I wasn’t exactly expecting this, but in thinking about my previous conversation with Dr. C, I’m impressed with the conversation that we had. I’m also looking at my track record at finding a new advisor and finding it difficult to conclude I’m doing it right. Perhaps I wrongly assume that it shouldn’t be this hard, but that is just how it seems to me. Then again, I’ve long recognized that frustration is a sign you’re going about something the wrong way, so perhaps I do some faulty assumptions behind my thinking. But how can I know?
That’s when I got the idea to go back and pick Dr. C’s brain. If I could learn more about the perspective that professors typically have on their job and their involvement with grad students, I could improve my approach to finding a new advisor and meet with more success. So I reached back out to Dr. C and pitched the idea to him. And he accepted.
We met earlier today over Zoom, and this time I took notes. After explaining my objective for the meeting, Dr. C began a philosophical waxing on the idea that what motivates professors to do what they do is what motivates most people to do what they do, namely the natural tendencies. So we’re talking about money and laziness and fame and recognition and all that lot. But in that monologue I was able to discern a very important word: productive. Professors are expected to be productive at producing results, and the most valued results are research publications that add some valuable knowledge (there’s fame and recognition) and research grants (there’s money). From this I gained the idea that my search for an advisor could draw to a close if I offer that professor evidence that reasonably suggests said professor can get publications to his or her name and grant money.
Dr. C talked about the grad student journey, saying that the best grad students don’t need much instruction or guidance. They simply take the ball and run it into the in-zone. The advisor is simply there to guide the self-motivated student. The worst grad students are the ones who need to be told what to do, who don’t take any initiative, who essentially need to be baby-sat. The PhD journey is essentially an apprenticeship experience. The student does what the professor does (so what counts as productivity for the student is the same as what counts as productivity for the professor) all the while leveraging a connection with the professor to get what the student could not get on his or her own, principally the grant money.
I could see that is true, because I watched opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to secure funding pass me by because I didn’t have an advisor. When grant proposals are evaluated, the sponsor will examine the track record of the applicants. I have no track record because I am a student just starting out in this. But if I get with a professor who has a track record of securing funding for a research area that interests me, that can help me get the funding I need to do my research. Then as I develop a track record for myself, I can submit funding proposals on my own.
Suddenly it was all making sense to me. I felt such a huge mix of emotion. On the one hand, I felt elated that I was understanding the structure of the PhD journey and how the pieces fit together. On the other hand, I felt completely cheated. I was starting to understand the progress I should have been making but wasn’t simply because I didn’t know about the structure and I naively thought that my advisor would help me get on track if I went to oo far afield. The reality turned out be my advisor cut the string and let the wind blow me away because the system in which he works burdens him with so much other work that he didn’t want to make the effort to work with me in creating an alternative plan. He’s got only one way to do it, and if you can’t stay on that track, he’s not riding your train.
I know I’ve expressed this before, but I really do wish that someone would have communicated to me that structure my first semester here instead of me learning about it the summer before my fourth year. This is where the pandemic really bit me, because this sort of information is normally communicated to grad students by peers. I should have learned about thsi structure from my peers, and I would have it weren’t for the pandemic. The combination of masking requirements and my asthmatic condition didn’t play very well, and so to help me, my advisor gave me a desk in the lab where there was only one desk. Because I sat in that room alone, I could work without the mask (unless of course someone else came in, but that almost never happened). Because of that isolation, I never got the peer instruction I would otherwise have received.
Dr. C said one final thing to me that got me thinking. He said that in his experience older students appreciate knowing the journey up front (and my diatribe here about the structure of the program clearly puts me in that camp). But then he advised me to let go of having to know all the steps, just do the work, and trust the process.
That got me thinking. All this time I’ve been waiting on an advisor before I begin. But that is the essence of what Dr. C describes as the worst grad student. The best pick it up and take it home. That’s what I need to do. I need to determine my own direction and then find an advisor whose interests align with that direction. Eventually I won’t be able to go any further without an advisor, because the advisor is the chair of the dissertation committee that hears and approves my proposal. But I don’t need the advisor for much of the work before that point, especially at the beginning. So I need to put my rear in gear and start with assembling a lit review.
