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…


  1. #1 Lab Cat
    April 8, 2008

    Being the only food chemist at my U, I had to deal with this situation a lot.

    One way is to find a snow mobile expert at another university and get your student to contact them. They may be willing to be on his committee and do it by teleconference. It would be helpful for your student too as it will be a good network for him to develop.

  2. #2 bsci
    April 8, 2008

    I’m an engineer. My grad advisor was an MD. He couldn’t and I didn’t expect advice from him on a large portion of details relevant to my research. If you know everything a student does then that person isn’t adding anything to the research group except a few more skilled hands.
    My advisor definitely helped improve my writing and my understanding of how my work fits into the larger area of snow-based activity research (especially with regards to funding). Where he couldn’t help, he directed me to others who could or I found them myself (that’s part on learning to be independent). In “professional” research no one is expected to know everything about a topic and there’s no reason someone should have to go to their advisor for all the answers. It’s not fun to say, “I don’t know,” but hopefully you can bring in others who can help fill in the gaps to help this student.

  3. #3 ec
    April 8, 2008

    My impression of the situation as a first-year grad student:

    –If the student was so committed to this project that he talked to every professor in the department and held out until the last minute (third year?!) before finally finding an advisor who would take him on — rather than joining another prof’s group and finding a project within the scope of his/her research — he probably is pretty self-motivated and has good knowledge of the field. (Though the funding and employer certainly contributed to this as well.)

    –I think part of grad school is getting over the idea that professors know everything, or everything they should/would be expected to. Even though I’ve realized this on an intellectual level, that attitude often still informs my knee-jerk reactions. It’s also possible that your student’s idea of what an advisor should do is much hazier than yours — granted he is farther along than I am, but your description was helpful to me. 🙂 Could you explain to him what you wish you could do but can’t, and as others have said, help him find other resources to fill those gaps? Otherwise, it’s possible that he might not realize what he’s missing out on — many grad students have the idea that if their advisors are happy with their progress, everything’s on track. And the stuff those advisors should be thinking about includes whether the research question is large enough, as you mention, but there are probably other issues that students just wouldn’t think of. If he knew which aspects you aren’t sure of your ability to assess, at least he’d be able to look out for relevant info on his own, too.

    Overall, it’s awesome that you’ve agreed to advise him, and I hope none of this comes across as critical!

  4. #4 ceresina
    April 8, 2008

    I wonder if you’d be able to address why he’s there? I mean, if no one at your/his university does what he’s interested in, why did he enroll in the program, instead of one somewhere else?

  5. #5 ScienceWoman
    April 8, 2008

    Ceresina: He at Mystery U because he is from Mystery City and that is where his employer is located. Basically, his choice was not where to get the PhD but whether or not to get the PhD.

  6. #6 Propter Doc
    April 9, 2008

    I was basically in this situation with my postdoc advisor – they knew skiing, I was a snowmobiler. It was obvious to me when advisor ‘cared enough to do some background reading’ and ‘didn’t care/have the time so tried to bluff’. My biggest concern now is regarding publication of the work and not having the ‘security’ of a specialist in the field reading through it first. You sound like you have a really good approach though and you can offer this student a great deal. I second the suggestion to put the student in touch with a snowmobiling expert at another institution – even the briefest email exchange could be very beneficial for you both, and reassure you that you are on the right track.

    You do get over the notion at grad school that profs know everything, but there is still a certain minimum level of knowledge that they must hold in order to help you succeed. When a student goes to far from the prof’s area of expertise it can be incredibly stressful for both parties. Particularly when the work is up for committee or peer review.

  7. #7 PhysioProf
    April 9, 2008

    You do get over the notion at grad school that profs know everything[.]”

    Excuse me, but we do know everything.

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