What’s a PhD Advisor?

student with Phd advisor

PhD advisors, otherwise known as doctoral supervisors or dissertation advisors, play pivotal roles in helping doctoral students from the research phase of their PhD to preparing for their oral examination (PhD viva). Naturally, the academic faculty members play pivotal roles in guiding doctoral students through the labyrinth of their research journey. 

Doctoral students may only have one PhD advisor, but advisors take on a myriad of roles as they act in the capacity of a critic, mentor, and when it is called for, collaborator.

There are many intricacies to the multifaceted role; in this article, we will discuss the academic and non-academic influences advisors have on a doctoral student’s tenure. Even though every doctoral student and advisor works differently, on this page, we will also cover how to make the most out of the mentor-student dynamic and the limits on how much assistance a PhD advisor can provide.

What is a PhD Advisor?

Though the role of a PhD advisor may be many-sided and adaptable, in simple terms, they are there as guides to keep you on the right trajectory through your experience as a doctoral student.

It is their role to ensure your work meets credible academic standards, both to help you pass your oral examinations at the end of the PhD journey and to ensure a high calibre of research output for the university. Advisors also assist in aligning doctoral research with the department’s objectives, which, in turn, helps to attract a steady stream of research funding. 

However, as a doctoral student, you will need to bear in mind that you are expected to work on your own initiative, create your own deadlines, and organise your own schedule between checking in with your advisor and submitting written work at regular intervals. Always remember your advisor is there to help you overcome your hurdles, not do all the leg work for you. 

How Do PhD Advisors Support Doctoral Students?

As a PhD student, you should consider your advisors as the first port of call for all research-related queries. Aside from their obligation and responsibility to assist your research, which they took on when they agreed to become your supervisor, they are also experts in your academic field and have credible experience in researching it. More often than not, supervisors will have already assisted other students through their doctorate degrees and have a strong publication track record. 

As experienced and esteemed as the best PhD supervisors are, always remember that they are not experts in your particular topic – no one is, hence why your research proposal was accepted by the university.

It isn’t uncommon to find that advisors provide more assistance in the earlier stages of the PhD research process, whereas as your expertise starts to outshine your advisor’s, you will need to become more self-reliant, as the onus is on you to direct the line of inquiry through your research.

Here are just a few of the ways advisors can assist:

Advisors can help you to steer clear of academic ground that has already been covered to ensure your PhD presents original and creative knowledge.

  •     Advisors can help to refine research questions and develop the methodology you will use to answer your research questions.

  •     Advisors will provide feedback on your work at regular intervals to ensure that if you do veer off track, you will be back on the right course before you waste too much time exploring dead ends.

  •     Advisors will rigorously challenge your assumptions before pushing you to delve deeper into the research area they have academic credibility in.

  •     Advisors can point you in the right direction of valuable literature and help you find the right place to position your work within the academic conversation.

  •     After you have submitted your thesis, your advisor should help you to prepare for your oral examination by arranging mock oral examinations and getting you accustomed to defending your thesis. 

In addition to in-person meetings where your work is discussed, the basic expectations of a PhD supervisor also include reading drafts of your thesis and responding to your emails within a reasonable timeframe. 

 While some doctoral students want to meet their supervisor every month, others are happy to meet once every semester. There’s no hard and fast or one-size-fits-all rule for the best arrangements to make with your supervisor; the most important thing is to decide on a schedule which suits you.

Non-Academic Support

PhD advisors can provide invaluable networking support by introducing you to academics in your field, making you aware of conferences worth attending and encouraging collaborations, which may extend beyond your PhD. Even after you become a doctor, it can still be the case of “it’s not what you know, it is who you know”!

Aside from the academic support a PhD advisor provides, advisors should also be tuned into the non-academic needs of their research proteges. After all, the PhD path is not solely an intellectual challenge; it can present itself as an emotional and psychological marathon. If you encounter problems that seem insurmountable, your advisor is one of the best-placed people to prove that there is a way around the roadblocks, whatever they may be. 

PhD advisors aren’t only there if you hit a brick wall with your research, they can also assist with challenges unique to you and adopt a more holistic approach to their mentorship, should your academic life be negatively affected by other external factors.
However, while they can support you through the inevitable ups and downs of the research process, be wary of becoming wholly reliant on their advice on time management, work-life balance, and mental health support.

Boundaries of PhD Advisor Support

To ensure your professional relationship with your advisor remains positive and productive, it is crucial to understand the boundaries of PhD advisor support. For example:

  •     Advisors cannot carry out your research for you – independence is a key element to the research process.

  •     Advisors cannot roadmap every step you need to follow – finding your own path is crucial.

  •     Advisors are not proofreaders – they are there to improve the structure of your thesis, not improve the grammar and punctuation.

  •     Advisors should never be expected to tend to personal matters beyond the scope of the academic relationship.

  •     Advisors aren’t always available at the drop of a hat; they have their own research, teaching responsibilities and other advisees to tend to. Always be respectful of this and agree on a communication schedule which works for you both. 

Final Thoughts

PhD advisors shape the outcome of your research and your development as a scholar. Their critical thinking skills, competence in communicating academic ideas and ability to synthesise complex information are all skills you will want to be influenced by as you are working towards the completion of your PhD. 

They are so much more than an academic mentor, consider them as the cornerstone of your doctoral experience. Never forget the onus is on you to maximise the academic relationship, understand its limitations, and utilise the full spectrum of support. The PhD journey is yours to embark upon, but a savvy advisor is a compass that ensures you do not lose your way.



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