Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Good Enough Dissertation Advisor

For those of you who follow Ferule and Fescue loyally (and if you don’t, ask yourself why….) Flavia has raised the question of the post-grad school relationship between dissertation advisor and advisee. You’ll be glad to know that Flavia has checked in with her advisor and received a satisfactory, if brief, response, that recognizes her continued existence in the world and her capacity for great things. And I’m glad that those of us who encouraged her to do this were helpful. Since I read the outcome of this dilemma, I have had several other thoughts, which should be taken in the spirit of reflection rather than instruction.

My relationship with dissertation advisors – yes, plural – was crafted by a number of unusual things. First, was the place I went to graduate school, which was a fairly middle of the road Ph.D mill (later I discovered this too was a mistaken impression, since 2/3 of the graduate students went on being ABD forever, until they were all booted off the rolls in the early 1980’s). I chose Potemkin University because (I kid you not) it was five blocks away from my very cheap apartment. I realized that if I went to either of the prestigious universities I had been admitted to, I would have to move to more expensive digs or spend a lot of time on the train. Also I had no intention of going on to an academic career (I planned on journalism instead), AND they awarded financial aid without regard to one’s GRE scores, which gave me a big leg up since I had a B.A. from Oligarch University but – in my youthful ambivalence about my future – had arrived to take my GRE’s still mildly affected by the LSD I had taken the night before.

Lucky for me, since as a potential academic I was a real fixer-upper and addicted to making bad choices when good ones were staring me in the face, Potemkin was in a period when they were taking serious steps to become a prestigious major research university. This included colonizing my neighborhood -- why move for prestige when prestige, if given time, will move to you? They succeeded spectacularly, to the extent that others now regard my Ph.D. as being just as fancy as the Oligarch degree. Which is kind of a hoot, but also a relief, since I am not a drug-addled twenty-something anymore. It’s a lot like being Edith Wharton’s Oklahoma hair-oil heiress turned New York society queen.

But I digress.

The point is that I had three dissertation directors. The first one, a really lovely man who not only persuaded me to take myself seriously but also opened the door to what an academic career would look like, died quite suddenly. This caused me to get dumped on dissertation director #2, who treated me very badly. I used to think this was because she didn’t like me, and I now realize that wasn’t true – it was because I made her uncomfortable. Why did I make her uncomfortable? Well, partly because I was a really out lesbian, and she was a lesbian who had really struggled over coming out and did so in a way that was ultimately very public and I think cost her a lot. So the last thing she wanted was a lesbian graduate student who called attention to all of that. And this is not simple homophobia, sports fans (is there such a thing as simple homophobia?) Because her favorite daughters were *also* lesbians, something I found deeply confusing and enraging at the time. In fact, as it turned out by accident almost every graduate student recruited in Potemkin’s building phase was a lesbian. These favorite “daughters” – who were friends of mine – were femmey lesbians who you would not necessarily pick out on the street as lesbians. But I was the kind of lesbian who wore Timberland boots, cargo shorts and sweatshirts cut off at the shoulder. THAT kind of lesbian. And I think #2 found me to be – a challenge, shall we say, to be around.

But #2 also did something for me, which I am, in retrospect, grateful for: she put me up for adoption – or rather, foster care. Two particularly fabulous historians had been hired at Eclectic University, down the street, and she suggested that my dissertation would be enhanced considerably if I stopped working with her (begging her to read my work and pouting in the hall outside her office and in the TA lounge when she didn’t) and hung out with The Famous Pair for a year or so until the department had replaced #1. Which I did. And the Famous Pair were (are) two of the most fabulous people I had ever met, and the kind of people who just swept graduate students into their orbit and gave them real work to do. In my first year with them, they brought a lot of other fabulous historians over from Europe, who were kind of like a lot of Marxist aunts and uncles who really thought all intellectuals were the same, whether they had Ph.D.'s or not.

One never felt that there was a hierarchy of attention around The Famous Pair because when they ran out of time during the day they just had you over to dinner. Their famous friends would visit for weeks at a time, and you would wander into the suite of offices they occupied to eat your lunch and He would rush up and say, “Oh I’m so glad you got here early. Eric Hobsbawm wants to talk to you about your research.” Or She would pull you aside and say, “Give Theda Skocpol a call about this dissertation chapter and tell her I said she would be interested in talking to you about it.” They had the capacity which I now realize is very rare: both He and She could really make you feel, for whatever limited contact, that they were only thinking about *you*.

