Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Applying for Phd Programs: The Big Question

I saw this tweet today, and I felt an urge to spew:

Each year, I get emails from random aspiring grad students and so do my peers.  Many think that I/we hold the key to getting admitted to our programs.  Nope, not in most of the US and Canada.  Maybe elsewhere, but for most US/Canadian poli sci/IR programs, there are committees and admissions directors, and most faculty are not on them.  Yet there is a belief that one wants to nail down a supervisor before arriving.  Partly the applications are to blame since they generally ask who would want to work with. 

To be clear, no one should bet their career on a single individual that they aspire to work with before they arrive.  As Paul suggests, supervisors might leave. They may die, they may hate you.  They may... be a lousy supervisor.

Here's the thing--having a big name in the field or even a medium name is mostly not correlated with how good of a supervisor they are.  One makes one's name mostly on the basis of quality and quantity and impact of research, not on how well one's students do.  Eventually, the word may get out for some folks---that their students are well-trained and successful--but unless you are at someplace that is plugged in, you may not learn who those people are.  Also, it is not always clear that even in those cases the supervisor has much of a role in that.  It really depends on stuff that is un-knowable from outside:
  • Does the potential supervisor sexually harass his or her students?
  • Does the potential supervisor let others do most of the supervising and then take credit for the outcomes?
  • Does the potential supervisor give little feedback so that many of his/her students flail and fail but those that succeed make the supervisor look great?  I mean, darwinian processes often produce super adaptations.
  • Does the potential supervisor have great students because the program does a great job of selecting students and then training them well?
The only way to learn who is and who is not a good supervisor is to go to a graduate program and spend time there and talk to other students.  They will not tell you much of the truth in a one day open house. Alas, the best way to learn is to enter the program and keep one's eyes and ears open.  And then select a supervisor that works for your personality.  It is not just about interests and expertise but compatibility.  At least, that's my opinion.  Grad school is too long and too painful to deliberately chose a supervisor that is going to lead to a painful process.  And, in my mind, that relationship is not just for a couple of years but a lifetime contract

One other aspect: one's training takes place both within the confines of the superviser-advisee relationship and beyond.  Classes, training, comps all involve other people.  So, the best way to manage all of this is to go to a program that has the best combo of depth and breadth in one's area of interests (big interests like field, not specific interests like one's research question) so that you can survive and thrive if your adviser leaves or if the one you expect to work with ends up truly sucking.  I am suggesting that one be strategic--figure out as best you can the available choices, and pick the program that offers the least risks and the greatest gains.  Whether you choose to maximize potential gains or minimize risks when there are tradeoffs is up to you.   But being aware of the tradeoffs is key.

And always, always only go to a PhD program in the US or Canada if the program offers you a four or five year deal that provides semi-adequate funding.

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