You cannot graduate without your adviser

What to consider when choosing and contacting potential advisers.
Mathew Schwartz via Unsplash

The academic community has been plagued by a pretty gloomy image for many years: young researchers in temporary contracts with no academic, family, or financial security. A spring 2019 report by the Leibniz Association, however, has everyone breathing at least a brief sigh of relief: 63% of the more than 1,000 PhD students with the Leibniz Association responded to a survey stating that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the advising they had received during their PhD. The Bundesbericht Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs 2017 (2017 Federal Report on Junior Academics) published similar figures. According to the Buwin, 55% to 65% of PhD students are (very) satisfied with the advising they have received, while only 14% to 19% are unsatisfied. What makes a good advising relationship? Three things: professional compatibility, a functional interpersonal relationship, and concrete agreements for how both parties can and should structure the partnership. Ideally, good advising should be able to do it all. That is why it is so important to invest time and energy in choosing the right adviser.

You need a fertile environment to complete your PhD, and what that looks like may vary from person to person. It helps to understand the settings that have allowed you to be the most productive in the past: Do you work best alone, concentrating at your desk, or while holding professional debates with colleagues? Do you value the freedom to choose your own topic? Are you self-motivated and a good organiser, or do you benefit from joint projects and fixed curricula?

Usually, if you are accepted into a structured doctoral programme, you will be given a selection of professors to choose from. If you choose to do your PhD independently, you will have to search for potential advisers yourself. You should let your topic guide your search at first; you could start by researching research papers and their authors to identify people who inspire you and your research. Ideally, you would find multiple people who inspire you. You could write them one at a time, in your order of preference—never all at once. Remember, you never know what your colleagues might chat about over lunch or at a conference.

Your first letter should focus on describing your research project to your potential adviser carefully and concisely. It is also important to describe your (watch out—sales psychology term!) unique selling proposition and tailor your letter to address your chosen professor. Clearly state why you want to work specifically with that professor. Show that you are interested in them and their work, and show how it connects to your own research project. Do not be overly modest (advising young researchers is part of a professor’s job!), but remain polite and professional. It is important to address the professor appropriately. As described in Stephan Porombka’s amusing column for ZEIT, your job is to find the happy medium between “Honoured Professor Dr X” and “Hey Prof”. You can decide whether to include a brief, current CV. This may or may not be necessary, depending on how well you already know the individual. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the professor reading your e-mail. This will help you imagine the kind of inquiry you would like to receive and would enjoy answering—a complicated e-mail with 23 attachments is probably not going to help you reach your goal. Your e-mail should always ask the professor for an in-person meeting to make sure you have point two of good PhD advising: a good interpersonal relationship.

After sending your message, wait a little while. If you have not heard from the individual, you can send a polite inquiry. If you still do not receive an answer, then you can take their lack of response as answer enough. Then start writing your next inquiry. If these “cold calls” do not work right away, never fear. Professors are very busy people, and they receive multiple requests to serve as dissertation advisers. It can be a good idea to speak to them directly when the opportunity presents itself—for instance at a conference the professor is attending. Existing contacts between university instructors you worked with during your studies and your potential adviser may also be useful.

Once you do meet with your dream adviser (good luck!), start off by clearly describing what kind of advising you want to receive over the next few years. How much personal interaction do you want? How much professional feedback do you need to do your work well? Do you want to submit and discuss drafts of your chapters? How far apart should your jointly set deadlines be? You also can and should discuss financing and career planning with your adviser, particularly because you depend on their support in the form of a recommendation when applying for stipends.

You do not have to and should not make the important decision of whether to collaborate with the potential adviser at the end of your first meeting. Instead, take some time to think things over. This will show you are a diligent and confident student. In making your decision, it may be helpful to talk with other students whom the professor is already advising—or, perhaps even more productively—students who have dropped out of the PhD programme altogether. This kind of insider information can be applied to your own situation to provide valuable orientation.

Once both parties have decided to collaborate, it is time to fine-tune your work together. You should both take an active role in jointly designing the advising relationship. An advising agreement can be a helpful tool, even if you or your adviser see it as an annoying added formality. These agreements are not concluded for legal protection, but rather to outline your mutual understanding of the parameters that govern your working relationship.

Many potential PhD students see finding an adviser as an insurmountable hurdle, especially if they are changing universities or did not complete their degrees in Germany. With good preparation and appropriate contact, however, your chances of finding the right adviser are good. Even if your working relationship proves unproductive during your doctoral programme, this is not the end of the world. If worse comes to worst, you can always change advisers. In addition, many universities offer specialised “conflict office hours” designed to help you solve common problems.