practical phd

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When you first start graduate school, you’re assigned an advisor usually based on the faculty you mentioned in your application statements and/or the research interests you described.  For those of you in the social sciences and in programs to which your funding is not attached to an individual faculty member, it is perfectly normal for this assignment to be temporary.  You may find that your assigned advisor isn’t a good fit because your research interests change, your methodological focus shifts, or you just don’t work well together.  So as you shop around (yes, you should do that), here are some things to consider.

First and foremost, you want someone who is supportive of you and your endeavors in graduate school and beyond.  This should be true of all of your eventual committee members and mentors in graduate school.  Your advisor needs to be behind you 100% as you develop as a scholar, but also when it’s time to discuss whether the department should give you additional funding or nominate you for a fellowship, and when you’re applying to fellowships and jobs.  They should be ready and willing to speak or write about you with the highest accolades at all times.  

Next, it’s extremely important to pick someone whose working style fits with yours.  While it may not matter to you whether the faculty member is organized or prefers in person interactions to email, it is extremely important that your communication styles and expectations align.  For instance, I have a very hard time understanding passive communicators, so I looked for faculty who shot from the hip, giving me direct feedback and advice.  You also want to consider what your expectations are for contact and make sure that your expectations will mesh with what the faculty member expects.  If they expect weekly progress reports via email and biweekly in person meetings of 1-2 hours, but you want to be able to do your thing and check in as needed, it’s not going to work.  

Lastly, most people end up with an advisor who has some overlap in their substantive or methodological interests.  However, this does not necessarily mean that your advisor studies what you want to study, the way that you want to study it.  More often, a good fit advisor has some overlap in the broader subfield in which your research is situated or uses similar methods.  My advisor had expertise in urban sociology, but had never studied gentrification.  It’s okay if you pick someone with one and not the other because there are only so many faculty to choose from in any given program.  I have found that some students hold onto advisors who are a good fit in being supportive and in work style, but who aren’t methodologically or substantively experts related to their work and thus aren’t on their dissertation committee.  This approach works if it fits with the requirements of your program.  For my MA paper, for example, my advisor had to be one of the two readers I selected, so taking this approach would not have worked for my program.

While these three factors might seem straight forward, remember that both your understanding of your needs and your needs themself may change over time.  In the comprehensive or qualifying exam stage, you may feel comfortable organizing your readings and managing your time to complete the task at hand without much input or guidance from your advisor, but as you begin to dissertate, you may realize you need more interaction, feedback, and guidance.  Just because the relationship has been one way doesn’t mean that it can’t change, so the first thing to do if/when this happens is to speak to your advisor about whether the relationship can adjust to meet your new needs.  If they’re not comfortable with the change, then you should consider your other options.  However, that switch could be moving your advisor out of the chair role and into a committee member, rather than moving on without them.  

To figure out who would make a good fit for your advisor, it’s important to shop around.  Go to office hours to introduce yourself and get advice on some aspect of the program that is coming up or feedback on a project idea to feel out how different faculty members approach advising and mentoring.  Taking classes with a faculty member can also shed light on how they give feedback and to what extent.  Finally, ask around!  Find the students working with the faculty member you’re considering and find out what their experiences have been.  

As you are considering your options, remember that graduate school is a time to do what’s best for you.  It is kind and considerate to worry about hurting a faculty member’s feelings about switching advisors, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a change that will be better for you in the long run.  It’s okay to be a little self-entitled some of the time.

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