Some academics are truly amazing and heroic. They’re self-made, and their career’s been flawlessly filled with perfect decisions and perfect timing.
Then there’s the rest of us. The rest of us have succeeded because we were all raised, socialized, and helped by other people.
Outside of academia, some of these people are obvious: parents, close relatives, coaches, and some teachers. But inside academia, not all of these people are as obvious. They might be that undergraduate professor who recommended we go to one grad school versus another, or the one who helped get us our first tenure-track job, helped lend a hand during a difficult time, or saved us from a desert island that one time by paddling through shark infested waters using only their right arm.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it can be a nice chance to hit pause and think of 2-3 nonobvious people who might have done a small thing that made a big difference in your life. Doing something as simple as this can do your soul good. On one extreme, it reminds us that we aren’t the self-centered Master of our Universe as we might think when things are going great. On the other extreme, it reminds us that there are a lot of people silently cheering for us when we might think things aren’t going so great.
What do you suppose would happen if you tracked these people down and game them a call? It’s four steps:
1. Find their phone number and dial.
2. “Hey, I’m ___; remember me? How are you?”
3. “It’s Thanksgiving. I was thinking of you.”
For about the past 30 years, I’ve tried to do this each Thanksgiving. It used to be the same 3-4 people (advisors and a post-college mentor), then a couple more, and this year I’m adding a new one. For some reason, I always look for an excuse why I shouldn’t make these calls. I always find myself pacing around before I make the first call. Part of me thinks I might be bore them, or they already know it, or it’s interrupting them, or that it’s too corny.
Yet even if I have to leave voice messages, I’m always end up smiling when I get off the phone. I feel more thankful and centered. Maybe they feel differently too.
Still, there’s some years I never made any calls, because I had good excuses. Maybe it was too late in the day, or they were probably with their family, or I called them last year, or I didn’t really have enough time to talk. I’m sure they had some good excuses – way back when – as to why they didn’t have time for me. I’m thankful they didn’t use them.
If you can think of 2-3 people you’re thankful for who might not know it, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving next year to tell them. They won’t care that you’re a little bit late or a whole lot early. It’s only 4 steps.
Some people love graduate school, but most of us want to finish it up and get started with our real lives.
A couple nights ago I met a guy who was finishing his thesis at a university about 5 hours away. He had just moved here to take a job. After only two weeks, he was totally immersed in his new job, and I asked him if he was concerned about being able to finish up his thesis. He said, "Oh, no, not at all. My university's only 5 hours away, and I've only got a couple months of work left on it."
The idea of starting a new life or a new job a few months early – say, before we’ve wrapped up our dissertation – sounds pretty good. After all, some people telecommute from home, so it should be a snap to telecommute back to the university and finish up our dissertation away from the anxieties of campus. For instance, you could now start your new gig (maybe as a professor) in June instead of August. Your plan would be to move, get settled, wrap up the dissertation, and get two months of a tempting new salary.
When I was a PhD student, someone told me that if you want to know how long it will take to finish your dissertation if you move away, you use a simple formula. You take your best guess of how long you think it will take to finish, then you triple it and add three months. So if you think you have 2 months left on your dissertation, and you move away in June, you won’t be finished until following March – in 9 months instead of 2 months (2 months x 3 + 3 months = 9 months). This is a rough rule-of-thumb, that varies across schools, departments, and people. Still, when I heard this, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I spent my last 2 months couch surfing so I could wrap it up before I left.
What happens when you move is not only that it takes time to get resettled and you no longer have the support structure of your PhD program (and the “in sight & in mind” attention of your committee), but you also don’t feel the urgency to finish. You’re settling into a new role, and everybody's happy to have you around. But in a few months when your department chair asks whether you’re through, it’s going to be awkward to answer.
You might not have the option of completing a dissertation on campus, but if you can, it’s worth sleeping on
couches until it’s done.
A former Summer Intern was over Saturday night with her PhD-student husband and the issue of choosing the best advisor came up between dinner and a game of Pandemic. The topic of choosing an advisor most famous person in the department or the one who likes you most was the issue. I'd written an earlier column on this (August 2018), but this seems to be a timeless question about this time of year.
Typically, the gravitational pull for choosing an advisor is strongest for those with big reputations. Picking the hottest, most famous person in a field is one way to pick an adviser. After all what could go wrong?
Case Study #1. A number of years ago at a different university, I had a good friend who was starting her PhD in environmental engineering over a second time. Her first go-around had been after she chose the “most famous” person in her field at the most famous school in her field as her adviser. She hated it, hated the school, and ended up leaving with what she called “a consolation Master’s degree.” She said her famous adviser had never around, never cared about her, never thought she was smart enough or working hard enough, never liked her ideas, and that he played favorites with the more advanced students.
Case Study #2. I too had originally chosen the “most famous” person in my field, and things didn’t work out. As a 3rd year PhD student I thought I was going on the job market. Instead I was told my funding was being eliminated, and that I had 4 months to find a new dissertation adviser, a new dissertation topic, and to defend that topic, or I would be asked to leave the program (probably without the consolation Masters).
One conversation rescued me from having to start a PhD a second time a different school. Three shell-shocked days after being blind-sided, I was talking to a friend who was a professor in the medical school. I told him what had happened and about my confusion. He said, “If I knew you were going through this, I would have told you what I tell my graduate students. ‘When it comes to picking a thesis committee, you pick your best friend to be your thesis adviser, your favorite uncle to be one committee member, and your favorite cousin to be your other.’”