I’m thankful to have learned what I have learned. I just wish that my advisor would have sat me down when we first got together and spent 30 minutes explaining all of this to me. Everything would likely be radically different for me right now. That said, the successful deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it would be. So now it’s grinding time. Let’s work!
In my search for a new advisor, I am finding the same response from professor after professor. Though delivered with some difference by each one, I have been left to keep searching. So when one professor who I will call Dr. C agreed to meet with me, I was optimistic. We found a shared free time in our schedules and arranged the meeting.
As we talked about my background and the daily routine of Dr. C’s graduate students, it became apparent that we were not a good fit. I could sense his uncertainty as he declared that conclusion, but the uncertainty was not in the conclusion but in my response to it; he was concerned about expressing himself inappropriately. I quickly thanked him for his forthrightness and agreed with his conclusion. Our conversation ten became more much enjoyable.
And it was also educational. In an effort to support my continued search for a new advisor, I asked questions about the perspective of the professor. Dr. C began talking about that perspective. I should have been taking notes, because his monologue really opened my mind, particularly with the ideas of creating new knowledge and the apprenticeship nature of the PhD program. I’ll need to think about these ideas some, but I left both discouraged and encouraged at the same time. I’m discouraged that I am learning just before the beginning of my fourth year what I should have learned my first semester here. But I am encouraged because, knowing now what I should have learned previously, I feel more capable of achieving my objectives and making real progress in my program.
And this is where it is. I am not going to stop until I win. I will finish what I started, and whatever results from that will result. I will do this!
It’s now official. The professor I’ve been hoping would be my new advisor — who I will call Dr. B — has now bowed out, leaving me right back where I started. I got tired of him dragging his feet on this matter, given that I need an advisor to take care of some loose threads in my progress towards my degree, not to mention my eventual need for a dissertation committee, chaired by an advisor, to pass my dissertation proposal. So I wrote a letter responding to numerous points he had raised in our earlier conversations and then asking him to commit to be on one side of the fence or the other. He came back with a short refusal.
On the face of it, it’s fine that he refused. I wouldn’t want to work with someone who thinks the fit is not good. At the same time, I wasted half my summer waiting on this guy to quit dancing and decide, time that might have been put to good use, only instead to find myself right back where I started.
I’ve debated including the letter I sent to him in this post. I’m still not completely sure about including it, which I interpret to mean I should not include it here. However, if you are someone with hiring authority and considering hiring me for a position, I might share that privately with you. Reach out if you are interested.
All in all, I feel disappointed. The person I once admired as being full of wisdom has been replaced with a myoptic miser who lacks vision. That said, I remain undaunted. This situation gets the same response I gave to my ex-advisor. If this guy doesn’t want to help me, then I will just find someone else who will. And that’s my attitude going forward.
I ended up waiting for almost 6 hours while the mechanic was trying to overcome issues with his parts supplier, so I made a great call getting a new book. And in six hours I got through a lot of this book. It didn't take me long to finish it thereafter. I have to say this is one of the best books on success that I ever read. Not only has it confirmed much of what I've read elsewhere about the mindset of success, but it also gave me new ideas to think about.
Success is your duty
For example, Cardone talks about ethics in approaching success. By ethics, he means that success is a duty, an obligation, and a responsibility. I've heard him talk about this before but never really understood the idea until I read his book. Without success, you won't be your personal best or live up to your potential. Because ethics regards a system of appropriate behavior, not being successful, in the mind of Cardone, is inappropriate. Thus, success is an ethical duty, obligation, and responsibility.
In thinking about that idea, I agree with it because success in business and in life provides the means by which we meet our obligations to ourselves, our family, and the broader community. Without success, our ability to meet those obligations is severely diminished. So in thinking along those lines, I'm on the side of Cardone.
