A former Summer Intern was over Saturday night with her PhD-student husband and the issue of choosing the best advisor came up between dinner and a game of Pandemic. The topic of choosing an advisor most famous person in the department or the one who likes you most was the issue. I'd written an earlier column on this (August 2018), but this seems to be a timeless question about this time of year.
Typically, the gravitational pull for choosing an advisor is strongest for those with big reputations. 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.
There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. There are daily duties (like email and office time) and pre-scheduled stuff (like classes and committee meetings). But what still remains at the end of the day are the things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard or immediate deadlines – things like writing an intro to a paper, submitting an IRB proposal, drafting a grant, completing some analysis tables, and so on. At the end of the year, having finished all of these might be what makes the difference between an exceptional year and another “OK” one.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
If you work with PhD students or Postdocs, it could help them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of a “Polish this for 3 years until it's perfect” mentality. It’s also useful as a starting point for 1-on-1 weekly meetings. If they get in the habit of emailing their 3-3-3 Recap to you each Friday, you can share any feedback and perhaps help speed up whatever it is they are waiting for. Especially if it’s something on your desk. Ouch.
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
We had just paid for two overpriced $10.50 IPAs at the Drake Hotel bar when I asked this question. I regret I never implemented his answer as well I was expecting to on that day.
This was eight years ago, and I had an opportunity to meet with an academic hero who had been cross-cuttingly successful across a half-dozen of behavioral fields, but most notably in law. His discoveries had changed the way cross-examinations and evidence weighting is done in certain felony cases. One of my former Teaching Assistants had gone on to work with him, and this had eventually led to us meeting whenever I was in town.
Since he only had an hour, we met for a quick drink. After enthusiastically telling me about a new project, I asked, “Of all that you’ve done in your life, what makes you most proud?” I was half expecting that he’d probably say one of his legal discoveries, or maybe he’d talk about his two grown children. Neither. He paused for maybe 20 seconds and then said this:
“What I’m most proud of is how I was I was really present for both my father and mother in the last years of their lives.”
He explained that he had “being really there for them” and had made it a central priority. No regrets about what other projects he might not have started or finished because he was focused on making them feel comfortable, loved, special, and that they had led meaningful, appreciated lives.
At the time both of my parents were healthy and 85, and I vowed I’d make sure I did the same.
I keep thinking that his last 18 months would have been easier had we moved him in to live with us. My wife wanted to, but I thought there were too many uncertainties. Instead, we moved him into assisted living about a mile from my brother, who could then see him most days, and where we would travel the 10 hours down to see him every couple months. Thinking back, if he had moved in with us, he might not have lived longer, but I think he would have been happier.
When a heroic, single-surviving parent can no longer live by themselves, the decision about where they should go deserves a lot of heartfelt thought. There's a difference between "being there for them" and "being really present in the last years of their lives." Being present was what he was most proud of having accomplished. I now wish I would have given to that level.
I hope that if you are still blessed with one of more living parents, you'll give think about this in a way you won't regret in eight years.
In many of my 30 years in academia, I loved helping graduate students, post-docs, and new faculty get started (or to get back on their feet after a fall) and moving in a confident direction. Even though I didn't know very much, I still had some perspective or experience that was useful. In the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.
One of purposes of this website is to pool together a lot of wisdom from a bunch of us one-eyed Kings and Queens so that that our graduate students and new faculty don't have to learn it by falling off of cliffs. This website tries to pull together helpful "tools and tips on how to graduate, get tenure, teach better, publish more, and have a super rewarding career."
The first step was to begin curating some of the more credible insights and experiences from all sorts of people in academia. This way, a person could get substantive advice instead of the top ten things that popped up on a Google search. Collecting these insights ongoing process and I love it when people share things (see the footer below for all of the types of examples of things you could share if you have them).
One comment I was given a while back was that it would be even better if I turn some of the insight pages into infographics. There are a few infographics that have been made that highlight some of the insights on a page and at least give a road map of where to click for more. One example is the infographic at the top of this post, which outlines the content on the >New Professors >Start Strong page.
Someone also suggested, "You should turn some of the infographics and blog posts into Youtube videos," so people don't have to read them. "I don't like to read," is probably something a person shouldn't put on their PhD application. Still, this is an important point to consider.
I'd love to know how this website and it's related content could be most useful to you. You can either email your insights at AcademicsOnly@yahoo.com or to my personal email. We can then schedule a call if that would work best for you.
Academics Only is a how-to community that helps us share our best practices as PhD students, new professors, and independent scholars.
Helpful tools and tips on how to graduate, get tenure, teach better, publish more, and have a super rewarding career.
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