What You Want in an Advisor

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn to identify the type of academic and professional support that you are looking for in an advisor.


“For whatever reason, I didn't succumb to the stereotype that science wasn't for girls. I got encouragement from my parents. I never ran into a teacher or a counselor who told me that science was for boys. A lot of my friends did.” - Sally Ride

What is an Advisor?

Before you decide whether or not you have the right advisor, it is important to understand what exactly an advisor’s role is supposed to be.

An advisor serves as the primary guide to the academic requirements of your program, the dissertation process, and as a vital source of academic and professional opportunities (e.g., publications and employment). He or she might also be your boss and possibly even your visa sponsor.

It is important to distinguish between your advisor’s official responsibilities and your own expectations. Official advisory roles will vary according to your program, but some examples include:

Official responsibilities

  • Answering your questions about academic and program requirements
  • Signing administrative paperwork
  • Serving on your committee (usually as your committee chair)
  • Advising you on the dissertation process

Unofficial advisory responsibilities

  • Providing opportunities for co-authorship
  • Helping you find academic and professional opportunities
  • Helping you build a career network

What is Good Advising?

Advisors will range from micromanaging to laissez-faire when it comes to their involvement in the academic and professional development of their advisees. An advisory style that works well for one student might not work well for another.

Research indicates that the quality of the relationship a student has with an advisor is related to the likelihood that she will complete her doctoral program.1It is important to choose your advisor with care (if possible) and to make this relationship work to your benefit.

People often say they have productive relationships with advisors who have the following qualities or attributes.1,2These range from what should be expected of an advisor to what might seem ideal.

Which of the following resonate with you? Which do you have, and which do you need? Please rate each item on a 1 to 5 scale (1 = “I completely agree,” 3 = “I neither agree nor disagree," 5 = “I completely disagree”):

  • Provides constructive feedback and guidance
  • Offers direct feedback on overall progress and performance in your program
  • Is accessible when you need him or her
  • Intellectually challenges you
  • Facilitates professional socialization (i.e., fosters collaboration)
  • Treats you as a junior colleague
  • Helps you troubleshoot when things aren’t working right
  • Is patient when you mess up and focuses on what you do right
  • Respects your limitations
  • Has a personality style and/or work style that is compatible with your own
  • Takes an interest in your personal development
  • Takes an interest in your intellectual development
  • Takes an interest in your professional development
  • Shares your professional interests
  • Supports your career goals
  • Is reputable in the field
  • Is well-liked by other students and faculty
  • Is your most dedicated advocate3

Some of the characteristics listed above may not mean very much to you, whereas others may be crucial to your success in graduate school and beyond. Those you have identified as unmet by your advisor are the ones to pay attention to. Seek help in these areas, either by developing your advising relationship further or by seeking alternative guidance, such as from a mentor.

What is Poor Advising?

While many female students report very positive experiences with their advisors, some students experience very unhelpful and strained advisory relationships:4,5

If your advisor..

  • Has very high demands of you, but does not fulfill his or her responsibilities to you
  • Constantly belittles or criticizes your work without providing you with any helpful advice
  • Often makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Provides you with little feedback or academic opportunities
  • Makes you do tasks that are not within the scope of your responsibilities (like laundry, coffee-making, or cleaning)
  • You might want to consider having a talk with him or her about improving your working relationship, seeking other forms of mentoring, and possibly switching advisors.

See the CareerWISE module How to Help Your Advisor Help You to learn about what you can do to build a strong and effective relationship with your advisor.


True or False? Students who rate their relationships with their advisors as less-than-satisfactory are less likely to complete their graduate programs.

True. Research has shown that one’s relationship with their advisor plays a significant role on their persistence through graduate school. Effective advisors help with much more than administrative tasks. The following sections will explain the roles and duties of a good advisor in more detail.


  1. Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Zhao, C. M., Golde, C. M., & McCormick, A. C. (2007). More than a signature: How advisor choice and advisor behavior affect doctoral student satisfaction. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31, 263-281. doi:10.1080/03098770701424983
  3. Bargar, R. R. & Mayo-Chamberlain, J. (1983). Advisor and advisee issues in doctoral education. Journal of Higher Education, 54, 407-432.
  4. Etzkowitz, H., Kemelgor, C., & Uzzi, B. (2000). Athena unbound: The advancement of women in science and technology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Preston, A. E. (2004). Leaving science: Occupational exit from scientific careers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Special Characteristics of Your Advisor and Struggling with Life Balance Issues
Advisor's experiences encourage well-informed career decisions.

Pros and Cons of an International Advisor
Experiences with an international advisor.

Developing a Scientific Identity in an Advisor's Shadow
Challenges faced with establishing yourself as an independent researcher separate from an influential advisor.

Hearing from Students and Having an Impact
The importance of giving back to students and making an impact in their future education and career choices.

Options for Support
Urges students to seek multiple campus resources for support.

Advisor Issues
How a positive advisor challenged his students to think for themselves.

Persuading an Advisor
Suggestions for defining research.

Key Elements in Good Advising
The importance of being open and honest with your advisor.

Lack of Women Role Models
The importance of sharing stories of sexual harassment with others and realizing that you are not alone.


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