Adviser Anxiety -- help me get to office hours!
July 16, 2008 8:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop freaking out about orals advising?

Grappling with the age-old problem of adviser anxiety: After much internal debate, I'm working with Professor X on my orals exams (for literature). The problem? I cannot talk to him, and I'm getting dangerously close to the syndrome of "avoiding his office hours until absolutely necessary." It sucks! What can I do to change it?

There is some background here. I did my M.A. with the same adviser, which was a largely disappointing experience -- partly because I feel like I didn't get particularly good feedback, mostly because we just didn't communicate very well. Part of the reason why I chose this graduate program is because I really like his work, and because he is himself a fantastic resource -- really smart, constantly "on," but tends to think aloud in a really inaccessible free associative way. The problem is that I simply *can't talk to this man.* I don't know how to interject into the series of conversations that he's interested in having. I don't know how to link them to the ideas that I'm interested in talking about. I don't know how to kick the overwhelming feeling self-doubt that crashes down *every time* I leave his office hours.

At this point, I'm so anxious and flustered that I can barely hold a conversation with him. Switching advisers is an option, of course, but not a very good one -- for one thing, he's solidly in my field and doing work I'm quite interested in, and for another, it's certainly not so much of a problem that I *wouldn't* work with him (this seems like a really dumb reason to switch advisers). What I want, really, is to be able to figure out how to talk to him - that is, to be less self-conscious, to stop freaking out, and to figure out how to cross this communication gap.

I hate the avoidance thing - there lies the road to self-loathing and shoddy work. How do I get over myself and make this work?

Some background info: My field is 20th c. British literature. The field in question is nationalism and imperialism - mostly 19th c. political theory (Hobson, Mill, Bentham, etc), which I'm fine with, but also a smattering of 20th c. critical theorists (Deleuze, Habermas et al), with whom I am on decidedly shakier ground. Particularly with the more recent theorists I do feel kind of overwhelmed by the weight of everything I don't know. Again - not a new, unique, or particularly interesting neurosis - but obviously less than ideal.

Disaffected grad students, faculty, scholarly mefites -- please help!
posted by puckish to Human Relations (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First, make sure you have read the standard "how to get through grad school" books, like Getting What You Came For and the rest.

Second, for your specific communication issue, how about changing the format of the conversation? If talking in person won't work because he free-associates randomly, what about email? Or writing him a two-page "critical response" mini-essay every week or two about the books you are reading, to which he will (hopefully, perhaps with much prodding from you) respond with a direction for next set of books?

Third, have you considered telling him this directly? Not in words like "dude, you free-associate so much it's like talking in Klingon," but more like "hi, I'm concerned about my orals because when we talk we have great and exciting discussions that are really wide-ranging, but I leave your office not sure what I should be reading and how each piece fits into my program of study. Could we sit down and clarify some of this stuff?" That's a totally normal and appropriate conversation (in person or via email) to have with an adviser, and if it works you will have solved your problem.
posted by Forktine at 9:33 PM on July 16, 2008

I advise Ph.D. students and I free-associate a lot, and it is much better when students tell me exactly what they need than when they hide from me. I don't know if that's advice for you, but at least let it be reassurance that your advisor probably wants you to do the same thing you're asking for help in doing.
posted by escabeche at 10:01 PM on July 16, 2008

I was in your situation when I was an undergrad. Sadly a lot of it was my own fault (I'm not saying it's your fault, I'm just giving you my experience in the hopes it helps in some way). I was of the mindset that the person behind the big desk with the experience and the credentials was godly and I didn't have the right to an opinion. I remember the one time I confronted him, my voice got all high and squeaky. I couldn't control it...I was literally afraid of his intelligence. Part of this was because of how he presented himself...very quirky and eccentric. He fostered that opinion of him intentionally I now believe...he WANTED to make sure everyone knew he was the smartest guy in the room.

Flash forward to my grad school experience. I had gained self-confidence and felt like somewhat of a subject matter expert in my area. I felt willing to debate my knowledgeable superiors, including my wizened adviser.

Now here's the risk with debating an expert: you run the risk of looking like a fool. Self-confidence is the difference between making the choice to risk looking like a fool, or being too afraid to speak.

But when I started to assert myself I started getting better feedback on my projects, and I also found myself more respected than when I cowed before him.

So I agree with escabeche, go in and say what it is you want. If he strays off topic wait for the briefest of pauses and then ask a question to bring him back on topic.

I'd say keep the adviser...a smart success who's hard to work with is better than an easy run of the mill person in the field... That's why the elite gain the rights to their eccentricities
posted by arniec at 6:09 AM on July 17, 2008

Following up on escabeche, how about coming in to the meeting with a very specific list of questions (i.e. In ch. 1, Habermas talks about....does he mean X, etc.)? Before you meet with your adviser, go through the material you're having trouble with and figure out what you'd like explaining. Take control of the conversation when you walk in; use the greetings phase to introduce the topic you want to discuss (Hi, how are you? Fine, how are you? Great, thanks. So I'm working my way through Habermas, and I just have some questions on...).

My own adviser had a tendency to be vague. Asking him general questions (How should I do X?) tended not to be very productive. What worked was to have specific items for him to react to (I've done X, what do you think)--I got much more useful feedback that way.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:08 AM on July 17, 2008

I really hate this aspect of academia. I think, in all aspects of life, it's important to aim for clarity in communication. After all, we can't read anyone else's mind and words are the best tool we've got.

Personally, although I only have an undergrad degree, I would approach this like an investigative reporter. Aim for clarity and to get your questions answered.

Plan your meetings with your adviser. Figure out what you want to accomplish at the meeting, and write down your questions and talking points beforehand. Ask direct questions, and don't be afraid of sounding ignorant, as long as you have done the reading and have familiarized yourself with all the theorists. He is an educator -- it's his job to help you grasp the concepts.

When you leave the meeting, make sure you are both clear on what the next steps are.

While my love of debate served me well in high school, university was a different story. Maybe it was only my own experience, but I found most professors didn't respond well if I looked at things from a different position, especially if it was political. They just continued to tell me I was not grasping the concepts.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 1:00 PM on July 17, 2008

Hi puckish, check your mefimail.
posted by emyd at 1:19 PM on July 18, 2008

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