Our books

Become a Fan

« Burnout and work-life boundaries | Main | Reader query on pregnancy and having children while on the tenure track »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

elisa freschi

Thank you, Marcus. I agree wholeheartedly. Having a stellar PhD supervisor who never shows up might be less ideal than having one who is committed and regularly present. But, once again, it depends on the kind of person you are (γνοθι σ᾽αυτον).


I think it's more important to not have a bad adviser than to have a good one. I've seen, frequently, bad (but prestigious) advisers ruin grad careers, but it is rare for a good one to make someone's career (unless you could 'good' somebody with connections to get you a TT job.)

Problem, though, is 9/10 grad students don't listen and will work with the prestigious and dangerous adviser anyway.


Strong agree with Amanda. Prospective students on visits need to meet upper-year students and ask for red-flag-raising stories.

Marcus Arvan

I don't disagree with Amanda's first point: that it is more important to avoid having a bad adviser than having a good one.

However, I don't agree with the rest. My experience (first-hand and third-hand across a couple of different disciplines) is that grad students' overall career prospects tend to vary more or less in direct proportion with the overall quality of their adviser. That is, my experience has been that the following are all broadly true:

(1) Great advisers (at least at good programs) tend to graduate more students more quickly, and place a much higher proportion of their students in academic jobs (and *good* academic jobs, to boot) than average advisers.

(2) Average advisers tend to place *some* of their students in academic jobs, but their students tend not to finish the PhD program as often, tend to take longer to finish, get fewer academic jobs, take longer to get the jobs they do get, and get lower-status academic jobs, than students of excellent advisers.

(3) Awful advisers tend to destroy people and careers.

This is entirely consistent with Amanda's point that avoiding a terrible adviser should be a bigger priority than having a great one--but my experience is pretty unequivocal: having a great advisers tends to have a variety of important benefits relative to less-excellent or average advisers.

Maybe my experience isn't representative though...

a philosopher

As to *how* you can find a good advisor, I don't have any advice over what's already been said. But I did want to reinforce the idea that graduate students should *care* about getting a good advisor. Advisors can and will play a huge role in your time at a program, from guiding your dissertation to supporting you in faculty meetings and evaluations, training you in how to write and do professional philosophy, helping you prepare for the job market, and just overall giving you advice on how to navigate the world of professional philosophy. Of course, other faculty members can do these things as well for you, but your advisor is likely to play the largest role and have the most stake in you. I had an amazing advisor. I certainly wouldn't be in the position I am now without them. They saved me from several big mistakes along the way and just overall made the whole dissertation experience as pleasant as it can be. Having seen what bad advisors do, I just can't overstate enough how it's not worth it.


The other thing a good advisor does, though, is introduce you to their network in your subfield, so that you can start building a network of your own (which you can develop over time and through regular conferencing), and slot yourself into the subfield's research community more broadly.

It really makes a *huge* difference.


Following up on Michel's comment: How helpful is it, really, to have an otherwise good but not well-connected advisor? Granted, it'll make writing the dissertation a more enjoyable and rewarding experience, and will no doubt make you a better philosopher. But will it get you a job? (On average, I mean. It hasn't worked out so well for me so far, but what I want to know is whether my experience is really as unusual as Marcus and a philosopher seem to be suggesting.)

a philosopher

The networking point is a fair one, but I guess I just assumed that was part of being a good advisor. You don't have to be a superstar at a top-10 department to help your students network. I have plenty of friends at departments in the bottom half of the PG, or even off the PG, who have wide and active research networks.

I thought the relevant contrast here was between a prospective graduate student chasing a super star without regard to their quality as an advisor, vs pursuing competent researchers who are also known to be good advisors. Part of being a competent researcher is having a decent network.

Of course, I know Marcus often cites this work showing that your odds of a research job at an R1 go way down if you're not in one of those top-10 or top-20 departments, so, of course, take that into consideration as well. But it's hard to get away from the stories of bad advisors (intentionally or not) running grad students out of programs and overall making their lives hell for years on end.


Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I was just naive, but I definitely didn't take into account the importance of networking when I chose my advisors, and I do think it has harmed my career (probably irreparably, now). In retrospect, it seems to me that, to get a job, you need to weight the networking aspect pretty heavily. That is what it is, I suppose, but I suspect that, in the long run and in the aggregate, it has deleterious effects on philosophy, and on the profession: in particular, it seems likely to lead to a situation in which disciplinary power is concentrated in a small number of professional networks––and those who can't break into those networks will be shut out. And, worse, they'll be told that they've been shut out for good reason: because they aren't good enough. And never mind that "quality" is being measured by proximity to the centers of these professional networks, creating a circle that's virtuous for those in those networks and vicious for everyone else.

Of course, now I'm just griping about neoliberalism. But at least I'm not reinforcing neoliberal ideology.


a philosopher: I think that's right, and from what I've seen, it seems like it's actually one of the ways in which philosophical superstars often let their grad students down. You have to encourage your students to participate in subfield events, and when they do, you have to take the time to introduce them to people, invite them to dinner, etc. The goal (to my mind!) is to make them into familiar faces for people in the subfield, so that people will notice when you have new work out. The benefits are mostly indirect, but I think they're significant.

