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!
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