Seven Principles of Humane PhD Advising (guest post by Eric Schwitzgebel)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/02/2019 - 3:26am in


PhD, writing

The following is a guest post* by Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California, Riverside). It originally appeared at his blog, The Splintered Mind.

[drawing by Lui Ferreyra]

Seven Principles of Humane PhD Advising
by Eric Schwitzgebel

It’s difficult to be a PhD student. One’s entire future career prospects depend on (or seem to depend on) one’s ability to please and impress one’s dissertation advisor. This generates a lot of stress and a weird power dynamic between student and advisor. Also, one needs to build a new life and a new social network in a new town, during a time in life when social support is often crucial. And one probably wants one’s dissertation to be the best most wonderful awesome thing one has ever written in one’s life, despite never having had any experience writing anything as long and ambitious. Ouch!

In many ways, being a PhD student is a wonderful and amazing thing, but given the above, humane PhD advising is called for—not harshness or rigidity.

Here are seven principles to consider, if you are a PhD advisor, or maybe to hope for in a PhD advisor, if you are student.

(1) Don’t take more than a month to return comments on written drafts. We advisors have a lot to do — the book contract, the grant deadline, the trip to Germany. But it’s our responsibility to give our students comments in a timely fashion. Next month will be busy too, and putting it off won’t actually reduce the overall load unless you are slow enough to discourage students from showing their work very often (and I don’t think that’s what we should normally want). Taking three months to return comments risks slowing down your student’s progress by a whole semester. The student might not prod you. They might say it’s fine, no hurry — but take that with a grain of salt, given the power relations. Find the time.

(2) Don’t assume that your student wants to be a superstar researcher. If you’re supervising PhD students, you probably see the academic world through the lens of research, and you probably esteem other professors in your field mostly in proportion to the strength of their research. It’s great if one of your students lands a job at a research university! It’s good, but nothing special, if they land a job at a non-research-focused teaching-intensive university. If they end up teaching at a two-year community college, well, that’s maybe a disappointment? Of course some students do really want top research jobs and really would be disappointed to teach at a community college. It’s kind of in the air, in grad programs, that a research career is the ideal. But not all students want that. Most of world’s professors work in teaching-intensive schools rather than powerhouse research universities — and that’s great. I love to hear it when students tell me that they’d rather teach community college than land a job at Harvard. If you assume that all of your students want to be superstar researchers, you contribute to a competitive and high-pressure environment in which teaching careers are devalued, students who don’t appear to be on a research-career trajectory are perceived as disappointing, and students may not feel comfortable honestly sharing their non-research career goals with their professors. All of this unfair and disheartening. (Of course, it’s terrific when a student aims for a stellar research career and achieves it. I’m just saying don’t assume that’s what your students want, and don’t push those expectations on them.)

(3) Don’t pressure your students to work more quickly. Sure, the university might want to see them finish in five years. But you should be the advocate of your students’ interests against the university, rather than vice versa. Life happens. Depression. Writer’s block. Parenthood. Second thoughts and half-pursued career changes. Financial trouble. Illness. A rare and exciting opportunity to see Brazil with their sister. The situation is stressful enough for them without their advisor’s giving them time pressure too. You might think it’s in their interest to work more quickly; and maybe it is. But rather than take a harsh or paternalistic approach, pressuring them to work faster “for their own good”, let them decide what pace works for them. With perfect neutrality, help them finish quickly if that’s what they want; and let them take their time if that’s what they want.

(4) Remember that your student is already excellent. It is so hard to gain admissions into a good PhD program these days that only excellent students are able to do so. They might not know how to write a dissertation yet, and they won’t have as deep an understanding as you do of the research methods and the existing literature in your subfield. But I’ve yet to meet a PhD student who didn’t have the potential to be a terrific scholar and teacher. There’s no need for weeding them out or trying to figure out who are the strong vs. the weak ones. Instead, help each of your amazing students more fully realize the excellence they already have.

(5) Evaluate the work, not the student. Evaluation is the constant duty of a professor. But focus your evaluation on the student’s work rather than on the student’s ability or overall quality. Excellent scholars sometimes produce mediocre work, especially when they’re under pressure or trying something new. No biggie! (Reminder: Your student is under pressure and trying something new.) If a student feels that everything they produce will be evaluated as a sign of their genius or (more likely) lack of genius, the atmosphere will be one of anxiety, pressure, perfectionism, defensiveness, and competitiveness. Eventually, of course, the core parts of the student’s dissertation will have to be excellent, but that’s at the end of the PhD program. Assuming that your student is a human being, their work along the way will have its ups and downs, and some of it will have to be discarded or will need at lot of revision, especially if they’re creative, adventuresome, and open to risk. How are they going to get helpful feedback if they feel that you are so constantly judging them that they dare not show you material unless they feel it’s already near perfect?

