Getting What you Deserve from your Adviser: Part 1

My name is MAPHman, and I’ll be your designated black-hat-villain this evening.

Hello all, while this might not seem to be a MAPH Week______ post, I promise it really is.  I promised a double-length post this week to make up for the lack of one last week and I’ve chosen as my topic some thoughts on the advisory selection process.  Now, we’ve already taken–at least–four stabs at offering some constructive advice on the subject according to four different perspectives and based on four different sets of anecdotal evidence, so I there doesn’t seem to be any reason to continue beating that dead horse.   However, the sudden appearance of this high degree of consensus has the added benefit of allowing me to be the “bad guy”–a role that I enjoy only a little bit less than the “knight in shinning armor” role.  So, with my black hat firmly in place, I fully expect to lose some readers and perhaps even some stockpiled good will.

So for the first and last time, I’m speaking for me and only me and it is an absolute given that Bill, Alissa, and Vincent–those fantastic folks willing to donate their  time and expertise to Maphmatically Yours–will not/ do not agree.  They are right and I am wrong, but I’m going to spend this post addressing what I consider to be a dangerous idea making the rounds of the MAPH program.

It is interesting to me that one hundred percent of the traffic generated on this site related to the search term “thesis adviser”–or its variant–appears to have come from folks angry or frustrated by thesis advisers.  So, going by the numbers, I’ve had four Google search referrals for “poor thesis adviser,” three for”bad thesis adviser,” two for “bad thesis advisor” (sic), three for “idiotic thesis advisors” (sic),  one for “idiot thesis advisrs (sic), and my personal favorite: one view based the search term “how to accidentally kill your thesis adviser” just in the past week.  Now, it is common knowledge that good news rarely creates “buzz” and “if it bleeds, it leads” so it should come as no surprise that the internet harbors more folks complaining than praising.  However, lets take all this kvetching as genuinely indicative of real problems that real people are having with advisers around the country–just for the sake of argument.  Now, lets assume that some of these advisers are genuinely horrible folks: people that steal student’s research and pass it off as their own, professors that use their grad students like indentured servants to house sit for them, and others who sexually harass their advisees.  The residue after our bracketing process includes everything from advisers who are have a falling out with their students or lose interest in their student’s projects to those who just take too long to reply to emails, but our focus for the purpose of this post will just be just those who aren’t deliberately “bad,” but are merely less committed, communicative, and contributive than their advisees would like.

The people I have in mind are those who invite their advisees to schedule regular times to meet and discuss the progress of their student’s work–only to cancel those meetings with days or hours to spare, the professors who suggest a monstrous reading list for their advisees in the opening days of their relationship–only to admit– later when their students wishes to engage in the finer points of this or that–that they, themselves, haven’t actually read all the books they suggested, and those guilty of a miriad of other academic and social discourtisees that are probably just absent minded faux pas, rather than intentional slights.  These are the people that seem to populate the villain role in countless grad student blogs and are the target of articles about “How Survive a Bad Thesis Adviser.”  These are the people who are victims–at least in my book–of student’s unreasonable expectations and sense of entitlement.

Now, with all my cards on the table, let me take a step back and say if your adviser promises to meet with you once a week to discuss your work, provides valuable and timely feedback every time you email them with a question or a rough draft, and invites you out to lunch just to make sure that you are taking care of yourself, that is far from a bad thing.  I think most every struggling academic desperately pines for such wonderful, caring people to mentor them into the challenging world of ivory towers and faculty search commitees–but failure to provide these services does not mean that one has any right to complain that their thesis adviser, or advisor, (sic) or advisr (sic) is “bad.”

Let go of the dreams of picnic lunches with wizened old professors living vicariously through your work and telling humerous anecdotes about their time in your position.  Break yourself of the habit of believing that your email necessitates a quick and helpful response.  Give up the idea that your adviser will become a life long friend that will become the godfather of your children.  Then, if–beyond all likelihood–one or several of these things happens, you can genuinely enjoy it rather than feeling slighted when they don’t.  The best one can expect–thought not the best one can hope for–is a mutually respectful business relationship.

More on that, tomorrow.


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