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A PhD advisor is someone who provides mentoring to a PhD candidate. The advisor helps the student develop a thesis, create a research plan, pursue grants, and successfully pass qualifying exams and other hurdles that arise in the process of obtaining a doctoral degree. The advisor is not a tutor; she provides guidance and assistance without making up for gaps in the student's education or experience. PhD students choose their own advisors and there are a number of things to take into account when seeking out an advisor.
A typical PhD advisor is a member of the faculty at the university the student is attending. Many students seek out advisors who are performing active research and may participate in the research being performed by their advisors as part of their theses. Competition for advising slots can be fierce if the faculty member is famous or popular with students, as professors need to limit the number of students they take on as advisees.
Students are expected to meet regularly with the PhD advisor, bringing evidence of their progress to the meetings so the advisor can confirm that the student is staying focused and on track. Advisors can offer recommendations for coursework and reading that students may find helpful, as well as helping students identify grants they may be qualified for. Students usually know what they want to do by the time they meet with a PhD advisor, but the advisor can help tighten the focus of the research and provide advice on properly formatting and submitting a PhD thesis, in addition to handling a thesis defense.
Typically, PhD advisors work in a similar area of interest as the students they supervise and have some experience in the area of research the student is performing. A history graduate student who plans to study the use of press-gangs in the 1800s, for example, would probably not work with someone who specializes in Ancient Chinese history. The PhD advisor can also provide students with valuable connections including access to archives, laboratory facilities, and other academics that the advisor has an existing relationship with.
When looking for a PhD advisor, students look for professors who are actively performing research in an area the student is interested in. Students tend to seek out advisors with a good reputation at the university and they may meet with several faculty members to discuss the possibility of working with them. This gives students a chance to see if they get along with a potential advisor, and offers advisors and students an opportunity to interact and see if the student's research plans are a good fit with the advisor's experience and interests.