Set unrealistic goals
Having a high interest in goals, I was curious about Cardone’s perspective on making goals when I saw his chapter on goals. One of the themes of this chapter on goals is a diatribe against realistic goals. We hear this all the time, especially in the SMART acronym in which R stands for realistic. But Cardone doesn't believe in realistic goals. He says,
“I truly despise the word ‘realistic’ [sic] because it is based on what others . . . have accomplished and believed possible. Realistic thinking is based on what others think is possible — but they are not you and have no way of knowing your potential and purpose. If you're going to set goals based on what others think, then be sure you do it based on what the giants on this planet think. They will be the first to tell you, ‘Don't base your goals on what I have done because you can do even more.’ But what if you set goals based on those of the top players of the world? Steve Jobs’s goal, for instance, is to ‘ding’ the universe — to create products that forever change our planet. Look at what he has done with Apple and Pixar. If you're going to set goals comparable to those of others, then at the very least pick the giants who have already created massive success.”
To me, that idea makes a lot of sense. It reminds me of something Will Smith once said: “Why should I be realistic? What's the point of being realistic?” He goes on to talk about how extraordinary achievements are not made by thinking small. I think that's what Cardone is getting at here. Goals should be unrealistic because, in Cardone’s mind, only goals based on big dreams have the ability to inspire their achievement. That’s something to think about as I consider my own goals.
Competition is for sissies and other gems
His chapter on competition also changed my thinking. For so long I've thought about competition as being something good, even desirable. But competition is not the objective of the successful. They don't want to compete; they want to dominate. As I think about that difference, I can see many ready advantages to dominating my space. It provides so much opportunity and freedom that I don't have if I merely compete.
I was also impressed by this thought: “Your biggest problem is obscurity — other people don't know you and aren't thinking about you.” That one really got me thinking, and I could see that it's totally true. All of my past unsuccessful entrepreneurial efforts were just that because of that one word: obscurity. No one patronizes the business they don't know about.
Here's another idea that turned me around: “Learn to commit first, and figure out how to show up later.” When I first read that, it made absolutely no sense to me. Why would you commit to doing something without knowing whether or not you can do it? The loss of integrity with yourself is you fail could be massive. The uncertainty attached to that approach provides a huge risk that, before reading Cardone’s book, I've always rejected as being above my threshold.
But after reading his book and especially the experience at the end where he talks about applying that idea to his personal striving for success, I'm thinking he might be right. When you commit, you put yourself on the island, and when you commit without really knowing how it's going to work, you put yourself on the island and burn your boats. That puts you in a space where you have to make it happen. Results come from one thing and one thing only — action. It's really what the 10X Rule is all about. It’s not so much spending 10 times more time working as it is using the time you have to produce 10 times the results because you fit 10 times the action within the time you have.
Cardone talks time management
That leads me to the last idea I found really impressive. Cardone’s book has a chapter on time management, which like my interest in goals has always been high on my curiosity list. There's really two parts to his idea that impressed me. The first is the idea of balance. Most people think in terms of either-or; “I don't have time to do everything, so with the time I have, I must do either this or that.” But Cardone takes a different approach. He doesn't think in terms of either-or; he thinks in terms of all. Because he wants it all, he arranges his day so that he can have it all.
That brings me to the second part that impressed me. Cardone said, “To really understand, manage, maximize, and squeeze every opportunity out of the time you have, you have to fully understand and appreciate how much of it you have available to you. You must first take control of your time — not allow others to do so. If you listen to people discuss the topic of time — especially in regards to the amount they have at work — you'll probably hear a lot of complaining. People act as though work is something to get through, yet in reality they spend very little of their time even doing it. Most people only work enough so that it feels like work, whereas successful people work at a pace that gets such satisfying results that work is a reward. Truly successful people don't even call it work; for them, it's a passion. Why? Because they do enough to win!”
He then talks about the need to work harder and get more done in the same amount of time. This makes sense when you consider his 10X Rule, which is assessing the effort needed to hit target and adjusting thinking to dream big. Big dreams inspire big action, so the 10X Rule is about massive action at 10 times the amount others give. And that really is what it all comes down to, because results come from action and only from action.
If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it. There's a chapter near the end where he gives 32 qualities of successful people and a brief treatment on each one. I’m thinking I might adopt that chapter as a sort of daily primer to start my day. Each day I read one section about one quality, and then after 32 days, I start all over again. There seems to be some mindset here that I have in part but not completely. And as I think about the concepts in this book, I feel impressed that it contains much of what I've been lacking in order to have the success I've been dreaming about for years. We'll see what comes of that. So again, if you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it. In the very least, it will get you thinking about the assumptions behind your thinking and the approach you could take to life. And that in itself would by good, even desirable. 5 stars.
