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on being a chronically ill graduate student: advisor shopping, part one

November 15, 2010

I’m posting this through a burgeoning migraine, hopeful that blogging will help remind me that most of my headaches these days are more on the order of “wow, this sucks and is incredibly distracting and uncomfortable,” rather than “dear god put me to bed in a dark room for the rest of the day, because thinking hurts and makes me want to cry, which also hurts.”  I can work through the former if I’m motivated enough, and I’m hoping to do so today.  Blogging will maybe help, as well as get the procrastination bug out of my system for now.

The irony of all of this has not escaped me.

Anyhow, this post is significantly delayed, but that’s because I felt like the topic deserved a lot of attention.  In fact, it deserves at least two posts worth of attention, and so I’ve split it up.  I have a lot of thoughts about this.

“The advisor question,” as I’ve come to call it in my head, is one of the most important questions a grad student can consider, if not the most impotant.  Your relationship with your advisor can make or break you as a grad student in ways that no other aspect of the experience can.  And, for those of us with spotty health, a relationship that’s often already tough can become a nightmare.  As I’ve assembled this post, I’ve realized that a lot of my reflection and advice is applicable to any grad student (who’s research-based), and not just the chronically ill, so keep that in mind.  The more general advice is mostly in the first part, and the second is more specific.

So, all of that said, how do you choose an advisor?  What do you need to ask before you sign on?  What issues are especially important for the chronically ill?

The obvious way to choose an advisor is to pick one whose research interests best match your own, and honestly, even with all other factors weighing in, this has got to be most important.  Take it from one who knows: grad school will be impossible if you don’t like what you’re doing.  If you don’t love what you’re doing, even.  I did a brief stint (four months) in a materials science and engineering program, working on defects in crystalline silicon for solar applications, and I despised it.  There was no way I could have stuck it out much longer than I did, and I really think leaving was my only choice, not just the right one.  There was nothing wrong with the work I did in lab or in class, and nothing wrong with my relationship with my advisor, but the research was not what I wanted to do.  This issue definitely has played a role in my recent decision to leave grad school again; I like my research, but I don’t love it, and I don’t really believe in the societal value of it, which is something that I’ve come to realize is extremely important to me.  In picking an advisor, it’s really important to think about all of these things, and really reflect on whether your research will be important to you.

Here we hit upon a problem: you can’t always know what you think of a field until you try it out.  That’s okay.  You can always change your mind, and then change advisors, fields, careers if you like.  In theory, at least.  Sometimes it’s not practical, and sometimes it is.  That’s not really a question I can address, since it’s a very personal choice.  Just know that there is no shame in trying something and deciding it’s not for you.  I’ve changed fields twice (I was an astronomer as an undergrad), two of my roommates have changed fields, and a number of my coworkers and collaborators have changed fields even after getting their PhDs.  We all still have viable careers in science (I just happen not to want mine).  The best you can do is to choose an advisor whose research you think you like, and give it a shot.  Lab visits and shadowing are awesome if you can do it, to give you a jump on figuring things out.

While research interests are important, it’s probably unwise to let it completely rule your decision-making process; you should also try to figure out what being in a certain advisor’s group is really like.  This is a mistake that I made, for sure.  Mostly, this involves asking a lot of questions, both of the advisor-maybe-to-be, and also the students already in the group.  I can’t stress that enough.  Students will tell you things that the advisor will not, and, well, they’re students, which is what you’re going to be.  They’re the ones who really know whether the advisor-maybe-to-be will always be there to help when things go south, or sits up in their corner office doing political things all day, and has only a vague idea of what you’re actually working on.  It’s worth noting that the second doesn’t always mean that things are terrible; sometimes there are other mentors available.  Make sure you ask about this, too.  Who can help you when (it’s a when, not an if) you struggle, and are they willing to do so?  Try your best to figure these things out before you commit, because it could potentially save you a lot of trouble later on.

Stay tuned for part two.

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