How to Complete an MA/PhD in 4 Years Part 2

In my first post in this miniseries yesterday, I discussed the importance of getting into a combined MA/PhD program and working on the same topic for both degrees. Today I’d like to discuss another central component of finishing a doctorate in four years, namely choosing the right advisor.

Choosing the right advisor is something that can make or break your graduate career and will be critically important in your post-graduation career prospects as well. So how do you go about doing this? And what qualities are important in a great advisor?

In an ideal world you will have the opportunity to take classes with different faculty members who could potentially be advisors during your first year. If that is the case, carefully observe their teaching and mentoring style. Ask yourself which of these individuals seems best suited to work with you over the next couple years. Could you stand having to meet this person once a week for an entire semester while you are working on a thesis?

Of course the world is not always ideal, and thus you may not have the ability to take courses with potential advisors. If that is the case then you should try and meet with faculty members in your general field during your first semester just to discuss your work and plans for progressing in the program. Another good way to find out different faculty members’ method of interacting with students is to simply talk to other students and gauge some of their views. Some of the best pieces of advice I received in grad school came from more seasoned students who had seen it all and genuinely wanted to see me avoid similar pitfalls.

In thinking about the qualities of a potential advisor, there are two that stand out. First, you want someone who is positive and encouraging about your career goals. If it is important to you to finish a PhD quickly, tell that to your potential advisor and see how that person reacts. If they are encouraging, chances are you two can work well together. If not, you should move on to somebody else. The second quality is twofold–you want someone who challenges you to be better and work harder, but who does so in a respectful manner.

Many people think that because they study a certain topic then they absolutely must have a certain advisor. This is not true. I worked on eighteenth century abolitionism but had an advisor who was a scholar of mid-19th century slavery. As long as your advisor is in your general field, it is okay to have someone outside of your specific area of interest. In many cases, this might be beneficial, as you will have to become adept at explaining your work to somebody who is conversant with a different literature.

You also do not have to stick with the advisor you were assigned when you entered the program. If you feel you want to change, then talk to your old and new advisor. I would advise talking to your new potential advisor first to see if they are willing to take you on, and then let your old advisor know. You definitely want to be respectful, but you do not want to keep yourself from switching out of a sense of obligation. This is your career, and thus your only obligation is to yourself.

The next part of this series will discuss some of the work habits I found useful in helping me to finish in four years.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “How to Complete an MA/PhD in 4 Years Part 2

  • Thanks for this series. I’m still an undergrad, but have been grappling with the prospect of graduate school. This post confirms the advice to follow the desired advisor, but what if you’re in a young (and interdisciplinary) field? Being a public history major with an emphasis in interpreting 20th century African American history slices my potential advisors down considerably. Should I focus on the public history part of the degree and do work in AA history, or focus on grad schools with AA history and do public history work?

  • If your goal is to become a professor, my advice would be to do the latter. Even with a specific focus in AA history, you can still position yourself as a public history scholar when you go on the job market, especially since those hiring specifically for public history jobs know that there are very few doctoral programs in the area. If your goal is to work in the public history field, however, you may consider an MA specifically in public history or even a doctoral program such as NC State’s new Ph.D. in public history. But others with more experience in public history may have thoughts on this so I hope they join this discussion.

    • Thanks! Given me much food for thought.

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