Thursday, March 24, 2016

To Choose or Not to Choose … A Director, That Is!

This is the first of a two-part series on thesis and dissertation director styles and different models of working together. We hope to help those beginning their thesis or dissertation can choose their best director for the long haul. In this post, I will use the terms directoradvisor, and supervisor interchangeably; in the second post, I will offer my thoughts on some possible differences in those terms’ meanings.

Lack of Direction in Choosing a Director

I don't know about you, but I never thought about a director's "style" when I began my dissertation. Some time into my project, I joined the MOOC "How to Survive Your PhD," which covered the topic. Since then, I've noticed that publications discuss director styles only briefly, if at all. In The Portable Dissertation Advisor, Miles T. Bryant talks about the importance of one’s thesis or dissertation advisor, saying that the “advisor is a key factor” in a student’s overall program (4). Then he quickly moves to topic selection and components of the study.

And I recall having a hard time choosing my dissertation director. In my department, I felt comfortable with any faculty member within or near my field of study. I held great respect for all the professors who could have directed my study. I finally chose my director based on our coinciding interests as well as her expertise in such matters, which is actually quite logical! Plus, I wrote the term paper that led to my dissertation topic in her class, so I felt she had a stake in the project. I learned along the way, however, that I got lucky in terms of my director’s style, and our compatible working styles, considering some of the unpleasant stories I've heard from students all over.

So How Should You Choose a Director?

I've found that writers on this topic mostly agree: students typically choose an advisor based on departmental hearsay. I'm wondering if this is a good method, as my experience differed from some of the stories I'd heard "around."

However, R. Murray Thomas and Dale L. Brubaker, authors of Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing, state that departmental buzz is a good method of determining how a director will direct, and they list “fellow graduate students who are farther along than you are” as one of the “best sources of information about advising styles,” which includes professors “who are willing to talk about their colleagues’ modes of guidance” as the second best source (11).

Okay: maybe getting other peoples’ input on your prospective directors is the place to start, but I still wish to give you ideas on how to assess a director’s style with a bit more precision.

What to Ask Regarding Different Styles

Thomas and Brubaker say that “at one end of a monitoring scale” there are advisors who “closely control each phase of the student’s effort”; while at the other “end of the scale,” some directors may simply “tell students to work things out [… even] to finish a complete draft of the project before handing it in for inspection” (10).

Wow, that's quite a range! I’ll bet that most advisors fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but I would definitely recommend asking your director how often and at which stage/s he or she will want to monitor your writing.

Thomas and Brubaker also point out that directors “vary in how available they are when students need them” (10), and that professors “differ in the way they offer advice and criticism” (11).

Again, these are good topics to ask prospective advisors about, though I'd guess that some professors may not agree exactly with the general opinion as to how they assess student work :)

A Link to One Supervisor's Thoughts on Best Style

And what are directors' thoughts on this issue? We should probably ask ours, but I've got one source handy. Dr. Inger Mewburn is the author of The Thesis Whisperer blog and has worked with thesis and dissertation writers for over ten years. In one of her posts called “Supervisor or Superhero,” Mewburn addresses the expectations and concerns of advisors or, to use her term, "supervisors," on this matter.

In this post, Mewburn first mildly chastises supervisors who stop learning about their role; she feels it is their duty to always improve in that capacity as in any other. Next she includes an expert’s checklist of the things that supervisors should do and know. Here, Mewburn becomes reflexive, wondering whether she herself needs more training or if those particular demands are just too great for one person. Finally, she borrows a student’s comparison of a supervisor to Rupert Giles from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer series, saying that Giles models the best director style. Read Mewburn's post to get her take on the topic.

What Can Directors Do to Help?

The Oxford Learning Institute insists that directors explore “with students their expectations of supervisory style, so that any differences in styles do not lead to miscommunication.” 

The Oxford Learning Institute further refers to a study of four main supervisory styles, which are detailed on the Australian National University website and plotted on a quadrant by coordinates of how much support and how much structure a director offers the writer (e.g., high support with low structure vs. high support with high structure, etc.). Click the ANU link if you want to learn more.

The ANU writers also believe that mentoring characteristics, such as long-term interest, enthusiasm, and sensitivity to a student’s personal and professional needs, are even more valuable than any supervisory traits are for most students. 

The Take-Away, "Writer" (?) Beware

If your prospective director doesn't bring up any of the above issues, you should. Do your research, ask questions, and try to select a director that matches your needs and style. I’m glad my director is supportive, helpful, and understanding; however, you might want an advisor with a different style. I believe that with some knowledge and probing, any “pairing” should work--at least, it should work better--when we students know a little bit more about what to expect.

Please share your ideas or stories of your experience if you'd like (no professor names, please!).


  1. Dissertation thesis writing is a very high standard form of academic writing. Students as well as teachers take this form of writing seriously. The term ‘Dissertation thesis’ tells you two things. The first is that it is a dissertation, and the second is that it is thesis writing. See more fix my essay

  2. Though your entire article was amazing but Lack of Direction in Choosing a Director was the best and the most interesting point i liked your post very much