Choosing an academic advisor is never an entirely straightforward process. It takes a lot of effort find someone who is a good fit both mathematically and personally. A good choice can lead to some of the most productive and enjoyable years of your life, while a bad choice can obscure some of the joy in doing and teaching mathematics. In most cases, the process of choosing an advisor will terminate on a someone down the hall. In a minority of cases, however, the most natural choice might be an individual at an entirely different institution. As one might expect, such a choice has its plus’s and minus’s. This post is about my experiences choosing such an advisor, and the effect this choice has had on my life.
Right off the bat, I’ll tell you that having my advisor, John Etnyre, at a different institution had a net positive effect on my life as a mathematician. Sure there were many logistical hurdles, but there were also many hidden benefits that I’m only now coming to truly appreciate. I’ll start by talking a bit about these “hidden benefits”.
First and foremost, this arrangement encouraged me to travel a lot and made me aware of how important it is to interact with other mathematicians while you’re in grad school. Conferences and workshops are where you learn the latest and greatest theorems and techniques in your field. They also provide a fertile ground for asking questions and getting help with your own research. This is also where you meet most of your future colleagues, and develop the relationships that may help you in later years when you’re on the job market. Given the many resources out there to help defray the cost of attending these events, it seems almost obligatory to attend as many as reasonably fit into one’s schedule.
In addition to attending conferences, it can also be possible as a graduate student to arrange spending a month or more at an institution different from your own. Some institutions have exchange programs set up that allow graduate students to spend a semester or even a year away from home. My time visiting John in Atlanta allowed me to substantively interact with various professors who share my research interests at Georgia Tech and at the University of Georgia. I’ve come to deeply value these relationships, both for the effect they have had on my own mathematics, and particularly now that I’m graduating and about to start a postdoc.
Having my advisor at another institution also encouraged me to develop stronger relationships with other professors back at my home institution (Penn). Most notably, whenever I was back home, I regularly meet with Herman Gluck and his research group. This turned out to be an incredible blessing in disguise. By interacting with this group I learned some deeply interesting mathematics. This, in turn, helped add a level of breadth to my own research that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Also, like John, Herman is a strong advocate and an incredibly supportive mentor.
I also learned a lot about communicating mathematically over great distances. For the past three years, John and I have been meeting regularly each week over Skype. The value of Skype as a collaborative resource for academics cannot be overstated. Given a decent high-speed internet connection, the video quality on Skype is amazing. Oftentimes I would simply point my webcam at the whiteboard and present things as I would if I were in John’s own office. It picks up colors just fine, and even a small font size is not too much of a problem. I highly recommend this as a tool for individuals who are interacting over long distances.
Now that I’ve sung a few of the praises of the long-distance advisor, I’ll tell you about a few of the challenges.
While meeting over Skype works generally quite well, it’s really not the same as meeting face to face. You also can’t just pop by to ask a quick question, and you miss out on a lot of normal day-to-day interactions that would otherwise take place. Luckily, John was also able to arrange for me to spend the first semester of my third year down in Atlanta on a fellowship. A fellowship provided to all fourth year (math) grad students at Penn also made it possible for me to also take several extended trips down to Atlanta to work with John that year.
Traveling between cities also brings up the obvious issue of housing. Each time I went down to Atlanta for more than a few days, I had to find housing and either pay double rent, or find someone to sublet my apartment in Philly. This was admittedly a somewhat challenging issue to navigate. All I can really say is that Craigslist is a profoundly useful tool when it comes to short-term housing needs.
It’s also worth noting that an advisor at a different institution may not have the same “pull” within your department. This was less of an issue for me, because John had a preexisting relationship with Penn when I chose him as an advisor, and because I continued substantively interacting with other professors back home at Penn. I have heard form other graduate students in similar circumstances that this can sometimes be a rather sticky issue. In particular, getting relief from teaching to travel and visit your advisor may be troublesome.
For me the benefits far outweighed the challenges. In the end, I was able to do exactly the type of mathematics I enjoy most under the supervision of a great advisor. I can’t say things would always turn out so rosy. The best advice I can give is to encourage all graduate students out there to work hard at finding an advisor that fits you on a mathematical and personal level.