In the darkest depths of my dissertation, when I was so close to done writing but totally done emotionally, my mom asked me why this process had to be so damn hard. Because I am who I am (i.e. obnoxious and long-winded), I went on a long ramble about academia as an apprenticeship model wherein the PhD candidate is an apprentice scholar to the professor, etcetera, etcetera.
My mother, who has worked for various unions most of her life, said, “But other apprenticeship professions, like machinists or pipefitters don’t work that way.” And that’s the moment I realized that, perhaps alone in the modern world, academia clings to a truly medieval model of apprenticeship and professionalism.
Within this model, the figure of one’s dissertation chair/advisor is crucial. Your dissertation advisor has an immense amount of power of your life. They can play a crucial role in whether or not you get funding from your institution, in your professionalization, and in your chances on the job market. That, of course, is all above and beyond the process of them actually helping you get your dissertation written.
In theory, we have dissertation committees to lessen what would be the advisor’s totalitarian grip over their advisees’ lives. The committee is there to provide other feedback and, if necessary, challenge the advisor on the student’s behalf from their more equal footing as fellow faculty.
In reality, some committees work this way and some don’t. I’ve had at least one faculty member tell me that, when she’s on a dissertation committee, she always votes the way that the chair votes because she figures the chair knows the project, and the field, best. On the other hand, I know of one person whose advisor developed a personal vendetta against them and tried to tank their career. The only thing that got that person through their defense was an outside committee member standing up to the chair.
I bring up this seeming aside on the power of committee chairs, and the varying efficacy of committee’s, because many of us go into academia thinking we will find a dissertation chair who will be a mentor to us. They will be the ultimate teacher and we their ultimate student. But that’s just not how it works the majority of the time. I, personally, have never seen that idealized type of relationship in person which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist, just that it’s not as normal as movies would make you think.
In reality, your dissertation advisor may be a good fit for the subject matter of your thesis but not for you personally. The inverse is equally likely. I know of more than one case where a person went into a program and had a fabulous year working with their dream advisor when that person got a better job and left leaving their students with whoever was left in the department to pick up the pieces. The long and the short of it is that your dissertation advisor is, at the end of the day, every bit as human as you are. It’s unfair to expect any one person to be all the things we need–especially in a project as vast and varied as a dissertation.
I’ve become convinced that no one gets through their dissertation without having a balance of three types of support: mentors, sponsors, and fans.
In an ideal world you would have all three of these represented on your committee. But the world is often less than ideal.
Just because you don’t have all three types of support on your committee doesn’t mean you won’t have all three types of support.
So, just what are these types of support?
The mentor is the figure we’re all most familiar with. The mentor is someone we listen to and learn from. They’ve been where we want to go and they know how to get there. In my dissertation process my chair was an exceptional writing mentor. She never judged my progress, or lack thereof. She freely shared her own frustrations with the writing process and the tools she used to work around them.
It is likely, in your journey from ABD to PhD that you will need several mentors for different parts of the profession. For instance, during my MA I had an amazing teaching mentor. Because of what I learned from her I went into my PhD program prepared to teach and didn’t suffer a significant loss of productivity due to teaching while dissertating.
As important as mentors are, you will also need sponsors.
Sponsors are the folks who open doors for you. I had two significant sponsors throughout my PhD. One was the head of the program at the time I was admitted. Without her, I would never have secured funding to attend the program. She leveraged her personal relationships at the institution to help me find funding and make my dream of getting a PhD a reality.
The second sponsor was my undergraduate mentor who went out of her way to connect me to people and opportunities she knew would benefit my research.
Sponsors are harder to find than mentors but they are worth it. I’d love to give you advice here about how to find sponsors but I really don’t know. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the sponsors I have and I sort of stumbled into them. All I can really say is work hard, follow your interests, be kind and someone will take notice and try to help you out. If anyone has a better idea of how to recruit sponsors please share in the comments below.
Finally, there are fans. Well, I call them fans, I think mentorship literature more commonly calls them “cheerleaders.” These are the people who celebrate your work and give you the strength to keep going when shit gets rough.
Throughout most of my PhD program the fans of my work were not professional academics but were, most often, my students and people in the community outside of campus. When I would share my work in-class with my students, or when I would share it at an event like 3MT, the encouraging comments I received helped me remember that my work was worth something to people outside of academia. Without that I think I would have walked away much sooner.
You’ll notice, in the above examples, that I found two out of three of these types of mentors outside of my PhD program. While I’m convinced that everyone needs to have some mentors, sponors, and fans, they don’t all have to be on your committee, or even in a PhD program.