Posted by: unlikelygrad | July 27, 2010

the best quality to have in an advisor

A year ago I was raving about my former PI, whom I refer to on this blog as SL. As well I should have: he was incredibly good to me. We were almost the same age and had grown up in the same geographical area so it was easy to talk to him. First he bent over backwards to help me get into grad school; then, as I did research for him, he pushed me past my limits, helped me overcome my fears, was an enthusiastic cheerleader, and basically showed me that I was capable of doing some (what I thought were) rather improbable things.

When I left I told everyone that if I got an advisor who was half as good as he was, I’d be lucky. I’m more than lucky.

After a great deal of thought, and acting on a hunch, I decided to choose Dr. Hand-Waver as my advisor. She’d been my temporary advisor when I first arrived at MyU, and after six months of weekly meetings I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. But until I committed to work with her I really had no idea.

What I thought I was choosing: an advisor with work only tangentially related to mine, one less people-savvy than SL, one who would never be a substitute for a psychotherapist (like SL did), one who had almost no money left.

What I got: a woman who’s a LOT like me, in many ways. Not physically (we’re about as opposite as possible there), but emotionally and mentally. When one of us tells a story about ourself the other one is usually laughing and/or pointing at herself and saying, “ME! That’s just like me!” This is nice, because I get to see firsthand how she positioned herself in academia; it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that my journey will probably be very similar. Other than the fact that she didn’t take 15 years off to raise kids, that is.

One thing she and I have in common is a trait I used to love in SL. She may be a bit prickly towards people in general, but when she finds someone she likes she is loyal to a fault and will do anything, ANYTHING to help that person.

I knew she liked me but I never realized how much she would do for me.

Dr. Hand-Waver knew from the get-go what my research interests were. In fact, when I met her as a prospective student, I remember her furrowing her brow and saying, “But no one does that here!” Later, she helped introduce me to the guy at USGS with whom I wanted to work. Sadly, he had no funding for me. I faithfully submitted my fellowship applications, but all of these were rejected.

So Dr. Hand-Waver stepped up to the plate. She had read some of this guy’s papers and realized that there was a possible intersection between her work and his. She read, she asked around, and she came up with a research idea. A pre-proposal of the work was submitted to DoE, who liked it and asked for more. So she dutifully came up with a full-length proposal and submitted that as well–a difficult process, since she admitted herself that she knows nothing about soils.

I am currently funded on her brand-new NSF grant which is based on her interests. I am doing the work, adapting a relatively new methodology to this area, working on the aquatic systems which are Dr. Hand-Waver’s lifeblood. But at the same time, Dr. HW is pushing to find me money to do the work I want to do. She’s bending over backwards to keep her student happy instead of insisting that I, her student, do what she wants me to do.

So now I’ve had not one, but two advisors who want me to succeed–by my definition of success, not theirs–and are willing to do whatever it takes to get me there.

I have got to be the luckiest woman in the world.

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