How do I choose?

I thought I’d take a break from the riveting world of textbook review to comment on something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Many websites and other founts of knowledge have said something like the following when it comes to choosing a graduate program: “it’s critical to find a specific professor to serve as your thesis [or dissertation] advisor. This person will be your guide, mentor and critic. The best advisors are approachable, available and engaged in your work. Apply to schools that have one or more professors who do research in your general area of interest, and with whom you can imagine working closely for a year (or six)” ( This is the advice I have always heard when applying for grad school (to give you a little background: I applied for a master’s program once and a PhD program two or three times). And it is advice I’ve given, on occasion, to other people. It seemed to make the most sense.

But a little while ago, one of my best friends from high school asked me for advice regarding graduate programs. She asked specifically if she really needed to limit herself to professors, or if wanting to be in a specific program was enough. As I readied my tried and true answer, something of my own experiences of graduate school gave me pause. When I decided to go back to school for a PhD, I knew that funding was going to be a major factor in where I ultimately went. I only applied to schools that I wanted to attend, but where I ended up was the last place I expected to. As such, I failed to take the advice I’d heard so often. I didn’t have a specific professor or advisor with whom I wanted to work. It was a very scary and liberating feeling, and it had its pros and cons. I had no one person to direct me. No one person I could go to for advice. No one person I felt comfortable talking with or in whom I could confide. I had no one person to direct or guide me.

So I went to everyone. I approached all the ethnomusicology faculty (and some of the other music faculty as well) for advice on classes to take or ideas to consider. I didn’t have one person who knew my work well, so I ended up explaining my ideas to all the faculty. I got a range of ideas back from them, which was confusing and frustrating at times, but it forced me to figure out whose advice I wanted on what subjects. This situation also led me to rely on my peers much more than I had for my master’s degree. I had never had a real cohort and never been part of a writing or reading group. I’d never sat around and talked shop with my peers. Being able to argue through ideas with other people who were struggling with their own was something I’d never had before.

When it came time for me to choose a dissertation advisor, I began to panic a little. There was no real obvious choice, since none of my professors specialized in Indonesia (and since I wanted to focus on gamelan usage outside of Indonesia, that added a whole slew of problems). Two of my professors straight up turned me down when I asked and one agreed only when everyone else had demurred. It took a while and some negotiation for my current advisor to agree to work with me. He is, I believe, the best suited to me, but it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion. And he may not think of it this way, but I feel the need to work extra hard such that he doesn’t regret taking me on. It is, perhaps, not the ideal situation but it is, I think, a good and sufficient one.

Which brings me back to my friend’s earlier question: does one have to pick a grad school based on the faculty or potential advisors? I think my answer now would be no. It certainly makes life easier if you have someone, going in, who will work with you and go to bat for you. But it isn’t necessarily crucial. There are tons of other reasons and factors in going to grad school that have to be accounted for. In some situations, you have to go to bat for yourself and prove that you “have it,” both to the faculty and, more importantly, to yourself. And the experience can help teach you what you really want, how hard you need to work, what you are willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice, and how much you can/need to rely on yourself and your peers to get through this process.

Based on my experiences, I’d say now that it’s important to get to know all your professors, it’s important to know the kinds of opportunities available at your school of choice, and it’s best to try and plan for everything. But also know that things will happen that you didn’t plan for, things you won’t know until you’re in the thick of it, until you’ve made mistakes and have to figure the best way out of them and to find out if you have the courage to face and learn from them.

–  Heather


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