The one principle that impressed me the most as I read through the book — again, none of the principles were really new to me — was the need to start earlier in the morning if you want to do more. The days Navy Seals spend training and then actually performing in the field are pretty packed. So if they want to accomplish something personal, the only time to do that is in the morning before their busy day starts. That made an impression on me. With everything I’m balancing, I felt the need to integrate that practice into my life, so much so that it becomes part of my lifestyle. Like most things I attempt to practice, I can’t say I’m perfect. But I also can’t say I’ll ever stop trying to improve.
I can’t say enough good things about this book. It should be required reading that everyone returns to every so often to get a refresher in the attitude that precedes success. I’m certainly putting it in my schedule to return to it on at least an annual basis. 5 out of 5 stars.
I said I’d be coming back to the meeting I had with a potential new advisor a couple of weeks ago, and here I am. These past two weeks have been busy. I started by reflecting and meditating on what I had received in that two-hour interaction with that professor. And it wasn’t long before a wonderful idea came to me. Last semester, one of the classes I took was about decision making. Why not use the analysis tools you learned in that class to evaluate this decision?
It made sense. In fact, it made perfect sense. That professor said more than once the decision before me was one of the most important of my career because so much would result from it. And I felt deeply impressed each time he said it that it was true. So why shouldn’t I be rigorous and thorough in analyzing this decision?
At the same time, I recognized a wonderful opportunity before me. Writing this decision analysis into a formal report would allow me to clarify my thinking and help me bring the rigor to the analysis I wanted to bring. But it would also help me to answer one of the major concerns which that professor raised at the idea of being my advisor, that being his question about my writing ability. Could I produce professional-level writing in a timely manner that stood a decent chance of getting published? I believe the answer is yes, but here I have the opportunity to produce receipts. If I could produce a report describing my decision analysis procedure and results in a format not unlike what a professionally published academic journal article would have, that demonstration of my ability would speak highly to resolving that professor’s concern.
So without telling him my plan, I took ownership and got busy with the task of performing a formal decision analysis on the two parts of the question before me. Will I stay close to my chosen research topic or find something completely different? And how will I fund the next year? I decided to write the report while conducting the analysis. The analysis itself would not take that long, but the act of writing would clarify what I was doing, and writing about the analysis while performing the analysis would expedite production of the final draft, the receipt I wanted to bring to that professor.
I ended up evaluating 14 different alternatives over 8 different attributes. The analysis used linear models to evaluate utilities for each attribute, swing weights based on a ranking of the attributes, and calculation of total utility for each alternative. But I didn’t just stop there. I evaluated the sensitivity of the two highest swing weights across the top five alternatives to see what it would take to unseat the top alternative from its position. And I analyzed the risk involved in implementing the top alternative and developed ways to manage that risk.
In the end, I produced a 22-page, single-spaced report formatted much like a professional journal article would be, and it took me a little more than two weeks to complete. Although the analysis resulted in a ranking of the alternatives considered, I made it clear from the start that I was not conducting the analysis to make my decision but rather to inform my decision. I would have the final say regarding what next step I would take. And that final say must pass the “gut” check; it must feel right to me. I took that professor’s advice to heart. And the top alternative from my analysis — staying near my chosen research area and funding myself through a combination of my own labor and other sources — actually felt right to me.
I had reached out to the professor from my decision analysis class for assistance, and he promised to help me when he returns from his travels. I appreciate his assistance, but I’m not waiting for it to move forward. I decided to put my best foot forward and show what I could do to that potential new advisor. So I emailed him the report. He responded promptly, saying a brief scan shows I performed a rigorous analysis. He also said he was on his way out of town for a conference and would provide more feedback upon his return. I don’t know where this is going to end up, but I feel a real benefit from having performed my decision analysis and using it to inform the decision that I have made regarding my future. And I feel empowered to press forward with the decision I made myself, a decision that feels very right to me. So here I go.
