Thursday, October 25, 2012

Letting the advisor go

I'm applying for approximately 87 different things this fall, most of which require lining up the ol' recommendation letters. But for the first time in more than 10 years, I didn't ask my dissertation director for one.

Advisor remains the biggest name I could rally to my cause, and a small part of me wonders whether that isn't reason enough to ask: the patronage-model-cum-magical-thinking that sustains grad students hasn't entirely left me. But a larger part of me is relieved not to have to go there, by which I mean to go back there, to that anxious, cringing, supplicatory phase of my life.

It's not about Advisor herself. I could ask, and she'd probably write for me. She's been good to me over the years. Nor do I think it's inappropriate to have one's advisor write on one's behalf many years after the fact: some people remain close to their advisors, in a relationship that evolves into friendship and even collaboration. But that's not true of our relationship: I see her from time to time and send her cards at Christmas and that sort of thing, but she doesn't know my recent work hardly at all--certainly not as well as the mentors I've acquired since graduate school.

More important, though, is my reluctance to revisit that particular phase of my scholarly life. Longtime readers will recall that my experience of grad school was Not Good. It's increasingly clear that the problem was with me, or with grad school as a phenomenological state, rather than with my program or my advisor; I've reflected before that grad school made me incapable of the friendships that I needed and wanted from my classmates, and I was probably similarly incapable of the advisor/advisee relationship that I wanted.

For the first few years after I got my degree, I worked very hard to develop a new, adult relationship with Advisor. And it worked well enough. But there are reasons both personal and professional--matters of temperament as well as specific events in our respective lives--that mean we're never going to have what Cosimo and his advisor have, or what some of my other friends have with theirs.

Once that would have made me sad or frantic: not having my advisor's love, in the way I wanted it, felt like a personal failing, a sign that I wasn't deserving of it. But some relationships are never quite the right fit, and some we outgrow, and most of us manage to find others who do love us in the way we want to be loved.

I'd been planning to ask Advisor for a letter. I'm sure she'd have written a strong one. But when it occurred to me in September that I didn't have to--that I had professional friends who were senior scholars who liked my work, that I didn't have to reenter that particular tortured headspace--I felt so relieved that I almost burst into tears.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Amen, sister, amen. (I think we've discussed before that our advisors were like sisters under the skin or something.) I didn't have the same revelation as you given my career change, but I remember running into my advisor at a conference and telling her I was going to law school - and she made a very supportive respons (I do believe, genuinely, that she cared about her students and tried to support them). And then I tried to make small talk, as one does, when one's talking with people at a conference, and the conversation (as they so often did with her) sank like a lead balloon. But for some reason, this time round, the little voice in my head did NOT say OMG you're such a freak she doesn't want to talk to you why can't you come up with something interesting to say you're so awkward I can't believe it. Instead it said, You are making conversation like a totally normal person and it's not going anywhere and it so not your fault. And it was SUCH a relief to recognize I'd let her go.

(I like, too, your point about being incapable of the advising relationship you wanted, because I can recognize now the ways in which I was probably a very difficult advisee. I don't really blame myself for this - in the sense that I don't see it as a personal moral flaw - because I think some of those issues were impossible to avoid in the situation of me + grad school. But even if much of the difficulty was of my own making, it was such a relief to be able to relinquish it.)

Comrade Physioprof said...

Letters from scholars who are familiar with your work but whose own academic stature is not bound up in your success (unlike a direct mentor or collaborator) are also substantially more influential.

Canuck Down South said...

If you're at all interested in reflecting more on this topic, Flavia, I'd love to hear a little more about how your developed those key other "professional friends who were senior scholars" relationships when you were a junior scholar. I'm a grad student now, but I can already say that I definitely won't be maintaining the kind of relationship with my adviser that involves meeting up for dinner at various conferences--not only because, well, I doubt he's ever had that kind of relationship with former advisees, he's just not that kind of person--but more because I work in sub-subfield x, and he works in sub-subfield y, and sub-subfield x is a much bigger subfield (he's my adviser because he's the one prof where I am who works in subfield). As I get closer to the job market, I'm becoming more and more aware of the fact that I'm going to need to branch out, as far as mentors and recommendation letter-writers go, as soon as possible, and I'd be interested to hear how established people such as yourself started doing that.

Anonymous said...

Flavia I stumbled upon your blog towards the end of my PhD program when I became the most frustrated with my advisor. I can say that I found your past posts about your advisor a relief to know that I was not the only PhD student who has not been best friends with their advisor or their advisor’s favorite student. I too am the middle daughter, which is what I believe you would call yourself. I still reflect upon our relationship and think about the places where both of us went wrong and sometimes I become infuriated. It seems like not needing a letter (and approval) from an advisor also indicates that one is their “own person,” as much as any academic can be. As I just graduated I still need her letter, and she does write strong ones for me. And as I have been recently contemplating sending her the offprints for my first publication that will come out next year, offprints that I know she will not acknowledge, or read, and will probably forget about, I still wish that I could get some approval; but I long for the day when I do not need either. Congratulations.

Dr. Crazy said...

Not only is this a good feeling (and it is!) it's also really productive and healthy and normal for scholars at our stage. You're your own scholar, sister. Embrace it.

Tonya Krouse said...

CDS - I know you asked this question of Flavia, but I'll offer an answer. How I found my "mid-career" mentors was pretty much through professional associations plus conference panels (and also a few edited collections). Basically, the more active you are in the field in which you're interested, the more people you're going to meet. Some of those people will be senior. And you'll (weirdly) become friends with some of those people, because your interests intersect, and because they are cool, and basically you have a lot to talk about and the relationship is mutually intellectually rewarding. Also: those senior people really like mentoring people who are junior whose work excites them. Practically? Introduce yourself to people. Organize conference panels and invite those people to serve as respondents. Go to parties or meetings where those people will be, and talk to them, both about what you're working on and about what THEY are working on. Honestly? It's not super-hard. It just takes a tiny bit of chutzpah.

Flavia said...

NK: Indeed, I was thinking of you as I wrote this! (Partly as a reminder that I'm not alone in my experiences.)

Canuck: Tonya beat me to it, but my answer is a version of hers. Still, I think I will write another post on this subject with some fuller deets, and maybe solicit others' experiences as well.