Before I even arrived at Mystery U, I was contacted by a student already in our PhD program. The student was about to start his third year in the program, and wanted to know whether I would be willing to advise him. The problem, he said, was that there was no faculty member who had his research specialty. When he told me what he was working on, I was aghast. I couldn’t possibly advise him! I know nothing about his specialty either! But after meeting with him and learning more specifics about his situation, I agreed to be his advisor.
Now I just needed to advise him well enough to for him to succeed…
If I am a skier, my PhD student is a snow mobiler. We both study snow sports with runners, but there’s a big difference between the human- and gravity-powered sport of skiing and the internal combustion engine that drives snow mobiles. (One might liken the difference between human/gravity power and engine power to the difference between physics and chemistry, say.)
In the fall semester, we met weekly – alternately reading some common background papers and discussing aspects of his experimental design. His project is fairly well-defined because of the scope of the funding he has already obtained through his employer. (The preceding sentence should explain why I agreed to advise him.) By the end of the semester, I felt like I had a decent understanding of what he was doing, even if I am still vague on some of the “engine” details. This semester, we’ve only met once, but he’s been working on a thesis proposal to share with his committee prior to taking his oral exams. My job has been fairly light: encourage him to get that document written.
A few weeks ago he sent me his draft. It was really pretty good, but it brought up all sorts of “impostor syndrome” feelings in me as I read sections where I could only assume he had his details correct. The big weakness in the proposal is how to turn the project into a dissertation – in our field, that’s usually three publishable papers. I don’t know the literature of snow-mobiling well enough to know whether he’s got plenty of material there, or not nearly enough. He says he knows the literature, but hasn’t got any experience writing papers. So we’re trying to define secondary questions that won’t require additional data collection (or $) in case his primary question isn’t sufficient for a dissertation. And that’s where I feel like I am failing him. I feel like I should be able to say “yes, this will be enough” or “ohmygosh, you are planning way too much work.” But instead, I have to say “we’ll wait and see how things shape up.” I hope that when the committee gets together, they’ll be able to give him some feedback of this sort, but they are even farther removed from snow-mobiling than I am.
In the meantime, there are things I can do to help him grow as a scientist. His writing is very wordy and his organization and emphases are different from those you see in journals. It’s not really his fault-he has simply been trained to write reports for government agencies. It doesn’t have the precision, elegance, or conciseness of academic scientific writing. Though it may not always be evident on blog, where I never revise, I am actually a good writer and have had “editor” as an official job title. So I can help my student with his writing.
I can also help him figure out how to craft his document for the needs of his committee. We need to know whether the project is novel, significant, and do-able within the time frame of a PhD. Since his committee’s needs are so similar to mine, I can help him do this fairly easily.
Hopefully, over time, I’ll be able to help him more with the technical details of his research, but since a large part of the PhD process is about creating independent, self-sufficient researchers, I guess I could consider it as doing him a favor by being so unhelpful now. And I comfort myself by thinking that the most important part of a PhD advisor’s job are teaching those skills that make doing research possible (getting grants, reading the literature, communicating your results…), and those are things that I can teach, even if I am one step removed from the actual research specialty.
But I do look forward to someday having a PhD student with a love for skiing…