Saturday, November 15, 2008

Advisors and Mentors

I just finished reading this post by PhizzleDizzle. There has been a lot of discussion recently about advisors  and mentors in academia. I've posted a few comments on the issue here and there, but at the time I didn't have my own blog where I could get detailed. 

I took a break tonight from blogging during which I wrote and submitted application essay #6 out of 10. So since I was at least a little productive, I figure what the hell. Might as well blog!

PhizzleDizzle and AA have both made the point that you need to be careful when choosing an advisor, because even if they're a rockstar they might be certifiable. Both of them are in different fields than I am, so now I wonder - am I fucked?

I don't know how the application process works for grad school in other areas of study, and I'm too wrapped up in my own shit to go find out. If I'm way off base here, please comment and let me know. But in the social sciences, you need to know when you apply who you want to be your advisor. You can give multiple people's names, but at the end of the day it's like being a mail-order bride. If they want you, you're theirs for better or for worse. 

Some programs are more flexible than others and will allow you to choose your advisor in the second semester of your first year as a grad student, regardless of whose decision it was to admit you. Some departments choose your advisor for you, and won't let you switch unless you suddenly change specialties in a manner so drastic that it has no relevance to your original plan of research. 

I spent a year doing lit searches on the topics I'm interested in, and googling authors to find out what schools they were at. I also worked in reverse - going through the list of schools with the program I want and then doing lit searches on the professors in that department. I ended up with a final list of 10 schools and probably 20-30 professors between all of them. Every grad school app guide for my field I've purchased tells me not to email professors unless I absolutely cannot get the answers to my questions from another source. Except for a few brief emails asking whether or not they were accepting grad students for next year, I have refrained from bugging them. 

How am I supposed to figure out if they're nuts or a straight-up asshole? There are no interviews for grad school in my area of specialization. No mandatory campus visits. I'm supposed to base my decision on everything I can get my hands on to read about them, and they do the same for me. 

Now having been in sales for most of my adult life, I have learned to deal with a lot of shit that people dish out. I like to think that in this sense I am more prepared for grad school than the average undergrad. I also like to think that my powerful desire to learn from those with more experience will overpower any shit that my advisors may feel like dishing out. But will that prove to be true when I'm actually there?

I have never wanted anything as badly as I want to be in a doctoral program. The desire was always there, but I think being an irrelevant undergrad at an MRU has made it flame out of control. I want to learn the "real" stuff. I want to be trained to be an expert in my field. I want to be involved in the latest and greatest research that may someday make a difference in even the smallest of ways. I have basically whored myself as a research assistant in order to make this happen. 

But I've heard the horror stories from within my field about how being a grad student is like joining a fraternity or sorority with a 5-6 yr long hazing phase. Most people say that the worse a professor was treated by his or her advisor, the worse they eventually treat their own grad students. I have been mentally preparing myself for this inevitable hell for 2 years now. 

Are you telling me that in other fields, you aren't married to your advisor until you get there and have worked with them for awhile? Whereas I'm over here reading articles in major journals trying to gauge whether or not a particular professor is a douchebag through the quality of their work alone? 

It's true. I'm fucked. 


Comrade PhysioProf said...

How am I supposed to figure out if they're nuts or a straight-up asshole?

Talk to current or former grad students they have mentored.

leigh said...

definitely talk to their students- i am very frank in my experiences with my mentor.

in my field, we rotate in several research labs before picking our poison. but even then, you are not tied too tightly. i worked for a very evil person for nearly a year, and after waking up with heart palpitations for months and assuming a rather skeletal appearance, i said fuck it and walked out. it created some obstacles, but none more insurmountable than continuing to work for that asshole.

PhizzleDizzle said...

+1. Nicely email some of their current students and ask questions about their experience working with Dr. X. Usually, the students will speak the truth :).

Psych Post Doc said...

In my experience, once your accepted to a program they do everything in their power to help you assess whether they're a good fit.

That includes giving you a list of current grad students they are working with. Grad students are careful with what they say but do a good job of getting their point across.

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