Thursday, March 17, 2016

What The Bachelor Teaches Us About Choosing a PhD Advisor

This post was an experiment in simultaneous co-writing with Claire Le Goues, fellow CMU Computer Science professor, fellow undergraduate alumna of advisor Greg Morrisett from the time he was at Harvard University, and fellow reality TV enthusiast.


In academia, many PhD students are lucky enough to receive offers of admission from several different programs, and thus the opportunity to work with a handful of different advisors. During the decision-making process, the prospective advisors engage in Skype calls and often a recruitment open house filled with meetings and fun social events to compete for the favor of each PhD student. The end goal is the PhD student’s decision to work with the advisor.

 A couple of months is a short time to decide to be someone’s student for up to ten years. Especially when you only see each person briefly--and at their best. Especially when you’re trying to make a decision between so many people. Especially when you might not even be sure what you want. Especially when you’re tired from all the travel.

That’s right: the PhD student recruitment process is like The Bachelor.* On the popular reality show The Bachelor, a couple dozen eligible bachelorettes go on dates around the world over the course of twelve weeks to compete for the “final rose,” usually accompanied by a proposal of marriage, from the protagonist bachelor. In our world, the PhD student is the protagonist, and the potential advisers are the bachelorettes. (For those concerned about the gender asymmetry: there is also an inverse show, The Bachelorette.**)

It is not surprising that both on The Bachelor and in PhD-land, there are mistakes. On the 14th season of The Bachelor, Jake Pavelka famously chose Vienna Girardi despite the warnings of all other contestants. While Jake saw only the fun side of Vienna, the other contestants saw how self-centered and unpleasant she could really be. Many contestants were sent home for trying to warn Jake that Vienna “may not be here for the right reasons.” Similarly, on the 16th season, Ben Flajnik was so dazzled by Courtney Robertson’s beauty that he dismissed all hints that she was “different in the house than she is with you.” Viewers across America watched as Courtney charmed Ben while bullying the other contestants, telling them that she was “not here to make friends.”

It is interesting that both on The Bachelor and in academia, the multiple suitors often have access to information that the protagonist does not. The suitors all live together and interact with one another without the protagonist; professors are part of a wide social/professional network and often know one another from graduate school, conferences, and the like. In both cases, however, the person in a position of choice has plenty of reason to doubt the motivations of one suitor saying something negative about another.

Indeed, the smart suitors typically avoid saying negative things about competitors, as doing so typically results in a swift diminishment of their own prospects. Similarly, you will not hear much that is negative from your potential advisors during the PhD recruitment process. All other potential advisors are “brilliant researchers” who “do great work.” But if there’s anything we can learn from The Bachelor, it’s that it pays to pay attention to red flags. There is no such thing as an abusive advisor, only an “incompatible advising style.” The advisor who requires students to work weekends becomes “hands-on”, or someone who “drives students hard.” The advisor who only pays attention to students after they’ve proven themselves becomes “hands-off.” The advisor who barely pays any attention at all to students becomes someone who “gives students a lot of freedom to find themselves.” These ways of describing potential advisors can certainly be confusing. On the one hand, a potential advisor and their students may not have the potential student’s best interests in mind. On the other hand, potentially coded words may actually be the truth.

Fortunately, a key difference between PhD recruitment and The Bachelor is that PhD students are allowed to talk to whomever they want about potential advisors. This means they can talk to current students (which may be like talking to the family of potential bachelorettes in that they have a conflict of interest), graduated students, and former students who ended the advisor-advisee relationship before or without graduating. Though the tabloids do not cover prematurely terminated advisor-advisee relationships the way they covered the breakups of Jake and Vienna or Ben and Courtney, it is possible--and often very productive--to find out about these situations if you ask around. (We also strongly recommend asking a trusted mentor for what should be considered a red flag in a potential advising situation--there are more than we can list!)

