How Much Will Your Advisor Help You With Your Dissertation?

This blog post was written by my dad, Dr. Stephen B. Smith, an animal science professor at Texas A&M University. For more information on his incredible life’s work, see here. To date, I’ve gotten exactly 0 clients from him; I’ve never managed to work that angle! He’s been working with grad students my whole life. Below, he shares what you should expect from your dissertation advisor.

PhD and MS advisors have certain expectations as to the independence and responsibilities of students when writing their dissertations. One of the greatest compliments an advisor can give is that “my student is a self-starter who requires little supervision,” which places a heavy burden on the student. Very early in the student’s graduate program, the advisor and student should discuss expectations for dissertation and manuscript preparation but often, this isn’t done.

 Here are some general expectations for how much assistance the student should receive from their advisor.


The graduate student certainly should take full responsibility for analyzing and interpretating their data. But, interpreting data often is difficult for someone early in their scientific career, and it takes some deep diving into the new as well as older literature. Advisors will usually want to help students intepret data. Students will want to heavily cite their advisor’s publications to make use of work and data interpretation that the advisor has already done.

Advisors are responsible for making their students better scientific writers, which means heavy editing and quick turnaround. Advisors and students should do a lot of “chalkboarding” before the actual writing begins; the wisdom brought by the advisor should be shared with the graduate student.

 Advisors are expected to review manuscripts submitted by other institutions for publication in various journals. They’ve probably seen some really excellent manuscripts (which are rare), some mediocre manuscripts (the usual case), and some pretty awful manuscripts (how did this even get submitted!?). The advisors have learned a great deal from this activity, and they should impart this wisdom to their graduate students.

However, it should be emphasized that the graduate student has primary responsibility for writing the dissertation. Make the deadlines set by yourself or the advisor, and certainly don’t expect to prepare an acceptable dissertation at the very last minute.

One more tip: don’t forget to heavily cite the advisor’s publications! 

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