Today I had a phenomenal meeting with a faculty member that I am certain will be involved in the remainder of PhD career. I established the appointment with him in my continuing search for an advisor, and I made sure that I was five minutes early. I wanted to make a good impression because I felt there was a reasonably good chance I would want this professor to be my new advisor. But what I thought would be a 20-30 minute discussion of what we could do for each other ending with finalizing my search actually turned into a two-hour lecture filled with practical wisdom that I wish I had received this lecture my first year here.
I got unintentional confirmation of what I read earlier in The Professor Is In — faculty members are part of a system that in the least does not incentivize them to provide students with the advising they really need. This faculty member, who will remain nameless for the present has been around the block, having served in several positions of administration as well as teaching and conducting research for the past 25 years (I think that number is right, but don’t quote me). He seemed sincerely interested in students’ perspective on what the university if providing them in their education, and I appreciated that attitude and the way it colored our discussion, which was really more of a lecture since I spent most of my time with him listening to him and taking in what he shared.
He began by confessing difficulty in finding funding for fatigue research. He claimed that project managers simply aren’t interested in handing over cash for something that is thought to be relatively well understood. I kept quiet here, as I did for much of my visit with this professor, but instantly I had two questions: Have you tried approaching your funding sources in a different way? And what have you done to find new funding sources? People will pay money to relieve pain; it’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned from my own entrepreneurial journey. The other way that I understand works well is to help the customer feel like a hero by providing funding. If the way you approach your prospective customer doesn’t communicate pain relief or provide some desirable feeling (like that of being a hero), you’re not likely to get the customer’s money.
And what about finding some new sources of funding? We all tend to do what we do out of habit, and I can’t imagine that professors looking for funding are any different. No one wants to keep looking for new funding sources, especially if they can secure funding sources that provide money year after year. But if those traditional customers have no interest in what you’re selling (answers and insights provided by your research), then you need either to change what you do to provide those customers with what they want or find new customers who want you will provide without changing.
The lecture then became more of a discussion as this professor asked about my past history with advisors. I’ve changed advisors once, and so looking to change again is admittedly putting me on shaky ground. He forthrightly recognized it, and I don’t dispute it. Nor do I blame him for asking pointed questions about my past experiences with previous advisors. When I explained I left my first advisor because I was being pigeonholed into a research topic that bored me to tears, this professor seemed to disagree with my choice, saying that there is good in every topic. I agree that with enough searching something interesting can be found in any topic. But the only interesting knowledge I found were tidbits that make passable party conversation. We’re not talking about some class project here. We’re talking about my PhD dissertation research, something that I am going to be living, eating, sleeping, dreaming, breathing, and essentially immersing myself so thoroughly that I’ll be thinking about it regardless of what I’m doing. That shouldn’t be something that bores me to tears. It should be something that at least some element I love.
Having that element that just inspires passion by its mere presence is all the more important to me when I consider that my PhD dissertation will strongly influence my early career in academia. I don’t want to be spending 8-10 hours a day — that’s somewhere between a third and a half of the rest of my life — with something that is just interesting but that I don’t love. I get his point that his research has constantly changed over the years to follow the funding. I fully expect my research will do the same in my future academic career. But even interesting drudgery won’t be enough to pull me through career challenges if there isn’t something I love somewhere in there.
And that’s why I moved to my second advisor, which wasn’t anything careless. I spent a month collecting data and preparing a report on my analysis of various candidates, comparing their research interests as well as other factors related to personality. In the end, I chose the third “best” candidate because the first two didn’t really pass the “gut” check. Something about them just didn’t feel right. I spent three semesters with Advisor #2, who told me at the start of this past semester he no longer wanted to be my advisor. He felt exasperated that I couldn’t satisfy his expectations. He would mentioned the result he wanted in very general terms and then say, “Do it,” leaving me to figure everything out. Without some structure to guide me, I invariably feel short of his expectations. I also had challenges as an older student dealing with limited bandwidth to tackle coursework, research, and part-time work to pay bills, and Advisor #2 wanted someone who could do all three.
Here I found a friendly ear. This professor told me that you can do only two things well, and I felt reassured hearing that my choice was one made by many other students. The advantage of my current situation, while not the best having been dropped by Advisor #2, is that my coursework is now complete, allowing me to dedicate more of my limited bandwidth to completing my research. But the disadvantage, which my prospective new advisor readily acknowledged and which I completely understand, is my lack of publication. This professor confessed an uneasiness with accepting a student with this unknown factor. Could I produce quality writing in a timely manner? As I said, I understand the hesitation.