When doing due diligence, it’s helpful to ask for concrete facts. How was Ben Flajnik supposed to know that “one way with you, but another way in the house” really meant “Courtney walks past us creepily when we’re having fun and berates us?” Besides, one person’s nightmare might be another person’s ideal. Maybe Ben wants a partner to do these kinds of activities with. (Though apparently not, since he broke things off with Courtney after watching footage of his season.) Similarly, when asking about potential advisors, it is helpful to know whether “hands-on” means “they give me guidance whenever I want it” or “they check in every day” or “they require me to work weekends whether I like it or not.” Daily checkins might be perfect for one student and terrible for another. Asking concretely about requirements and availability can go a long way in resolving possible confusion. Plus, concrete details are much more difficult to fabricate believably.

It’s also important to trust, but verify. On the most recent season, Leah lied to Ben Higgins by saying that obvious frontrunner Lauren H was different in the house than with him. But Leah was the only person who said this, Lauren’s shocked reaction when confronted was very believable, and all other available evidence suggested that Lauren was as warm and friendly with the other women in the competition as she appeared to Ben. Ben sent Leah home and ultimately proposed to Lauren. The lesson is that if you do hear something negative about a potential advisor, asking them--or their students--directly about it, as well as observing the other evidence at hand, are good ways to see if the rumor is true.

We can also learn from Bachelor history that the success of the whirlwind matching process is not sufficient to ensure a successful future. The handful of successful bachelor couples probably succeeded because they actually dated/got to know each other after the final rose and before getting married. Similarly, it is helpful for PhD students to take as much time as they can within the parameters of their program before confirming an advisor. This may mean Skyping with the advisor after the open house or rotating with the advisor’s group before deciding to join. It is also important to remember that the final rose doesn’t determine your fate forever. Just as Jason Mesnick ended up marrying his second choice from The Bachelor season 13 after the show ended, many successful researchers switched advisors at least once during their PhDs***.

Finally, remember that JoJo could, after a couple of months, reflect on her unexpected breakup with Ben Higgins with detached but understanding affection and is now going on to star on her own season of The Bachelorette. Similarly, your potential but ultimately unsuccessful advisors will generally understand---even if not in the moment---that the process works in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Just like the Bachelor alums who are now friends in real life, feel free to approach and talk to your rejected advisers at conferences and in other settings, and consider collaborating with them in the future. After all, you already know you have interests in common.

* We consider this analogy uncreepy only because we do not actually advocate professors developing romantic relationships with their students.
** We acknowledge the problematic nature of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette along lines of heteronormativity, race, gender roles. But so many lessons.
*** Our undergraduate advisor Greg Morrisett has said that when he first went to Carnegie Mellon University, he thought he was going to work with a professor who ended up going to Brown. Then he wanted to work with another professor, who ultimately had too many students at the time to take on another. He worked for a while with a professor who did not ultimately end up advising his Ph.D. thesis. Greg did not end up with his final advisor until late in his graduate career. He has since had an illustrious, award-winning research career and is now the Dean of CIS at Cornell.


joule said...

'Rotating' with the research group? I guess this wouldn't be possible if the team won't let you in unless you're formally enrolled at the school and/or you sign a couple of NDAs. It does seem analogous to 'dating', or is that too much of a stretch? Are there actual ways to 'date' your adviser?

I think back to something a close friend of mine who was a PhD.c. at the time told me. Her first adviser 'dumped' her after she failed a portion of her first round of qualifier's. During that time, said friend was involved with his team on projects that did not include her actual thesis. He seemed to be a, "I'll pay attention to you once you prove yourself" type of guy. During one of their final talks when they decided to officially call it off, he referred to everything that had happened as, 'dating'.

So, these are two concepts of 'dating' that could exist. One from outside of a research group via rotations, and a second type of 'dating' from a "... once you prove yourself"-style adviser.

I found this post to be entertaining, but it feels 'weird' to 'date' your adviser. Surely a term with less ill-implied attachments exists? Humm... I don't suppose flirting with your adviser would be any less looked down upon.

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