Thesis Advisors: Roping a Rock Star or saddled with one?

No, this is not what I meant by Rock Star professor, University of Pennsylvania.

Big Time Caveat: The following post is meant to be an exploration of the coercive power of what have been termed “Rock Star” professors in general, in the abstract, and is not necessarily indicative of my experience with my Rock Star adviser–in part because I don’t have any experience with my adviser yet and also because that information is outside the scope of the post.  As, A disambiguation of my claims in this earlier post and as a further argument to take seriously the possibility that the selection of one’s thesis adviser is academically and/or professionally significant, it is not meant to suggest anything about me, my thesis adviser, or my chances of being employed.  However, that is not to say that this post is a flight of fancy based on idle speculation.  It is grounded in the stories that I’ve been told by reliable sources, the warnings I’ve received directly from MAPH personnel, and the experience of others who have been through the program in the past.  However, the post is one part disambiguation, one part informed speculation, and one part uninformed, bleary-eyed optimism/ pessimism.  As such, your mileage may vary.

…..

Any long-term reader of the blog will recognize that much of the life of a MAPH student–and, indeed, the life of any grad student–is overflowing with worries about future employment and specifically the potential relative attractiveness of any particular element appearing on their curriculum vitae (CV).  I’ve written about the phenomena of Continental Drift as it impacts philosopher’s areas of specialization and both Bill and I have mentioned–at least in passing–the uncertainties of thesis adviser selection.  However, the chum really hit the water when I wrote about a phenomena that roughly parallels Continental Drift in its persuasive power: that of Rock Star profs and their coerced groupies.

The responses to that post generally took one of three forms: 1) you are an idiot–no such coercion exists, 2) you are an idiot–such coercion exists, but no serious scholar would be persuaded by it, or 3) you are an idiot–such coercion exists, but it is helpful rather than harmful and any serious scholar ought to be persuaded by it.  In the face of such conclusive evidence, I think the question of my idiocy has been answered in the affirmative and needs no further discussion.  However, these other positions need further elaboration.

1) There is no coercive influence compelling students to chase after Rock Star thesis advisers–and to suggest that there might be is idiocy.

First off, we need to make the philosophical distinction between the existence of a coercive force as an element that factors into the decision to choose any particular thesis and the existence of a coercive force that necessitates that a student choose a particular adviser.  I am arguing in favor of the former, weaker claim rather than the latter, stronger one.  Certainly no student in the MAPH program has ever been forced to pursue a Rock Star prof when a suitable lower echelon professor was available and willing.  Some emails and conversations misread my claim as suggesting that students–MAPH or otherwise were somehow being prevented from pursuing the advisers they really wanted in favor of high-profile, Rock Star profs by shadowy organizations within and behind the ivory towers of academia.

For the record, clearly there is no systemic, institutional push for MAPH students to pursue an adviser of any particular flavor.  The University of Chicago does not care who your adviser is so long as everyone eventually finds one.  Whatever coercive force one may feel is the manifestation of the impression that either with–or without–a Rock Star Prof one stands a better chance of finding a Ph.D. candidacy or a job. For those who feel no such compunction to chase after a Rock Star crazed Beetle-maniac I can only assume that either clinching a position after graduation is not a serious consideration or that that person does not feel that a Rock Star’s autograph on their thesis will do anything for them.  Now, they may be right.  I can imagine combinations of candidates and positions where the intervention of a Rock Star would have little or no influence on securing a candidacy or a job.  I can also imagine fields where allying oneself too closely with a particular Rock Star could get you into trouble and negatively affect the viability of one’s CV.  However, I would argue that a person who feels no compunction has been in the presence of a coercive force, but that the strength of the force–for one reason or another–was far from compelling, rather than suggesting that no coercive force ever influenced them.  If any of you still disagree, count yourself blessed for not having felt the anxiety of addressing the coercive power of the Rock Star.

2) There is a coercive influence compelling students to chase after Rock Star thesis advisers.  However, no serious scholar would find this influence sufficiently forceful to cause them to pursue a Rock Star if they didn’t want to.

