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.
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