how fabio mentors graduate students

I am now at the age where I actually have PhD students working with me. In other words, I need to apply the grad skool rulz to my own life. In the spirit of discussion, I outline my philosophy as a teacher of PhD students:

  1. Be firm but nice. No need to make people cry.
  2. My discipline has norms and standards for research that can be taught. I will teach this “normal science” to my students.
  3. I will be flexible. Though most students have to master the “meat and potatoes” of research, some can work on more idiosyncratic projects.
  4. I will be in my office a lot. Students can drop in or make appointments for the short term.
  5. I will provide concrete directions when possible.
  6. I will provide specific detailed advice on professional issues, like article writing, the job market, and teaching.
  7. I am hands on – I want people to contact me a lot.
  8. I will help students develop projects they can complete in a timely fashion. No need to produce that 100 page dissertation proposal, a shorter one will do.
  9. I will not tell you what to research, but I will give you lots of advice on how to execute it.
  10. I will give you ample opportunities to co-author.
  11. I will get paperwork done on time.
  12. I will accept any student, unless they have shown gross academic incompetence or they are working on a topic that I simply can’t help you with.

Consider this an open thread on graduate student mentoring.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 18, 2013 at 12:57 am

17 Responses

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  1. Re: #9

    Isn’t it helpful to guide students if they have a particularly awful idea or to perhaps point them in the direction of relevant research? As someone who would be far better read than your hypothetical student, doesn’t it make sense to steer them a little bit?

    For instance, if I student wanted to do the Nth ethnography of the social structure of urban slums, would you perhaps suggest new territory that could be covered as well?


    June 18, 2013 at 4:17 am

  2. Ok, I’ll bite. Why is another ethnography on the social structure of the slum either an “awful idea” or “irrelevant research?” Are things so static that we can rely on decades old research? Is there no value to comparative ethnography?


    June 18, 2013 at 4:51 am

  3. That’s not what I meant to suggest. An ethnography of an urban community is not necessarily an awful idea or irrelevant. It’s just been done quite a bit–and recently, not just decades ago. My point is simply that I could imagine that there are other topics that sociologists could venture into.

    It’s a question of focus. Of where to push the discipline.


    June 18, 2013 at 4:55 am

  4. Well, I think I disagree with you. I see considerable value in comparative ethnography. But to get back to your point, I agree with your original point. I do think that an advisor and committee members can and should make judgments about whether the research has promise. That said, advisors and committees are not infrequently wrong (sometimes spectacularly so).


    June 18, 2013 at 5:19 am

  5. I also second the opinion that there is a lot of value in ethnography of urban areas – especially in the midst of all these developing/emerging market countries, the aftermath of recession, the effects of austerity, etc.

    On the other hand, if you do want to help a student stick out, it is best to tell them that there are risks to doing ethnography – because even though there is indeed value to an ethnography, that does not mean that the profession will reward you for providing that value…

    Andrew B. Lee

    June 18, 2013 at 5:39 am

  6. I think a past statement Prof. Rojas made is pretty useful on this point: if what you’re doing is (considered) too conventional then you’ll get yawns in response to your research. If it’s too cutting-edge then people either won’t understand what you’re doing or why, or think you’re crazy. Conventional ethnography, unfortunately, is on the “yawn” part of the spectrum. This is not a statement of “intrinsic” value, but rather about the sociology of the sociological profession at the moment – conventional ethnography is perceived as “been there done that” so is probably not rewarded quite as much.

    Andrew B. Lee

    June 18, 2013 at 5:50 am

  7. Fabio, this is a nice philosophy to share in your “old age”. Each of the points are laudable. I would warn against the interaction effects, particularly among 4, 7, 9, and 12. Your generosity in nurturing the individuals you are supervising may impinge on your own research trajectory given the other work that must be accomplished while you are in the office. In addition, there may be unexpected frictions if your intellectual brood contains too many #12s who expect too much #4 and #7. A few years ago, I had 7 graduate students doing what they wanted. Despite scheduling 2 hours per week with each, my department chair received a couple of complaints from 2 of them that I wasn’t paying enough attention to their theses and their problems, based upon their perceptions of their progress compared to others in the brood. And I was paying their assistantships out of my grant money. Grumble…


    June 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm

  8. I’m sensitive to the points Randy makes. I’m a graduate student and my adviser has been incredibly helpful, meeting all of the points that Fabio raises here, but I try to be mindful of “asking for too much.” It’s important for students to know when their advisers time can be helpful and when you really gotta figure it out for yourself. At some point you have to realize that your adviser has human limitations too.


    June 18, 2013 at 2:29 pm

  9. Bookmarked. Good stuff.


    June 18, 2013 at 2:34 pm

  10. A few responses:

    First, if a student were to choose a well trodden topic, like an ethnography of urban poverty, I would tell them that it is a good choice because it is obviously an important topic. Then, I would gently tell them that lots of other people also think it is important and there is a huge literature on this topic. Therefore, you have to work extra hard to produce something that is publishable and that will be a good contribution. If they still pursue the topic, then a lot of my mentoring would be along the lines of “Hey, was this covered in Suttles? Or maybe Patillo? Or [insert X]?” Hopefully, they’ll be able to follow their scientific interest and get something good.

    Second, Randy raises a good issue about time budgets. At a certain point, I will definitely need to cut back. Some of my mentoring strategies wouldn’t work if I had, say 7 PhD students, as some professors do. Obviously, #12 would be unsustainable. But at lower levels, it isn’t too bad. The way I solve things is by bundling students and research projects, the way many profs do.

    Right now, I have 2 full timers (post-proposal) and 2 up and coming (pre-proposal) and 1 padewan (just started grad school). All but 1 are bundled into research projects/TA’ing, so that saves hugely on transaction costs.


    June 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm

  11. I’m on board with most of these except the bit in #4 about being open to students who want to drop in. During the academic year, I have so few uninterrupted blocks of time in my week (month?) to think and write that I can’t afford to give them up to “drop-ins” outside of office hours.

    Very few grad student questions can’t wait until the student and adviser can find a mutually convenient time to meet, assuming it’s within a day or two. Most often, letting the student mull over the question or problem him/herself for a while leads to a better conversation, anyway. And last-minute requests for signatures are entirely avoidable, assuming students stay on top of their own deadlines.


    June 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

  12. Krippendorf: That’s why bundling students helps a lot.If people have weekly meetings for research projects, then they’ll likely bring their questions with them. Reduces drop in. but my experience is that moderate drop in rules allow things to get resolved quickly.


    June 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm

  13. […] posted a nice list of “rulz” for faculty advising of sociology […]

  14. Fabio now talks about Fabio in the third person? Paging Bob Dole…


    June 19, 2013 at 7:02 am

  15. Publicly committing to the conjunction of #12 and #4/#6 is brave.


    June 19, 2013 at 4:09 pm

  16. @jeremy: It isn’t too bad. You are an alumnus, so you know that few students do work in my area at IU, so I’m not overloaded (yet). I’m currently the one of two movements scholars (and the other may retire soon), one of two orgs profs, the only econ soc guy, and the only higher ed guy. If I were in Med Soc, I could probably fill 40 hours a week with graduate student mentoring.


    June 19, 2013 at 4:43 pm

  17. @jeremy: Also, the only grad course I have ever taught is 510, which everyone hates when they take it so it drives people away, so I get few recruits.


    June 19, 2013 at 4:47 pm

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