28 Weeks Later: [One] Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide

If SOPA passes, this sort of parody would get this blog banned, so enjoy it while you can.

My first Maphmatically Yours post to mention the challenge of finding and winning a thesis adviser was this racy little post delivered on October 21, 2011 and final theses are due May 21, 2012.  In the week that preceded that first post, I had my first meeting with Ben Callard, co-director of the MAPH program to discuss what issues I ought to be considering as I began my search for a thesis adviser.  Thus, we can safely say that when I finally deliver the fruits of my labors to my thesis adviser for evaluation that action will be the culmination of a relationship whose roots stretch back 28 weeks.  I mention this, first, so that I can justify the time that I spent Photo-Shopping-up the 28 Days Later one-sheet graphic you see above and also to hammer home the fact that–at least ostensibly–the relationship between a thesis adviser and a MAPH student is one of the longest running and potentially most important in that student’s formation.  I mention that fact so that I can justify the amount of time that I and many of my cohorts have diverted from projects directly contributing to our education and spent, instead, upon conversation, conjecture, and argument on the subject of selecting, courting, and capturing of thesis advisers.

Hopefully, Friday’s post has set the stage for this transitional move–from speculation about what sort of adviser one should desire toward commentary on the actually experience of working with a particular adviser in a particular area–but that move also demands an explanation for why I have done the things I’ve done and what my plan is for the next few months–and that explanation that comes… now.


So, I’m operating from two presuppositions which might or might not be true–but which are common enough to be called pieces of “academic folk wisdom:” 1) the higher profile the professor, the less help their advisees can expect to receive and 2) candidates who can write “I’ve studied with Prof. God’s-Gift-to-Blank” are more likely to attract the attention of a search or selection committee when compared with other candidates with similar credentials, quality of writing samples, experience teaching, etc.  Either of these presupposition could warrant a full post examining their legitimacy, but such a interrogation is beyond the scope of this post–but I will offer up a brief justification for each.  First, I have been warned frequently by undergraduate professors, MAPH alumni, MAPH mentors, my preceptor, and even the co-director of the program that certain high-profile professors–what I have called Rock Star profs–either have a difficult time providing the same level of academic help offered by lower ranking faculty or are simply less willing to do so.  Intuitively, this makes perfect sense to me–and perhaps that is why I don’t feel the need to investigate the claims to the contrary.  Second, while working through the process of Ph.D. apps and the associated corners of cyber-space (cough–Grad Cafe–cough) I discovered that while a certain amount of credibility is given to having studied in a certain program at a certain school, far more is granted to one who has studied with a certain Rock Star regardless of where that studying took place.  Personally, I was far more impressed to learn that one of my undergrad profs had class with Kevin Vanhoozer than I had been when I was told he studied at Loyola.  I see no reason to think that this principle is unique to me or somehow no longer applies when people are elected to search or selection committees.

So far it would seem that all the focus has all been on what effect a thesis adviser will have on one’s future ability to be employed or selected for candidacy as though the question of the quality of the actual thesis produced were somehow less important than the adviser’s name associated with it.   Obviously, there is a real question as to the effect of one adviser over and against another upon the quality of theses produced.  One set of arguments centers around the relative intellectual capacities of Rock Star verses normal profs.  Another centers on the personality types of those predisposed to be Rock Stars over those types common to normal profs.  Still another set of arguments relates to the availability of help and another willingness to help.  All of these are interesting and useful considerations that could impact the quality of any particular thesis project.  However, I myself don’t believe that quality of one’s thesis ultimately rests with the capability, personality, availability, or attitude of the adviser–instead, I would argue that the success of one’s thesis is most directly connected with and ultimately rests on the capability, personality, commitment, and attitude of its writer.  Put another way, the selection of a less than ideal adviser might make the production of a great thesis more difficult, but it won’t prevent the production of a great thesis.

I could argue this point for many thousands of words, but I’d rather just share how I intend to address the particular situation that I’ve selected for myself.  I count myself as extremely fortunate to have interested none other than Robert Pippin in my project who most definitely fits into the Rock Star professor category.  As such I was soundly warned by Prof. Callard and my preceptor that I would probably not be able to schedule frequent meetings or receive an extremely high degree of help on my project even before Professor Pippin was approached regarding the possibility.  However, Pippin was by far my first choice and I feel that few other professors not one of the five or six directly in the current conversation regarding intentionality in aesthetics could have been expected to have sufficient understanding of the issues to advise me well.  Thus, in my case at least, presupposition 1 holds true: the high profile prof will not be able to engage with me on my project as much as another might have been able to–but they will also have the resources to be helpful when they do interject.

So the question is “how does one still write a great thesis when they know that their contact with their adviser will be limited?  I’m going to assume that one cannot get blood from a Rolling Stone and, thus, that there is no possibility of turning a Rock Star into a bright-eyed, hungry, associate professor full of paternal care and with loads of excess office hours.  Instead, I see no reason to see my relationship with my adviser as mutually exclusive.  I have access to some of the finest minds in a half a dozen of philosophy’s specialties  and sub-specialties, why not take advantage of them?  A couple of them are those bright-eyed, hungry, associate professors or lecturers that I might have signed up with had I not been able to attract a philosophy god.

My plan circumvents questions of whether I am a great writer who needs little help or an inexperienced writer who will need tons of minor course corrections because I can have the best of the Rock Star and associate professor resources available.  It is entirely possible that I will spend more time organizing these meetings with different professors and that I will work harder than if I’d been blessed with an associate professor that was anxious to help me with every little thing, but I should be able to put together the best possible thesis I could produce.  However, your millage may vary.  It is entirely possible to find a Rock Star with a heart of gold–or the need for disciples or a bright-eyed, young professor who couldn’t care less about helping a candidate out.  So, this is my plan–for my situation.  Now, for those anxious to hear from someone with a very different experience and plan, Bill Hutchison will provide an alternate take on the thesis adviser question on Tuesday.  See you then!


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