Post Academic

Surviving Grad School: The Mentor Backup Plan

Posted in First Person,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 8, 2010
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PhotobucketYour undergrad advisor was probably a well-meaning soul who didn’t want to trick you, but you won’t find out what grad school is really like until you’re in it. This series is for those who are already in grad school (or considering it) and have just encountered a grad school surprise:

The person you dreamed of working with turns into a creep, flakes out, or dies.

Like The Man says, you need to “diversify, diversify, diversify.” Knowing the field you want to study and sticking to it can be a big help because you can develop relationships with multiple professors. When one professor turns out to be a sexist pig and another has a nervous breakdown, just move on down the line. When the line ends, you’re not at the right place for you, so transfer or bail.

You may argue that prestige is important, but Professor Prestige won’t do you a lick of good if she never shows up for office hours and can’t remember your name … even though you’ve had three classes with her and she’s assigned to be your mentor. You need to find the kind of advisor who will go to bat for you.

If you have a dream advocate, you still need to prepare to shift gears in the event of his death. I seriously considered going back to school to finish my PhD, but my advisor died soon after I left. Homer (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”) Brown was a wonderful, funny, kind, smart man. I met my husband in his Transatlantic Fiction class. Thanks to Homer, I discovered my love of the epistolary novel. If I had decided to return to school, I could have worked with other people, but I had been out of the academia game for so long that it would have been tough to rebuild relationships. In that sense, the academic track has a lot in common with the hamster track: You must find good mentors, you must network, and you must nurture your relationships because you can’t predict what will happen next.

One Response to 'Surviving Grad School: The Mentor Backup Plan'

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  1. Arnold Pan said,

    Don’t forget the advisor who leaves for another school, although that might fit under “flake out.” Actually, I had 3 advisors in the course of grad school who were great in completely different ways, plus a number of unofficial advisors who have also taken me under their wings. That just goes to what you are saying about finding a good group of people to help you.

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