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Advice from a Dissertation Advisor

It is certainly helpful to see the dissertation process from the point of view of the dissertation advisor. We plan in the future to include other interviews. What follows, until the bibliography, is advice from such an advisor: Prof. William A. Bassett, Mineral Physics Laboratory, Department of Geological Sciences, Snee Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853 U.S.A.
Telephone: 001 607 255 7502 FAX: 001 607 254 4780



Some schools require a student to submit a proposal for the research project. Some require two or three proposals before even letting the student start. Most schools require an oral exam early in the process. This exam often turns into an oral presentation of a proposed project or a progress report on that project. A student who has not been asked to do any of these things should volunteer to present the plan for his dissertation. It is rare that a student ever follows the plan exactly. Nonetheless, creating and presenting the plan is a valuable exercise.


With few exceptions, doctoral projects come in parts. Usually these can be treated as separate projects--e.g., design the experiment and see if it works, determine and document the samples to be studied, carry out a preliminary study to see how effective the technique is going to be, do the experiment on the intended samples. It is a good idea to tackle these parts one at a time. In my field it is even possible to write a paper on each of these and have it published in a refereed journal. Although this is not necessary, treating each part of the dissertation project as a finished product is extremely helpful.


If an objective looks really, really easy, think of it as doable. If it looks challenging, maybe you are biting off more than you can chew for a first project or sub-project. Save it for later.


It is hard to think of a worse mistake than to think you are going to do all the work and then, when you are ready, do all the writing. It is more effective to think of doing some of the research, writing it up, presenting it, and then moving on to the next part of your research.

Writing or otherwise presenting what you are doing is an important part of doing research. Your advisor should organize a weekly group seminar at which you report progress. He should then urge you to give a talk to a larger group. If progress warrants it, he should arrange for you to give a talk at a national or international meeting. If these are not possible, he should ask you to write frequent progress reports.

If your advisor doesn't do any of these things, then the student should take the initiative and send an abstract to the organizer of a suitable conference or he should organize a conference. That is exactly what the graduate students in our department did. They organized a conference, printed a program, advertised it, and set rules for the participants. It has been a huge success. Both students and faculty have welcomed it.

There are at least three reasons why frequent reporting is valuable: 1) it forces you to organize your thoughts--an integral part of doing the research, 2) it gives you a chance to see if your advisor is satisfied with what you are doing, 3) it gives you a chance to find out what others think of what you are doing.

Let me elaborate on these ideas:

1. Virtually everyone who sits down to write up his results learns that there were things he should have done while carrying out the research. If he has planned his time well, he may be able to go back and do them. And if he is lucky, his research is the kind that allows him to go back and do them. If he's neither well organized nor lucky, then the student (or anybody doing research, for that matter) may be faced with writing up results he lacks confidence in. This may cause him to become so discouraged that he cannot finish writing. Unfortunately, many students (as well as seasoned researchers) find themselves in this position. I will address this later.

2. Some advisors make the same mistake that students make; they think that all the research is done first and then the results are written up. This leads to the situation where the first time the advisor looks at what his student is doing is at the very end of the whole process. This can lead to disaster if the advisor is unhappy with the "finished" product. Neither the advisor nor the student should allow this to happen. But if his advisor objects to what he's done, the student needs advice on how to handle the situation. I will also address this later.

3. The Ph.D. thesis is usually the first time that a person conducts an independent piece of research. It should be presented to experts in the student's field. The larger that audience, the better. A thesis may not necessarily be well received by all members of that field. If the student's advisor is one of those, the student faces a difficult problem. He will be in a much better position, however, if others have already heard what he has to say and can come to his defense. Seeking advice from others in the field is important. I will also address this later.


Every thesis requires a summary or abstract. Summary and abstract writing is an art that should be taught and practiced throughout the entire education of any student in any field. The summary/abstract can be written at any time during a research project. Writing it early in the process can help you crystallize your thoughts. Writing it at the end may be necessary when not all the parts are in place until then. But you should make sure it is the last item you critique and revise and proofread, as it may be the only part of your dissertation some people read and in all likelihood will be the first part most people read, including the committee members.

If the abstract is poorly written, the rest of the thesis may never have a chance to offset the bad impression. A thesis is not a mystery story. A good abstract or summary should "give away" as much of the contents of the thesis as possible in the limited space available. There is no room and no excuse for sentences like "the results of the experiments will be discussed." What a waste of words and what a waste of the reader's time! You say you have read abstracts like that in journals? If you have, it is because the author, the reviewer, and the editor were not doing their jobs!


The advice given above is for people starting their research projects. What do you do if you are finished with your research and are now facing a blank computer screen and can't get yourself to commit anything in writing?

