Today is a Special Request post for Meagan, who wishes to know how to approach a famous and influential scholar in her department to be the chair of her dissertation committee.
Ideally, you will have arranged to work with your famous dissertation advisor prior to arriving in the program. I always recommend to all students planning to attend graduate school, that they devote several months to a year to advance preparation. Taking a GRE prep class, putting your personal essay through months of revisions, and researching graduate programs and potential advisors are all steps that pay off exponentially in terms of the quality of program and quantity of funding you can expect to achieve.
Correspondence with the potential advisor is perhaps the most important element of all; refer to this post for advice on how to initiate the conversation. Ideally you want the advisor to commit to you ahead of time, to advocate for your application when it arrives, and to use her clout to get you the most generous funding packages offered by the program.
Now, this is not always possible. Some programs do not attach admittees to advisors ahead of time (although I would hazard to say that the best programs do). Or it is possible that the advisor with whom you came to work has left for another university, and you must find a replacement. Or perhaps your research interests changed. In any case, sometimes students find themselves needing to approach a professor to serve as their dissertation advisor after they are already underway.
You will do this in the same way that you approach any professor for any type of assistance: concisely, articulately, substantively, specifically, courteously, and professionally. In short, you will have a well-rehearsed “pitch,” which, in concise yet very specific terms, describes your current status, your past achievements, your planned research, your reasons for approaching that scholar in particular, your anticipated timeline, and your expected outcome.
Don’t be especially intimidated just because the professor is famous. I just heard a story about a graduate student who asked famed physicist Richard Feynman to be his Chair. Everyone was surprised when Feynman said yes. But turns out, it was the first time he’d ever been asked. All the other grad students had been too afraid.
So take heart, and ask away. What you want to look like is a young rising star, a good bet, and a self-starter. The three critical elements here are: a) that you will not be a clingy burden; and b) that you will finish efficiently and successfully; and c) that your ultimate success will add to the glory and fame of the professor.
The more successful the professor is, the more critical these three elements become.
Successful professors are busy and in-demand. They are always flying off to Copenhagen and South Africa to give keynote addresses. They have no time for hand-holding and cheerleading. You must show that your past record proves you are highly self-directed and finish what you start without prodding and drama. And you must demonstrate your efficiency right then and there by making an appointment (NEVER JUST DROP IN for such requests!), arriving on time, and presenting your request quickly and concisely, and wrapping up well within the scheduled time slot.
Successful professors are generally interested in important work that pushes boundaries in the field. You must show that your current and future plans are innovative and path-breaking, yet also based on solid research and a grounding in legitimate bodies of literature in your field.
Successful professors want to be associated with students about whom they can brag. You must show that you are aiming for a high-profile career by articulating clear career goals and the confidence to apply for top-tier fellowships to support your research.
Successful professors usually have complex research leave and sabbatical plans several years out. You must show that you have an anticipated timeline for field, lab, or archival research, analysis, and writing–and beyond that defense, first publications, and job search–that is both efficient and feasible.
Work on your pitch, and be able to show clearly how this professor’s work is critical to it, WITHOUT FLATTERING! Nobody likes an obvious suck-up. You must learn to do it subtly. Don’t make vast over-generalizations about the professor’s “brilliance.” Speak about specific areas of scholarship in which she specializes, and how those are critical to your planned research and career. Don’t drone and don’t monopolize the conversation. You’re asking for an advisor, remember. Show that you’re open to being advised. And, at the same time, don’t be a doormat. Have the confidence of your convictions and stand up for your passions.
And last, it goes without saying that your overall presentation must be highly professionalized. Read this post on the ways that graduate students sabotage themselves, and spend a weekend eradicating these behaviors to the extent you can. Yes, you’re still a graduate student. But that doesn’t mean you have to act like one.