How Do You Deal With A Thesis Advisor Who Won't Respond?

A frustrating situation that graduate students sometimes face is having problems with their advisor. Most advisors want to help graduate students and are actively engaged in this academic relationship. However, some graduate students are not so lucky and find themselves working with an advisor who does not respond to verbal or written communication or provide feedback on completed sections of the thesis. This can be a real challenge because the student may have completed all of the required courses, but is not getting feedback from the advisor, which is necessary for moving forward with the thesis. For example, the advisor may not respond to emails or return phone calls, and may even fail to show up for scheduled meetings. 

One option is for the student to politely and reasonably discuss with the advisor the possibility of changing to another faculty advisor. It is important to talk to the advisor before talking to others in the department so he or she doesn't feel blindsided and take offense (this could cause problems for you in your career, particularly if you are in a close-knit discipline). It can be easy to forget that faculty members have a life outside of the university, but students should keep in mind that the advisor may be facing difficult life experiences that are affecting work performance. Discussing concerns with the faculty member could give the advisor an opportunity to think about what is best for the student and how to improve the working relationship. Many departments have a small number of faculty members, so switching advisors may not be possible. In this case, there are several things students can do in an attempt to improve the situation.

First, the student can set up regular meetings with his or her advisor, such as meeting once or twice a week at the same time/day of the week. This can help both the student and advisor establish routine and move things forward. It also gives the student a deadline to focus on, such as writing the methods section, and gives the faculty member a deadline for providing feedback on completed work. If the advisor does not keep up with regular meetings or does not attend scheduled meetings or provide feedback, the student must track this in case s/he later feels he or she must change advisors and/or needs to speak to the Graduate Studies Chair about the situation. After talking with the advisor about any concerns, the student can talk to the Graduate Studies Chair. That person has likely worked with the advisor and can give the student suggestions to improve the situation, or can direct the student to other forms of assistance.

Again, before talking to administrators about the situation, the student needs to communicate his or her viewpoint to the advisor. The point is not to start an argument, but to let the advisor know what the student needs and to give the advisor a chance to respond. The faculty member may not be giving the feedback a student asks for because he/she thinks the student needs to figure it out independently as a scholar. As in any relationship, communication is an ongoing process and is important for moving forward in a healthy way.