I don't think present-day students realize what a godsend the computer is. When I wrote the rough draft of my thesis, there were pages that were 90% X'd out, there were paragraphs taped over other paragraphs, there were half pages stuck to other half pages. I am glad that at least some of the language of this process persists, though I doubt that students today stop to think of the messiness represented by such terms as "cut and paste."

I also wish today's students could appreciate what it was like to submit a job to a computer in the form of a card deck. Often I would stop back at the submission desk later in the day only to find a sheet with a list of error messages. The person working behind the desk always had a smirk on his face, whether real or imagined. The present-day computer should be viewed as an incredible aid to thinking, not just writing.

Here are some ideas on how to take advantage of the computer's capabilities--plus some other suggestion for overcoming writer's block:

  1. Start writing now, even if you are unsure of what you are writing about and totally lack confidence in your knowledge of the subject. Chances are excellent that after a few sentences your thoughts will start to flow more easily and you will gain confidence as you go. One of the pleasures of writing is rereading a piece and finding that you are better at it than you expected.

  2. Go back and rewrite the first few sentences you wrote. Believe it or not, I have reviewed papers in which the author did not do this, and the first paragraph can only be described as mangled.

  3. If you are having trouble writing because the results you are writing about are incomplete or unconvincing for one reason or another, ask yourself this question: "Are the results valuable? Will they be of interest and benefit to others even if I should have done more or been more careful or taken better notes?" If you can honestly say yes, then you don't really have a problem. You can write the results up, shortcomings and all. But you will feel much better about it if you are scrupulously honest. It is okay to say, "More needs to be done." It is okay to say, "Within the limits of this investigation, I have come to the following conclusions." That sort of thing. We researchers do it all the time. You can't avoid it.

  4. Writing a thesis under the direction of an advisor who is negative and unhelpful is, perhaps, the most trying situation of all. Although I consider it the advisor's obligation to keep the student informed as to just how satisfied he is with the student's progress at all stages, this may not happen. This puts the burden on the student to be insistent at times when he feels most vulnerable. However, the situation is unlikely to improve until the advisor sits down with the student and says exactly what needs to be done. To insure that he will do this, the student needs to insist that his advisor take the time and pay the necessary attention by making appointments, being prompt, and being as prepared as humanly possible. I have more to say about that under MANNERS.

    In some cases--in fact, in an appallingly large number of cases--a student may have so much difficulty with his advisor that he is forced to turn to others for help. That is one of the responsibilities of his committee members. Too often other members of a committee don't see the student until the defense. If there is a problem, the student shouldn't hesitate to look to other members of his committee for help. If the problem is caused by disagreements with his advisor, the situation may soon become confrontational and disagreeable. The student should be sure such confrontations are necessary before letting it get to that point. But, as far as I am concerned, this is part of a faculty member's job description, and you are right if you assume it is your advisor's and your committee's obligation to help you.

  5. Needless to say, a student should never be allowed to find himself in the final stages of thesis writing if the thesis project does not warrant a degree. The system has let that student down. No amount of appealing should change the situation if that is the case. Students who find themselves in that situation sometimes start over with a new advisor and successfully complete a thesis on a new topic and receive a degree.


Meeting with your advisor: In my experience, there can be a very large gulf that separates the unprepared student from the prepared student. There are such simple matters, for example, as making an appointment, having your own pencil and paper, and being on time. There are few things more unsettling to me than having to lend a pen or pencil to a student and then wondering through the whole meeting if I will get it back again. I often find myself paying more attention to the pen or pencil than to what the student is saying.

Students who are late to an appointment put themselves at a disadvantage right from the start of the meeting. Most students just don't seem to realize that when in doubt, being formal is a better choice than being informal. This is especially true of forms of address, such as mister or professor rather than by my first name, Bill.

Arriving with a list of points to be covered in the meeting is useful. Having a written outline never hurts either. An advisor is always grateful when he looks in a student's folder and finds there an outline and its revisions. Also, it makes a very good impression to follow up a meeting with an email message, even if the message says nothing more than "thank you for the meeting". It is amazing to me how seldom such simple things are done.

:Acknowledging:: Like so many of the things I have mentioned here, this works both ways. The advisor and the student should show mutual respect. Some students think they did all the work by themselves. This is rarely if ever the case. They need only ask if they could have done it without their advisor. Likewise, there are advisors who take advantage of their students and give them inadequate or no acknowledgment. I never cease to be amazed at how grudging some people are. This also goes for acknowledging those out there in the community who went before. It is usually enough to cite papers and books whose contents you refer to. But it is so much more elegant and appreciated if a student expresses gratitude to those who had good ideas that led up to his project. That is especially true if one of those people is his advisor.


If this is helpful to even a handful of students struggling to finish up their doctorates or any other papers, for that matter, I will feel that I have accomplished something worthwhile in writing it.

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Fred Stern, Ph.D. and Lois Feldman, Ph.D
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