But this professor said he would be willing to be my advisor given certain conditions were met. First, I would need to decide the focus for my research, and I appreciated the way this professor explained to me the probable consequences of my options. Keeping the same research topic on entropic damage of fatigue failures would likely take me two years to finish — one year to produce publication-quality journal articles from my research and another year to complete the dissertation. Finding a new topic would likely add an additional year to get up to speed with the new topic in order to conduct research that would then lead to the two journal articles that would then support the dissertation, so three years total.
But there is a caveat: Keeping the same research topic without involving my previous advisor would show a lack of professional propriety. Advisor #2 is the local subject matter expert in that area, someone who has done more than anyone at the university to promote that research area, and excluding him from research in that area would be highly inconsiderate, so much so that my new prospective advisor openly declared he would not be my advisor if I attempted to do that. I have no problem with that. I didn’t realize there was that sort of turf consideration to be had, but I wholeheartedly embrace professional courtesy and ethical behavior. I once gave up a job in my career in industry over ethical concerns, and I would do it again if need be, so I really believe in propriety.
The second condition regards funding. My prospective new advisor openly confessed he had no funding for me. That didn’t surprise me because he shared as much in our previous email discussion. What did surprise me was his emphasis of his previous point that working on a PhD while impoverished is hard. My response in our email discussion included options I have, including the passive income I get from my online statistics course. This professor completely ignored all of that, weaving this tale of graduate students he knew at Cal Tech who lived in their car and showered in the university rec center or found a couch in some building and camped there for the night.
I wasn’t sure whether he was testing my resolve (he seemed big on constantly testing with everything he dished out at me) or whether he thought I was oblivious to what could happen if I persist in continuing without funding. I decided to say nothing and practice the advice of Bruce Lee — be like water. I don’t offer resistance. I just take the shape of whatever is there, like water filling a container. And so I let this professor tell his story, and I took it all in.
That doesn’t mean I agree with it. That will so NOT be me. Yes, it is a possibility, but not a high-probability event. I have options. I can work. I graduated with my first bachelor’s degrees nine years after I graduated high school because I wasn’t in school continuously; I would go to school for a bit, step out to work, go back for a bit, step out again, and so forth. Halfway through I scored extra Pell Grant money for being an “older” student and a scholarship from my department. The combination was enough to pay me to go to school. Even still I had a part time job. I’m not afraid of work, and I have that option. And I always have the “tourniquet” option of selling what won’t fit in my car, driving three days back to Idaho, and living with my dad rent free while I figure out how ot start over. I have options. I won’t be living out of my car, and I wonder what this professor was really getting at by pushing this narrative that totally ignores my more realistic options.
This professor started to wind down his lecture with a hodge podge of topics. He could offer me a research project involving functionally gradient materials which had no funding and would not really help me with my desired academic career (so he claimed). He somehow got to talking about delivering lectures in the classroom and how most students don’t say anything in class or respond in any fashion. Again, I wondered if this was a test. He then said something that got me thinking. If there is no discussion of class content, then what is the point of having in-person classes?
The more I think about that idea, the more I agree with it. I remember my previous experience as an adjunct teaching statistics. When I learned about active learning, I was all on board. I thought I could improve my stats class by integrating classroom activities that were related to the homework problems students would have. But after working to develop activities for the 32 class sessions to be had during the semester, I found the students wanted nothing to do with it. In my reflections on that result, I eventually came to ask myself, “Why am I trying to force this down their throat?” I then changed tracks to develop a hybrid course that offered content through online videos and then class time became Q&A time. Those students who didn’t need it didn’t need to show up, and those students who did could ask whatever they wanted. It proved to be a much more effective approach that made the students happier and made me happier as their average performance improved. There is no point to in-person class if the students won’t interact with the instructor.
