From the Ground Up: Building a Sound Advising Relationship

PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at the Schar School

As you have heard since beginning your graduate program, working well with a faculty mentor is critical to academic success. Selecting the appropriate advisor for your research is only the first step. Choices you make from there will determine the effectiveness and longevity of that relationship. How can Schar School doctoral students position themselves to make the most of their interactions with mentors? Schar School faculty members offer advice on building a strong working relationship with an advisor.

Laying the Foundation

When Professor Chris Blattman at Columbia University posted guidelines for doctoral advisees on his website, he thought he was supporting student success by providing clear expectations. He didn’t know his post would spark an explosion of conversation (Flaherty 2013). While many members of the academic community applaud his suggestions, others say he places too much emphasis on student responsibility and lets faculty members off the hook for their advising duties.

Research continues to demonstrate that the advisor-advisee connection is a critical element of the academic experience, especially in the case of doctoral programs. An effective relationship with a mentor can contribute to program completion, decreased time-to-degree, and alleviation of some of the psychological and social pressures of doctoral study. In particular, stress and isolation may be some of the biggest causes fueling attrition rates (Jairam and Kahl Jr 2012), while socialization and a positive supervisor relationship have been shown to drive retention and student success (Ali and Kohun 2007, Gardner 2008, Barnes 2010 in Jones 2013). Jones further elaborates on this, arguing that “a poor relationship with one’s doctoral advisor will ruin a good doctoral project regardless of any or all of the other elements which may support it”(2013).

Most mentoring literature focuses on the one-way effects of faculty and departmental support on student outcomes. The little research published so far on the more dynamic interplay between students and faculty suggests that the choices students make can affect the relationship and may influence the quality and effectiveness of advising. Tierney and Hallett explore their own experiences negotiating advisor-advisee interactions through the dissertation process. “I have grown increasingly hesitant to chair someone’s dissertation if they have not taken a class with me or worked with me on a research project,” one admits. He goes on to describe the importance of consistent meetings in supplementing sporadic conversations and email communication. “I want regular time that is the student’s time – and my time – where the door is closed and we are working on the text that is important to the student” (Tierney and Hallett 2010). This is not just a lone professor’s opinion. One study indicates that regular, formal meetings between supervisor and student contribute to doctoral completion (Heath 2002).

Making concrete the more implicit aspects of the interplay between advisors and advisees has the potential to smooth out and speed up the process of “building” a dissertation. Students have a part to play in making such tools as regular meetings into established practice. Leading the way at Columbia, Blattman’s advice to his advisees nudges them to be more proactive, organized, and thoughtful about their contributions to the relationship. Students who do this, he argues, not only gain more from advising sessions, they also develop key skills that give them an edge in their careers.

Working Together

Much like erecting a building, you construct your dissertation from the plans up. You are the head engineer and your advisor is the project manager overseeing the quality, schedule, and profile of the job. Yours is one among many ventures your project manager supervises. If you are fastidious in your work and willing to cultivate rapport with your advisor, you may build a sound structure that becomes part of the community landscape alongside a professional affiliation that can last throughout your respective careers.

Schar School faculty members who work closely with Ph.D. advisees know first-hand what works and what does not. The sections that follow contain candid advice from Schar School faculty mentors.

  1. Act Like the Expert you are Becoming
  2. Get your Hands Dirty
  3. Draft Watertight Plans
  4. Know your Project Manager’s Purpose
  5. Follow the Building Code
  6. See your Name on Every Brick
  7. Make it an Old-Fashioned Barn Raising

These seven practices can help you draw effectively on the support of your advisor, avoid costly stumbles, and contribute to a mutually rewarding relationship.

1. Act Like the Expert You are Becoming

This does not mean pretending to know things you don’t. The opportunity to build a masterwork is here for the taking, yet embedded in the process is a series of steep learning curves. As you pick up each new tool and approach each new stage of the process, act with diligence and decorum. Recognize that your conduct in all aspects of your work shape the product you create and – more importantly – the professional identity you cultivate.

