How should I advise my advisers?

Doctoral advisers can take some intensive advising. A typology.
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The helicopter adviser

Feel like raising your eyebrows and sighing: “Oh, dad...”? You can get away with saying it to your own parents, of course, but your doctoral adviser “dad” is another matter. The parallels to your own parents go even further: Just like dear old dad, your helicopter adviser only wants what is best for you. Constantly asking how your manuscript is going, giving you tips on good references and events to attend—all of this can be helpful. However, it can also be annoying! To make sure you don’t react like a stubborn teenager, you need to set some boundaries. The PhD thesis is and should be the work of the doctoral student themselves. At the end of the day, you are the one who has to stand behind your work. So stay calm, show your appreciation for their support, and keep pushing ahead and following your own plan.

The best friend

Having an adviser with whom you can hold lively discussions about your dissertation and everything else under the sun—an ideal situation, but one that not many students experience. If you have this kind of relationship with your adviser, you should be able to relax and continue your research with nothing to worry about. But watch out, because even though your relationship may feel like a friendship, at the end of the day, your adviser will be correcting your work, and that makes them your first and harshest critic. If the critique is too harsh, your friendship might go right out the window. Keeping a little distance is in both of your interests. There will be plenty of time to toast your success after your defence.

The Old Testament God of wrath

Feel helpless in the face of your almighty adviser and their seemingly arbitrary capriciousness? Faced with a choleric type who unleashes his frustration on the lowest rank of the academic food chain? Rumour has it that these advisers are still around. This kind of behaviour, however, is completely unacceptable. On the other hand, advisers are just people, too—people who can often be under immense pressure. Research, teaching, administrative work: All of these can lower their empathy levels for PhD students and their needs. That makes it all the more important to establish in advance what you should expect from your adviser. A detailed advising agreement can help.

The invisible adviser

“Oh, nice to see you again. What was your topic one more time? OK, see you next semester!” Feel like you never get any actual advising, because your adviser always has something better to do? Although this kind of relationship can have an upside (Great! I can just work on my dissertation with no annoying comments!), it can quickly turn into trouble. When you have questions on your PhD project, you will be on your own. This is a problem particularly for highly engaged researchers, because with all their requests, presentations, and travel, they hardly have time to advise their PhD students. It can be helpful to talk to other doctoral candidates who know the adviser. What is the best way to communicate with them if you need to push through the noise and make sure your concerns are heard? Especially important, and especially tricky: Extremely busy advisers can sometimes put off their charges by only giving them positive feedback in order to avoid time-consuming discussions. However, only critical feedback can push you to improve; the key is seeking it out, even when your adviser heaps praise on you. If you can pull it off, you will be playing in the Champions League of professionalism.

The temperamental adviser

One semester you are the shining star among your colleagues and can do no wrong. A semester later, suddenly your topic is no longer interesting, and your adviser is telling you perhaps you should just start over from the beginning. Doubts are a frequent problem, and not only for doctoral students themselves, but also for advisers as well. There can be many reasons an adviser’s mood may change. Maybe your adviser’s own research focus has shifted, and your topic is no longer in line with their interests. Sometimes, the best thing to do is remain calm and address the situation objectively. However, this is often easier said than done. It might take a little insight into human nature. Of course, just turning your head and waiting for the storm to pass might be the best approach at the end of the day.