Mr. Hutchison’s Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide

For those of you enraged by the fact that you had to wait till now for a post that was supposed to be up yesterday, I take full responsibility.  I have finally succumbed to a seasonal ailment and actually lost most of yesterday to sleep and soup.  So, my apologies–I trust that Bill’s advice is still timely.  I, in no way, intend to detract from Bill’s thoughts or arguments, but–as will become obvious–our thoughts and arguments differ markedly and I feel that these discrepancies deserve at least a fleeting examination.  First, yet another clarification: I’m not suggesting that a Rock Star prof can’t or won’t be an amazing adviser–I’m merely suggesting that it is more likely that a non-RS will have the time and take the time to guide the process in a way that a RS is less likely to.  Thus, I uphold the spirit of academic folk wisdom regarding thesis (1).  Two, in different fields competition for and attitudes of thesis advisers differ–even different sub-specialties within a given field will tend to be more competitive or less stand-off-ish.  I would argue that in a field like philosophy of language, which is very hot right now, one is more likely to find both stiff competition among students and the complementary attitude among professors–a certain distance and reserve as compared to something like aesthetics where one or two professors share one or two disciples–if even that many. Now, this may sound condescending to those “less competative, less happening” specialties, but remember I do consider myself, first and foremost, a aesthetician.  Again, your mileage may vary.


Bill Hutchison, MAPHer and curator of The Philosophical Animal weighs in on theses and thesis advisors.

Hello, readers of Maphmatically Yours. It’s lovely to see you again. You look great in that shirt, by the way. MAPHman has invited me back to give my two cents (twice their street value) on the advisor part of the MAPH thesis effort.

First, for those brave souls who are reading this now or in the future as a result of Googling about to find more information about MAPH, here’s my grain of salt: it’s a one year program, and the good folks of the MAPHstaph (Hilary, Maren, Jeff, the mentors) have much wisdom to share that should be heeded. What I will now put forth I do in the spirit of the someone whose shoes you may yet find yourself in, someone caught in the wild whirlwind of a year in MAPH. Think of my voice not as one of guidance, but of sympathy and solidarity. It would also pay to remember that in our 100-plus cohort, there are likely a similar number of thesis/advisor tales. In this post at the last are but two.

MAPHman offered two pieces of “academic folk wisdom” that I, too, would have thought true. The first is that the amount of attention one might expect to receive from a thesis advisor is in inverse proportion to their Rock-Star-ity. The second is that the thesis advisor is the flashiest piece of flair on your grad school application. (Unless MAPH makes you decide to give up academia for Groupon or teaching high school, both of which have their merits.) I would offer disagreement about the first, limited to my experience only, and doubt about the second, based on my own intuition and just enough investigation to avoid being accused of blatant fabrication.

As I have mentioned elsewhere on Maphmatically Yours (namely the comments section of this post), I am really just the worst at thinking or planning strategically. I am and have long been very seat-of-my-pants-y. It should be said: this is not a tactic I endorse. MAPHman is planning his future very carefully and, likely, very wisely. I, on the other hand, may find myself shoveling snow out of driveways for a living after this year. (I’m a very good snow-shoveler.) But things have turned out remarkably well in my little boat thus far, blown along as I have been by the winds of instinct, intuition, and a modicum of thinking.

MAPHstaph will tell you–and again, you should listen–that you shouldn’t even think about getting a thesis advisor until the winter quarter, and that you should be appropriately coached before you try. They are right. But that’s not how it worked out for me. Because of my interest in what is often called “critical animal studies,” I took a lit-and-animals class my first quarter with a second-generation Rock Star. (Her dad was a badass in the same field in which she works.) I like going to see professors during office hours. It makes me feel like both they and I are human beings. I went and visited with her, and we chatted about the program and my interests. I had an inkling (“inkling” always makes me think of a little baby splotch of some sort) of my thesis topic, but we didn’t talk much about it. Mostly we talked about the cool stuff going on in critical animal studies, which she had recently-ish become interested in. She suggested some papers and books to me, and I did likewise. (In fact, as I’ve done research in the field for my own purposes, I’ve sent her many, many papers that she was very gracious and occasionally pleased about receiving.) I made a second appointment, and somewhere in that conversation, she said something about knowing I’d need a thesis advisor since I was a MAPHer, and that if I wanted to, I could work with her.