This blog post is already longer than most if not all of my others, so I’ll end here with the final piece of advice this professor gave me. Whatever you decide, make sure it passes the “gut” check. I couldn’t agree more. I applied that advice back when I searched for Advisor #2, so I’ll certainly be using it going forward. But I was impressed that with everything I was getting from this professor, this simple profundity is what everything reduced to. I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with the two hours I spent with this professor today. If in the end he doesn’t turn out to be my advisor, he’ll certainly be a mentor and someone helping me construct a five-year plan to move ahead in my academic career. Go with your gut. And right now, my gut says, Get something to eat.” But I’ll be coming back to what I discussed with this professor, for sure.
You may have a Queen song in your head like I do (. . . another one bites the dust!), but if you don’t that doesn’t diminish my accomplishment. Today I celebrate another milestone on the road to my PhD degree. Actually, I celebrated Monday night after completing my last final exam, but today I just saw the grades my professors posted and see it is official. I have now completed my coursework requirement.
What an absolute bear to get off my chest! I’ve been suffering from coursework fatigue for the past 12-18 months. Last semester was bad with the poor way my former advisor treated me in his class. This semester was in some ways worse due to an unfortunate affair with group work. A huge portion of the grade came from two projects. As my team assessed our skills to decide who should do what, we determined that, because I lacked skills needed on the front end, the other three team members would handle early work and I would handle more of the later work. Even though we weren’t doing an equal share of every task, we were performing a more or less equal share of the total work needed for the whole project. So we reported equal shares to our professor who graded us accordingly.
When the second project began, we started out the same way, as I had the expectation to pick up at the end. But at the end, my team members shut me out, did most of the work, let me at the very end, and then took what they liked from that pittance of a contribution to finish the project. I can understand why they did this. We performed horribly in the first project, losing 60% of the possible points (mostly because they ignored what I had to say — things like “That bridge design looks too bulky” and “We really should round the interior corners to eliminate stress concentrations” only to learn our bridge weighed too much and failed at a sharpened interior corner), so taking more credit on the final project gives them more points and a higher grade. One team member worked full time and would have to pay $4000 for the class if his grade fell too low. So I get their motivation.
I just find it sad they would sell their integrity like that. Of course, at the time I was livid. I sent a letter as an email attachment to my professor explaining my side of the situation, and I’m sure my teammates each had their own communications with our professor. The way my professor handled this situation is pure brilliance. When I saw that grades had been posted, I logged into the course site on the university LMS and saw that the grading used the point distribution my teammates reported. That left me with next to nothing for my final project, the lowest grade in the class for the final project (what do you expect when you lose 80% credit?), and a final grade of C+. But then I went to the site for the registrar’s office to see what grade was posted. After logging in, I sat in amazement at the letter B next this course.
A half minute of contemplation looking to explain what I had saw witnessed revealed the brilliance of my professor. His approach allowed him to take sides without really taking sides. If any of my former teammates were to ask him what grade I got, he could honestly tell them he used their point distribution for the final project and gave me the lowest grade in the class. They would then feel vindicated. But to prevent me from feeling I got the shaft (and I’m not talking Samuel L Jackson), he bumps my grade from a C+ to a B. Now I feel vindicated. Yet my professor never took sides, declaring that one side was right over the other, so he can feel good about keeping out of the fray (he strikes me as the sort that hates conflict). It’s absolutely brilliant what he did.
And now I’m all done with coursework. All that remains is the research, and the first step there is finding an advisor who will take me on, preferably one with funding, although given my funding situation over the past two years that may not happen. I met last month with someone I thought would be a great candidate. We met in his lab and had a fantastic conversation about the research I wanted to perform. In 45 minutes, I got more advice on how to move my research forward than I did in 2 years with my former advisor. But he backed out after learning about some paperwork requirements. It was all very strange. Anywho, I’m now set to meet with another candidate next week who looks very promising. If he turns out like the first, then I’ll find a third, and a fourth, and however many more it takes to get this done and locked in. I’m going to get my PhD and will not be denied.
Once I have my advisor in place, I’ll work a plan to get to the next step: the proposal. Then it will be on to execute the research, write and defend the dissertation, and finalize everything. Along the way, my plan will include quality additions to my CV, since the whole point of my PhD program is becoming more competitive for the full-time teaching job I want. But today I celebrate the completion of my coursework and another milestone on my way to that full-time job.