From the Mentors:

  • Earning a Ph.D. is an apprenticeship which involves a very personal relationship. “Who did you work with?” is the first question asked of any new Ph.D. By your actions and behavior, you are in essence persuading individual faculty members that they will (or will not) want to be on your committees long before you ask.
  • The faculty is watching how you do in the program from the day you arrive. Your dissertation topic is extremely important, as is your reputation. Remember that after you finish, your committee members will be to some degree personally responsible for you, for the integrity of your academic work and training, for the rest of your life. They do not take that lightly and neither should you.
  • Participate in your courses, be open-minded and contribute to the welfare of your fellow students. As a Ph.D. student, you are a role model to the Masters’ degree students in your program. They are taking note of how you act and what you do, as are the faculty. Ph.D.-holders need to be able to teach, which means that they should always demonstrate how to be excellent mentors and constructive students themselves. Your advisor hears about how you behave in class. It matters.
  • Some advisees take a consumerist approach and behave as if the staff works for them. That is wrong as well as unwise. Administrators are professionals who work for the School and the University, in tandem with your academic advisor. If you are rude or presumptuous with staff members, it will eventually get back to the advisor and could seriously hurt his or her interest in working closely with you.
2. Get your Hands Dirty

As you familiarize yourself with the tools, materials, and processes required for your dissertation, do the hard work. Take time to struggle with the component parts. No one can talk you through the real learning that comes with diving in, making mistakes, and mastering a craft.

From the Mentors:

  • Do you want me to serve on your committee? Take a class with me, and work your rear off. Impress me with your ability to analyze complex political and economic data and write cogently to communicate your analysis.
  • Don’t ask easy questions. Don’t ask questions until you have struggled. Don’t come to a professor with a statistics problem until you’ve wrestled with it for four hours. Don’t come to talk about the reading unless you have really plunged into it first.
  • Do your homework. Stay abreast of faculty research and trends in your field. Know what you aim to take away from each meeting with your advisor. Develop your questions in advance and work through those questions with others or on your own before heading in.
  • Develop a thick skin. You will only improve if you can hear the critique and actually take in and reflect on the advice being given. Take it home, work through it, seek to understand it, and solicit feedback from others on whether or not you’re on the right track as you incorporate the new ideas or changes.
  • Use the criticism. If your advisor gives you advice regarding your work, your grades, your topic, your writing, your research, or anything else, it is unwise to ignore or minimize it.
3. Draft Watertight Plans

The structural plans required to raise a building require painstaking attention to detail. These cannot be quick sketches. Moving from idea to design to product means re-working how things hang together again and again. The research question and design phases of your program require precision, effort, and—most likely—several complete overhauls. Remember to work in the proper order. Just as the purpose of the building determines the materials and processes, design and method flow from research questions, not the other way around. Define your ends clearly and match your plans to the project.

From the Mentors:

  • Research thoroughly (by going through a careful literature review of your potential topics) before nailing down your main research question. Discuss with your mentor (i) what has been done in the area of your potential dissertation topic, and (ii) how you might expand on existing studies and knowledge.
  • Don’t choose your research topic based on the methodologies you know or would like to learn or apply. Instead, discuss with your mentor and committee members possible research methods and approaches that could answer your research question. Also tell your mentor/committee members what methods have been applied in the existing studies analyzing similar research questions.
  • Be crystal clear about your main research question and discuss it with your mentor up front. Make sure that each step of your analysis is clearly and logically related to your main question.
4. Know your Project Manager’s Purpose

A project manager is ultimately concerned with what her team members deliver. The professional development of her engineers and architects only motivates her up to a point. How will this particular building add to the community, the firm’s reputation, and prospects for winning future projects? When a mentor invests her time and attention in her advisee, she is expecting hard work and hoping for solid return. At the Ph.D. level, an advisor certainly has a duty to you, but recognize that your advisor also has a duty to ensure that you can make a serious contribution and advance a field of inquiry to establish your expertise.

From the mentors:

  • You know by now that earning a Ph.D. is not just ticking off requirements and writing a long research paper. It requires entering a community of scholars. You demonstrate your readiness to be a part of that community through your capacity for original thinking as well as your top-notch research and writing.
  • Choose your mentor carefully. Professors are often busy and have their own research agendas. You make most out of the relationship when there is some overlap between your and their research topics.
  • It is not the advisor’s job to make you feel good about yourself, especially if your work is in any way sub par. The advisor’s job to push you to fulfill your potential, and to support you as you stretch yourself in reaching it.
5. Follow the Building Code

There are no shortcuts. No matter how brilliant your ideas may be, disorganized work means shoddy construction. In order to hold together, projects – especially those that cover a wide breadth of material over a long span of time – require fastidious attention to processes. Be as meticulous in your interactions with your advisor as you are with your research.

