Finding a Thesis Advisor: Advice from the animal kingdom (NWS)

Rapidly approaching the mid-point of my first quarter in the MAPH program, I have suddenly been laid to waste by paroxysms of guilt for having failed to secure either a thesis adviser or a concrete and certain thesis topic.  (I lack the latter is because I lack the former.)  I have heard the strange courtship between a graduate student and a thesis adviser likened to the adolescent sexual awakening in which the first tentative and fumbling overtures are made and those initial advances deflected or graciously enjoyed.  Having little practical experience to draw upon with regard to courtship–I did marry my high school sweet heart after all–I have endeavored to study the mating rituals of the animal kingdom in order to better prepare my own attempt to entice a curmudgeony thesis adviser into a mutually satisfying intellectual relationship.

1) The Frigate Bird

The grad student–throat swelled to many times its normal size and translucently crimson in the morning light–uses every moment of every class period to loudly and proudly differentiate his superior knowledge and importance from his scrawny, pink-throated classmates.  For twenty minutes before class he gobbles up secondary sources that speak to the assigned reading’s primary source until his gular pouch is nearly ready to burst with other people’s interpretations, critiques, and connections.  Once class begins he approaches the potential thesis adviser coyly with hand raised to only half-mast and begins “Would it be correct to say…?”  What follows is nothing less than a visceral and barbaric juxtaposition of contradictory readings, competing claims, and nascent theories.  The grad student spews forth the jumbled collection of his pre-class cramming to a stunned and awestruck professor who–presumably–will either immediately ask the student to apprentice with him or her–so voluminous is their grasp of the topic–or will simply be unable to escape the student’s advances–for the copious collected of BS in which they have been buried.

The danger of the frigate bird approach is the possibility that the proposed thesis adviser will see through your random glattal waggling and reject you for the self-important prig that you have projected yourself to be.  The only thing more damaging to your potential future relationship as mentor and mentee would be his or her good-natured request to clarify your comments.

2) The Sea Hare

The less-obvious problem with the frigate bird solution is the fact that it makes you rather unpopular with your classmates even if it works–in fact probably more so if you can actually bamboozle your way into someone’s non-office hours.  A reasoned response might be to join forces with a like-minded classmate or three and propose a unified topic in which each individual student might work their own unique angle–while not requiring any more extra-research or reading by the adviser than one thesis advisee would usually demand.

While it might seem odd to break the traditionally–serially–monogamous relationship between doctoral father and disciple, the attraction of the daisy-chaining sea-slug model is its extreme efficiency.  The sea hare/student in front acts as the female/mentor to the one directly behind it and so on–all providing both mentoring receptacle and theorizing probe.  Under exceptional circumstances, they might even form a giant circle, with everyone inside happily advising and being advised without any sense of the adviser feeling taken advantage of for the value of his or her name on the student’s CV or the advisee feeling forced to provide fodder for the adviser’s next book.

3) The Honey Bee

While a young, strapping, and single thesis adviser might find the idea of a never-ending intellectual orgy appealing, the older, wiser, and networked mentor promises greater rewards for the enterprising grad student, but is unlikely to have the time or energy to invest in a perpetual ménage à trois.  Thus, I am forced to consider the mating habits of the lowly honey bee as a model for my future intellectual reproduction strategy.

Frequently the relationship between an adviser and an advisee amounts to the trading of sexual favors.  The advisee receives an investment of time, effort, and energy from the adviser while the adviser receives the veneration and vindication of being someone’s god.  However, the danger for a grad student is that the adviser will spread themselves too thin–accepting too many worshipers/advisees.  The danger for the adviser is that the disciple they have carefully groomed will come under the sway of some more winsome teacher and refuse to become the original advisor’s sycophant.  The solution is an arrangement like honeybees: a virgin queen that survives to adulthood without being killed by her rivals (a tenured professor) will take a mating flight with a dozen or so male drones (a departmental dinner with thesis track grad students).  Those drones that successfully mate with the queen (form a thesis spawning relationship) are treated to the joy of their genitals exploding and snapping off inside the queen!

The advisee can be assured that other students won’t be taking up the professors valuable time–as the blown up penis now block’s the thesis advisor’s “seat of knowledge” and the mentor can be assured that their advisee has invested all their intellectual capital in his service and will carry on his work as a dutiful disciple.

4) The Bedbug

So, while the (capitally) reciprocal relationship of the honey bee might insure a mutually beneficial relationship, since when is a grad student not looking to get something for nothing?  Therefore, it might be desirable, instead, to consider the approach of the bedbug.  The grad student might prepare a thesis advising form–the contract that cements the mentor/mentee relationship–in advance and wait until their intended adviser is otherwise occupied–for instance: at a book signing.  The student then thrust’s his or her starched documents in the face of the adviser and receives their signature.  This move utterly ignores the professor’s appropriate “in-box” and deposits the seeds of the student’s intellectual project in an entirely inappropriate context–all while still securing the adviser’s fertilization.

5) Argentine Lake Duck

While the bedbug approach promises a high degree of success, thesis rape is frowned upon at the U of C.  So perhaps it would be best to simply model one’s approach on that employed by Argentinian ducks.  The drake of this species is fortunate enough to have cultivated the longest–and most well-appointed–male-member of all avian species.  So, perhaps if one were to create a stunningly long seventeen page thesis proposal–one page for every inch of the lake duck’s prodigious penis–and a sufficiently engaging and fluffy introduction to that proposal–again, like the soft and brush-like head of the avian’s organ which brushes away any memory of projects deposited by previous grad students–one could hook the potential adviser–just like the that lucky duck that can deploy his penis to “lasso” a female who tries to escape.

However, such a strong and versatile proposal is a rare and wonderful thing and I find that I am not naturally endowed with so extraordinary a talent.  Thus, I retreat from my perusal of the animal kingdom a sadder, but wiser man–and also feeling a little dirty.


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