Today I received an official invitation to join the Graduate School Writing Center as a Writing and Oral Communication Fellow, or Writing Fellow for short. I didn’t start the semester expecting this to happen. I didn’t even come here to Maryland with any intention of going this route. But when I saw an announcement a couple of weeks back that a search for new Writing Fellows had commenced and saw that I easily fit the bill, I thought about applying. And as I thought about applying, there was something inside of me calling out to me to do this, a sense that this path was right for me. So I applied.
I wasn’t surprised to be invited to interview. It’s not often a candidate with my credentials comes along. As the Writing Center director told me, occasionally she meets an engineering student with writing skills and/or experience, and even less frequently she’ll encounter an engineering student with a BA in English. But she has never before encountered an applicant who has an engineering background AND a BA in English AND experience working in a writing center. I was a shoe-in for the interview.
That interview was one of the most pleasant ones I had. We talked about questions related to writing and helping others become better writers. My rhetoric and pedagogy muscles got their first good workout in a long time, and it was good to stretch them once more. Looking later at the current Writing Fellows and their disciplines, I can see a great opportunity to build my network within a wide variety of disciplines.
And that brings me back to what impressed my memory the most of the conversation during the interview. The director asked me why I was applying for the position. I responded that I felt the need to expand my network beyond my own discipline. But the way I provided context for that response I did not anticipate or plan. I suddenly spoke of the future of research being more and more interdisciplinary, my future career in academia, and the advantage I could wield in my future career by crossing those disciplinary divisions now.
Obviously I made a good impression because I got offered the position. Now I look ahead. I’ll only be in the Writing Center for 2 or 4 hours each week, so it won’t be a huge distraction from my doctoral research. Plus I’ll get paid for my time, not much but these days every little bit helps. It’s been just over 20 years since I last worked in a writing center, so I’m looking forward to seeing how things have changed in all that time in addition to meeting new people and gaining more practice with skills I’ll certainly need later in my career. But overall I’m excited to be back in that saddle again starting this upcoming fall semester. Piece by piece, I’m putting my future together.
This morning I attended a presentation about the Fulbright program offered by the US Department of State. I didn’t much about it going in, and honestly more than anything I was attending simply to think about possibilities. As I mentioned in my earlier review of The Professor Is In, I need a Plan B, something to bridge the gap into the full-time teaching job I want.
And as it turns out, the Fulbright program might be a part of that solution for me. The program pays for one year of teaching English in a foreign country or one year of research study in a foreign country that can apply for a master’s or PhD degree or even a post doc. You could even get in on this action a few years after graduation. Recipients are expected to serve as ambassadors of US culture to other nations, and in exchange they get a modest living stipend for a year in a foreign country as well as paid travel to and from.
You need to a have a plan, though. It’s not like you throw your ring in the hat and hope you get sent somewhere great. Your application is essentially no different from a grant proposal, so you propose research in a specific country because something about that country holds an essential element for your research. For example, a biologist studying a species found only in a particular country could propose a research project in that country because only there is found the species that is the focus of the study. In my case, it would be working with a particular researcher. I would propose going to a particular country because in that country lives and works the particular researcher who can foster my research.
I didn’t start my PhD program with the idea of taking my research international, but as I sat listening to the presentation, it all felt right. A peaceful calm and assurance enveloped me. As I have thought about that experience throughout the day, it continued to feel right, like this could be the path for me. I don’t know that it is, but following it makes sense. One thing that sets more qualified candidates for academic positions from the rest of their hopeful competition is an expanded network. The more qualified have recommendations as well as a CV that shows evidence of a network expanding beyond one’s degree granting institution. Simply having a nationwide network would set me apart from the bulk of my competitors, so imagine what an international one would do.
Plus I’m still single and can really more easily accommodate doing this while I still am. And who knows? Going to a foreign country might be what I need to change that! Depending on the country, I might also have access to a healthier diet. I’ve heard over the years people talk about how “polluted” food in the US is. I never gave that much thought until recently. After years of trying to lose weight without much success, I wonder if there isn’t something to that idea.
At any rate, I’ll need to think about this some more. But it could be that an international adventure lies in my future. I’m open to possibility. Maybe this opportunity holds the possibility I really need.
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