Miss Smith’s Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide

I am pleased to introduce yet another distinguished guest-blogger to all of you.  Alissa Smith is a fellow philosopher pursuing topics in logic and linguistic theory and shocked all of us in precept group when shared her hobbies includes building race cars–not just because she doesn’t look like someone you’d call to bore and stroke your V8, but because even philosophers believe that their ranks are filled with philatelists (stamp collectors) or numismatists (coin collectors) rather than people who do truly awesome things in their spare time.  In between attempts to convince the landlord to allow her to do oil changes in the parking lot, Alissa balances her course load, thesis research, job working with preschooler’s in Jump Start, and–I hope–sleep.


Hello all! I hope you’ll welcome a new, and admittedly undeserving, voice to the MAPHmatically Yours blog domain. It’s hard to compete with the wit and prowess of prose of MAPHman and Mr. Hutchinson, but I’ll do my best and wish for your grace regarding my less-than-inspired offerings.

 I’ve been asked to relate my own experience in the thesis-adviser hunt, and while I’m grateful for the easy road my search has taken, my story doesn’t offer itself to compelling admonitions of angst or internal struggle in the dark of evening. I do feel, however, that it may have something to say on the way you choose to tackle the thesis-adviser choice (that is, if you’re considering or have decided to take on the delight that is MAPH). The philosophy cohort of MAPH has a pretty broad range in background; we all come from very different undergraduate (and for that, life) experiences. We all seem to have one thing in common, though – we know why we’re here, and most of us are intentional about just what it is we want to get out of MAPH. The majority of us want to supplement or stabilize our feeble or meandering philosophy backgrounds to make us viable candidates for PhD programs. From what I understand, this sort of pointedness about just what we’re paying our money for is a characteristic unique to the “philosophers” (I use scare quotes because that sort of label still carries with it far more responsibility than I’m willing to claim for myself). The English, Art History, Classics, etc. folk all seem to, by and large, be using this year to figure out just what it is they want to do with their interest in the humanities. That being said, I believe that the different experiences Bill and MAPHman have had in searching for a thesis adviser reflect exactly their respective missions to get the most “PhD fodder” they can out of the thesis experience. As does mine.

 It was a long line of detours and scenic stops that brought me to my place here at MAPH, experiences that involved a stint in the middle east, a brief foray into publishing, and a discovery that what I loved most to do, and had been so misguidedly trying to find a home for elsewhere, was philosophical investigation. I, like Mr. Hutchinson, tend to trust my intuition. I have what I call “God Moments,” in which I’m overwhelmed with a sense of certainty that I’m doing what I should be doing, that I’m where I’m meant to be. These sorts of moments have guided me to some of the most amazing experiences, those that I count to mark the timeline of my life. I don’t think you need to have had such striking revelations, however, to know what it is to feel at home in something. I believe anyone with a real love of learning, and an intuitive understanding of themselves, knows what it is to feel as though your skills and interests have found a place where they’re somehow fulfilling a need of larger humanity, that they’re being put to some sort of functional use and at the same time challenging you in a way that’s exciting and inspiring. You know what I mean, right? No?…

 I found this intersection of usefulness and inspiration in philosophy of language. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It blended my love of the beauty of words and story with my natural bent for logical analysis and mathematical precision. I love standing at the intersection of two domains of understanding which seem incompatible, and philosophy of language lets me do that. Trusting my interest and passion led me right into a thesis topic, one I was excited about and started piecing together and mulling over before I ever even considered a thesis adviser.

 This, I believe, is the key. When you trust your interests and your passions to choose a project for you, you can in turn trust your project to choose a thesis adviser for you. For me, my interests in the way the mechanics of language determine ethical considerations found a home in my project on evaluative terms, and my project on evaluative terms found a home with Prof. Malte Willer. It was an obvious choice. Prof. Willer is the “in-house specialist” on philosophy of language here at University of Chicago, with a particular interest in logical philosophy and semantics. It would simply be silly to choose any other adviser – there’s no one but Prof. Willer who could offer me the sort of critical eye and proficiency with the material essential to a finely-tuned and sophisticated thesis paper.

 Granted, there are “Rock Star” professors (as MAPHman refers to them) who I could have proposed my project to, ones who have tangential interests in philosophy of language, or who work on the topic but with a perspective entirely opposite my own. And, I’m sure their name on that signature line at the bottom of my thesis project would have been impressive. But, here’s what I know. I’m here at University of Chicago with a humble heart – I came from a small liberal arts college where there was ONE philosophy professor on staff… while he was fantastic and is a dear friend and mentor even today, there is no world in which I can claim a commanding proficiency in philosophical studies. I love to read, to learn, to explore, and I believe I know the merit, and the boundaries, of my own “smartness.” In no way, however, can I claim to not need the wealth of knowledge, experience, and perspective available to me in a perceptive, committed thesis adviser. A sophisticated thesis advances an idea or thought that hasn’t been addressed before in literature debating the topic in question, and that’s a risky business. Any sort of entrepreneurship in ideas should be guided by an expert who has spent some time in the business, who knows the pitfalls and the successes and can challenge you to an evolved and defensible argument. The point of the thesis, at least for me, is to assure the selection committees of prospective graduate programs that I’m entirely capable of graduate level thought and writing, and I don’t want to take chances on that. It won’t matter how big the name is on that adviser signature line if the thesis itself is less than stellar.

 Prof. Willer isn’t one of those Rock Star profs, sure. But he’s as excited about the aims of my project as I am… not because he’s young and has nothing better to do, but because he’s the right choice for my project. My project directly aligns with his own work, and we are two academics, sharing our passions for a subject few find as compelling as we do. In my opinion, that’s all that should matter in your thesis choice – that your adviser’s interests and abilities lend themselves to the project you’ve chosen, and that your project aligns with your own interests and abilities. This is where the most comprehensive and deeply satisfying critiques will be born, and where the most exciting refinement and development of your work will find its place. At the root of it, I believe (hear it now, in my most convincing preschool teacher voice) that there are no small advisers, only small projects. We’re all, professors and students alike, in a mutual search for knowledge, directed by our interests and passions, and there’s too little time to waste it struggling to work with people who’ve lost sight of the beauty and excitement of academic work. If you’ve found a Rock Star prof who finds your project captivating, all the better for you…you’ll have the dedicated critique and the fancy name. I believe it would be a mistake, however, to allow the advisor signature line to speak for you when your own interests and capabilities are much better spokesmen.


One comment on “Miss Smith’s Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide

  1. maphman says:

    Great post, Alissa! You comment that “[t]rusting my interest and passion led me right into a thesis topic, one I was excited about and started piecing together and mulling over before I ever even considered a thesis adviser.” I am really pleased to see that of the three–soon to be four–of us who have written on this issue, that each was able to find an adviser willing to take on our projects without demanding that we compromise them. In one of my early meetings with Prof. Callard he warned me that while it might be preferable to take the high road and demand that advisers take your project on its own terms, it is also sometimes necessary to tailor a project to an adviser in order to study with the person you’d prefer–or even just secure an adviser.

    In my own proposal, while I don’t feel I’ve had to compromise what I was planning to do, I have had to refocus and emphasize the ethical perspective–over the easier to defend and more often addressed ontological and epistemological approaches. Have you had similar “refocusing” on your proposal or have you brought your ideas through this whole process without significant change?

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