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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Training your thesis adviser

Here in our department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we have a “bridge program” for our incoming graduate students. Students can get a stipend to spend six weeks here during the summer reviewing their undergraduate physics, to make sure that they are ready for our graduate courses and for their qualifying exams. (Want to find out about the other perks of doing graduate work in physics at Nebraska? Contact me!) Every Friday there is lunch with a professor who leads discussion on some topic of value about graduate life.

I am going to be next week’s speaker, and I was given the topic “training your thesis adviser.” I was certainly a bit wary of taking on this topic; after all, I’ve only ever trained one thesis adviser, and although she has done well in life since working with me, I doubt it’s because of any of the training she got from me.

So what to talk about? I was thinking that I would encourage the students to understand just what actually consumes a typical adviser’s time. Unfortunately, the day-to-day work of the student is only a small part of it. Professors spent a lot of time during the school year teaching. There is plenty of administrative work, such as writing and reviewing grant proposals, managing grant money, and participating in the operation of an academic department. In particle physics, with its large collaborative efforts, there are management tasks that count as research but don’t always look like it, such as overseeing the operation of some piece of the experiment or coordinating a group that is focused on some task. We actually have very limited time for what we would honestly call “physics.” The good news is that the “physics” is the most fun part — why we went into the field to begin with — and thus the piece that we always want to get back to. Students have to find a way to break through all of this to make sure that their adviser hears them.

Another way of looking at this is that there is only so much that a student can do to train their adviser. Students ultimately have to take ownership of their own careers and be responsible for seeing themselves through. This isn’t just college++; no one is going to chase after you to make sure you are getting this or that done. A harsh attitude, you say? Perhaps, but that’s why people with PhD’s are ready to go out into the world as independent researchers.

OK, all you graduate students and former graduate students — what do you think I should tell the students next week about this topic?

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