From the mentors:

  • Update your mentor (and other committee members) periodically, at least once a month even when you feel you haven’t made sufficient progress.
  • Before meeting your mentor and committee members, prepare talking points (a summary of your progress), questions, and next steps.
  • Time: Don’t take too much of it, don’t let too much of it lapse between meetings, don’t waste it on things that can be answered in other venues, and expect the advisor to need it in order to respond.
  • As you are developing your questions for a meeting with your advisor, write them out in an easy-to-read, well-defined way. If your advisor prefers lead-time, send your materials in advance of the meeting.
  • Come to his or her office prepared with a mental list of questions or concerns. Be polite and respectful of his or her time. Do not take liberties or make demands, either in the office or via email. Recognize that you are one of many for whom he or she is responsible.
  • Like you, most academics are under intense deadline pressures. If you drop by the office unannounced, your advisor may seem polite but will likely become even less accessible to you – for example by working at home or elsewhere. As you know (or will learn), original thinking requires time and space. The most productive faculty members often find that they cannot work in the vicinity of their Ph.D. candidates. (Some have privately described it as “being a hunted animal.”) Particularly if the door is closed, leave your advisor alone.
  • You don’t have to be psychic. Ask your advisor: What works best for you? What form of communication do you prefer? How often do you want to hear from me? Would you like me to work with some other students? Do you have suggestions about students I could team up with? What sorts of outlines, schedules, etc. do you want from me?
6. See Your Name on Every Brick

Yes, this project requires the collective efforts of the school, the faculty, and the field as a whole. Nevertheless, it is entirely yours. Hold in your mind a picture of your finished building with your name is stamped on every doorway, every brick. Occupants can turn any corner, inside or out, and see you there. Claim your research and treat it as the lasting contribution it can be.

From the mentors:

  • Know that your dissertation is YOUR project and NOT a “joint project” with your mentor. Take full custody of your dissertation and recognize that, at the end of the day, you should know the topic better than any of your committee members.
  • One of the great joys of the Schar School is also one of its greatest challenges. You may come to the Ph.D. program with a great deal of practical experience, which is wonderful! At the Schar School, faculty members cherish the high caliber policy-makers and professionals who come here for degrees. We often learn a lot from you, too. But remember that getting a Ph.D. is not an anointment of past experience. Though scholarship may reflect your policy experience and enhance it in the future, it is a different path to expertise. Again, it means demonstrating that you belong in a community of scholars.
  • Becoming a scholar is difficult, often even transformative. A Ph.D. must be earned. Sloppiness, laziness and a sense of entitlement are to some degree forgiven at the Masters’ level. At the Ph.D. level they are not. You should be working harder than you have at any other intellectual challenge you’ve ever faced.
7. Make it an Old-Fashioned Barn-Raising

A good mentor is invaluable. The connection you forge has a good chance of growing alongside your dissertation research into a scholarly relationship you both may re-visit you throughout your respective careers.

From the mentors:

  • Don’t squander the time you have on superfluous conversations. Yes, some aspects of your personal life will weave through your relationship with your advisor. Nevertheless, the precious time you have in the company of your advisor should be devoted to enhancing your research and improving your scholarly processes.
  • Work with other students and draw on outside relationships for support.
  • Know what your advisor’s role is. Chances are, your advisor will not want to be your writing tutor, enrollment manager, therapist or financial planner.
  • Take advantage of what your university community offers in order to manage the various (and sometimes competing) aspects of your academic and personal development. This will allow you and your advisor to have the most fruitful conversations to further your research and deepen your understanding of your chosen field.

If you let the mentor’s perspective guide your choices, the dissertation you write and the scholarly relationship you forge will be built to last.


Flaherty, Colleen. 2013. “If You Want to Be My Student.” Inside Higher Ed. September 16.

Heath, Trevor. 2002. “A Quantitative Analysis of PhD Students’ Views of Supervision.” Higher Education Research & Development 21 (1): 41–53. doi:10.1080/07294360220124648.

Jones, Michael. 2013. “Issues in Doctoral Studies – Forty Years of Journal Discussion: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?” Faculty of Business – Papers: 83–104.

Tierney, William G., and Ronald E. Hallett. 2010. “In Treatment: Writing Beneath the Surface.” Qualitative Inquiry 16 (8): 674–84. doi:10.1177/1077800410374028.