Degree In Sight

You want to write a dissertation on a subject close to your heart, but your adviser has different ideas. What can you do? Hone your methodology, ground your research in the literature and be prepared to compromise, experts say--but hold onto your passion. You may find a way to meld your interests with your adviser's. But if attempts at compromise fail, don't be afraid of switching to an adviser who is more supportive, experts advise.


In some cases, an adviser might discourage you from pursuing a line of research because it is too far from the adviser's interests and expertise. Put yourself in your adviser's shoes, suggests Donna Davenport, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at Texas A&M University. Dissertation advising is, for the most part, charity work. While good students can burnish a successful academic's career, professional advancement ultimately depends on publications. This is particularly true for untenured junior professors who are still trying to establish reputations in their chosen fields.

So if you really want to work with an adviser whose research interests differ from your own, find a way to bring your project closer to his or her interests. For example, if you're interested in Latina issues but you want to work with a professor who studies eating disorders-but has never worked with Latinas-you could suggest that your dissertation will generate at least one co-authored paper on eating disorders among Latinas, says Davenport.

However, advisers are sometimes limited in how far they can compromise when a student relies on tuition or stipend funding from an adviser's grant: The funding may require advisers to stick to their proposed path. In such cases--particularly once you are deeply into a graduate program--it might make sense to stick with your adviser's project and to pursue your personal interests on the side, says Davenport.

Lack of communication can also hinder positive student-adviser relations. Erin Harrell, a fourth-year graduate student at Florida State University, says she has struggled to complete her master's thesis because her adviser, who had approved the initial study design, requested changes after the study was nearly completed. In such a situation, getting your adviser's expectations down in writing, even in an e-mail, can help clear up misunderstandings, says Davenport. It can also serve as an informal contract that can be referred to later. Seeking help from a departmental or university ombudsman or switching to a new adviser--which may be easier than it seems--are other possible solutions.

Harrell plans to complete her master's thesis with her current adviser but is unsure about her future plans. She says her experience has convinced her above all of the importance of networking.

"It's very important for students to build a strong rapport with other faculty members, just in case something does arise further down the line," Harrell says.


Switching advisers worked well for Jennifer Wilson, a second-year graduate student in counseling psychology at the University of Akron. Wilson realized at the beginning of her first year that her assigned adviser, while supportive, didn't share her enthusiasm about combining research and practice and using qualitative methods.

After talking to upper-level students and faculty members, Wilson switched to a new adviser whose interests more closely matched her own.

Many students fear that switching to a new adviser will offend the old adviser and possibly have serious career repercussions. Wilson's experience, and the advice of experts, suggests otherwise.

Although there has been some social awkward-ness as a result of her switch, Wilson says, her old adviser remains a member of her thesis committee and has consistently supported her desire to pursue her interests.

"He did a good job of making me feel in control--that if I wanted to change advisers, I could," she says.

Wilson's positive experience matches how most professors view a possible switch, says Davenport, who has advised about 35 students over her career and has sat on the committees of more than 150 students. Most professors recognize that undermining a student who chooses to work with someone else is a violation of professional ethics.

In her own department, says Davenport, "For the student to switch and for the professor to then in any way retaliate just wouldn't happen. It's understood that professors may have biases, but you can't punish students for not sharing them."

Of course, there are better and worse ways of changing advisers. The better ways involve being respectful, listening carefully and being prepared to compromise, says Davenport. Before making the switch, Wilson consulted with her original adviser, several upper-level students, her prospective adviser and one of her prospective adviser's current advisees. (For more on switching advisers and mentors, see "Sticky situations in mentorships.")


Although switching advisers may be the best solution in some cases, less drastic measures are often sufficient to resolve differences between student and adviser.

If your adviser is concerned that you've chosen a research subject too closely related to your own identity, for example, it's often better to defend your methodology than to switch advisers or change to a subject you're less passionate about, experts say.

"What the student needs to do is indicate to the adviser that they're committed to conducting good research, and that though they have some biases, of course, they're open to whatever the data would suggest," says Davenport.

Your adviser, meanwhile, has both the power and the responsibility to ensure that your research is methodologically sound. Ultimately, learning to study objectively a subject that you are deeply invested in is part of socializing into the profession, says Davenport.

Many of Davenport's students have worked onsubjects close to their own identities--including women studying violence toward women, gay students studying homophobia and a student whose parents were murdered studying grieving in people whose family members have also been murdered. Rather than discouraging such research, Davenport says she tries to encourage pursuing it with methodological rigor.

"I would much prefer that students establish their professional identity in an area where they have enough momentum to get them through," says Davenport.

Philip Atiba Goff, PhD, a professor of social psychology at Pennsylvania State University who studies racial discrimination, received similar advice as a graduate student at Stanford University and now passes that advice on to his own students.

Doing successful research on a subject related to one's own identity, says Goff, who is African-American, depends on "keeping the methodology and the formal elements of the craft up front and tight."

Success also depends on learning to manage the "emotional work" of doing research that feels so personally urgent, says Goff. That includes recognizing, for example, that one cannot solve every problem in each publication and that rejections from journals, funding agencies or one's own adviser are not necessarily personal attacks.

"Managing that dance, positioning one's self in the face of one's own expectations and the expectations of one's colleagues is, to me, the hardest part of working in the same area as one's passions or one's identity," says Goff. Rather than discouraging such research, a good adviser--such as the one Goff had as a graduate student at Stanford--will provide guidance on how to combine your passion with methodological rigor, he says.

Etienne S. Benson is a writer in Cambridge, Mass.

“What the student needs to do is indicate to the adviser that they’re committed and that though they have some biases, of course, they’re open to whatever the data would suggest.”

Donna Davenport
Texas A&M University