It's easier to network in some subfields than others, of course, since some subfields have more and more regular meetings. If your main subfield outlet is the APA, then it's a lot harder.


You might be right Marcus. I don't have much experience watching what happens with "great" advisers. But it seems no matter how great an adviser might be, their position in the field will matter a lot for research jobs. If someone is junior and only okay at research, I have a hard time believing they will place their students in research jobs, at least consistently. So it depends on your goals. If you want a research job, an okay prestigious adviser (one that won't screw with you) is going to be better than a great adviser who is not so prestigious. I'm fairly confident about that.

Marcus Arvan

Hey Amanda: Yeah, I think that's right. I probably should have been clearer about what I mean by "good adviser." A good advise is normally someone whose reputation will go a long way (due to the quality of their work), but who also acts well in the kinds of ways described in my post. I focused on how an adviser acts--but you are absolutely right: their reputation matters a great deal too.


As someone who has gone through quite a few advisors (mostly for reasons not about bad behaviour) and have friends who've done the same, I agree with a lot on here. I also think fit is very important in this -- some students work better with a hands-off advisor who reads polished drafts and gives comments; others would like to talk through their ideas with their advisor at least in the early stages.

That said, judging advisor quality and fit is extremely difficult. Recruitment visit is a great way but it usually doesn't give enough time for in-depth discussions between each professor and each prospective student. Moreover, many faculty members are (understandably) not the most self-reflective about how their advisory style is received from the other end.

I have found talking to existing students extremely valuable in this regard. However, there usually is a social taboo around discussing one's supervisor in a potentially negative way, especially with those who are not "already part of the group" (i.e. prospective students) who may take this information elsewhere.

I wonder if anyone has thoughts on how to best disseminate information concerning supervisory style. For example, would it help if prospective students can name 2-3 faculty members who are then obligated to skype chat them for 30min?


I think your "demand" that faculty members be obligated to skype chat prospective students is quite unreasonable. First, faculty - at least at any place with a good union - are not going to allow extra burdens to be put on faculty with no change in pay. Think of a university that has 200 applicants for grad school each year. Are the 15 faculty, for example, supposed to skype for 30 minutes with (200 x 3/15 =) 40 students. That is 20 hours of extra work. And this will all clump in one period of time.


That's probably fair. I'm not saying mine was a good proposal. I'm just saying it's hard for students to judge and so some sort of proposal would be nice.
(Also, I don't mean all applicants.. I meant all admitted students; so realistically maybe 15-20 total students.)


As someone who had co-advisors, both of whom who were good in different ways, I got lucky, but I also investigated this carefully on campus visits and made sure there were multiple people I could work with if one advisor turned out to be bad or toxic (at the very time I was visiting grad schools I was also dealing with a MA thesis advisor who never read my thesis, so I was especially concerned about this!). I agree that grad students are often guarded about this, but I found grad students mostly willing to share and in several cases, I could read between the lines about what wasn't being said. I also asked as many *specific* questions as I could--e.g., rather than "Does X give feedback on your work quickly?" or "do you meet with X frequently?", I asked, "How long, typically, does it take X to return feedback?" and "How often do you meet with X?"

A final point: advisor styles are different, and the best sort of advisor can recognize what different students need from her and adapt (even if they cannot articulate it themselves), but I think that may be somewhat rare. Given that, some of it is luck--do you work well with the advisor? Sometimes you can tell that on the campus visit, or at least some aspects of it, but other times, you may not know until you know them better. The best way to protect against that is to make sure that there are multiple people you could work with, should this one advisor not work for whatever reason. I worked with the two advisors I came in to work with, but there were two others I could have worked with (one of whom, it turned out, would not have been a good fit for me, though he was an excellent advisor for a friend of mine who had different needs and preferences from an advisor than I did).

Mike Titelbaum

Going back to the discussion between Reality and X above, as a faculty member, if someone has been admitted to my program I am happy to have an extended conversation with them—either during the prospectives visit or via Skype—about their interests and questions. That doesn't seem to me an unreasonable expectation of faculty, and if someone isn't willing to do that perhaps it's a sign. (Unless there's some reasonable excuse like they're on sabbatical.)

Here's one pet peeve though during the application process: I never know how to respond when potential applicants write to me asking if I'm "accepting advisees". Usually these requests come from non-U.S. countries, so I explain to the writer that unlike PhD programs in many other countries, one doesn't apply to a U.S. PhD program to write a dissertation on a particular topic with a particular advisor. There are years of coursework during which one's interests may change, and even if one's area interests don't change, one's sense of what would be a viable project (and perhaps whom one wants to work with) might. I'm fine having a conversation about whether I'm willing to work with new people (always yes), and whether I have certain background and feel I could help with a dissertation in particular areas. But I'm never sure how to answer whether I'm "accepting advisees".



I’m from the US and I’ve asked professors this question. I ask them this question because a fair number of faculty are not really interested in helping graduate students with their projects, or are no longer interested in projects they once cared about. I’ve had at least one professor reply bluntly, “I don’t do students,” which saved me $110.

And to respond to everyone else, I just want to say how life-ruining it is to have a bad advisor. I do work in a very specific historical period and only had one person who could reasonably be my advisor in that program. When he expressed disinterest or even hostility at my work (why was I even accepted?), this left me completely cornered. My choices were to be miserable or leave. I left.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory