Getting what you deserve from your Adviser: Part 2

Reprising my role as villain and devil’s advocate, I come to you with the second part of this little reality check I’m calling “getting what you deserve.”  In the last post I argued that while there are many great things that an adviser might be for you or do for you–picnic lunch meetings, weekly emails just to see how you are holding up, and introductions into academic networks after graduation–none of these things is required of a good thesis adviser.  Thus, it is fully possible–if not totally probable–that your adviser will do none of these things and yet remain true to the spirit of their job title.  Now, it may seem that I have set up a straw man when I argued that one should “give up the idea that your adviser will become a life long friend that will become the godfather of your children”–who would ever expect or demand such a thing?  Well, no one… but I do know of a great many students that honestly believe that a thesis adviser’s job is to be available every day or at least every week to answer questions, read through drafts, and provide support and encouragement.  Now, I ask you, which is easier to do: put someone on your Christmas card list and send gifts to their rug rats on their birthdays or be available day after day, week after week to answer any number of questions and provide all manner of hand holding?  I would much rather be the Godfather of any number of children rather than a cheerleader for just one angsty, socially inept grad student–in other words a person like myself.

Thus, the best one can expect–thought not the best one can hope for–is a mutually respectful business relationship.  Just what do I mean by “respectful business relationship?”

– You ought to be interested in your adviser’s work and not just your own. While it is a given that they’ve signed on to help you with your project, understanding their projects and showing collegial interest will make for a mutually beneficial time together.

– While you have a responsibility to return every email and deal with every issue as soon as you can and as often as you need to, you can’t expect that your adviser will have the same amount of time and attention to pay to you that you have to pay to them.

– Knowing this, be proactive!  Most of the headaches that advisees have result from their failure to anticipate deadlines and expectations that their advisers to fix problems that they, themselves ought to have avoided.

– Make your adviser aware of how much you value them, but don’t think that the feeling must go both ways.  If you are very lucky, you might luck into one of those amazing mentor/mentee relationships with long emails, trips to conferences together, and pie… but realistically you can only expect a relationship amenable to the accomplishment of your stated thesis goals–no more and no less.

– Keep your problems to yourself. Unless the problem is something directly under the control of your adviser they won’t be able to help and you’ll only come out sounding whiny or overly dramatic.  Think and act like the professional academic you want to be.

– Don’t lie. If you didn’t read all the books they assigned or if you couldn’t get to all the changes they suggested, then don’t say that you have.  While you might get away with something for awhile, eventually, you’ll be found out and that loss of trust will be devastating.

– Don’t criticize your adviser. Not to your friends, not to other students, not to your MAPH mentors or on the internet.  Perhaps when all you are a tenured professor at a top-ten school you can afford to tell the sad, sad story of how you were done wrong–but academia is a small and inbreed community so you can’t afford to burn bridges.  Now, there are some folks who will argue that honest dissent is always a virtue, but the reality is that–for good or for bad–complaints are generally viewed as indicative of small people trying to justify their meager accomplishments.

Now, there are more than a few of you who are thinking “Wait, you’ve just said what I’m obliged to do and be for my adviser, but what can I expect them to do and be for me?”  I said “you can only expect a relationship amenable to accomplishing your stated thesis goals” and I really mean it, but as I’ve argued I don’t think that many of the things that students think are necessary for meeting their thesis goals really are–certainly not weekly meetings, endless emails, or boundless encouragement.  For those coming out of the workforce, a thesis adviser is more like your boss than your coworker.  While we might like to speak of co-learners and senior and junior researchers, in reality–far from the influence of educational “newspeak”(politically correct and pollyannaish pedagogical socialism) every student knows that, as close as they might be to their adviser, it is the professor who holds all the cards.  You can ask your coworker to pull their own weight or to honor their commitments, but you’d never dare think of the president of the company in those terms–(Shut up, Occupy!  Perhaps there is a reason why you are free to stand in the street while the rest of us are earning money to pay massive school debts!)  Well, anyway, my argument boils down to thinking less Marx and more Levinas, more Mohammed and less Malcom X.  Less my right, and more my obligation.  Your devil’s advocate–signing off.


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