The Wandering adviser

This is going to register so close to home for some of you since you may be in this situation right now.

Your adviser is a wanderer. Brilliant, full of ideas but never focused to stay on completing tasks. Let me make the assumption that you are a PhD student on a research assistantship that your adviser has worked hard to secure for you. Here’s what your life might look like: Your adviser assigned you a project of some sort and then two weeks later she walks in with another great idea and every few months or so, another idea emerges. You are so caught up in the fun of trying new things, 3 years go by quickly. You have very little to show for in terms of progress. You have moved from one project to another. Don’t get me wrong here: You are probably learning a lot on this journey! But, you have not written any of these projects into a paper for submission to a peer reviewed journal because you’ve been busy trying new things. Neither you or your adviser have paid close attention to the courses that you should be taking. You are merely taking research credits or the odd class here and there because every day is an endless ream of ideas. Can you relate to this? As I travel the country and provide Professional Development seminars, students explain such a scenario (in private of course!).

How do you navigate such an adviser. Enter grit, determination and sheer persistence.

First, make sure that you pay close attention to the courses. Fill out our program of study (POS), pick your committee members after discussing with your adviser and get the POS signed. Make sure that you complete these courses on time based on departmental guidelines.

Next, write your research proposal and get your adviser to review it and provide comments. Let your committee review this and finalize the research proposal. Now regardless of all the ‘side’ projects you are working on, you can focus on the main research project. You have to persist through this stage since your adviser will continue to veer into new ideas.

Next, make sure that if your department requires a comprehensive/qualifying/preliminary exam, you set up the time line and then proactively work towards completing the exam.

Here is the important part. Realize that your adviser is never going to stop being a firehose of information and ideas. Receive the ideas but prioritize them. If you show good progress on your main research project then you can continue to place the new projects as a lower priority.

This is also important. It is your turn to become creative and move towards your end goal. Write that first paper since nothing excites an adviser to see new results. Write your results section for the new paper and then wrap the rest of the paper around it. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get on track. I’ve had to use some of these tactics in my graduate school days.

In this endless stream of ideas, chaos and research, your priorities for your research and career must come shining through. If you are not proactive you will end up staying too long for your PhD, worse still get disillusioned and may be tempted to quit the program.



About Sundar Christopher

Dr. Christopher received his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University in 1995. He also holds a Master's degree in Meteorology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After completing his PhD, Dr. Christopher joined the faculty at SDSMT in the Department of Meteorology. In 1997, he joined the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and was awarded tenure in 2002. He became a Full Professor in 2007. From August 2007-May 2014, he served as Associate Director of the Earth System Science Center. He served as Chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science from 2010-2014. He successfully designed a Master's level graduate program in Earth System Science that educates and trains graduate students in new paradigms involving research to decision making. In 2014 he was appointed as Dean of the College of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Dr. Christopher's research interests include satellite remote sensing of clouds and aerosols and their impact on air quality, environment, health, and global and regional climate. He works with numerous satellite data sets from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, ground-based instruments, and aircraft data to study the earth-atmosphere system. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers in national and international journals including several review papers related to aerosols, air quality and the climate impacts of aerosols. He has served on numerous national and international committees including the Climate Change Science Panel and the GEWEX. Dr. Christopher enjoys teaching and has designed and developed undergraduate and graduate level courses with special emphasis on hands-on training using satellite data. He also designed a professional development course for graduate students and maintains a blog to help students navigate graduate school. In 2011 AGU published his book titled Navigating Graduate School and Beyond : A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for every Advisor. Dr. Christopher has published extensively in national and international peer-reviewed journals and has also presented his work at major scientific conferences. He has been invited to speak at major venues including the World Federation of Scientists (Erice, Sicily), the United Nations Symposium in 2007 (Graz, Austria), the American Association for Aerosol Research, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), the United Nations Symposium on Space Applications, 2008 (Graz, Austria), the Osher Institute of Higher Learning, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and various national and international universities (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Purdue University, Texas A&M, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Goddard Space Flight Center, Colorado State University, and others). He has won several million dollars in numerous grants and contracts from NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies for studying earth-atmosphere processes. He has won several awards including the University Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2006 and NASA New Investigator Award. He has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has served as an expert reviewer for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). He is a citizen of the United States of America.
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