A week ago a writer for the Atlantic asked me if I had any advice for young scholars. I have lots and lots of advice, but here’s an expansion on three quick points I shared.
1) Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. It is totally enriching, and you can't let some of the bumpy times that you see me going through dissuade you from a great career.
2) No paper’s perfect, and you need to find the right balance between perfection and completion -- between perfecting something versus completing it. There's tons of "perfect" dissertations that have never been completed. There's tons of "perfect" papers that have never been submitted. You want to balance off polishing the perfect paper for 20 years with trying to make sure that if there were any errors they probably wouldn't change the basic conclusion.
3) You can do research to impress other academics, or you can do research to solve problems. Doing it for academics is more prestigious, but doing it to solve real problems in the real world is very gratifying — very enriching. Having someone say, “I do something differently because of your research, and it works for me” takes away some of the the sting of embarrassing mistakes.
For 30 years I have hoped my research would make people healthier and happier. That's been my specific mission, and it's very motivating. If your research is pointed at a mission that's important to you, it can be incredibly motivating , , , even in bumpy times.
Some people love graduate school, but most of us want to finish it up and get started with our real lives.
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.
This “How long?” issue is on my mind because of a conversation I had at a dissertation defense yesterday. The successfully defending PhD student had left the university to take a job about 18 months ago, and was just wrapping it up now. I asked her adviser how long she thought it would have taken the student if she had stayed on campus and had finished before she moved. Her reply “6 months.” Hmmm . . . about a third as long.
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.
How do you pick the perfect dissertation advisor?
A couple months ago I was at a reception where I met a PhD student from a distant department. Let's call him Jack in the Behavioral Nano Hermeneutics Department. At some point he mentioned his goal was to have his dissertation proposal nailed down by the end of the summer. I asked Jack if he had a committee in mind, and he said, “Oh, yeah, my adviser’s the most famous guy in this field.”
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.