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

November 15, 2010

Whew.  More advisor shopping advice.  I told you I had a lot of thoughts about this subject.  Continued from part one, this part is much more focused on issues for us chronically ill folks.

For most people, you can play around a bit with how much weight you give to research vs. life in the group, depending on your own personal threshold for misery, but in my experience, being chronically ill meant that I needed to pay way more attention to what life in the group was going to be like.  What I really wish I’d known was how sick was too sick for it to be okay, at what point my advisor couldn’t tolerate my absence and lack of productivity any more.  Instead of having a grasp of this up front, I just dove in, and once there, assumed everything was okay unless told otherwise.  No news is good news, right?  This strategy hasn’t really worked out that well (see “advisorspeak dictionary: the crawl in a hole and die edition,” if you want the miserable details).  I have to wonder if things could have been better if I’d asked the how-sick-is-too-sick question up front.

It’s not just about being physically in lab and keeping up, either, but about concrete landmarks.  How many papers are the grad students expected to put out, and how often?  When are you expected to have finished all of your classwork?  What’s the timeline for having a dissertation project laid out?  Most importantly of all, what’s the timeline for graduation, and what are the consequences for not sticking to it?  This last one in particular is one that anyone starting grad school wants to know for sure, and for us sick folks, this is huge.  Chances are high we won’t be healthy enough to get through things in the usual amount of time (obviously this standard varies from field to field and group to group), and they’re astronomical that we won’t finish faster than that standard.  The typical consequence for not being on track with an advisor who isn’t understanding is that you lose your funding after you’ve already devoted your heart, soul, and years of your life to your work.  It’s a Big Deal.  Don’t ignore it.

So, how do you do all this?  Well, carefully.  I doubt you want to go telling every potential advisor all the gory details about your health, and I doubt they want to know (and the students you talk to, too, because you should ask these things of the students and not just advisors).  Even after you’ve chosen a group, this probably still holds true.  Also, it’s likely that no matter how self-aware you are about the impact your health has on your work, you won’t be able to accurately quantify the impact on your graduate work until you’re actually in grad school (hint: it will probably get worse than it’s ever been before).  So what do you do?  You do the best you can.  If I were doing it all over again, I would:

  1. Address the research issues with the prospective advisor.
  2. Ask to talk to students, and make a point to talk to a few of them.  I’ve never heard of an advisor unwilling to set you up for this.  Make sure you get all the gory details of life in the group from them, and really, the best thing to ask at the end of the day is probably “are you happy working for Dr. Advisor, and would you do it again?”  You ought to keep in mind that I would probably join my group again, even after all of this reflection and getting ready to leave, so this doesn’t always mean things are awesome, or even good.  There are a million factors at play here, as evidenced by the length of this.
  3. Talk to the prospective advisor again.  If you’re happy with everything you’ve found out so far, now would be the time to ask about their tolerance for health-related delays, and the continued availability of funding if your timeline does get significantly delayed.  You can be amazingly vague about the actual reasons, I’ve found, and still get the point across.  The main thing they need to know is that you’ve had this stuff happen in the past, and you really want to make sure things won’t go all to hell when it happens to you again.  Chances are that they’ll get this, at least sort of, and they’ll get it much better if you’re as concrete as you can be about how much time you’ve historically been out.  Make sure you also get concrete answers from them.
  4. Join the group!  Or, move on.  It happens.

So, hopefully this has been helpful for you, dear readers.  It’s actually been helpful for me in some ways, since I’m on the job market as of this morning (I submitted my first application a few hours ago), and I have a feeling some of these things will be important in that context as well.  Best of luck, and may your grad school experience not suck as much as mine has!



    1. […] dispatches from physics grad school « why i am leaving grad school: a teaser on being a chronically ill graduate student: advisor shopping, part two » on being a chronically ill graduate student: advisor shopping, part one November 15, […]

    2. FWIW, the “talk to the advisor and the students in the lab” advice is very important for any one. And, from personal experience, I can say that if the advisor in question has no students, ask why that is. If you get vague answers, look elsewhere. Unfortunately, you can find yourself in an untenable situation that way, no matter what. Maybe there’s only one group doing what *you* *want* to do (and I mean that in the obsessive sense that was described in an earlier post). If that’s the case, you’re just proper fucked.

      • Thanks for chiming in! I was hoping some intrepid commenters might :-}

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