I think this finally allowed me to, in a preliminary way, find myself worthy of attention and care independently of one person's capacity to reassure me that I was smart -- which was, ater all, all I had wanted from #2. But it was the thing she couldn't give me, that then made the rest of our relationship dysfunctional.

Ok, so here's the advice I can't *bear* not to give - when these relationships with those up the hierarchy are not working, remember that those feelings of rage and inadequacy arise somewhere else in your psyche. Dissertation advisors are not parents, but there are moments where they might as well be. Start looking closely at your own students – doesn’t one pop up out of the crowd once in a while who wants something mysterious from you that you just can’t – or don’t want to – give? Whose constant pestering seems pointless? Who is always angry at you for no real reason? Who makes you long for graduation so that s/he will go away forever?

One day I woke up and realized that I had been that nightmare for #2, for reasons that were no fault of my own and probably not even hers.

So by the time dissertation advisor #3 was hired, I not only had the self-confidence to end my formal relationship with #2, but actually the graciousness to lie about the reason so as not to make my departure any more toxic than it had to be. And #3, as I explained to Flavia a week or so ago, is now a very dear friend. In fact she just asked me – little me! –to write a letter for a fellowship for her. Which was absolutely one of my happier moments as an academic, because normally I think that payment for favors granted takes the form of passing those favors on down the chain. How can you repay mentoring? You can’t. You pass on what you have learned to someone else.

To close – here is something I have learned, through age, and a fair amount of excellent psychotherapy. Everyone has intimacy issues, and there is something about academic life that distorts those issues, particularly in fields like History and English where reputation conferred by others within the academy is all most of us will ever have to move us along. #2 was not a bad person, although she did prove herself inadequate to what I needed from a graduate advisor. But now I would have to give her some credit for moving from the place where she wouldn’t help me to the place where she understood she couldn’t help me. And on a certain level, that was a caring thing to do. And eventually that gesture got me to #3, who was – to paraphrase D.W Winnicot – a “good enough mentor.”

And it isn’t as though #3 doesn’t have intimacy issues. It’s that we realized over time, to our great delight, that we have pretty much the same intimacy issues! Now, how cool is that?


The Combat Philosopher said...

What an excellent post. I particularly enjoyed the 'fixer upper' line. It is a place I have known.

However, it raises an interesting point. I for a while sat on a grad admissions committee. Many of the people on the committee would get all excited about the applicants with 4.0 GPAs, whilst I seldom found them very interesting. My reasoning was that if a person has never had a bad semester, run into a professor they just cannot stand, or had to take a class they detest, then they must lack both attitude and passion. The students with slightly less than perfect GPAs, but who seemed to have a personality, some life, always seemd like better bets to me.

As I am not at one of the worlds 'finest schools', my assessment has been justified. The 4.0s went to fancy places. The students we got who fell into my 'interesting' catagory have done very well for themselves. However, I also have a personal reason why I believe that this is quite an important insight.

As an undergrad, I entered to study a subject I found easy, but boring. I got sick and dropped out. A little later I was able to get back in due to a rather wise man who had noticed that there was a rather low correlation between admission grades and final graduation grades. He got permission to admit a couple of 'drop outs' on a hunch. It was a good hunch. Two of the drop outs graduated at the top of their class. We both now have PhDs and are academically employed. This was how I ended up with a philosophy degree.

When I was in grad school, I had to take a course on a subject that I could not stand, because they were the only hours that were available. I did badly. In fact, at one point my GPA was so dubious that my RA/TA funding was at issue. However, as I had started publishing a little bit, they let me slide.

Fairly recently, our grad dean came across a study that actually vindicated the idea that 'fixer upper' students may be good bets. According to the study, the 4.0 students rather lack coping skills. They have never experienced a failure and should one happen (as is quite likely in any program with high standards), these are the people who will drop out. Goodness knows how they would handle a rejection letter from a journal, when a referee is totally off the wall.

On the opposite side, I know people who have degrees from fancy schools and who have always maintained high GPAs, but are utter failures as academics -- they teach badly, do not publish, etc. So, I do not think that it is a surprise that a 'fixer upper' such as yourself should do well.

Of course, the bulk of your post had to do with advisors. I had a couple also, but at the same time. One is still wonderful, but does not follow my work too closely. The other did me the huge favour of writing a paper, attempting to refute me in a paper of mine. It is really nice to have a paper dedicated to how wrong one is (it is great for citations). What makes it even better is that the refutation paper contained a serious methodological flaw. My response should be out any day now.

The one thing that I did learn about advisors, which I think reenforces a couple of your points, is that it is more important to work with a person you can get a long with, than any thing else. At least, this is what I tell my students.

The CP

Paris said...

Food for thought as I teeter on the brink of becoming post-doc. I have always taken my cue from my supervisor concerning the nature of our relationship, probably because she is notoriously reliable in this regard. What is nerve-wracking is that I feel like I am perpetually upping the ante - recommendation letters? publish the diss in the series you edit?

Maybe I'm a bit myopic but I can't see what's in it for her beyond the speedbump contribution my diss makes to her larger research agenda

Lisa said...

I'm a former foster child and current child advocate: www.sunshinegirlonarainyday.com

I wanted to invite you to share your insights on my blog sometime: http://sunshinegirlonarainyday.blogspot.com/

Also, regarding intimacy and attachment issues, I have created a blog and am planning a presentation on this subject, and would greatly appreciate your insights: http://fostercareattachment.blogspot.com/


anthony grafton said...

Tenured Radical strikes again with another terrific post, and many thanks to the Combat Philosopher for amplification.

Evaluating graduate students is really, really hard. In History--I don't know it works in other disciplines--there's an evil tendency to be very conservative nowadays, no doubt in part because more and more programs are trying to fund all students, and cutting numbers to achieve that. If spaces are fewer, the temptation grows to fill them all with products of elite undergrad programs who have already done elaborate research-based senior theses, and not to take chances on those who come from outside that world. AHA statistics seem to confirm that this is happening, that elite doctoral programs are taking fewer students from non-elite colleges. A bad thing. But how to push against it--especially when there are only a few fellowship offers and it's hard to argue against people who have done archival research in Moscow or Sao Paolo at age 20? Suggestions welcome.

A couple of years later, we know the students and they know us. But it's still really hard to know what they'll be like when they are finishing their dissertations. Again and again I have seen someone who looked like a "fixer upper" in generals--someone so shy as to be unable to speak audibly or look examiners whom he or she has known for two years in the face--turn into a terrific scholar and teacher, two or three years down the line. How then to draw the distinction between those who should, in humanity, be encouraged to cut their losses with an MA and those who should, in every way, be encouraged and nurtured (or at least left alone in library and classroom until they mysteriously find their own voices, as many do)?
It's never simple.

The intractable complexity of relations between supervisors and students begins--though it doesn't end--in these problems of assessment on the teacher's part, as well as in the problems of adjustment and learning that students encounter.

Thanks so much, as always.

Flavia said...

As always, TR, you're too kind in linking me to your own lovely and insightful posts.

I think that you, the CP, and Tony Grafton as quite right about how difficult it is to tell, at the outset, which grad students are going to go the distance--my own advisor (and really, this comment isn't meant to be about her again!) once gave me, in the middle of a meeting, the entirely unsolicited opinion that I was "not a superstar."

I was then in my third or fourth year and had barely begun my dissertation, but I was more pissed off than crushed by this assessment: what an absurd way of evaluating anyone, but especially graduate students! Who IS a superstar, in any way that matters, at that stage? And what a bad bet to think you can tell, and to throw your lot in with them. (My
advisor then added, as if helpfully, "No one in your entire class IS, really.")

I'm not very advanced in the profession yet, but even I have seen startling shifts: the kid who came in with the big ol' Mellon fellowship couldn't decide on a dissertation topic, and dropped out. And that sad sack guy, whose wife was the one we were all betting on to pull him along after her? Wound up publishing some impressive articles while still working on his Ph.D. and got an amazing job while the wife left academia altogether. I look forward to seeing how my grad school colleagues' careers shake out over an even longer period of time.

lucyrain said...

Excellent post, indeed, TR.

Jim said...

Very interesting stuff and materials for my education. Great ideas I must admit about writing a dissertation and advisors.

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