What is good PhD advisory?

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
Mark Twain

Looking back at the advice I did get, I didn’t get, I wish I had gotten, I think that a good adviser, when giving advise, looks at:

  • who the young scientist is (i.e., where she is in her career, what her attributes are, her character, strengths and weaknesses, etc.),
  • how the field is in the area this person wants to be successful in (i.e., the specific research community),
  • the possible advantages and (more relevant) the problems this specific young scientist will have if she wants to be successful in this specific field,
  • (ideally) possible ways to improve the persons chances, e.g., strengthen the positive aspects and overcome the problems, and
  • a way to convey valuable feedback to the young scientist in a way that the young scientist can accept this feedback.

Personally, Andy van Dam, who was the mentor of Randy Pausch exemplifies this kind of mentorship for me. He said (as quoted in the wonderful book: “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” by Randy Pausch):

“Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
Andy van Dam to Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch commented this feedback as perfectly worded, because he did not say: “Randy, you’re being a jerk.”, but he identified the core problem of the person in the field he wanted to work in, and he conveyed the message in a way his student could accept.

This kind of advice is very, very rare in my opinion, and after having taught students for a few semesters and some student assistants, also very, very hard. But it is also very, very important if you want to improve yourself.

Note: This posting replaces a previous one, in which I essentially said the same thing, but which was also very emotional and angry. Looking back, I can see why I wrote it is that tone, and seeing it now I can see that it does not fit to person who I like to be(come).