Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Adviser Advice

I hope this holiday finds everyone in a good place, with the ability to relax a little :)

Okay, so this week's topic is a big one: how do you go about picking an academic adviser? Some departments don't require that you do this from the outset (instead letting you pick once you've had a chance to get to know people in the department for a while), but a good deal of people will go into applying for schools with a particular person they want to work with in mind. Either way, when selecting schools to apply to, keeping the fact that at least one of the people there will have to be your major adviser is vastly important. There are very few other factors that will have as great an influence over your graduate work than the person you work with. They can make the experience a living hell, or really mold the years of work your going to put in into a positive and helpful experience. Chose wisely, my young friends!

So, first off, there's the obvious point that whomever it is you are thinking about working with, you should be interested in the area of research they are working in. You should have a pretty clear idea of what area/project/vastly-important-topic you want to delve into for grad school (or, ya know, for-EVH-er). Read as many papers in this area as possible. Look at the authors. Check out the school's websites (and pray they have been updated recently). Ask around in your home department from people who are in similar or related fields. Make a list of people and make sure you have a few options. Don't just limit yourself to a single person, because you may honestly hate that person in real life and then where will you be? Back-ups never hurt anyone, so long as you don't tell someone they are you back-up choice :)

Now that you've got your list, there are things you will want to know before wasting your time and money applying. This is, in reality, a business decision. You should treat it like one. If you can't get along with your business partner, you are less likely to do well in your field. Not that it isn't possible to suck it up and get through grad school, but it is infinitely better to like your adviser, or at least respect the person. As females, too, learning that you're not going to be working with a chauvinistic pig (and for some reason academia has a good deal of them around) will make your life so much easier! So, I've spent a lot of time discussing what makes an adviser a good one with my husband. There is no hard and fast rules, but here are a few things to consider:
  • Male or female? Look, some women work better with other women. Some have a really hard time working with women. Know your own preference, and if possible, ask your potential adviser's other students about this (maybe not outright ask them, but finding a polite way to broach the subject, or at least get a feel for how the other students are handling things is perfectly acceptable).
  • Older and established, or young and enthusiastic? Ahhh, this is a question I've gone round and round on because it's certainly a tricky one, and very well could be 'tenured or not-quite-tenured?' Both my husband and my advisers are older and have tenure, but I do see the contrast between my interactions and those of my fellow cohort members and the younger members of my department. The younger faculty, while not having as much money or contacts, do tend to have a lot more interaction with their students, and can be less intimidating (or maybe that's just me... :). Anyhow, more established, tenured advisers have more money (generally) which can be incredibly helpful when you can't get a TA spot for a quarter. They also tend to know EVERYONE, which is a total plus. But there can also be health problems that can knock them out for long periods of time, they may take sabbaticals and be totally unreachable for a year (oh, it happens!), or they may be "past their prime" in terms of their ideas or approaches to your field. Think about this one carefully and really get a feel for how each individual works so that you make the best possible decision for the way you work!
  • Kids or childless? Does your potential adviser have strong feelings about children, particularly if you have some during your school years? The last thing you want is them blaming you for them not getting tenure because you took some time off to have a child. I honestly can't imagine what kind of douche would do this, but it does happen. Also, small children on the part of your adviser can mean they are around less, so it is something to consider.
  • Approachable or frozen Popsicle? Does your hypothetical adviser like to talk to his students weekly? Daily? Almost never? Is he easy to get a hold of, or is he/she never around? Does he/she make it easy and possible to bring up questions or concerns? How each adviser interacts with their cadre of graduate students is different--some have weekly meetings, others expect their students to seek them out when they are needed. It's a very individual thing, and finding out if their style--whether it be hands-on, or let-you-loose--needs to mesh with your personal style.
  • Extra set of hands, or new-projects-R-us? For some programs this is less of an issue than others, but it's good think about whether an adviser is looking to take on a new student for a project they already have going (essentially wanting another set of 'hands' for their own work), or if they are open to the possibility of you creating and carrying out a project of your own choosing and design. If you already have a well-formed idea of what you want to do before entering school, be sure to pick someone who won't expect you to work on cloning mice for their NSF project for the next five years.
Okay, I'm undoubtedly missing things, but hopefully this will get you thinking about some of the important issues that go into working with an academic adviser. Make sure you are comfortable and understand how you work and find someone that will mesh well with your style. Ask other students, politely address the potential adviser, email other people in the department (above all--be polite! Duh!). Don't just assume that because a person does some really cool research that they are going to be a perfect person to work with. Advisers are people too (well, sometimes....) and getting along with this person will make life a whole lot easier!

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