Everything You Need To Know About Choosing an Advisor: Fall Quarter Edition

This is how I felt at University of Chicago for most of MAPH.

This is the point in the quarter when I was confused and a little cranky during my MAPH year. I felt like I was being told to think about my thesis idea and maybe start talking to possible advisors, but not to talk to any of those people about being my advisor.

While this seemed paradoxical at the time, I now recognize the wisdom of that advice. I wasn’t ready to talk about my thesis idea yet, but horrifyingly, I didn’t know that I wasn’t ready.

Take it from someone who only learns things the hard way: don’t learn this one the hard way.

So if you’re supposed to go talk to professors without talking about your thesis, what are you supposed to talk to them about?

1. Reading lists

This is a great place to start. I ask people for reading lists like crazy. If someone is into something that sounds even vaguely cool, ask them for some books or articles on the subject. Write them down and then go look them up. Professors are walking bibliographies with instant and intuitive sorting capabilities. I have found SO MANY awesome articles using this method, things I would have never found otherwise. (The other day I asked a post-grad in music if he knew of any interesting theoretical stuff on the ear and hearing. He gave me a list of half a dozen articles that are blowing my mind.) You basically have free license to walk up to people and (politely) ask them for candy and THEY WILL GIVE IT TO YOU.

2. Good questions

That’s terrifyingly vague, I know, but here are a couple of approaches. If you have a class with the professor in question, you’ve got it made. If there’s something in your class that piques your interest, go ask about how you might look more deeply into that subject. If you don’t have a class with the professor in question, go in with a reason and a question. For example, “my preceptor suggested you might be a good person to talk to about X,” or, “I’m really interested in what you’ve said about Y — can you point me to more work on the subject?”

The key to formulating good questions is for them to be genuine questions. Don’t make up a question just because you want to have an excuse to visit with an academic celebrity. Real excitement and enthusiasm (appropriately metered for your audience) can go a long way, and when they motivate a specific intellectual curiosity, exciting things can happen.

3. The rule of threes would suggest that I offer another suggestion about talking to profs, but I am going to use it to caution you instead.

Don’t try and impress professors when you go to see them. Be honest. Speak from a genuine place about what interests you and why, and about the problems or writers or questions that excite you. The closer your curiosities match what the professor is currently working on the better, but it’s not required.

Most importantly: LISTEN. It’s easy to get so caught up in what you plan to say to the prof that you forget to be open to what they say in response, which will always be unexpected and require good listening skills to capture.

In short, talking to professors around thesis time isn’t something to be intimidated by, but it goes much smoother with a few skills in hand. Want to run some ideas past your mentors or preceptors? Go for it! We want this to be a really productive experience for you. And I feel like it is sort of my personal mission to help you avoid making the kind of boneheaded moves I made.

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