“Choosing a Ph.D. program means finding the thesis adviser that will get you a job in the circles you intend to move in. Whether analytic or continental, research 1 or community college, state or private, secular or Protestant or Catholic, find the adviser that will get people excited to interview you.”
–That Anonymous Smart Guy from Placement
This week I dedicated one post to the influence that future employment uncertainty has in the mode of “Continental Drift.” In this week-in-review I want to consider another mode of expression of the same uncertainty: rock star profs and coerced groupies. As this week represents the time in which MAPH students must make a preliminary stab at a thesis topic, hushed conversations in the basement of the div school and the bowels of Stuart Hall have turned to the proper courtship and wooing of potential thesis advisers. You see, unlike a Ph.D. program where students were selected according to their proposed areas of research and already tentatively paired with adviser candidates–those people who latched onto their applications in the admission process–most Masters students arrive at U of C having already had their research proposals turned down. After all, if our proposed theses had been sexy and alluring last Winter, we would all be on stipends with free tuition instead of paying astronomical sums to craft new ones and worrying about our uncertain prospects for thesis mentors.
In order to be ridiculously biased, insanely over-generalizing, and just plain wrong–but helpful–I’m going to say that professors are of only two potential types: 1) Rock Stars and 2) Real Readers.
Rock Stars are those people who get people excited about coming to a given school in the first place. They are the ones that write books that define the conversations in our disciplines and the ones paid to give the keynotes at major conferences where the rest of us pay to attend. They are the ones that teach classes on the books they’ve written and only take questions after class has ended as they sprint out the door. A Rock Star professor’s name on a thesis or a CV is always worth an interview and often worth a second–even if the first didn’t go especially well. The problem is that Rock Stars take lucrative visiting professor positions at other colleges during the run up to your defense. They have office hours once or twice a semester and don’t ever answer an email. If you do manage to meet with them, you can pay court, but they aren’t paying attention. A Rock Star might be cajoled into taking a hand in your project, but they won’t lift a finger to help. However, once the work is done, a Rock Star autograph will get your work read at least–and might get you a job.
Real Readers are those people who also teach at the place where A.B. Cee Ph.D. has an–almost always–empty office. They are the ones that quietly take notes in the margins of the Rock Star’s books and show where the author misunderstood Heidegger or Aristotle. They are the ones that run the departments and manage the intellectual networks of “people I met at a conference that are working in a similar vein.” They are the people who come to class early and often stay late in order to continue the discussion. A Real Reader’s name on a thesis or a CV requires Google or Jeeves to find the alphabetical faculty page and that long list recently taught classes. The problem is Real Readers lend you their experience and their know-how, and they might even give you a place to stay over Winter break, but they can’t give you a foot in the door. They’ll spend hours answering emails and working over the finer points of your outline because they are at least as excited about your research as you are. If you run into them in the street they’ll tell you about a book you can borrow from their library at home. A Real Reader isn’t going to settle for “good enough,” but they aren’t going to drop the ball either. However, once the work is done, a Real Reader’s name will likely be in your dedication, but absent from your letter of interest.
Choose. Do you want to be on your own in your project, but later get a job? Do you want to do your best work, but fail to find position? Do you want to curse your luck now or later? The attraction to the Rock Stars is undeniable, but for many of us–for most of us–what we really want–and what we really need–is a Real Reader–so long as we can find a way to pay back the loans later. Just as the uncertainties of the job market force many Continental philosophers to abandon their phenomenology or revolutionary animalism in order to take up epistemology or revive logical positivism so many students look past the sea of Real Readers in an attempt to snag a Rock Star. We are wave after wave of coerced groupies bowing at your feet–fainting, screaming, and throwing underwear onto the stage. We are the zombies of academia–not so much after your brain–as much as your name.