Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing

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Fields of interest and expertise

Obviously, the closer an advisor’s area of expertise is to your research problem,
the better equipped she or he will be to identify difficulties you may encounter,
recommend sources of information pertinent to your topic, and guide your choice
of methods for gathering and interpreting data. There are several ways to learn
about faculty members’ specializations–the titles and contents of classes they
teach, their published books and articles, the topics of theses and dissertations
produced under their guidance, other staff members’ opinions, and other students’
experiences with those faculty members.

The task of deciding how well a potential advisor’s interests and skills suit
your needs is likely easiest if you already have a specific research problem
in mind, or at least if you have identified the general realm you hope to explore.
If you have no inkling of the kind of topic on which your study will focus,
then the next of our selection criteria–style of advising–may become your
primary concern.

Style of advising

Professors vary greatly in how they work with students on theses and dissertations.
Those at one end of a monitoring scale closely control each phase of the student’s
effort, in some cases dictating what is to be done at every step, then requiring
the student to hand in each portion of material for evaluation and correction.
Advisors at the opposite end of the scale tell students to work things out pretty
much by themselves and to finish a complete draft of the project before handing
it in for inspection.
Advisors also vary in how available they are when students need them. Some are
frequently away from the campus. Some require students to make an appointment
with a department secretary several days or weeks ahead of time in order to
confer about the individual’s research. Others allow students to drop by the
office or to phone any time they need help. Some answer queries only in their
office. Others permit students to phone them at home.

Professors also differ in the way they offer advice and criticism. Some are
blunt about the shortcomings of a student’s effort, perhaps derisive and abusive.
Others are direct in pointing out weaknesses in the candidate’s work, but they
do so in a kindly, understanding manner, recognizing that doing serious research
is a new endeavor for the student and that mistakes along the way are not only
expected but can function as valuable learning opportunities. Yet others are
so cautious about potentially hurting a student’s feelings that they are reluctant
to point out weaknesses in the project and thereby fail to guide their advisees
toward correcting the shortcomings of their efforts.

Consequently, you will likely find it useful to learn ahead of time about faculty
members’ styles of directing theses and dissertations–about how closely they
monitor steps in the process, how available they are to offer help, and how
skillfully they identify deficiencies and suggest solutions without unduly damaging
students’ egos.

Your best sources of information about advising styles are usually (a) fellow
graduate students who are farther along than you are in the thesis or dissertation
process and (b) other professors whom you know personally and who are willing
to talk about their colleagues’ modes of guidance.

Click here to read the complete version of Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing at

Attitudes toward topics and methodology

Faculty members often disagree about what constitutes proper research. Consequently,
you might end up with an advisor whose notions of suitable research topics and
methods of investigation are at odds with your own beliefs. Therefore, three
types of information you may wish to seek are your potential advisors’ views
of (a) quantitative-versus-qualitative methods, (b) positivism-versuspostmodernism
perspectives, and (c) basic-versus-applied research.


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