In Your Advisor's Shoes
No, we're not talking about anything kinky. Take off your "student" hat and imagine the world from your advisor's perspective. It's unfortunate, but for many faculty, advising doesn't fall high on the list of priorities. It's not that they're evil; they're just being practical. Most academic institutions provide little to no recognition for advising students. Advising doesn't count towards salary increases, promotion, or prestige. Because of this, many faculty place their advising duties on the back burner, after tasks that are more critical to tenure and promotion (i.e., research). Yes, most faculty are interested in working with others on ground-breaking research, however few dissertations are of that magnitude. It's not fair, but unfortunately, it is often (though not always) the truth.
If you want to survive grad school and the dissertation process, you'll need to develop reasonable expectations of your advisor's role. It is difficult to develop realistic expectations because there are few recognized advising standards with which to measure your experience.
Most institutions set a general code of ethics and establish a quota on how many students an advisor can take on. Other than that, there are few guidelines. Some universities set general role descriptions, such as meet with students, read and return drafts in a reasonable amount of time, and monitor progress, but don't set more specific requirements. In addition, professors are not taught how to advise but learn on the fly, often using their own experiences as a guide. In some cases, advisors are just as clueless as students.
Protect Your Interests
Given this lousy state of advising affairs, graduate students must take an active role in planning their studies. Protect your career by gathering as much information as you can; be your own advisor. What does this mean? Take responsibility for discovering your degree requirements and for determining what experience you'll need to succeed in your chosen career. A variety of web and print resources exist for students who wish to succeed in grad school. Take advantage of these resources and use them wisely.
Although you take an active role in charting your graduate education and career, your advisor is still a crucial element of grad school success that you can't ignore. Your advisor can pull strings, write letters on your behalf, and help you in finding a job or postdoctoral position after graduation. Don't sever ties with your advisor!
Instead, remember that you have the primary responsibility for maintaining the student-advisor relationship. Frequently update your advisor on your progress, seek advice, and be active in fostering the relationship. Understand that your advisor is busy and probably advises other students as well. As a scientist and professional, you must learn to think independently. Your advisor's role is to help you to make that transition, but you've got to help him or her out.