Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So I Am Your Academic Advisor?

Dear Student,

I am honored that you chose to work with me as your graduate advisor. Obviously, this is a mutual agreement between us since I also chose you as my student. I hope that we have a productive and beneficial collaboration together as you pursue your PhD degree.

I would like to convey to you some of my expectations, goals, plans for you so that you will have a better idea on what to expect. I would also like to tell you what you can expect from me, and maybe you can also tell me what your expectations are. Hopefully, they overlap a lot, and we have a mutual agreement on what these next few years will entail.

My goal for you is not only to impart knowledge so that you become an expert in a particular subject matter, but also to train you to be a physicist. This means that you not only will know the subject very well, but you will also be able to present it, both verbally and in writing, to be able to know the economic constraints that comes in doing physics, to know how to find funding, to have a feel on what's interesting and what's important, and to be able to become a respected citizen physicist. Furthermore, I want to equip you with skills and knowledge so that by the time you graduate, you have a large degree of "employability", that your ability to find a job is not constrained to just academia.

Since you chose to work for me, you will be doing a lot of experimental work. Many of these are hands-on work that will involve learning, maintaining, and constructing vacuum systems. You will have to learn how various vacuum components work, how to handle them properly, how to assemble them, how to design and maintain such system. You may also end up learning several experimental technique, diagnostics, equipment, procedure, etc.. etc., some of which may not even be in your thesis. However, these are skills and knowledge that might land you a job. Your knowledge in many of these areas are relevant not only to a life in academic research, but also in many private, high-tech companies if you choose to pursue that line of employment.

I expect you to do a lot of background reading. I will give you a few material as starting point, and you must use any and all resources available to you to find the necessary material to help you to understand what you are reading. Don't be surprised if you end up having to read several papers each week. At this point, as you become familiar with the subject matter, you must also be very familiar with the state of knowledge of that subject matter. What do we know now? What is the direction of research that this area is heading into? What are the things we don't know? Who are the "big names" in this area? Finding out the answers to all of these will take a lot of time. I will guide you and direct you to certain resources that I think you should know. And you are more than welcome to come and talk to me if you have questions. However, the responsibility in learning these things on you.

As you develop your skills and knowledge in this field, at some point (sooner rather than later, hopefully), we will both decide on what your thesis area of research will be. Ultimately, it is my decision on what area you should pursue since officially, I will have to give the department my approval. Still, I hope this is a topic that you will also find suitable since you chose to work with me.

As you gather results and as we discover new knowledge, I expect you to learn how to publish your work. I will guide you on where we should publish, but you should start paying attention to how we decide on what to publish, and where to send for publishing. These are crucial decisions that you will need to get a feel on as a practicing physicist. I will also send you to several conferences where you will present your work in front of your peers and other physicists. I want you to gain confidence in presenting your work, and to acquire skills in oral presentation. This is something you have to do several times before you gain your confidence, and before you get a hang of it. I will help you by having you give several practice talks before you present your actual talks. You will learn what you did right, and what you did wrong, and hopefully learn from them.

You are expected to attend the department's seminar if time permits, especially if it is in the same area as your study. However, you should make an attempt to attend all seminar. It is to your benefit to know what is going on in other areas of physics. You just never know if you have to make a switch in subject area during your career, the way I did. It is never a waste of time to gain knowledge of things you didn't know before.

As you get closer to writing your thesis, we will sit down together and narrow down what exactly you will cover. No doubt that we will go through several iterations before we end up with the final product. You will again do a practice defense in front of me and a few other graduate students. Hopefully, by then, you also would have attended the thesis defense of other graduate students in our department, so you should know what to expect.

By the time you graduate, you and your family should rightly be proud of your accomplishment. I know I will be. I will be more than happy to provide you letters of recommendations for the next chapter in your career. If you find this experience rewarding, and if you end up in a situation where you are mentoring students of your own, remember your experience as a graduate student just starting out with your ambition of pursuing your dreams. If you think that I've treated you fairly, with respect, and that I've tried to equip you with the necessary knowledge and skills to turn you into a productive physicist, then I hope you will pass it on to your students and those you mentor.

When you get to do that, then it is at that point that I have successfully done my job as your "Academic Advisor".



ateixeira said...

Very, very, very nice. All the best to you, your student and your partnership.

Andrej said...

Very nice and accurate letter! Arriving for a PhD to a well established physics institution, my first (positive) shock was a similar presentation from my new advisor: it is 'fatherly' (care, help, assisting personal growth) yet very 'professional' (bussiness-like reality of the job). This is precisely the nature of a PhD. In my naivete at the time, I expected a romantic, chaotic, unstructured, pure exploration of knowledge and 'intelectual play'. It was awakening to learn that a lot of care is needed to produce a 'respectable citizen', a functional clog in a bussiness-like machinery, which is actually an even more rich and exciting reality (although more frustrating as well). Every prospective student should read this letter, especially if she/he comes from a culture where the more materialistic, down-to-earth and professional aspect of 'doing science as a job' is not made clear along the way. Many greetings!

muon said...

This post is wonderful and I hope lots of young graduate students will read it. You capture perfectly the hopes of the student-advisor interaction as well as the seriousness of it. We all know that individual students and individual advisors fail in some aspects of the goals and expectations that you set out. Writing them down so clearly helps us all to recover the focus this relationship deserves.

Gandalf said...

I really enjoyed reading that, and no doubt I'd enjoy reading it even more if I was your prospect student. Well written, all of it! ;)

/A physics student