Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thinking about Advisors

Ambivalent Academic's post from a while back led me to think about my advisor, and what our long relationship has been like, and what our individual personalities and situations have brought to the table. It really is a relationship fraught with twists and turns because of, partly, how long the relationship lasts, and the implied mentor/apprentice aspect that goes along with it.

My advisor is a really nice man. He just is. There's really nothing asshole-y about him, which is part of why I am really lucky to have him. He is known for his integrity and his...well, just his goodness. But this doesn't meant sometimes he doesn't pull a dick move - but this is because of his life or personality quirk, not from malice. Since you are with your advisor for years, even the nicest people can have a difficult relationship, I think, when you work so tightly together.

So, I feel like some of the difficulties I have sometimes with my advisor stem from my own lack of confidence. I'm kind of bipolar when it comes to confidence -- at a fundamental level, I think I am a rockstar, but at the same time I also think I really suck. I cannot explain how I can hold these two beliefs at the exact same time, but I often do. So, this whole thing about impostor syndrome - I've felt it. Many times. Only to then chide myself and say, "Whatever, you're here because you're a rockstar, not because you're an impostor." And then the feeling will go away. For a while.

Basically, the difficulties I have all fall under the same theme -- I feel like my advisor doesn't care about what I am doing because it is uninteresting and it sucks. The reasons I feel this way, though, are often wildly concocted in my head.

Example: Advisor doesn't want to read my prelim paper before I turn it in. The reason? Probably because I handed him my final version a few hours before I had to turn it in (I was young and naive, this was very early in grad school.) His response, "Well, if I read it, is it going to make a difference?" Valid point. However, I was so young and stressed and from my perspective, if he read it and had contributions, I would have a few hours to try to fix them. So when he basically was like, "whatever." I was crushed. In hindsight, I obviously should have given him a copy earlier (though I had provided rough drafts previously, this was my first totally complete submission). Conclusion - was it wrong of me to hope that my advisor cared enough about my education to read the paper that would decide whether I got to stay in grad school? No. Was it wrong of him to blow me off when I gave it to him hours before the deadline, because he has stuff to do too? No.

Example: My advisor often tells me he doesn't have time to help me with a paper draft, or doesn't remember the exact details of something I'm doing, or this, or that, or this or that. Things which I have come to expect from a person who has a job, a life, a family, and other students to manage. But in the beginning, I always convinced myself that he didn't care about my work. My evidence? Well, since I've been funded by external foundations for most of my career, I have been largely free for my advisor. So, his financial investment in my work has been low. I convinced myself that had I been a non-fellowship student and he would have had to pay for me, he would have dumped me long ago. That it was in his best interests to get whatever marginal crap I could come up with because he didn't have to pay for it.

Think about that for a minute, how fucked up is it that I convinced myself that I sucked BECAUSE I won awards? That's talent, ladies and gents.

So, when he told me (yet again), for a paper that I needed some help with, that he didn't have time to help me, I was so mad I nearly cried. By this point in my career, I was more used to it, but this time it just crushed me, I can't really explain why. I complained bitterly to my friend, who said, "Maybe it's because he thinks you can do a good job on your own, so he doesn't feel like he has to help you in order for you to be successful."

I stopped ranting to consider this possibility, and that's when the "you're a rockstar" side of my personality emerged, and thought this might be true. But still. All the papers I have ever submitted have been written 98% by me. And I was sick and tired of it. I'm not saying an advisor needs to do a lot of writing (though they probably should for a young graduate student). I'm saying that it would be great if they could even READ it and say "re-org this, re-work taht, this isn't clear, change of direction here." I got NONE of that, and it drove me crazy and drove me to believe that he really just didn't care.

Recently, my advisor told me that he did, in fact, plan to set aside some time to help me with this paper I am working on. I was delighted. He then told me that he feels bad he wasn't able to help me other times, but that it's because he feels like I can put something together that is good enough by myself. So my friend was right. It was soooo validating, and reminded me again that these close relationships can be so fraught because of our own weirdnesses, let alone having a psycho advisor.

Also recently, my advisor told me that he was excited about my thesis. This made me float on air, for a long long time. He never realized that with my insecurities (based on truths - as mentioned in a previous post I came into graduate school with a much worse background than my schoolmates) that I would need occasional praise to live on. Fortunately for both of us, I am a tough little bitch and stuck through everything, in time to realize that he doesn't think I suck, he doesn't hate my work, and he does, in fact, perhaps even care about me.

So....I'm not sure what really the point of this post is. Maybe it's just a reiteration of how important it is to choose your advisor wisely. I'm a reasonable and nice person, and so is my advisor, and yet we can have weirdnesses too, just because of the nature of the advisor/student relationship. You HAVE to pick someone you can work with for years, so even if FamousProfessor is willing to take you, if he's fucking crazy, then don't do it. Unless you want to cry all the time.

The other possible point is to always believe you are a rockstar. But only if you really are. Like I am. ;)


Dr. J said...

I'm kind of bipolar when it comes to confidence -- at a fundamental level, I think I am a rockstar, but at the same time I also think I really suck.


You're very right about chosing your advisor wisely. I always tell anyone thinking of doing a PhD that this is an absolutely critical decision and getting that wrong can be very bad indeed.

I'm also lucky, I have a tremendous boss who's heart is very much in the right place and is totally invested in my projects. My lab is well known in my field, when I left my PhD lab my PhD supervisor told me that they were lucky to have me - that was one of the nicest things ever to hear. The relationship with the PhD supervisor is one of the most bizarre working relationships ever, however good. It is sort of like they are a quasi parent - you want their recognition and approval as you head through the difficult path that is science.

Transient Theorist said...

Thanks for the post, this was good to read.

I soooo can't wait to be done trying to pick out a good advisor based on their websites and publications (first round). Ugh. Stressful to think I might be missing the right person from not having looked hard enough, or to think that the people I've picked look good on paper but are psycho in person.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Great post!

PhizzleDizzle said...

@Dr J: you're right, it is sort of a quasi-parental role. I suppose that's one reason why academic genealogies are something people even care about, because it really is like parent/child. You're lucky to have a good PhD advisor, you must have picked well!

@TT: I don't have much advice in terms of picking based one paper - you could try emailing (nicely) some of their current graduate students. Or if the schools fly you out for a visit (which was done for all of my graduate schools but this may vary from department to department), you can get a better idea from in-person meetings.