(6) A hoop is just a hoop. A class is just a class. A draft is just a draft. Help them move efficiently through requirements (without pressuring them to do so (#3)). The standard should be adequacy rather than exceptional brilliance. If your student feels a need to prove their genius at every step, it should be no surprise if they’re stressed out, taking incompletes, prepping far too long for their quals, etc. Since they’re already excellent (#4), if you’ve been a good advisor and if too many uncontrollable life changes haven’t happened, their dissertation will be excellent at the end, when it’s finished (#5).

(7) Be ever mindful of the asymmetry of power. The extreme asymmetry can be easy for advisors to forget, especially for those of us who regard ourselves as egalitarians and who like to be on a friendly, first-name basis with our students. What you “lightly” request might be experienced as compulsion. You might casually criticize, or tease, or razz them as you would a peer, but the effects of such casual remarks can be much more devastating, disruptive, or disorienting than you realize. If a full professor says to another full professor working in the same field “that’s obviously wrong” or “that’s stupid”, that might just be an occasion for friendly disagreement; not with a student whose whole career depends on your opinion.


All of these principles are defeasible, of course. They represent my perspective on being a humane PhD advisor. I might be wrong, and I might be much less humane than I think I am or than I hope to be. (My grad students say they find me to be a good advisor, but given the power dynamics they might feel compelled to say that. Few of us really know, I think, how good we are as advisors.)

One disadvantage of my adherence to (7) above, I suspect, is that I’m less chummy with my students than some other advisors are. Socializing, inviting students to my house, sharing details of our personal lives, etc., feels slightly strange to me given the power dynamic — is the “friendliness” free or compelled? I feel like I can’t know, and that uncertainty keeps me always slightly guarded and formal. I can only hope I’m not too standoffish as a result.

One disadvantage of my adherence to (2) and (5) above, I suspect, is that the stronger students receive from me less of an encouraging vibe of “you’re the best, you’re going to be a superstar researcher” than they might hope or expect. All my students are excellent and I prefer not to rank them in my mind. Before anointing one as the next research superstar, let’s see how the dissertation turns out in the end. Nor do I especially value research excellence over teaching excellence.

When I think back on how warm and friendly and encouraging my father was with his strongest students (not PhD students in his case, but Master’s), I somewhat regret my restraint in both of these respects. There is, I suppose, no perfect solution but instead a range of tradeoffs that can reasonably be weighed differently.

The post Seven Principles of Humane PhD Advising (guest post by Eric Schwitzgebel) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Book Review: Taking Control of Writing Your Thesis: A Guide to Get You to the End by Kay Guccione and Jerry Wellington

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 02/02/2019 - 1:20am in



In Taking Control of Writing Your Thesis: A Guide to Get You to the End, Kay Guccione and Jerry Wellington provide doctoral students nearing the end of their dissertations with a practical guide to taking charge of their thesis. Abha Rai strongly recommends the easy-to-read, conversational style of the book and its approach to real-world challenges to all doctoral students looking for writing support. 

Taking Control of Writing Your Thesis: A Guide to Get You to the End. Kay Guccione and Jerry Wellington. Bloomsbury. 2017.

Find this book: amazon-logo

Kay Guccione and Jerry Wellington stay true to the title of their book, Taking Control of Writing Your Thesis, until the end. From the very first until the very last chapter, the authors provide numerous examples of impediments that may cross your path as a doctoral student. But the book exactly reflects the authors’ sentiments that ‘they don’t intend to put obstacles in [the students’] way without acknowledging that they can be overcome with some considered thinking and planning’. The main objective of the book is to provide doctoral students who are nearing the end of their doctoral journey with a practical and easy guide to take charge and control of their thesis. The easy-to-read and conversational style of the book will definitely draw readers to it.

Writing and publishing are seen as the biggest ‘currency’ in academia. Doctoral students across disciplines are pressured to write as this may be one of the only ways in which they may be deemed ‘productive’. However, this pressure to be ‘productive’ without a defined pathway may increase stress among doctoral students. The simplicity and practicality with which Guccione and Wellington deconstruct the process of writing for doctoral students really stood out for me.

Furthermore, doctoral students struggle to manage their time and face imposter syndrome, difficulty with words, a lack of commitment and self-doubt. This book in my view is a good step-by-step guide to conquering these fears and engaging in effective writing, time management and the overall organisation necessary for an advanced doctoral candidate. The simple tactics from the authors, such as finding the right spot to write, setting goals and realistic timelines, seemed refreshingly useful. The more I read this book, the easier it has been for me to acknowledge the fears and the challenges I face and eventually believe that I don’t have to be terrified of my dissertation.

