Thursday, March 27, 2008

The disadvantages of the best schools

Sometimes I feel like one of the weaknesses of my education was having gone exclusively to elite research universities, rather than schools which care about their students, such as small colleges or slightly-less-elite or non-elite research universities.

One of the parts of elite research universities that I've never gotten used to, after more than a decade at them, is the fact that no one seems to have any time for anyone.

Right after college, I took a job working for a glamorous professor (so to speak) and he was constantly in China, Brazil, Europe, various US cities. I learned very little and felt aimless and lonely quite a lot.

One member of my committee is the inventor of a whole subfield, and sometimes made time to meet with me. Well, twice. Maybe three times. He never attended any committee meetings in person, even my defense. He influenced my thinking a great deal, but I feel like I have great gaps in my knowledge that I don't understand how things fit together, and I've just never had the chance to sit down with him and ask.

One summer during grad school, I took a job at a well-known research institute and had two mentors. I posted about this a few days ago. One mentor was at his beach house often, and both were traveling extensively, and I met with each of them less than 10 times.

In college, there were periodic crises during which the faculty would decide that they didn't know the students well enough. One of my undergrad majors decided to correct this by setting up a mandatory 15 minute meeting between 2 faculty members and each undergraduate once per year. It was laughable.

Right now, I'm at a great research center in a pretty mid-level university and I never see the guy that I'm working for because he's always traveling, raising money.

Now, I have a postdoc offer at the top school in my field. Some people there clearly have time for others, but the really good people don't. During my interview, the postdoc advisor hadn't had a great deal of time to meet with me: we had a quick breakfast, and I was groggy and very few specific details about the research were exchanged, and he had to fly off to his Christmas vacation that afternoon, right after my talk.

Once the job was offered to me, I was happy that finally we could talk: the information that I want is something that only a person can give me --- essentially, which research projects are at a point that they could take someone to join them. We bounced emails back and forth about meeting times. He suggested that I call him while he was taking his daughter around to see colleges, and gave me his cell number. I decided it would be better to talk when his attention wasn't divided.

So finally we have our long-awaited time. He had only specified "afternoon" and I'd been putting off doing things that would require me to leave my desk. He called and was clearly in his car. He starts off the conversation by saying that he has 10 minutes, and apologizing for that. It's one of those weeks. I know it is. We spoke about the practical details --- where I would work, whether there's travel money --- but when I got to the research question, I prefaced it by saying that it's really a much larger conversation and perhaps we could talk later about it. I think he could detect a bit of disappointment in my voice as I wrapped up the conversation thanking him for making time for me in his busy day. I really didn't mean to sound sarcastic.

The best schools really do have amazing advantages. I was thrilled to notice how many talks were going on, and just how much activity, and the apparent lack of limitations on the research. At the same time, this 10 minute conversation in the car reminds me of every absent professor I've ever had. I've had less mentorship than the average grad student because I lost my major mentor in an authorship dispute (did I post about this?) and my remaining advisor that I was RA to was junior and still learning the ropes himself and ended up leaving academia, so I tended not to seek him out. One of the things that I would really like from a postdoc is to work on a large project with a lot of people, in an interactive team, and just to be able to stop by people's offices every so often, as many grad students do. As I did with a mentor before we divorced.

I don't think it's a fantasy, but it's not easy to find: someone who is bright and does great research, and is around often enough to develop a relationship with them, and at a university which advances one's career in other ways.

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