A former summer intern was over with her PhD-student husband, Jack, a while back, and the issue of who to choose to be your dissertation advisor came up after dinner when he and I were alone. He asked whether it's best to choose the most famous advisor in the department or whether you should instead choose the one who likes you the most, even if they aren't well known.
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).
But 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.’”
His advice was a radically different approach than what I had used, different than what my environmental engineering friend had originally used, and different than what Jack was planning on doing. This Med school professor's advice was to “Pick your best friend to be your advisor” -- not “the most famous” person in the department, or not even the person whose research interests are most like yours. Pick the person who likes and believes in you and in 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.
On my second chance, I chose my "best friend" as my advisor. My environmental engineering friend started over at a different university and chose her best friend. And I hope Jack is the one who doesn't need 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.
Tips for PhDs 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.
Some Older Posts