Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Advice for graduate students and those pondering the prospect

1. When looking for supervisors, look beyond any mutual interests an their publication records. Ask about their supervision record. If they are new or have no students, be cautious in how you approach them. Try to get a sense for how they might be as supervisors as much as you can before you commit to working for them.

Develop an email conversation with them. Talk to them if they express interest in mentoring you. 

Meet with them if at all possible before you apply or accept your acceptance to their grad program. Talk to other students about their impressions. You're assessing the profs and departments at least as much as they are, you. Look critically at their research publication record. Are the articles, no matter on what topic or in what quantity, diverse and insightful. Or are they essentially reproductions of the same method and topic? Quantity or quality? This will give you an indication of how open and critically minded the prof is and thus what they may offer you in terms of intellectual mentorship.

Are they good enough to work with you? Do they treat you like an adult? Do they sound like how a used car salesmen treats customers or is there a sincere an engaging professionalism in their dialogue with you?

2. When looking at graduate programs, try to visit the department and gauge the mood or atmosphere in the place. Does it feel stressed or hostile? Or is it friendly and welcoming. Walk away, or risk several years of misery.

3. Funding. Make sure your department and supervisor are unambiguous about the if and how your financials. You should be left in no doubt about the amount, duration and classification of your funding. If you can come with your own, even better. If you sense they are being opaque or unclear on any aspect of it and cannot get clarification, walk away.  This is a dishonest department.

4. If they are clear on funding, double check with the university or graduate student association to see if what they tell you is in line with what the departmetn tells you. The gradstudent association may even have a Collective Agreement with the university over how you're paid. If there is a discrepancy between the your program and the rules, walk away. This is a place that exploits its students and subverts the rules.

5. KNOW the funding rules in advance so you can recognise early enough on when they're trying to exploit you. You may not realise it, but you are likely a member of a union (this often surprises gradstudents) and have clearly spelled out rights regarding your work life.

6. Have a look at the typical completion time of recent degrees in your stream. If they promise you a two year masters or 4 or 5 year PhD, but all the gradstudents you meet have been there much longer than the stated norm, walk away. This is a department that has lost the plot.

7. Just because the supervisor has a really big name in their field doesn't mean that they are a good supervisor. Sometimes their ego is even bigger than their CV and they have come to believe they are the alpha and omega of their field. I remember being at a conference where the BIG NAME keynote spent literally half his talk describing the enormity of his man-organ research grant portfolio. I've also seen this in department council meetings. Stay away from anyone like this because the only voice they'll hear is their own. Unless of course you think  their name on your dissertation will bring you glory and riches, then by all means, pull out the kneepads. 

8. Walk away from and/or call out bullies, liars, thieves, creeps, misogynists, misandrists, misanthropes (well some of them, others are lovely), micromanagers, or any peer, colleague or supervisor who makes you feel uncomfortable in the bad way. Their status or education does not mean they are of better character. And universities hire on CV and grant records, not personality.

9. If you feel your supervisor is coopting the thesis topic they agreed to mentor, to fit into their own paradigm or views, challenge it. You are turning into their research assistant, not their student. If they can't take a respectful intellectual argument from their student, walk away.

10. If your supervisor doesn't understand or is uninterested in your work, they are not mentoring. In some extreme cases, this may represent academic incompetence. Find an alternate arrangement up to and including changing supervisors.

11. Use your committee. They can also critically assess your work if you suspect the number 10.

12. Trust your sixth sense about situations. If you begin to have doubts about the capacity of your supervisor to mentor you effectively, listen to this and suss out a contingency plan should the worst bear out. You won't likely lose your degree but you may have to make some courageously proactive and decisive manoeuvres. Changing supervisors might be an ordeal but there are mechanisms in place to do this. 

13. Start documenting things if your sixth sense starts to tingle. Keep a paper trail of emails, comments, etc. Write summaries of your interactions with the party in question.

14. Understand that if you do decide to challenge an individual or organisation at the university, the institution will likely close ranks and resist. Most professors have a monetary value, graduate students are a dime a dozen. In a neoliberal university, capital holds the immediate power. If they think they can crush you or slough you off, they will try. Assume that unless that prof is universally hated by their colleagues, and/or doesn't bring in much grant money or publications, you might be in for a struggle.  You MUST be prepared to follow through on your course of action.

15. Worst case, you can walk away from your degree. Life might actually get better.

16. In sum, find in as much as possible the best mix of people, place, and institutional atmosphere for your tolerance levels. Understand that higher education is often extremely arduous and filled with stresses, but the difficulty should mostly pertain to the intellectual realm and not the interpersonal, financial, or administrative.

You do not want to commit several years of your life to a place where you'll be miserable and without joy. You'll gain little more than bitterness from the experience. 


Holly Stick said...

When writing our theses, one of my supervisor's other students complained that he kept trying to change the student's ideas or whatever. I'm not sure if that was so; I found that when my supervisor wrote comments on my draft, I could see if he had misunderstood what I was saying and so I had to rewrite it to make it more clear. It worked for me.

One of the grad students had this cartoon up on their door:


Boris said...

You're probably right about that gradstudent. The instances that come to mind involve situations at the the PhD level.

In the first the supervisor, I suspect, took on the student because he needed one to qualify for tenure and there wasn't clear communication on the research goals between them. The sup embarrassed himself at the proposal defence and his doctoral student just ignores him now as he managed to secure his own scholarship. Toxic.

The second one involves someone who failed their comprehensive because their supervisor was very strict on what they study and discus - all the sup's narrow focus. This student's committee then failed him for not being...comprehensive.

Dana said...

"Peer review."

The two most toxic words in academia.

If you are in a field that does not involve pure mathematics that are irrefutable you are essentially fucked, to use the vernacular.

Even then it's a dice game.

What causes ulcers?

Willing to wait for 17 fucking years for your so called peers to pull their heads out of their asses?

Neo-scholasticism is another name for our our age

Planter said...

As usual, good advice. I would add - to prospective students - when you visit the current ones out and buy them some beer. You will soon have the full story good and bad.

Dana - you might be right 1/1000th of the time about peer review, but most of the time it works.

It works when the reviewer recognizes that they are both a gatekeeper to keep the crap out and an editor improving the rest.

In the first case I can tell you that as a frequent reviewer I see a lot of crap that never sees the light of day in journals....

In the second case I got a rejection on a paper this morning. The reviewers were very clear on what the problems were (they convinced me). The next iteration of the paper will be much better for it. This is peer review at its best - an anonymous scientist improving the work of another for no credit at all.

If only we could deal with the asses who refuse to do their turn reviewing....

Boris said...

Planter and Dana,

The problem that I've seen with anonymity in peer review is that if the subfield is small enough, then editors might pass on articles to the same circle of reviewers, who know from the content of the paper who the author(s) likely are even if the review is 2-way blind. Even if they haven't published together, they all hang out at conferences and present to each other at the same sessions. The review process can get a little incestuous in some places.