The Minimalist Approach to an Advisor

by Kareem Carr

Human beings are diverse. The recent article by one of our newest Editors, Angelean, on finding a new approach to job hunting reminded me a friend who took a similarly pro-active role for writing her thesis.

Many people I’ve met go about selecting a thesis by a somewhat circuitous route: they pick an advisor, often after trying out a few options, and their advisor picks their project out of something he or she is interested in. This project is usually in line with the advisors current work, and often follows a fairly similar plan of attack to their previous work.

Not so, my friend. Here is what she did: she found an advisor who let her do whatever she wanted.

She had a very clear idea of what she wanted to study and she picked who she wanted as her advisor before she entered her program based on his reputation in her field. She took the course her advisor taught in her first semester and made a conscious and consistent effort to demonstrate who she was as a student and researcher during the course. Afterwards, she used this to her advantage.

When she approached her advisor, he knew who she was and knew the level of academic thought she was capable of. He knew about her as a person and a student, that she had a 4.0 GPA, a part-time job and she was looking for something more challenging to do.

She approached her advisor with a plan about what she wanted to do, a carefully phrased argument for why she wanted to do it and why it would work. Her proposed project was only tangentially related to the advisor’s work, certainly nothing like what his other students were working on. But her reputation and background work secured his permission.

As she proceeded to work on her thesis, she checked in periodically with her advisor to let him know what she was doing and verified her plan of attack with him.

He gave her honest feedback, and he trusted her to know what she was doing.

Since she felt more ownership of her project than most students, she also felt comfortable approaching other researchers, both at her school and at other schools, for their feedback or suggestions on how to proceed. She attended seminars and talks on related topics and networked with the speakers and other attendees. This was key to filling in the gaps where her project didn’t fit her advisor’s work, and her advisor’s reputation and connectivity in the field meant name-dropping helped interest people in talking to her.

For her, this approach was highly successful. But it may not be for everyone. Many other people I know complain when their advisor doesn’t have enough time for them and doesn’t offer enough guidance. Is the minimalist advisor approach for you?

Cons: She worked a lot harder than most other graduate students, spending many a late-night trying to figure out the appropriate plan of attack. Her advisor wasn’t as engaged in her work as her other friend’s advisors, or as he was in the work of his other students.

Pros: She learned a lot more than most graduate students. She learned how to develop a project from the ground up, rather than how to complete an existing research project. Networking with other researchers in and outside her university allowed her to build reputation in her chosen field separate from and in addition to that of her advisor.

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