Monday, July 15, 2013

Advising About Advising

Interesting piece at Inside Higher Ed on what a PhD adviser will never tell you.  Here is my early morning take (bold is in the original post).  I am not sure that the title really works, but there is some good stuff to chew over.
  1. Key predictor of supervisor's ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so.  Yep, that makes sense.  This can be deceptive if other profs have been mostly carrying the load, but still the long-term record is a good indicator.
  2. You choose the supervisor. Do not let the institution overrule your choice.   Is this really a problem?  Sure, you get assigned someone in the first year, but you can change.  I guess this might be a problem in the hard sciences where you get committed to a lab, but in poli sci?  Not an issue.  
  3. Stars are attractive but may be distant. Pick a well-regarded supervisor who does not spend too much time away.  This entry was kind of confusing since you want your supervisor to be networked via meetings and to introduce you to people at such meetings. Plus later on, these will be good opportunities to catch up with one's adviser as students frequently leave town.
  4. Bureaucratic immunity is vital. Look for a supervisor who will protect you from ‘the system’.  In principle, cool.  In reality?  Professors are absent-minded not just in stereotypes but in reality.  Expecting them to know the ins and outs of the bureaucracy is perhaps a bridge too far.  Yes, you want them to support you and have your back in whatever difficulties you encounter, but don't expect them to wage wars against the bureaucracy for you.  They have day jobs that involve other stuff and limited expertise.
  5. Byline bandits abound. Study a potential supervisor’s work.  Good point--see if the prof is a leech who builds career by exploiting students or is a mentor who helps students out.  
  6. Be wary of co-supervisors.  This seems a bit overwrought but the basic idea that a dissertation committee contains many conflicting points of view is on target--you need to adjudicate between different criticisms/suggestions but do not always follow your main supervisor.  The other folks on the diss committee may be right and your adviser may be wrong.  Developing your own work means learning how to listen to conflicting points of view.  This will continue throughout the career as reviewer #1 and reviewer #2 will rarely be on the same frequency.
  7. A supervisor who is active in the area of your doctorate can help to turbocharge your work.  Certainly, but this can be rare as your interests may diverge from anyone's specialty, plus it is better to have a committed, interested generalist than a disinterested specialist.
  8. A candidature that involves teaching can help to get a career off the ground.  Your mileage will vary quite a lot here--I think this might be very field/country specific.  "it is teaching that will get them their first post (and probably their second and third)."  Really?  I do think that students should TA for their advisors and for other folks to learn what to do and what not to do, to have syllabi/notes that one can plagiarize build from.  But some really good supervisors can suck at teaching at the undergrad level, and some  great teachers are lousy researchers/advisers.
  9. Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern.  Um, hard science?  I never have had weekly meetings with my Phd students.  The timetable is set by progress--if we have something to talk about--a draft of a proposal, a completed chapter, a paper that needs feedback before submission, a conference coming up, job talks in the near future--then we meet formally.  Informal conversations view phone, skype, email, even facebook happen all the time, but no need to meet in my office (which can be inconvenient for both of us) unless there is something to talk about. 
  10. Invest your trust only in decent and reliable people who will repay it, not betray itIndeed
I have often referred to my agreement to supervise a PhD student as an unbreakable vow--that we are joined pretty much for the rest of our careers.  Just as I seek out my adviser at the occasional conference and ask for advice and have asked for letters, I expect to be contacted by my students and updated as long as they remain in the profession, including writing letters for them for the next couple of decades.  The choice made early in one's career will .... forever dominate one's destiny.  The good news is you can always find additional advisers, formal and informal, in case your original choice does not work out so well and even if it does.  I never looked for "mentors" but found plenty of people who gave me good advice and support over the years.  Indeed, one is never too old or too senior to find new folks to provide feedback.  


Jacob T. Levy said...

"A candidature that involves teaching can help to get a career off the ground. "

I think the partial truth in this is so easy for grad students to overinflate that it's a falsehood in effect. The vast majority of grad students (at least in the liberal arts) will have to do much more TAing and teaching than is doing them any good in professional terms. *Never* having taught in any capacity is bad-- but diminishing marginal returns set in very, very quickly. For a prospective student to deliberately choose a program because it offered more teaching "opportunities" would be perverse. Funded time to write is the scarce commodity, not chances to teach.

Anonymous said...

Steve, what sort of letters did you ask your advisor to write for you? I didn't think advisors' letters were considered very credible for promotions or for grant/fellowship opportunities after a person has his or her first TT job.

Steve Saideman said...

Mostly applying for jobs--which didn't stop when I got my first tenure track spot. As time went on, my letter writers became folks in the discipline other than my original dissertation committee but my adviser did keep writing letters.

Plus he did write a letter for my CFR fellowship.

Philip said...

I don't know about how it is in North America but here in the UK (and in political science at least) some PhD students will see their supervisor only two or three times a year and exchange emails not much more frequently. It's a source of much frustration and despondency. Students often feel betrayed and short changed by the system.

What is meant to be a process of 'mentorship' is for the most part treated as an irritating contractual obligation, a workload to be minimised if at all possible. Of course there are some good supervisors who go above and beyond out of their own sense of duty and care but they don't seem to be in the majority.

I agree that it's very different in the natural sciences where people tend to work in close-knit groups and supervisors are around on a daily basis - though this may be because they employ their students to do work they want done whereas in the social sciences they're generally assigned students on the basis of what work the students want to do.

Anonymous said...

In some cases having a big star as supervisor works because they partner with a lesser faculty member who does most of the work, making an effective tag team. That was more or less my own experience and I can think of a couple of other examples. The star trusted #2 to give all the detailed feedback, and would occasionally swoop in to make a few pithy comments. But the star was very useful for opening doors when I went on the job market and helping to get my manuscript published and is still a big advocate for me (when I can get hold of him). These sorts of tag-team relationships are usually well-known around departments and I'd advise incoming PhDs to ask senior PhDs about them.

Susan Luke said...

I totally agree with you on #2 at the list. It would be a good idea if you know who and what the person is capable of so that he/she can really helps you out with your phd dissertation writing. Anyway, this would certainly help a lot of people who are finding it hard to get an adviser.