On the first day of school in kindergarten, I sat a table and looked a bunch of kids I didn’t know. I was a little bit nervous, as probably any child is in this situation.
But then I saw her: the most beautiful girl my five-year-old eyes had ever beheld. Emboldened, I walked up to her and said: “You’re very pretty. Will you be my friend?”
In kindergarten that worked. Her name was Caitlyn, and we were good friends for years in elementary school. But let’s face it, it’s not the most graceful way to go about making someone’s acquaintance, and certainly not if you’re hoping for a fairly important relationship.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better, and my friendships tend to be built on more than attractiveness (although that anecdote should tell you how important appearance really is to us, even when we’re five). Throughout undergrad, I made friends based on shared interests, goals, and values.
Not everyone excelled in the same way academically, but there were advantages to that. You didn’t have to make friends based on who could help you study for Chemistry, for example.
This is higher education, after all, where you should be able to succeed on your own merits, where knowledge is studied for its own sake and you your professors open up new worlds of ideas to you! It is the time where, for better or worse, you make decisions that help shape the rest of your life.
But now is the time of PhD applications, where having a personal connection with the person you want to become your adviser matters, since acceptance is usually around 5% and is based on one of the professors wanting to work with you for around five years.
It’s sort of like wooing a potential mate, except you have to be a lot more subtle about it. It’s tricky. You pour over the bios of the professors at the schools you’re looking at, much as one might look through personals (or whatever the online equivalent is). Yes! He’s interested in the Apocrypha! Oh….in a social justice sort of way. Bummer. Next.
And then, when you do find someone, how do you go about starting that conversation?
Dear. Prof: You like early church theology and I like early church theology; maybe we could do theology together? Please?
But alas, that kind of stuff doesn’t really work on Valentine’s notes, and it’s probably not going to fly here either. Instead, you have to approach it like you would that person, from across a crowded room…after you’ve done your internet stalking.
Why hello there…your name was brought up by the head of the department, and it piqued my interest. It seems we have a fair amount research interests in common. Perhaps we could talk about them in detail sometime? Oh, you’ve read the Gospel of Philip? It’s one of my favorites, fancy that! We should talk more, see if we work well together, perhaps want to spend the next five years pouring over ancient documents and textual discourse…
And then there’s the fact that this isn’t the only professor you’re trying to woo. Oh no. There’s at least one for every school you want to get into, sailor. So you try to mix it up a bit, but let’s face it, some of those lines will be recycled, and some of them they’ve most likely heard before.
The real trick is when there are two professors at the same school who both might work. How much do they talk? Will they know you’re chatting up both? Can’t send a form email then, gotta make sure each one is unique. What if your name comes up? Do you want them to discuss you? Or will one of them shun you out of spite?
Even worse, what if your name doesn’t come up until the department is meeting to decide who gets in? How awkward would that be, two professors thinking they will each have you? Will they think you’re a player?
Because you sort of are. As soon as one professor says yes, he’s interested in your topic and would consider being your adviser, you don’t drop the others. You keep them all hanging, and you get as many of them to bite as you can, all the while carrying on slow email conversations with those who have already agreed.
After all, you can’t just win the battle and then drop them. A first date does not a marriage make. On the one hand, you’ve got the lowly new hire associate professor who’s really excited you want to work with him on ancient texts and their modern application….all the while you’re talking to big-shot professor who advises the State Department about Islam and its economic implications.
And the thing is, only if you’re really lucky are any of those topics actually going to be your main focus. They’re really a means to and end: getting in.
So you bat your eyelashes and lean in; let him think that he’s the most fascinating professor in the world and you’d like nothing better than to read all his books and follow in his footsteps. And hopefully it all goes well, until you decide on a different school and break his academic heart.
It’s a seedy operation, but there doesn’t seem to be another way to do it. Ultimately, you just have to lie back and think of grad school.