The most important suggestion about writing that resonated with me was to include it within a daily or weekly schedule and not wait for the ‘right time to start writing’. Often, in an attempt to carve out the perfect manuscript or dissertation chapter, doctoral students wait for the ‘right time’ or the ‘ideal day’ to start writing. However, in all practicality and honesty, trying to find this ‘right time’ is a rather tedious and almost impossible task. Therefore, building in some daily writing time (about 30 minutes) allows for constant progress and minimises the risk of procrastination.

Image Credit: (congerdesign CCO)

Real-world challenges, such as the difficulty in articulating one’s thoughts, lack of support from one’s advisor and being isolated in the doctoral journey, are extensively discussed by the authors. What I liked most was that each of these was deconstructed for students with solutions that could be effectively applied to overcome difficulties. For example, Chapter One focuses on the various facets and intricacies of the relationship between a student and advisor and how boundaries can be set as a foundation for a productive relationship. They advise establishing clear expectations with the dissertation chair or supervisor, along with having a road-map for achieving those. The authors also go a step further by providing templates and specific language that can be used by students to contact their advisors. Utilising these can be a good starting point for doctoral students who are struggling with issues pertaining to their supervisors.

Chapter Two discusses various writing milestones that students can set in order to move forward with their writing. Setting these markers is particularly important for doctoral students as they tend to feel isolated and sometimes experience self-doubt during their doctoral journeys. Having specific milestones attached to well-mapped timelines, as the authors suggest, will be advantageous to students by enabling them to stay organised. The parallel process of reading and writing that the authors discuss in Chapter Six will also be especially helpful for doctoral students starting to organise their writing schedule. The critical questioning techniques that the authors provide throughout their book, and more specifically in Chapter Six, will prove useful in linking the research to the writing, which is often a challenge for doctoral students.

Continuing this review without sharing the influence of this book in my personal work will undermine its utility. Therefore, I will reflect on some of the ways I implemented the suggestions made by the authors. I can vouch for how many times as a doctoral student one hears the question: ‘Why can’t you just get your dissertation done?’ When colleagues known to me were asked this question – even by me a few times – little did I know the challenges of getting ‘it’ done. Being in the same spot now, I realise the pressures, apprehensions, fears and difficulties one may have about getting down to writing. This book has come in handy in many such times of uncertainty that I have faced.

I read this book about six months ago for the very first time, and have been skimming through it ever since, re-reading certain parts that seem relevant to me. I use this book as a point of reference almost every time I get ‘stuck’ with writing or am overwhelmed with my schedule. I first started reading this book around the time I was taking my qualifying exams for my own doctoral programme. In close adherence to what the authors propose, I first developed a writing schedule and a plan for writing before actually beginning the exam. The writing schedule helped me stay focused, because I knew that there was no reason for me to get overwhelmed or stressed. If I stuck to my plan, I would be able to easily accomplish my writing goals for my exam and allow for sufficient time to review my work.

After my qualifying exams, when I started working on my dissertation proposal, I found the instructions and steps generously provided by the authors helpful in structuring a competent proposal. Their step-by-step process allowed me the opportunity to break down building a proposal into manageable micro-milestones. Therefore, overall, I believe that the book is a reference guide that can be used by doctoral candidates in any field and at any stage of their journey. I would go further and suggest that if this book were made available to doctoral students just beginning their studies, I believe it could positively impact their productivity and writing style.

Using this textbook as a reference guide will allow doctoral students to stay reflective and focused, while also finding ways to receive the validation they need through the practical approach followed by the authors. The blogs, social media platforms and other resources that the authors provide in the book are free and can be utilised by all doctoral students looking for any sort of writing support. The strategies for organising writing retreats and online writing groups are manageable and can most definitely be initiated by doctoral students. Overall, I strongly recommend this book to all doctoral students and even to early career professors. Following the suggestions made by the authors will certainly allow doctoral students to take control of writing their thesis and get it done.

Abha Rai is a current PhD candidate (ABD) at the University of Georgia, United States. She has over 12 years of extensive experience working with community-based organisations both in the US and India. She identifies as a feminist scholar and primarily focuses on domestic violence issues among South Asian immigrant communities residing in the US. She enjoys conducting both qualitative as well as quantitative research.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

2018 in review: round-up of our top posts for PhDs, postdocs and early-career researchers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 29/12/2018 - 10:00pm in

Transdisciplinary PhD programmes produce more high-impact publications and foster increased collaborations Traditional doctoral programmes require students to gain in-depth knowledge in one subject area. Transdisciplinary programmes aim to foster synthesis across disciplines and focus on translating research findings into real-world solutions, helping students to develop a professional disciplinary identity that is enhanced by multidisciplinary methods and theories. Anna-Sigrid Keck, Stephanie Sloane, Janet M. […]