guidance while producing an independent work of scholarship and preparing for life after the degree. I can’t offer advisers any fail-safe ways to avoid inciting stress dreams, but there are a few keys to making the most of this complex position.

Programs and disciplines differ widely in the degree to which an adviser is involved in the students’ initial choice of research topic and subject. However, most advisers will be asked to help a student form the scope and parameters of their project, according to the expectations of their discipline and the amount of work that can be done in the time permitted. This stage is crucial – both to helping the student learn how to present research interests in a compelling way, and to lay the groundwork for the future working relationship.

From the beginning, clear communication of expectations is key. This includes the basic details of academic life – for example, how often do you expect drafts or results? How long will it take you to return an edited draft? Should the student feel free to submit very rough work, or does the adviser expect writing to have a certain polish? Graduate students will likely not know that they should be thinking through these questions, and it will be to the benefit of both if the adviser sets an example by describing how she understands her role – particularly as the student advances, and the adviser may want to step back a bit to encourage more independent work.

There are so many skills involved in pursuing an academic degree and transitioning from graduate school – whether to an academic or non-academic career – and no adviser will be able to provide counsel on everything. It is hard for one person to offer the best information on every aspect of a career, particularly as students approach the job market. This is especially true as students choose whether or not (and in what way) they wish to approach a career outside of academia, or in a very different university setting. The adviser should see this as an opportunity, helping the student build a network of support.

I defended my dissertation on a cold January morning. My adviser was on sabbatical, and for a while I thought he might not make it by phone, as it turned out nobody had his number. I sat at the head of the table as a committee member called our department secretary, thinking about past stress dreams.

The number was found. The call went through. While we both regretted that he couldn’t be present in person, the forced distance emphasized that an adviser’s role, in some ways, is to become superfluous. Through his mentorship, I was confident in presenting and defending my work – on my own.

Alice Hutton Sharp is now a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the history and classical studies department at McGill University.


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