When navigating the vast ocean otherwise known as the graduate school experience, with its many waves and sometimes foggy conditions, one cannot underestimate the immense value it is to have a compass to guide the way. The ocean is matriculation through graduate school and reaching the shore is commencement and obtaining a career. The much needed compass, or I guess nowadays Global Positioning System (GPS), is your Graduate Advisor.
No amount of hyperbole could express how invaluable a thoughtful and committed Advisor can be to one’s success in graduate school and beyond. There is a thick enough “fog” inhibiting one’s sight for not only getting into graduate school but also obtaining employment afterwards. An understanding of the hiring process in your field of study is essential, especially in the field of Humanities, and even more specific if one is pursuing an academic career as a Professor where the hiring process can involve 200 plus applicants and national searches that may take up to a year to complete! One needs to have an insider’s view of how the profession works and how to not only prepare academically but also how to position oneself before commencement.
While ‘getting in’ to a program of choice, especially one as prestigious and internationally recognized as U-M, should certainly be celebrated and the experience appreciated, the main objective is to move forward into a meaningful career. Your Advisor, if wisely chosen, is that precious commodity that can help you achieve the goal.
While I was at Emory I had the pleasure of having lunch with a doctoral student who was gracious enough to take time out to share her journey and experience for getting into the doctoral program. She shared with me the importance of GRE scores and Statements of Purpose etc., but the one thing that really hit home was when she asked me, “Who is your mentor?” Sadly at that point I really did not have anyone who was my ‘go to’ person for understanding the process of graduate study and beyond. Of course her response was one of shock.
Thankfully, since that time I have had numerous individuals to contribute in major ways toward my academic endeavors. However, my Advisor here at U-M has served a crucial role in helping me prepare not only for the program but also for what lies ahead.
Let me offer a few suggestions that have proved to be helpful along my journey both in preparation of and while in graduate school. Selecting an Advisor/Mentor is absolutely vital to your future success. Your interpersonal skills and approach matter as much as your intellectual acumen. In other words no one wants to deal with someone who is either immature or a jerk. Be professional, aggressive, yet considerate. I say this in regard to getting the most out of the relationship that you have with your Advisor as you move through your program. Your Advisor is a professional regardless of how they might present themselves in informal settings or even in formal ones. Their time is as valuable as yours. As much as it may seem like they should be thinking of what is most important to us, because it is highly urgent to us, the fact of the matter is they have classes to prepare for, publishing deadlines to meet, tenure requirement clocks ticking, committees to serve on, long and boring dissertations to read, and student assignments to grade. Our concerns are usually not intentionally neglected. So it is okay as the student to express needs and concerns at times with friendly reminders.
One approach is to perhaps invite your Advisor for coffee or meet at their office, during office hours, and come prepared with what you want to accomplish during your time in the program. Preparation means having a list of topics/questions for them sent via e-mail before the meeting takes place to allow them time to think it over and maybe provide you with helpful resources. Additionally, take up reading some books or online articles that will help generate some meaningful questions to ask about preparing for the profession. Two books that I really benefited from were The Academic Job Search Handbook , by Julia Vick and Jennifer Furlong and So What Are You Going to Do with That? : Finding Careers Outside Academia, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Another helpful resource is The Chronicle of Higher Education advice columns which have insightful articles with tips concerning graduate school and about preparing for careers after graduate study. Invite your Advisor’s feedback and input as to how you might proceed. Your Advisor will appreciate your diligence and a productive meeting.
It may prove advantageous to keep this maxim in mind, “Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.”
About the Author
Rodney Caruthers II, Ph.D. Student, Near Eastern Studies
Published in: Student Voices