This is a radically different approach than what I had used, what the environmental engineer had used, and what Jack was using. The advice was to “Pick your best friend to be your advisor.” Not “the most famous” person in the department. Not even the person whose research interests are most like yours. Pick the person who likes and believes in you and your best interests. You might not be as “hot” when you graduate, but you might be a lot more likely to graduate in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about this because this past weekend I looked up “Jack” to see if he wanted to take a dissertation break come over and meet some of my grad students. On his department’s website, I noticed that he was about the only 3rd year student who wasn’t a formal part of any of the research groups in the Lab of his “famous advisor.” That was like me. Fortunately, I was given a second chance.
Picking a star-spangled dissertation or thesis committee that you think will make you “hot” on the job market is a great strategy for Super-Duperstars. For the other 90% of us, we should pick one that will help us graduate.
• Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in large classes. Class Previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a Class Preview that tells people the discussion questions I’ll be asking that day, and then we discuss them ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up.
• For large classes, try to have TA office hours every day (or M-Th)
• Try to be super specific about what you expect for an A assignment, and what your policy is on late assignments and missed classes.
• Rather than having both the final exam and their project due at the end of the semester, I frontload the course with the most work and move their project up to the half-way point.
• Letting students drop their lowest scoring assignment reduces their anxiety and the pressure they feel.
• By having students turn in two copies of their project (one to grade and one to file), it helps ensure the same projects don’t show up year after year.
• I have a screen-down, no-laptop policy. If people say they are taking notes, I ask them to send me the notes after class to see if what I’m teaching is coming across like I hope.
• Class insight cards can give class contribution points to well-prepared, but shy students.
• Extra credit opportunities are great. They help reduce student anxiety.
• If your course is cross-listed with both undergrads and grads, the graduate students will need to do something more (usually about 20-25% more). I also have four specialized class sessions (and a dinner) only for them.
• I try to organize the course into very discrete sections. This way I can frequently review each section in class before I start a new one. This way it very discretely shows how the parts of the course build on each other.
• The Final Project was renamed “Integrative Assignment” and moved to the middle of the semester. They have to work a lot harder early on in the course, but the quality goes up, and their Finals Week stress level goes down.
• You can get the most from a guest speaker’s visit if – before class -- you require students to read something written and published about the guest speaker. (It also makes the guest speaker more of a celebrity). On the day they speak, I will usually show a short Youtube clip of them before introducing them.
• I want the last class session of the semester to be valuable. After they turn in their exam and their course evaluations, I give them the option to leave. For those who stay, I tell them stories of two big lessons I learned in life (the hard way), and how they can deal with challenges in the future. It’s an unusual way to end the class, but it always ends it on a high and memorable note.
Good luck writing a great syllabus, having a great course, and having a triple-great semester.
I went to a super small college in a super small town, and I clearly remember my advisor having me and my college sweetheart over to his home for ice cream on the day I finished my senior project. That reconfirmed to me that I wanted to be a professor. When I was in my master’s program, three of my professors each had us over to their homes for dinner on the last day of the classes. I still remember where I sat and what we talked about.
Over the past 30 years I’ve had way over 200 dinners or parties at my home with graduate students, visiting scholars, summer interns, teaching assistants (TAs), advisees, lab teammates, and so on. The last class session of every graduate class is a dinner, we have welcoming parties for any new person in the Lab (and going away parties when they leave), we celebrate every time we get a major grant by having a party, and when I have a speaker or colleague in from out of town we’ll usually also invite a student or two for dinner with them.
These dinners and parties were always lots of fun. They created of team committment, a lot of good “buzz” (people really wanted to be TAs), people felt very quickly accepted and valued, lab members felt appreciated, and so on.
Looking back, I also think a lot of things could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. There was sometimes lots of wine, they’d sometimes last really late, and they were sometimes pretty loud. Sometimes people brought musical instruments and we jammed, sometimes people turned the stereo up to 11, and sometimes neighbors complained. Most of my colleagues tend to not have students over to their homes, partly because of what they imagine could go wrong. They're partly right, but that's largely a shame. There's a solution.
Over the years as I started seeing how different things could spin off the tracks, I gradually started coming up with little rules of thumb I’d use to try and keep things in check. About 10 years ago, I finally honed in on some guidelines that have luckily worked for me. For new summer interns or graduate students, I’ll do them all. For long-term employees or post-docs, I'm more liberal:
 Put a start and ending time on the invitation (like 6:00 to 9:00)
 Have lots of interesting nonalcoholic things to drink
 If there's going to be alcohol, only serve wine
 Only offer the equivalent of 1 glass per person.
(People will often bring other wine or beer, but this usually keeps things in hand)
 Keep everybody on the main floor or on the back deck (and close other doors)
 If there are still females around after 9:00, make sure my wife stays up until they leave
 At 9:00, turn the music off and don’t open any more wine
Now, I used to have none of these rules. I remember when I was a single 30-year old MBA professor, and I was having 26-year old Dartmouth MBA students over to my apartment for end-of-semester dinner parties, there’s a number of things that could have gone wrong. Fortunately they didn't, but these guidelines would have good idea.
My best memories as a student were when professors had me over to their homes. I admired them, and I wanted to be like them. Being invited over, made me feel like part of an inner academic circle. It might not mean anything to some students, but it might also be remembered by others 40 years later.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.