Thursday, January 18, 2018

Advising, Phd Topics and Fads

In the past couple of days, an academic issue has played out on twitter: are advisers doing a disservice to students and to the creation of knowledge by warning them off of topics that are deemed less relevant, less in the moment?  Damned if I know.

On the one hand, I have heard plenty of tales of former/current students elsewhere that say that they were interested in a topic but their adviser told them it was not so relevant or interesting, and then the world changed.  One reason I don't remember telling students not to do a topic (besides the fact that I have a lousy memory) is that I am not confident about making predictions about what is going to be hot in International Relations in five years.  My own dissertation started as a theoretical puzzle about the nature of sovereignty.  As it evolved, it turned to focus on the international relations of secession, and it just so happened that countries started falling apart.  There was nothing strategic about what I was doing.  Oh, and when I was on the market, my focus on this tended to be trumped by those doing the IR of the environment if departments were focused on "new threats, new stuff."

Anyhow, the key to warning students away from untrendy topics is that one must have some confidence about what such stuff is.  And I don't have that confidence.

On the other hand, a scholar I respect insists that trendiness influences job prospects, and I can't argue with that:
I have seen folks who do hip stuff get more attention.  But the question is this: is it the topic or the framing?  Or the methods?  If it is about framing, then it is up to the Phd student to frame their topic in a way that interests people.  I do think much of the success of some folks in this business is really, dare I say it, about marketing.  

I do think Sara is right about methods: that methods fads are real, are far more predictable, and have real impacts on publish-ability and job market success.  So, in guiding grad students, I tend not to tell them what to study, but I do tell them how to study it and, yes, how to frame it.

There are advisors out there that are much more directive: study this, use this theory, and use this method.  I am not comfortable with that:
  1. I don't need them to use my theoretical approach to bring me fortune and glory.  Indeed, I had one student whose dissertation was squarely aimed against my work.  In other words, it is not disciples I seek.
  2. The dissertation is not a three or five year thing, but usually a ten year thing--it is what one works on during grad school and is the focus of much publication effort in the run up to tenure (or whatever the person does after grad school).  So, the student better be passionately interested in it. 
  3. If we tell our students not to do x, then x becomes under-explored.  Which means that we have a lesser understanding of that, and that is bad from a standpoint of knowledge creation.  And if one wants to be strategic, if you buy moneyball logics, then it makes sense to study under-valued stuff because there is less risk of being scooped, of being crowded out.
  4. The most important skill for a scholar and the hardest part of grad school is figuring out what to research.  That's what makes dissertation proposal writing so painful--coming up with an idea that is interesting to both oneself and the larger community.  As we progress in our career, this is what we need to do again and again.  Imposing one's will on a student about their topic seems to be a bad way to help someone become an independent scholar. 
  5. And, of course, if one wants one's work to be enduring, focusing on something faddish seems like a bad bet but focusing on making a solid contribution to our understanding of something significant seems to be the way to go.
So, Sara and I will differ on this, especially when it comes to fads about topics (not about the importance of methods fads).  But we both agree that having an incredibly loud and distinct laugh is best, so there's that.

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