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 small college in a 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 re-re-reconfirmed to me that I wanted to be a professor. Next, 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. It was so cool, I still remember where I sat and what we talked about.
Over the past 30 years I’ve had well over 500 dinners, parties, game nights, or jam sessions at my home with graduate students, visiting scholars, summer interns, teaching assistants (TAs), advisees, colleagues, lab teammates, and so on. For instance, the last class session of every graduate class is a dinner, we have welcoming parties for every single new person in the Lab (and going away parties when they leave), we celebrate every time we get a major grant or major paper accepted by having a potluck, and when I have a speaker or colleague in from out of town we’ll usually also invite a student or two to join us for dinner.
These dinners and parties were always lots of fun. They created loads of team commitment and a lot of great lab enthusiasm. They made new people felt very quickly accepted and valued, and they reinforced how much veteran lab members were appreciated. They also seemed to be a highlight for visitors, since it was a break from the restaurant routine, and it allowed them to talk and laugh with a lot more people.
I also think a lot of things could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. There was often lots of wine (especially before I married a sensible wife), these parties often lasted really late (especially before we had kids), and they were often pretty loud (even still). Sometimes people brought musical instruments and we jammed, sometimes we turned the stereo up to 11, and sometimes friendly police visited. Most of my colleagues tend to not have students over to their homes, partly because of what they imagine what could go wrong. They're partly right, but that's largely a shame. Because there's a solution.
Over the years as I started seeing how different things could spin off the tracks, I gradually came up with little rules of thumb I’d use to keep things in check. About 10 years ago, I honed in on six guidelines that have luckily worked well for us. For new summer interns or graduate students, I’ll stick to all of six guidelines. For long-term lab employees, visiting colleagues, or post-docs, we're a lot more liberal. Here's the guidelines that have worked for our parties so far:
Now, I used to have none of these rules or guidelines, and I was lucky. For example, when I was a single 30-year-old MBA professor at Dartmouth, I was having MBA students over to my apartment for end-of-semester dinner parties, and there’s a number of things that could have gone wrong. Fortunately they didn't, but these guidelines would have been a really, really good idea.
Some of 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 accepted and like I was 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.
Tomorrow I retire from Cornell; it will be two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after that day. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and even then maybe only transitioning to half-time until they befuddle us by changing the lock on our office.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling for academia, you don’t feel any different the day after you retire. I just had my retirement party last month and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a cherry wood captain’s chair with the Cornell logo on the front and a touching engraving on it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t just seem like was another birthday party for the person who was retiring but who was going to be at work again tomorrow at they exact same time they always are. But seeing this one retirement party had a striking effect on me. It happened about 15 years ago, and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee; it was also doubling as a retirement party for an amazing man.
He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and even his economist colleagues spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and up through the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the dark and quiet chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Then he eventually said, "I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way." After another long pause he then recanted a bit and said something like this:
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see your big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.”
After 45 years of research, here was a great man who was retiring with one needless regret. Yet, what he let get in his way was how he would be rewarded or whether a colleague might think he was simplifying his research for the amateurs. It seemed to me that writing a book would have been a potentially transforming project.
The metaphor that is relevant for us is not the metaphor of writing a book. The appropriate metaphor is for any project that might ratchet up our level of impact. It is any project that may not be rewarded with the respect of the “professor next door,” but it is that which we think is critically important. In fact, it might be even be actively derided. That’s what happened to a number of metaphorical books. It happened to Carl Sagan’s award-winning Cosmos series on PBS, to Gary Becker’s famous Business Week columns, to Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” to Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns, to Richard Posner’s Federal Judge appointment, and to Stephen Ambrose’s National World War II Museum.
The notion of an "unwritten book" can be a powerful and useful metaphor for us. For many of us, there is at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas to a new level of influence. It might be starting a website and blog, presenting research in front of a House subcommittee in order to propose a law, making class modules for science teachers, writing a review article in a related field, starting a company, or starting a new class and turning the notes into an engaging distance-learning course. What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t have to wait. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our self-limiting barriers.
I remember another topic that I discussed with that eminent economics professor on the long ride back home. It was how quickly he said that his research years had passed.
He said that after he graduated with his PhD, he blinked and had tenure; he blinked again and he had an endowed chair; he blinked again and he was riding with me on what he called “his retirement bus.” The idea of starting a career of activism research when “the time is right” could disappear in a blink of an eye.
Time to start the next chapter.
Fun, useful, or wacky experiences about getting tenure, teaching better, publishing more, and having an incredibly rewarding career.
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