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My Advisor Sucks; Advise A Social Scientist

My Advisor Sucks; Advise A Social Scientist

January 25, 2009
(Also appears in Mama PhD)

Two questions today, one for me, one for the readers.

Any advice if you have a crappy advisor? I am going for my PhD and although I thought I asked him some good questions, and received solid responses, in our interview, my advisor turns out that he is not a good mentor and not much of a help. He is mainly, at best, a time-suck with all the meetings he wants to make sure things are "going well" but doesn't actually want to help me with anything and gets petulant if I ask for help or advice. I don't know that many other people with a PhD so I thought I'd ask just in case you wanted to share some words of wisdom. I had a crappy master's advisor but that was two years and another year of not being around him, but writing while working full time. I finished though and it was worth it. Now the funding my new advisor said I'd have is virtually non-existent, he thinks the fact that I'm getting a stipend is enough for me to praise him daily and kiss his ass while running errands for him and taking care of all of his tech problems (i'm not doing that anymore). One semester and it's already an enormous headache. You can't get far in my field without a PhD. But I'm starting to get sick of the attitudes in my field...and yet I've been working towards this for 15 years so I have no idea what else I'd even do and it took me 4 years just to get in to a program.

Ugh, sorry. Just thought y'all might have some insightful comments. Regardless, thanks for your time.

Advisors, advisors, advisors. Can't live without 'em, can't kill 'em.

The truth of the matter is that what we want from our advisors is almost always more than any one person with a full-time job and research of their own and other students to supervise can realistically provide. Not all advisors are mentors. If you're lucky, your advisor not only supervises your project but also digs up funding for you and invites you for dinner and gives you career advice and puts out feelers for you and gets you on conference panels and helps you land a job and provides support and guidance on the road to tenure and agrees to be the godparent to your children. That's the relationship we all wish for.

If you're not lucky, your advisor knows your project, has some suggestions about methods and resources, and is willing to read drafts (as long as they're not too drafty) and point out where you need to beef up or redirect a line of thought. Which, based on your letter, it sounds like your advisor is doing. The other stuff is gravy. (And if you have an advisor who doesn't even do this stuff, who puts you down, or who is truly never available, find someone else.)

That said. All graduate students should, once they've picked an advisor, ask to meet with her or him to discuss "the relationship." Ask questions: how does your chosen advisor prefer to work -- lots of meetings, few meetings, email, phone? At what stage of completion does she prefer to read drafts? What areas of your project is she "solid" on, and what areas are completely new to her? (After all, your project should be doing *something* that's new.) Is she a hand-holder or a sink-or-swim type? Talk about yourself: what do you want from your advisor? Do you think you need help most in defining your project, methods, reading list, or are you good to go and mostly just wanting an editor? Do you hope for frequent meetings just to check in, or would you rather be left alone to work? Are you a steady worker or do you require deadlines and an occasional prodding via email? It will help both of you enormously if you define how you'll work together up front -- and don't be afraid, as you proceed, to re-examine the working relationship every few months, if need be.

If you haven't had this meeting yet with your advisor, do so now. It's okay to tell him that you'd prefer to meet less frequently and to tell him specifically the kind of help you want. He won't be able to answer all the questions your project poses, of course--that's why you're doing the project -- and he's unlikely to be able to help you much with stress, anxiety, or that horrible "I have no idea what I'm doing!" feeling. For those, you need a therapist. If you're drowning and have lost sight of land, tell him. He can't help you figure out if you want to finish the degree or not, most likely, but he ought to be able to help you return to the foundations of the project and map out what it is you're investigating and, at least, some of the questions that you want to answer.

It does sound to me like your problem is less with your advisor than with the (perfectly normal) panic and terror of beginning a dissertation project. We all wish our advisors could wave magic wands and make that go away. The most beloved advisors will, with humor and reassurance and reminders that we are only beginners, and maybe the occasional invitation to go have a drink together. But most advisors, faced with a panicking graduate student, are at a loss. Remember that their job is to help you with your academic project. For the other stuff, you need a shrink, a girlfriend, a hobby (running, yoga, weights -- something physical), or a drinking buddy.

-------

Where are some places that a social scientist with a PhD can go to work?

I am nearly done with my PhD in a top ranked social science program (mostly quantitative) at a top R1 U.S. university with a well known advisor. I love doing research - reviewing the literature, coming up with ways to test theory, etc. I really like writing. I really like the flexibility of being on a university campus. I like not having a boss/9-5 job. I like the flexibility of being a Mommy Grad Student. I sort of like teaching, but I do not like dealing with unmotivated undergrads. I love work with motivated undergrads, especially exposing them to research.

I do not, however, think that I will enjoy the pressures (specifically related to publication) at a tenure track position at an R1 university. I also know that the job market sucks right now. However, I don't think that I'd like the teaching load, lower salary and (most importantly) de-emphasis on research at an R2.

As such, I want to explore other options. But at my university and my department specifically, there is so much pressure to go R1 TT, that I don't know what is out there.

My research area is attitudes toward and use of technology. I have stats and methods skills, especially cross-cultural comparisons.

Please help me with some ideas of companies, organizations, think tanks or something where I could sit and do research on interesting technology related projects. (And possibly make a decent living.) And any ideas about what I can do for my last year of grad school to get me one of these type of alternative jobs would be helpful as well.

I am not a social scientist, so I'll ask the readers to weigh in on this question: what kinds of jobs are out there for a research-focused social scientist who focused on technology? My thoughts are something education-related (are computers in classrooms really worth the money and the students' time?) or environmental (how can we best help consumers transition to greener energy sources?), but I wouldn't know where to find such jobs. This one's for the social scientists, engineers, and industry types.

Tedra Osell is working on a manuscript for the "Bitch PhD Advice for Academics". What kinds of questions and advice do you wish you'd had as a grad student or junior faculty member? Write to mamaphd@insidehighered.com.

 

 

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