Tag Archives: How to write to professors

The Personalities of a Graduate Program


Ah, Departmental Politics. The downfall of many a hapless graduate student. So many personalities, so many treacherous waters. How to navigate them?



This is without question the best book (in combination with Getting What You Came For [Robert Peters, 1997]) available on succeeding in graduate school and leaving graduate school gainfully employed.


If I wrote a book on graduate school, it would be this book.


The only caveat I must mention is that it IS, as stated in the subtitle, geared to graduate students in the Humanities.  Those in the sciences and professional fields may find some parts not entirely applicable.  Nevertheless, as an overall guide to graduate school, this one is IT.


Today I want to introduce a section of the truly wonderful first chapter, The Culture of a Graduate Program.

This section, pages 34-36, introduces the “ubiquitous personalities” found in American university departments.
Every would-be graduate student should learn to identify these personality types and understand thoroughly which type your advisor is, which types your committee members are, and what the potential pitfalls of each can be.


The types are drawn directly from Semenza.  However, the discussion following each one is my own, based on my own experience as a student and a colleague in 4 different departments.


•The High Priests and Priestesses:  The commonly regarded “superstars” of the program.  Oftentimes the most productive, with the widest national and international reputation.  Highly respected for their productivity and leadership.  Oftentimes come with monumentally massive egos to match.  Usually make excellent advisors, as long as you can cope with the ego factor.


•Deadwood:  Tenured faculty who ceased making original scholarly contributions to their field (and similarly, ceased to stay up to date in teaching or active and responsive in service) at some point in their career.  They can’t be fired, and they are just marking time until retirement.  Never, under any circumstances, have one of these as an advisor.  You can immediately tell if someone is deadwood by doing an internet search and finding that they have published nothing, attended no conferences, and won no major grants or awards in the past decade.


•The Black Sheep: The faculty member in a department who feels, justifiably or not, isolated, marginalized, and persecuted intellectually and/or socially.  They often turn this marginalization into a badge of honor, and indulge in paranoia and delusions of grandeur.   They may legitimately work in an area of the discipline that runs counter to the rest of the department’s focus.  Or, they may just be paranoid.  In any case, they will often try to reach out and collar new graduate students and turn them into “loyalists.”  Most graduate students are flattered until they realize this is a dead end intellectually and politically in the program.  Beware of the Black Sheep as advisor.  There are far more potential risks than benefits in most cases.


•The Careerists:  Generally younger faculty members who are absolutely, single-mindedly, fixated on building their reputation, status, and political influence in their scholarly fields.   They will be focused intensively on getting the next grant, attending the next conference, organizing the next symposium, publishing the next article, and editing the next book.  Assistant Professors, still seeking tenure, should legitimately be careerist to some degree, as it is necessary to building the kind of high powered resume that guarantees tenure.  However, for many faculty, the habits of careerism that begin early in the career are hard to break, and in fact only intensify over time.  Careerist senior faculty may or may not make good advisors.  They can teach you priceless skills in networking, self promotion, and chutzpah.  However, given their propensity to be constantly jetting off to the latest conference in Singapore, Amsterdam, and/or South Africa, they can be very, very difficult to actually meet with.


•Service Slaves:  Almost 100% of the time women, Service Slaves are untenured or tenured faculty members who are unable to say no when the department creates the committees that keep it running—ie, search committees, curriculum committees, grievance committees, advisory committees, etc.   Sacrificing their own research productivity to departmental needs, they are the “perpetual associate professors” who stagnate in salary and status, with little to show for their selfless work in keeping the department functioning while other, far more selfish individuals, garner prizes, praise, and raises.   Service Slaves generally make warm, fuzzy advisors who might even bake you cookies for your birthday.  But they fall short of the ideal advisor, being negative role models for scholarly productivity, self-promotion, and clear personal boundaries.


•The Curmudgeons:  Every department has at least one senior greybeard, nearly always male, who stumps about complaining about the downfall of the field, the discipline, the department, the university, the world at large, and who generally sets himself up to resent and resist every curricular and administrative change that comes under discussion.  Curmudgeons can be secretly sweet and good natured, or openly hostile and antagonistic.  Either way, you must never have a curmudgeon as an advisor.  They can serve as an informal mentor or committee member as long as counterweighted by younger, more forward thinking committee members.   But as primary advisors, they are a mistake.  They’re primary contributions lie in the past, and they are backward looking.  You need someone focused on the future, and who thoroughly understands the brutal, heartbreaking conditions of the contemporary job market.  Do not, under any circumstances, be seduced by corduroy elbow patches, grey hair, and warm welcomes!!!!   You need someone as your advisor who is in the very prime of their career.


To be continued……



How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to contact professors to serve as potential faculty advisors.  This can be a minefield.   I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school/doing research on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a junior and will be graduating next May.  I have a 4.0 GPA and experience in our college’s summer program in xxx.

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  And if you are, if you’d be willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans.  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,

Sincerely,

XX XXX

Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!


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