I wanted to. In a big, bad way.

So I gave her what probably seemed like an excess of jabbering, gushing thanks, and bowing and genuflecting as I scooted backwards out of her office. By design, my first paper for her class was the seed from which my thesis would sprout, and my second was its first green shoot. It changed considerably from its first incarnation, to its second, and it has mutated into a nearly unrecognizable form since then. This is thanks to two things. The first is several meetings with my thesis advisor; she has given me a shocking amount of time and attention and answered emails by the handful. The second is based on the secret to academic success passed on to me by my advisor and which I now pass on to you: “Work your bloody ass off.” Which is to say, if you luck out like I did, or even if you don’t, don’t let your advisor down. I think of my advisor as a sort of proxy for by better self, a model of the scholar I would like to someday be, and in seeking her advisement I model my efforts after an apprentice would a master. I don’t want to succeed or surpass her, but I do want to know that she and her peers could take my efforts seriously, as they’re a group I aspire to join.

It is crucial, in light of this, that I know what kind of student I am. Could I write a thesis without an advisor? If by that question I mean could I fill 25 to 35 pages of pseudo-intellectual rambling that succeeds in varying degrees at having an argument and occasionally articulating it, then yes. Could I write the kind of thesis I want to write, that is, engage in the kind of thinking that is transformative, that is crucial to the ongoing evolution of myself as a person engaged with the concerns of literature and philosophy, that allows me to be a part of a larger conversation, without an advisor? God, no. In explaining my project in the rambling mode with which my advisor has thus far been so patient, I have explained it to both of us. Every time I tell her about the work, I am surprised at what I hear myself saying: they are words that are beginning to take the shape of a real project.

I, like many MAPHers, was graced in my undergrad years with professors who were brilliant and relentlessly encouraging. My advisor works so well for me because she is certainly the former, but her mode of being the latter is by being a relentless critic. Florid prose does not equal thinking, and while I may be capable of turning a lovely phrase in my papers, if they aren’t held up as part of a meaningful infrastructure, she calls me on it. In this way, the advisor is like your best friend in a purely academic sense. Your best friend is the one who can tell you you’re being a world-class jerk. The right advisor is the one who can tell you where you’re being lazy, where the thinking just isn’t coming together (tho’ you’d swear it was), and how the project overall is hanging together. Unlike MAPHman, I do not feel like I can elide the question of what kind of student I am. I need lots of coaching and I know it. Intellectually, I am inventive but unruly. I can leap great distances but rarely look before I do so. I am a wild animal seeking domestication, like Saint-Exupéry’s fox. Just as “you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed,” I want my advisor to be the foil I use to tame myself, and in that way, to become responsible for myself as a thinker and as a fuller realization of the human I want to be.

As a postscript to underscore what MAPHman has said already, “working your bloody ass off” means using all the tools you have. Are there professors who work in your area but aren’t your advisor? Go talk to ‘em. Ask them if they’re game for looking at your work, or if you can come to them to discuss the large issues and finer points of your argument. Use your fellow MAPHers—by the time thesis-building rolls around, you’ll know which of your friends are good readers for you, and you’ll have your thesis group. Have extra meetings with your preceptor. Enlist the aid of your undergrad professors to look at your work. And if you find yourself caught between any of these forces in points of disagreement, so much the better—your argument and the decisions you make to shape it will be all the better for the challenge.

In short, know your weaknesses, know your resources, and use the latter to strengthen the former. I’m reminded of my undergrad thesis advisor’s gloss on Heidegger: to be the kind of person you want to be, make the decisions the person you wish you were would make. It goes for thesis writing, too. You already know what kind of thesis writer you want to be. Now do what the thesis writer you wish you were would do, and write the thesis you wish you could write.


3 comments on “Mr. Hutchison’s Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide

  1. Hey, man—critical animal studies are HAPPENING. 🙂

  2. maphman says:

    Yes, they are… are when you are a tenured prof teaching on animality in a top ten school and I am a associate professor in a small, Midwest college teaching aesthetics and philosophy of language you can rest assured that both of us knew what we were getting into when we hopped the specialty bus.

  3. I’ll let you kiss my tenure ring.

    Or, alternatively, you can come be a guest speaker in my tenth-grade English class.

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