The romantic notion of a young scholar doggedly finding, wooing and ultimately causing a curmudgeonly old professor to enfold them in a loving, scholastic embrace is a powerful one.  Probably even more seductive in this post-institutional world is the notion of a young scholar doggedly pursuing their muse without heed to “the Man,” “the Institution,” or “the Establishment,” rejecting all proffered advice with a steely Punk Rock stare, and pushing back the wilderness of humanity’s ignorance without a thought to future employment or position.  I’m not sure which of these notions lies at the heart of this particular argument, but it seems to me that one or both might be operative.

Look, I was younger once, I understand and can even relate to the idea that one shouldn’t have to play the school game–the game of the world where hoops must be jumped through for bad reasons or without reason.  I also pine for the sort of mentor/ mentee relation where the older scholar takes the younger scholar under his or her wing and works like a parent to establish that student in the family business of academia.  However, it seems to me that neither of these romantic notions has any place in the decision-making process of the vast majority of grad students.  We are folks with two-digit bank accounts and six-digit debts and will live and die by the whims of selection and search committees in far-flung locals.  It might very well be that the level of scrutiny that we train on our CVs is unhealthy, but it is certainly understandable–and, I think, justifiable.  If there is even the smallest possibility that having a Rock Star adviser entices someone on a selection committee to read our writing sample a bit more seriously or excites someone on a search committee sufficiently to get us on to the next stage of an interview process, then I, for one, feel the pressure for a Rock Star keenly.  Now you can argue whether either of those scenarios is likely, but remember that the point is not whether these potential situations will happen, but whether it could be argued that they might happen.

3) There is a coercive influence compelling students to chase after Rock Star thesis advisers and any proto-scholar ought to embrace that influence and not feel any sense of regret or anxiety for doing so.

My argument is chiefly that a student going through the process of selecting an adviser who finds a great adviser who is both willing and able to advise them will feel the urge to chase a Rock Star even if that person is less willing or less able to advise them simply because of their Rock Star status and the effect that the student imagines it might have on future prospects.  While I have condemned the romantic notions of adviser/advisee apprenticeship and rugged scholarly individualism as either unlikely or unprofitable, still I am unwilling to agree with those who say that one ought not to feel conflicted about chasing after Rock Stars–after all doing so is merely insuring the best possible chance of getting employed.  The pragmatic argument suggests that while having a Rock Star prof might not help your CV, it can’t hurt it either, so it is better to be a groupie than find oneself a spinster–to mix a metaphor or two.

The problem with such a pragmatic argument is that there are good reasons why a Rock Star adviser could actually hurt your future prospects.  For example, it is a nearly axiomatic that the higher profile the professor a student works with, the less they will be available to see them and the less helpful they will be.  While certainly exceptions to this rule exist, common sense argues that a professor constantly flying to present at this conference or be the keynote at that dinner will almost certainly be less inclined to hold liberal office hours.  Ignoring the downsides to being saddled with a Rock Star professor certainly resolves any tension that might a student might feel when coerced to pursue one, but doing so certainly seems like a poor choice once the rodeo begins.

So, having disambiguated my claim, the question remains so how do I intend to address it? All–or at least some–will be answeredl in Sunday’s post: “28 Weeks Later: A Thesis Adviser Survival Guide”

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3 comments on “Thesis Advisors: Roping a Rock Star or saddled with one?

  1. This is an interesting question, but I think it leaves unanswered one question that any MAPHer must most earnestly ask themselves:

    “How much advising (will I/do I) (need/want) from my advisor?”

    I think that question, in tandem with many of the other very good points you bring up, has to be answered. I count myself lucky. I found a thesis advisor my first quarter, and she’s a second-generation Rock Star. But she’s also shockingly available, and rather than a cuddly, maternal cheerleader, she’s a sympathetic-but-pulls-no-punches critic of my work. And I, for one, need the help. I have been assigned exactly the thesis group from among my peers that I would have hand-picked, a preceptor who’s been helpful, and two other profs who know the field well enough that I can bounce ideas off them, but having a serious critic of my work who makes herself very available is the crucial part for me. Left to my own devices, I would write something very beautiful and lyrical pervaded by opaque/contradictory thinking.

    So along with the Rock Star/non-Rock Star thesis advisor question, MAPH is a place where one might (among other things) get the training needed to prepare for a terminal graduate program. (No jokes about MAPH being terminal, please.) If a MAPHer or potential MAPHer recognizes that need in themselves, as I have, finding a really good coach should be a top priority, even before one gets Rock Stars in their eyes.

