The Ideal Academic Adviser

For those of us, who are trapped in the academic treadmill and just getting our feet wet in the world of research, it can be quite a nerve-wrecking process to just get familiar with our area of research and write papers, let alone develop the good relationships with academic advisers that are crucial for our success. As a sociologist myself and leaning on my grand teacher in undergrad, Randall Collins, I can say with full assurance that one’s academic success depends not only on one’s independent intellectual interests, but also the network support that comes from a helpful academic adviser. This network has to be face to face and contains a charismatic element.

Collins says,

Ancient philosophers and mathematicians had to meet face to face. You had to be there in Athens or wherever in order to have that network connection. But as printing came in, the network patterns didn’t change. Jean Paul Sartre could have dealt with people in South America by mail, but meetings in cafes were still at the core. The networks around Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still face to face networks. Even when long-distance media exist, the advantage is in dealing with key people face to face. It is faster as well more intuitive and emotional.

Creative people put a lot of emotional force into their ideas. [Steve] Jobs is a terrific example of that. Einstein and other intellectual heroes tend to be emotionally overpowering and you can’t get that just by reading their writing.

Margonelli (2017). Also see Collins (1997)

Here are three features of the ideal-type academic adviser (and just to be clear we are in the Max Weber world of ideal-types, which is about the analytical categories that are an approximation to reality, while they are not necessarily found in the real world; in other words, we might not find such an academic adviser in the real world and will have to do without or with only 1 or 2 of these features fulfilled):

1. Mentor

It goes almost without saying that the first precondition for being guided in the right direction is to have a professor who is concerned about your success. This tends to be easier with more senior professors, whose status and tenure allow them to scope for talent that they find worthwhile supporting. I like to call mentors ‘talent-spotters’, i.e. graduate students are like college basketball players to be spotted by the NBA talent scouts (and are supported intensely upon hire). Mentors are generally interested not merely in your ideas, but also where you might be able to have your work published, where job openings might be, and what you might want to do with yourself. They must also have an interest that you develop your skills as a researcher and put you in touch with the right contacts that help you in your research project. They will write your reference letter, and informally put out a good word about you in front of other scholars. They will want to write a paper together with you, knowing not only your talent but also the usefulness to your academic career path.

2. Technically competent

In a sense, it is insufficient to have an adviser, who is not so different from a personal career adviser. The adviser also has to be technically competent in the positivistic or humanistic enterprise in the natural and social sciences and the humanities. They have to be well-read in their subfield, and share specific readings that are helpful for you to think through your project. They have to know the methods (quantitative, qualitative?) that help you answer your research questions. They have to provide detailed or general comments on your paper drafts to make them better polished. They will tell you which journals or academic presses take your article/ book. They will evidently leave the grunt work of your own research to you, but they will share their insights that help you in the process.

3. Bon vivant (big thinker)

The French bon vivant denotes a very well-nourished person, who enjoys good food and wine. It would be nice to have an academic adviser like that, but that is naturally not often feasible… But what I mean by the bon vivant is someone, who doesn’t only know the methods and the literature very well and apply it with great rigor to get published to survive in the academic enterprise. The academic rat-race with the lack of tenure-track positions and increasing methodological sophistication is scary enough. We want to have an adviser, who also enjoys discussing big ideas that tend to get shoved into first-year graduate theory courses in the social sciences and never to be pulled out again.

Whether it’s hearing anecdotes of Charles Darwin’s sources of his theory of evolution or exploring the differences between Aristotelianism and Confucianism or the value of Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel thesis, what’s wrong with discussing those big ideas? What’s the point of being part of the academic enterprise if we can’t have fun engaging in the big ideas? By only having technically competent mentors as advisers, we are merely technicians, and for that there are other professions that pay a lot more to be like that. The adviser meeting has to be more than just another dentist appointment. We want to live and not merely survive in the academic enterprise. The renewal and regeneration of emotional energy, in Collins’ (2004) framework, or what I would call ‘intellectual energy’, has to happen within the context of interacting with big thinkers, who then also help us to think differently or have new insights within the context of our own research. Great ideas come from great thinkers (within networks!), while bad ideas come from… you know how to complete the sentence.

To illustrate the big thinker, I want to bring up the example of Barrington Moore, the towering figure, who has single-handedly defined the field of historical sociology (having influenced scholars like Theda Skocpol and Charles Tilly). Moore was of aristocratic background, but his research interest was about how various forms of class struggle create modern political configurations (dictatorship, democracy). He also took some of his graduate students at Harvard to his boathouse and on a little boat ride to talk historical sociology and whatever his students wished to talk about. (This story was told to me by one of his students, the late Ivar Berg, when he was 85 years old!) What can be more bon vivant than that?

It won’t be easy to find the right adviser, but it’s good to know what it means to have a good adviser, and perhaps it encourages some of us as future scholars and advisers to aspire to be like that. In Confucius’ own words,

When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points. (Wikiquote)

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