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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Choose the Hardest Possible Advisor

If given a choice, choose the hardest possible dissertation advisor, the professor who has given you the toughest comments on your seminar papers. Those are the professors who care the most about your intellectual development.

(Obviously, I do not mean to choose the capricious professor, who changes his or her mind or forgets what needed to be done, or who is gratuitously hostile. It does no good to have professor who tell you your work is shit but won't tell you why.)

Avoid the professor who can publish you in his own journals, or have you co-edit stuff with him. It usually is a him but it could be a her in some cases.

Submit to the journal that is hardest to get into. Over and over, until they accept you. Hispanic Review used to reject articles in 10 days or a fortnight with no comment, back in the late 80s. This was great because I just sent them articles until I got in, but didn't waste any time with rejected articles being held for months.

Of course, choosing the hard way when the easy is available is not going to work for everyone. I had a lot of self-confidence, so I always went this route.

My Department Chair, who happened to have worked with the same dissertation advisor as my wife, said he chose this advisor, who was notoriously tough, because he knew that if he could work with this advisor, then he would know that he was good enough to excel in the field (or something like that). In this case, it wasn't an excess of confidence, but a kind of cold calculation. If you aren't sure if you are good enough, then the way to go is the hard way, because then you will know.


Unknown said...

Fantastic advise. I wish somebody had told me to go for the toughest advisor when I was in graduate school. Now that I'm on the other side, I agree that's the best way to get initiated into the field. All first-year graduate students should read this post.

Clarissa said...

"Avoid the professor who can publish you in his own journals, or have you co-edit stuff with him."

-Could you expatiate on that? What are the dangers here?

Jonathan said...

Certain professors have that reputation; I won't name them here. The student has a hard time establishing his or her own scholarly identity, because all the publications bear the mark of the advisor. It's exploitative, but some people don't notice because they are appearing in print. What could possibly be the problem? But then they don't get tenure because others hold this against them.