Q: I’m a first year grad student. I meet with my advisor every week and sometimes run into her in the hallway or on campus. How do I deal with filling in the awkward silences during our encounters?
Author: Jennifer Jennings, New York University
Most professors are, um…kind of “quirky.” It’s not clear whether this is a selection effect (who chooses to go into this line of work) or a treatment effect (years toiling in a windowless room doesn’t do much for your social skills). Either way, navigating these awkward moments can make your early years of graduate school even more anxiety provoking.
Most recent PhDs will remember (and maybe even admit!) that we spent a lot of time worrying about these interactions as graduate students. Every word uttered was meaningful, and therefore dissected. Think first year of middle school, but without the pleasure of your own locker. Capitalizations and punctuation in an email, pauses in a conversation, the use of the word “good” versus “excellent” – all are viewed as part of a secret code through which faculty are signaling whether you should be in this business or not.
Here is the good news: your advisor is just trying to get through the day, and hoping to make it out of the house wearing pants and maybe even matching socks. That silence in your conversation will not be given an additional thought.
I suspect that once you realize that those silences are of no consequence, you will ultimately make peace with them and have an easier time powering through those encounters. (Although I’ve heard that if you count those interactions and multiply by $150, that’s a nice back-of-the-envelope calculation for how much therapy you will need by your 5th year of grad school.)
Kidding! I couldn’t resist the urge to throw in an awkward professor joke.
So, in sum, welcome aboard our Island of Misfit Toys. It does get better.
Author: Bill Carbonaro, University of Notre Dame
Agreed — some (one might even say “many”) professors tend to be quirky. (Present company excluded, of course). Big differences in age, cultural background, and life experience can make for awkward social interactions. That’s OK — your number one priority is to form a strong working relationship with your advisor and/or research supervisor. My advice is to be polite, say “Hi” in the hallway and on campus. Talk about the weather if you have to! Put your energies into figuring out your advisor’s expectations for you as a student and TA/RA. If you perform accordingly, I will guarantee that she will be very happy to see you in the hallway. And that’s what really counts!