Grad School Last Minute Thesis Advisor Switch
January 8, 2012 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Graduate school issues. Starting my thesis this upcoming semester. Just the other day, my tentative advisor suggested that I switch to another advisor. Is it weird to ask a professor to be an advisor for my thesis a week before the semester starts? And what's the best way to ask?

My tentative advisor, Dr. A, had agreed to work with me on my thesis last semester. But he was also out of the country last semester, so we didn't communicate much. While meeting with him the other day, we talked about my desire to apply to a PhD program after finishing the thesis. Dr. A suggested that I ask Dr. B to be my advisor instead, since Dr. B is very well-regarded in our field and his renown may bolster my applications. I had a class with Dr. B and liked him, did well in the class, and he seemed to like me well enough.

But I'm anxious about asking him to be my advisor a week before the semester starts. I'll admit it is a little intimidating, since he's an older professor and so highly-regarded. So my question is, how should I ask him? Here are my options:

1: Tell Dr. B the whole story about how Dr. A just suggested this and why he suggested it (because Dr. B is well-known) while apologising for asking on such short notice.

2: Simply ask him and not go into all those details, and apologise for asking on such short notice.

I want to do 1 because I'd like Dr. B to know there's a reason why I'm asking him at the last minute. But on the other hand, I don't want to imply that I'm blaming Dr. A for all this, so that makes me think option 2 would be better.

Any thoughts would be appreciated. Also, let me know if I'm overthinking this.
posted by mcmile to Education (11 answers total)
Here's a how-to.
posted by k8t at 2:51 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're not over-thinking it. I'd go #1. If I'm Dr. B. in this scenario, first thing I am doing anyway is calling Dr. A. and saying, "hey dude, mcmile want's to switch supervisors to me, is there a problem or a red flag I need to know about?"

If it is as simple as you say, then I'd make the switch myself, networking opportunities and close knowledge of thesis are huge in graduate schools (and not always present) and it sounds like Dr B may be better placed to provide them. Also, if he has a stable of like-minded graduate students then that would be helpful, too.

Having said that, switching is fairly unusual in my experience, so be alert to signals you get/are getting, I guess. But whether it's because of Dr A (face value), or you (he doesn't want to supervise you, for some unspoken reason), then switching would probably be better, long term.

But be prepared to be turned down, because most profs have a limited number of grad student slots they are prepared to fill at any one time.
posted by Rumple at 2:53 PM on January 8, 2012

k8t's link is really good.
And I agree, you need to go with #1

I check all my thesis students records before accepting them, and I may accept both "good" and "bad" students, depending on what their former professors write in the notes (if they write). I will also make calls, as Rumple says.
posted by mumimor at 3:20 PM on January 8, 2012

I'm assuming that this is a master's thesis, since you say "my desire to apply to a PhD program." At the school where I got my PhD, as often as not a master's thesis was a consolation prize for someone dropping out of the doctoral program. It took some doing to convince a faculty member to advise on a "plain" master's thesis because of the investment in time to teach/coach you through the research process -- an investment that benefits another professor at another school if you go elsewhere for your PhD. Your mileage may vary depending on field of study and school, but my point is that even without your last-minute circumstances there may be some reluctance to advising you. You'll probably get a question about your plans to stay in this program for the PhD or go somewhere else.

I'm also wondering why Dr. A isn't making the ask of Dr. B on your behalf. It isn't going to reflect well on you showing up at Dr. B's office a week before the semester starts with the ask, so in any event, you'll want Dr. B to know that you had another plan and it fell through (so Dr. B won't think you wait until the last minute to do everything or aren't serious). Also, I agree with Rumple: Dr. B will certainly ask Dr. A about this, so I would suggest you have a good understanding of Dr. A's viewpoint and what he/she will say when asked.
posted by kovacs at 3:21 PM on January 8, 2012

Just as a counter-point to kovacs' point: at my school, Masters and PhDs are completely separate and you can't move onto PhD without an accepted Masters Thesis, and it's an accepted part of getting tenure that you'll have to advise a bunch of MA theses.

Just talk to B, tell him what happened, then give him some time to say one way or another (in case he wants to do research on you).

I assure you, faaar weirder things have happened re: Masters advisors at my university, so this wouldn't raise much of an eyebrow. In fact, at my university, it's assumed that most administrative stuff will happen a week before the term begins, since no one is here otherwise.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:44 PM on January 8, 2012

What I've seen in advisor change situations because of fit, is that Current Advisor talks with student, then if student is open to the advisor change, Current Advisor talks with Prospective Advisor. Then student has chat with Prospective Advisor and if both parties think this will work out the papers get signed.

So like kovacs, I am wondering why Dr. A hasn't already asked Dr. B on your behalf.

I think when Dr. A made the advisor change suggestion, I would have asked Dr. A if I or Dr. A would be contacting Dr. B about the possibility of switching to Dr. B. And if the answer was that I'd be doing it, I would have asked Dr. A for the best way to phrase or approach the ask.
posted by needled at 3:56 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You called your first advisor a "tentative" advisor. If that's normal at your university to have a tentative advisor for the first year or so (I think it is typical in certain disciplines), then I don't think that Dr. B would have a problem talking to you about becoming your permanent advisor, whatever the timing was.

It is, however, unusual in many programs (but perhaps not yours) to switch advisors just as you're entering your thesis writing semester. Though of course, it's far, far better to switch advisors before writing than in mid-thesis.

Do talk to Dr. B, but also, do talk to your grad program staff and grad program chair to make sure that you have all your bases covered about typical practices in your department.
posted by wenat at 4:20 PM on January 8, 2012

So like kovacs, I am wondering why Dr. A hasn't already asked Dr. B on your behalf.

1: Academics are lazy.
2: Academics want researchers with some gumption, who are going to be able to work on their own initiative to the greatest possible extent (see 1). Having someone ask for a research position on one's behalf is not a good indicator of initiative. Get Dr A to back you up with a nod from behind (figuratively) but do the asking yourself and do it asap. Better a week before the semester than a day.
posted by biffa at 4:27 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the responses! As some people have mentioned, I think my university has an unusual "tentative" advisor-matching system. I think that's because the thesis is not required. Most students opt for a capstone or other type of final project.

Looks like I'll be contacting Dr. B soon and seeing what he says.

And that blog k8t linked to is really good.
posted by mcmile at 4:54 PM on January 8, 2012

I think that what you want Dr B to get out of this situation, ideally, is confirmed evidence that you're a great student, and confirmed evidence that you're academically confident and have initiative. What I would suggest is a two-pronged approach, then. I think you need to do the actual asking of Dr B yourself: it shows your confidence and initiative. However Dr B presumably has no knowledge of you. This is where an email from Dr A to Dr B, strategically sent a day or so before your ask, would be helpful. He can attest to your great qualities, and also explain to Dr B why you're asking so late. Would it be possible for you to find a day soon to visit Dr B, either by emailing to schedule a brief meeting, or by going to his next office hours? And then you could chat again with Dr A, and ask him if he could do you the favor of sending a note to Dr B on X day, introducing you and explaining the situation. Be sure when you chat to Dr B you mention your desire to do a PhD, and if your top choice is to work under him that definitely should be brought up! Good luck!
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:59 PM on January 8, 2012

Again, thanks for the advice everyone. Just an update in case anyone else finds this. I asked Dr. B (the old, distinguished professor) and explained the whole situation to him and he said he'd be my advisor. I think one issue was that not many students in the department are on a PhD track, so my situation was kind of weird.
posted by mcmile at 3:55 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

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