practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Last week, I listened to the Professoring podcast episode on Academic Break Ups.  The co-hosts discussed a range of kinds of break ups they experienced as graduate students including breaking up with advisors who were no longer a good fit.  The podcast (which I highly recommend) got me thinking about finding advisors and committee members or the process of academic “dating.”  Like romantic dating, academic dating is all about those “getting to know you” conversations and feeling out whether a faculty member is someone you work well with.  I’m going to focus on a few academic dating activities here, but you can also read my thoughts about how to pick advisors and committee members elsewhere on my website. 

The reason everyone should do some academic dating is that just because someone studies a topic related to your interests or uses a method that you want to learn, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically work well together.  So you want to do some “courting” to figure out who you click with.  Keep in mind that your needs will likely change over time (as might your understanding of your needs) so reassessing the fit of the relationship with your academic mentors is essential to make sure the fit still works as your circumstances change.  

During graduate school, I used a couple of strategies to get to know faculty: office hours, talking to graduate students, and taking courses.  I would often go to office hours to talk about a research idea I was developing OR some aspect of the program that I was trying to learn about.  Discussing a research idea in office hours gives you a sense of how the person engages with graduate students on their research topics.  When shopping around my MA paper idea, I realized that different faculty gave me feedback on different aspects of the project.  One faculty member focused on the “so what?”, another on the research design, another on what literature I was engaging with, and another on the feasibility and scope of the project.  Depending on your strengths, weaknesses, and priorities, some of these perspectives may be more valuable to you than others.

In other conversations with faculty, I would ask them about a programmatic requirement before I was transitioning to tackle that new milestone and was looking for a better sense of expectations for that particular task.  Doing that helped me take a look at what faculty I was already working with thought the focus of qualifying exams should be, for example, as well as getting alternative perspectives from other faculty I was considering working with in some way.  In the conversations I had about qualifying exams for instance, I asked about recommendations for how to approach the process, how to pick subject areas, how they work with students for exams, and whether and how they thought those exams should inform the dissertation.  This gave me some great advice across 4 or 5 faculty members, but also gave me details about what I could expect working with each of those faculty members.

In addition to talking directly with faculty, I also asked other graduate students about their experiences with those faculty members.  If I didn’t know someone who was working with them, I would ask the Graduate Student Advisor in our department which graduate students were working with or had worked with those faculty members.  Current and former graduate students were usually willing to share their range of experience and offer helpful reflections on what worked for them with these faculty members and what didn’t.

Finally, if the faculty member was teaching a graduate seminar that aligned with my interests, I took their class.  Keep in mind that some faculty require that you’ve taken a course with them before they will work with you, although that is usually for a qualifying exam rather than being on a dissertation committee.  You can learn a lot about faculty from the classroom including which faculty like to debate, what scholars and perspectives they think are important, and how they give written and oral feedback.  If you’re interested in a critical race perspective on economic sociology and your economic sociology professor doesn’t teach anything about race…you have an answer right there about whether to work with them or not.

Ultimately, you want to find advisors and committee members who support your growth as a scholar and fit with your work style.  So across your academic dating activities, consider how you feel after interactions, whether you understand the feedback they give you, and whether they’re helping you grow in areas where you need improvement.  Date widely to find your people, but remember that once you’ve made a choice, you’re not married!  Make changes as you need to.

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