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How to Deal with a Difficult Dissertation Advisor?

EF_Team [Moderator] 41 / 222 15  
Oct 12, 2006   #1
How many of us have shown up to an advisor meeting with a stack of carefully acquired research and a stunning first draft, only to be met with criticism and critique? Few things can crush our pride faster. But Professor Devil's Advocate must not be allowed to bring us down. We have worked too hard to allow that to happen..

The first thing we must remember is that which we have probably heard many a time from Professor Bringdown. "I'm only trying to make your argument stronger," he says, or something to that general effect. Well, he's right. But before you ask me whose side I'm actually on here, let me qualify that. The good Professor's heart is in the right place. He knows that someone may ask you the same questions during your defense, and he would rather you have time to think about and investigate your answer. The problem is that no one has informed him of a little thing called positive reinforcement. He believes that by telling you all the things that are wrong with your argument, that you can fix them. He may be right. But a lack of confidence in your work is not going to help you to stand behind it when that day comes to do so.

The sad truth is, he is not going to change. No matter how much you want such a thing to happen, you are not going to walk into his office tomorrow and find that it has instantly become the Land of Warm Fuzzies. So what's a student to do? Ask the Professor, your dissertation advisor, for a bit more support? Not this one. Honest emotional communication is not going to impress this particular pedagogical type. He will simply narrow his brows and tell you that he is not there to hold your hand but to challenge you academically. So basically, you have two choices. You can bend to his will and at least pretend that he's right, then go home and throw a dish or two, or stand your ground and attempt to win if not his unyielding support, then at least his respect.

The first option will make him feel better and will probably lead to a stronger dissertation, but in all honesty, it will be the hardest along the way. Only a student with a strong supply of inner self-confidence can look meekly at Professor Smartypants and say, "So what recommendations would you give for improvement of your dissertation?" when all you really want to tell him is how hard you worked and how many hours you spent and how dare he tell you it isn't acceptable. But if you are able to temporarily swallow that desire to clock him one, and instead dutifully take note of his suggestion, the next meeting will be much more palatable when he realizes that you have taken his suggestions to heart. Even if after incorporating them into your next draft, you used them to wrap your roommate's week-old tuna fish sandwich.

If, however, you have complete confidence in your opinion and know that you have something to say to him, well, more power to you. I'm sorry to say that you will still have to take note of the Professor's suggestions. But the next step is much more empowering. This is the option for the student who is not the appeasing type. Your take the good Professor's "suggestions" back to your research, and find reasons why your approach is valid or even provides new insight of which Prof. Difficult hadn't thought yet. And if it's your style that he is questioning, then go straight to the style manual and come up with a reason why you did things the way you did. Even if it was random. This professor will respect you if you show some mettle, even if he seems disgruntled at first. Either of these techniques will both strengthen your argument and, more importantly, your sanity.


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