    For those who don’t feel they necessarily need that kind of help, or who are focused more on the recommendation letter over the writing sample (whether out of confidence, hubris, or under the burden of loads of talent and skill), the R/N-RS debate is paramount. For those who need the kind of boot camp MAPH’s Core and the MAPHing-of-a-Thesis™ provide (as I do!), my only tag to MAPHman’s thoughtful discussion would be this: do I want the coach or do I want the quarterback?

    • maphman says:

      Hey Bill, I agree completely that the question of “how much advising will I/ do you need or want” is also extremely important in the selection of an adviser. I know of at least one of our peers who has basically said, “I don’t know if not having a Rock Star adviser will hurt my chances, but I know that my chances will be hurt if I have a poor writing sample”–and I would say that his choice to pursue a non-RS prof is a wise one. That question forms the heart of Sunday’s post and constitutes an answer–my answer–to the claim that there exists within MAPH a strong push to pursue a RS.

      At the stage of argument in this post, though, the question that I’d like answered is “if you, as student going through the process of selecting an adviser were to have found a great adviser who was both willing and able to advise you and another who, while less willing or less able to advise you, might get you a job or a position–because of their Rock Star status–would go ahead and sign on with with RS?”

      I think real arguments can be made that while having a less capable adviser might make it more difficult, that the system is such that a student can still–by the toil of their brow–write a thesis every bit as good as the one closely supervised by an ideal adviser. Thus, if there is any truth to the RS effect, then one would be better off pursuing the RS prof. Now, if you reject either thesis 1) toil of your brow equals comparable success plus RS appeal or 2) Rock Star appeal equals preferential treatment by various committees, then my conundrum loses its philosophical bite. However, if we allow that by appeal to various resources, one can write a great thesis regardless of who one’s thesis adviser might be and that the RS effect is a force to be respected, then I think the question is worth seriously considering.

      From your post, it seems as though you have the best of all possible worlds: 1) a Rock Star with the potential RS effect in the circles in which you travel, and 2) guarantees that you will still receive the best possible advising–allowing you to write the best possible thesis in the usual way. But what if you could only have one? Am I correct in intuiting that you would go for the maternal/cheerleader/drill sergeant over the RS?

      • I’m pretty short-sighted, but on purpose. In general and in this situation in particular. I don’t think there’s necessarily a greater likelihood that a somewhat-personal-but-kind-of-formy letter from an RS is going to benefit me when trying to get into a program than an OH-MY-GOD-HE’S-AWESOME letter from a non-RS-but-still-UChicago faculty member.

        Because of that intentional short-sightedness, I would sign on for the best coach I could, RS or not. What I really want right now is someone to help me become a better thinker and writer (and therefore teacher), because in some form or another, that’s what I want to do. But I find too, too often that when I strategize or plan for a particular future, there’s no way to account for all the variables—and other doors, windows, and opportunities that end up opening as one moves along the path of life.

        I don’t want the maternal/paternal cheerleader (okay, I do a little), but I don’t really care about RS-ness. In the end, I want a real teacher, because real teachers have been key in shaping who I am as a thinker, and therefore as a human being. You’re right—I’m lucky to have an RS for an advisor, but mostly I feel really lucky that she’s a real teacher and an awesome human. It increases my chances at being both of those. Which is all I could ask for, because I’m at most things strategic, and am not sure that strategy even works the way we think it might. (Usually, I assume that if I have come up with a strategy, that is the ONE plan that is GUARANTEED to fail.)

        I don’t get the feeling MAPH has pushed me toward an RS. I found my advisor on accident. The tips I have gotten in recent weeks were toward young, newly-minted-but-really-brilliant profs who were doing things in line with what I’m doing. That may be particular to my project, but I have had the sense throughout that it’s mostly MAPHers who are RS-obsessed, and MAPHstaph are much more oriented toward MAPHers finding a good fit. I remember them giving gentle chides about that all the way back in April.

        That being said, your intuition is right. I’d rather get guitar lessons with a really good player than to try and jam with Clapton. But if Clapton wants to give me one-on-one lessons, well, who am I to say no?

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