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Rather than my normal rambling post, I thought I might write a post on managing advisors from my perspective.

I have to come out and say I am absolutely spoiled rotten with my advisor. I was allowed to come into my program with an idea for a dissertation in hand and have someone advising me who doesn’t quite do this, but does something close, and was thus very interested. I must also credit my job between undergrad and grad for allowing me to identify a topic that has been mostly neglected in the last decade or so, but is becoming more and more important for various reasons (characterizing the source region of Near Earth Asteroids, determining the size-frequency distribution of asteroids in the solar system which may place come constraints on models of solar and extra-solar planet formation and more). The other senior graduate student who works with the same advisor has had some problems I haven’t had and I think it’s because my style of managing the advisor is much different (I don’t however think it’s a sexism issue as other senior grad student is male and I’m a member of the uterus havers).

What I do is the following:

#1- I don’t wait on the advisor, I set the timelines. This one took me a couple of years to get used to. At old job I was low girl on the totem pole and regularly got slapped (metaphorically) by management if I ever tried to push back (say if they gave me more than a mere mortal could complete in the timeframe they specified). As such, I had real issues with even asking for things like paper reviews on a certain timeline from the advisor as he’s the boss. I seem to recall writing in my self-eval a couple of years ago that I felt like a nag when having to ask for paper revisions after the deadline I had sent out. Perhaps it’s the desire to get the hell out now, but now when I deal with the advisor I’m less nicey-nice about deadlines and don’t tend to send out emails saying “please send me comments by blah”. My emails now read “deadline for comments is blah.”.

#2-I don’t start anything early any more that involves the advisor. This has been a newer one for me to work on. I used to be one of those overachievers that was writing grant and telescope proposals weeks if not months before they were due. Now I don’t care and wait. Part of it is that I’ve learned that my writing really sucks if I’m not under a deadline. The other thing I’ve learned is that advisor doesn’t look at things until the last minute. Or in the case of a recent grant proposal which could have gone to one of two panels, he doesn’t think about it until the first deadline has passed thus forcing us to send it to the second panel. I still hate writing at the last minute, but I also check now for deadlines and block out the week or two previous to them as absolute shit storms as things are frantically written and rewritten.

#3-When it comes to funding always ask earlier and often. So a couple of years ago I was in the lab and heard the other senior grad student shouting about how advisor is a “pathological liar”. WTF I said to myself. Upon further investigation I discovered that fellow grad student had assumed advisor was going to pay him for the summer term but never talked to him about it. I on the other hand had asked about 2 months previously because I know of the tricky accounting to pay everyone in the lab and was assured that my salary would be paid, no problem. I often check in with advisor regarding the money situation. Heck this week he told me that our NSF money for the next year cleared so I can get paid and we have money for my way too long manuscripts with too many damned color figures.

#4-Be an asset via stealth. . . or dogged determination. I think I may be working both sides here. Admittedly I was at a special place for undergrad and have an extensive group of friends in the field at large, so I’m a bit more tuned into the gossip mill than some grad students thanks to the joy of Facebook. I have however learned additional skills of stealth and picked up handy tidbits at conferences that I wouldn’t have gotten if I wasn’t sociable. I also find myself regularly writing grant proposals here even though I curse them every damned time (especially since none of them has gotten any damned money!). The combination of my knowledge of things going on elsewhere in the field and my regularly writing grant proposals makes me an asset my advisor likes and makes him want to keep me around. To some extent this can become a detriment. . . .I sometimes wonder what he’s writing in my postdoc letters as he leans on me an awful lot, but he at least seems to be writing them for me unlike for other senior grad student in the lab.

#5-Keep the advisor informed. . . and not just of the successes. I feel like my time here in grad school has dragged out a bit longer than it should have. Some of that is related to a program I did last summer (which realistically was awesome professional development and I’d recommend it to all planetary science types) and the rest of the time delay is due to general crap. I’m not in residence at University of the Frozen Tundra these days- in part because I got married and in part because the spouse got a job elsewhere and I followed because I didn’t make enough money to move back to the frozen climes. I informed advisor of this. I informed advisor after the move that I might be looking at postdocs as a way to get out of my marriage as the move just went so awesomely as I was informed of the move and not involved in the decision making process (this was actually a concern for postdoc applications as I needed to know I was not geographically limited to the region I’m currently in). I inform him of research progress- whether it’s a case of a paper being nearly done or trouble with a damned piece of code I just haven’t been able to debug. I informed him the other month when my harddrive crashed like holy whoa and the doods at the Apple Store were surprised that a member of the Uterus Bridgade could accurately deduce mechanical hard drive failure (uh duh, I can’t get past the BIOS startup douchecanoes!). We email and call on a regular basis. I fly out about once a term and spend a week in a freezing cold lab so we can go back and forth to each other’s offices about getting certain tasks done. Primarily email and phone works for us as he’s also often gone for some committee or other, but we’ve found what works for use and keeps him in the know. If any of the other faculty in the dept asked at any given time what I was up to, he’d be able to tell them and it’d be pretty damned closed to what I was doing at that very minute even though we don’t have anything like preset weekly meetings.

#6-Don’t ask, just tell. One of the adages I heard from the Education and Public Outreach group at my old job was “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission”. Perhaps this is related to #1 in some respects, but these days I don’t ask about going to conferences and the like, rather I enform him that I’m going. Admittedly I’d expect to hear some strong words if I were signing up for something like a dark energy conference as neither of us do that, but I know that meetings like the American Astronomical Society and the Division of Planetary Science are fair game. In the end this is good because at these conferences I wind up networking. . . and now I have some great collaborators that I’ve picked up from the meetings I’ve attended all on my lonesome. Looking back on this strategy, this may have also gotten me into grad school- I recall a Sunday evening telecon at my old job with current PhD advisor where in the pre-business chit chat I point blank informed him “Name, I’m applying to your school for the grad program. Let ’em know.”

Of course, these techniques may not come easily to those who aren’t inherently cocky (like moi par example) or for students who are used to a rigid student-faculty class system (my undergrad was very fluid with the class system, though that may have been due to dating postdocs and grad students in the dept before I was even 18 but my grad dept overall is very stodgy and has a bit of stick up backside syndrome). I do believe however that learning to manage one’s advisor is very much like the rest of grad school- you fake it until you make it. Not all grad advisors are the same and one student’s coping strategies may not even work for another student in the lab, let alone a different advisor, but I think the flailing is also part of the grad education where you learn how to read those in charge and figure out how to keep them and youself satisified. It’s only taken my 5 years to figure out how best to manage my advisor and I’m hoping to blow this place and move onto a postdoc in the next year with a new manager/advisor to figure out.

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