Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

On Advisers and Ashtrays

with 2 comments

I’ve been fortunate enough to have great working relationships with all my graduate advisers.  As everyone in academia knows, however, many graduate students are not so lucky. We’ve all heard horror stories about advisers that can be controlling and manipulative, or alternatively, totally uninterested in anything related to their students. These cases, while rare, sometimes happen.

Errol Morris

The student-adviser relationship can be particularly fraught because of the intense power dynamic at work in the relationship. Advisers play a serious role in their students’ professional advancement: they write letters of recommendation, they make academic contacts, and, ultimately, decide whether or not to sign off on  dissertations. Fortunately, they also have an incentive to see their students produce excellent work and achieve professional success: it reflects well on them.

Anyhow, I only bring this all up to flag famous documentarian Errol Morris’ op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. It turns out that before he started making probing films about the death penalty and the ethics of war, he was briefly a graduate student in the history of science at Princeton. In the op-ed, Morris describes his contentious relationship with his renowned adviser, Thomas Kuhn. If you haven’t already read the piece, it describes an episode in which Kuhn throws an ashtray at Morris for questioning his argument about the incommensurable nature of scientific paradigms (at least there wasn’t any fireplace pokers involved).

While many graduate students would probably still find it difficult to challenge one of their advisers core theories, since smoking has been banned from most universities, there is at least less of a chance that they will have an ashtray launched their way.


Written by Julian Nemeth

March 8, 2011 at 17:36

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Great post and I loved Morris’ piece, though was a little disturbed that most of my friends’ reactions were “Well, at least we don’t have it that bad.” It’s true we don’t have ashtrays chucked at our heads everyday (and not even substitute objects like pens and paperweights!), but if that’s the standard we’re starting from…

    Also, was I the only one to have the immediate reaction, “Wait, so if I were to drop out of grad school, I might end up making an awesome documentary like the Fog of War…?” Pipe dreams.


    March 8, 2011 at 18:06

  2. Thanks for drawing attention to the NYT piece. I love Morris films. My favorite remains Mr. Death.

    Andrew Hartman

    March 9, 2011 at 17:26

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