Jump to content
  • advertisement_alt
  • advertisement_alt
  • advertisement_alt

Pros & Cons of a Mentor w/ Exactly the Same Specialty as You?


TheHessianHistorian
 Share

Recommended Posts

Current graduate students, what would you say are the upsides and downsides of working with a professor who has the exact same specialty as you, versus a professor who maybe isn't exactly in the same niche but has a similar approach or outlook?

For instance, as someone interested in microhistory/social history/gender in early modern Germany, would it strongly behoove me to find a faculty advisor with that exact same combination of specialties? Might that actually limit and hinder me? Might it be better to work under a faculty advisor with a slightly different geographic focus (say France or Holland), or with a slightly different subject focus (say religion or diplomacy), but who has a similar approach to social history? Would the latter option perhaps take me slightly out of my comfort zone and strengthen/enrich my work? Or would my work suffer because of my advisor's lack of knowledge about my preferred specialties?

Thoughts?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Not a current grad, so cum grano sails. 

From what I gathered mingling around academics as I was figuring out my interests and ambitions, you wouldn't necessarily want the person who works on the exact same things as you have in mind (which will - hopefully - evolve during time as a grad), but who understands what you're trying to do conceptually, and will help you to get there by showing you in what direction you can move. Because, honestly, at this point, it is not even about the sources. It is about thinking about the sources in a way that matters. 

For instance, I was talking to a few specialists in Byzantine rhetoric, whose research aligned with mine nearly perfectly on paper. But when it to the questions I wanted to ask, my broader research interests, and ultimately what made the field intellectually meaningful for me - there were various levels of mismatch. At the same time, the mentors who helped me immensely were in slightly different fields with a different set of niche interests, but they understood where I was trying to go even before I myself did, and helped me get there on my own terms and produce quality academic work in the process.

Also a POI with whom my interests do not align, but with whom I really wanted to work because she's a living legend in the field, said that she welcomes an interest mismatch, because she believes that it is both important for the professor and the student to be intellectually flexible.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As someone who ended up working on a topic very similar to the one that made my advisor's reputation (it's not the topic I proposed in my applications), there are definitely both upsides and downsides. On the one hand, he has all the right contacts for me, he's more invested in my project than he is in those of some of my colleagues, he can point me to specific sources that I hadn't considered, and sometimes even share his archival notes on ones that are no longer available (due to changes in the Chinese archives). On the other hand, I face both the assumption from people I meet from other universities that my scholarship is derivative of his and that I'm not really independent and creative, as well as my advisor's constant resistance to the extent to which my work challenges his (which it does in very substantial ways). So that tug-of-war is tough - it's difficult to balance asserting my own scholarly independence with keeping him as an advocate for me. (I end up leaning much more heavily toward the former, because I think it's important to have confidence in my own research and conclusions, but it definitely ups the already considerable stress of sending him dissertation chapters).

In the end, I think I've ended up doing better research because of it, but I definitely worry that it hurts me in the job market.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

14 hours ago, TheHessianHistorian said:

Current graduate students, what would you say are the upsides and downsides of working with a professor who has the exact same specialty as you, versus a professor who maybe isn't exactly in the same niche but has a similar approach or outlook?

For instance, as someone interested in microhistory/social history/gender in early modern Germany, would it strongly behoove me to find a faculty advisor with that exact same combination of specialties? Might that actually limit and hinder me? Might it be better to work under a faculty advisor with a slightly different geographic focus (say France or Holland), or with a slightly different subject focus (say religion or diplomacy), but who has a similar approach to social history? Would the latter option perhaps take me slightly out of my comfort zone and strengthen/enrich my work? Or would my work suffer because of my advisor's lack of knowledge about my preferred specialties?

Thoughts?

I think it's good to have specialty/emphasis diversity on the dissertation committee as a whole. If your adviser's work is very close to yours, I would just be sure to cultivate relationships with people who have specialties different from yours and include them on your committee. I have someone completely outside my geographic field who does pretty different thematic work than me, but this person challenges me in ways someone in my exact field probably wouldn't. 

I think one major benefit of having an adviser so close to what you do is that they know your field inside and out, can direct you to readings, trends, professional organizations/networking opportunities and they know other people in your field so they can likely help you get in touch with scholars outside of your university. As long as your committee isn't made up entirely of people exactly like you, then it'll be fine.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What about having multiple mentors? One that specializes in German social history, one in (European) micro history, and one in gender studies? You could build better networks across fields with the possibility of speaking to a larger pool of scholars. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

17 hours ago, pudewen said:

As someone who ended up working on a topic very similar to the one that made my advisor's reputation (it's not the topic I proposed in my applications), there are definitely both upsides and downsides. On the one hand, he has all the right contacts for me, he's more invested in my project than he is in those of some of my colleagues, he can point me to specific sources that I hadn't considered, and sometimes even share his archival notes on ones that are no longer available (due to changes in the Chinese archives). On the other hand, I face both the assumption from people I meet from other universities that my scholarship is derivative of his and that I'm not really independent and creative, as well as my advisor's constant resistance to the extent to which my work challenges his (which it does in very substantial ways). So that tug-of-war is tough - it's difficult to balance asserting my own scholarly independence with keeping him as an advocate for me. (I end up leaning much more heavily toward the former, because I think it's important to have confidence in my own research and conclusions, but it definitely ups the already considerable stress of sending him dissertation chapters).

In the end, I think I've ended up doing better research because of it, but I definitely worry that it hurts me in the job market.

My experiences are a bit similar to @pudewen.  In the first four years or so, my adviser asked the right questions and made up my exam reading this in a way that now I realize how intuitive she was.  I received so many grants and fellowships last year because, I also realized after receiving her letter for something at the university by accident, she knew exactly how to write about my project proposal.  All that said, I still learned tremendously from other professors and applied them to my work, in ways my adviser isn't for her current project.  She was very deliberate in her encouragement to seek feedback from all sorts of people so that I could remain intellectually flexible.  I also learned over time that she has other questions that interest her that doesn't interest me but I could learn from them.

What do other people think?  Most are excited as it seems because it's a tremendous privilege to have someone who *gets* you. A few worry but I have to highlight the ways she's made a difference in my intellectual growth.  Senior scholars have had no qualms and as long as my senior mentors don't see anything wrong, then I don't.

3 hours ago, AP said:

What about having multiple mentors? One that specializes in German social history, one in (European) micro history, and one in gender studies? You could build better networks across fields with the possibility of speaking to a larger pool of scholars. 

Agreed on this.  My adviser strongly encouraged having multiple mentors as I mentioned above.  One of my POIs said to me, "It takes a village to raise a graduate student.  I can't do everything.  With whom would you want to work with besides me?" I've been fortunate to find a few other professors who really complement my adviser both professionally and personally.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

22 hours ago, AP said:

What about having multiple mentors? One that specializes in German social history, one in (European) micro history, and one in gender studies? You could build better networks across fields with the possibility of speaking to a larger pool of scholars. 

I totally cosign on this! I know several people with co-advisers and, if the advisers work well together, it ends up being a dynamic and exciting intellectual experience for the advisee. Then adding someone else to the committee who can speak to some other aspect of the project really makes for a great dissertation.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.