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By Jeremy Shearmur with editorial input from David Schmidtz
Graduate work is an apprenticeship in which you develop the skills you will need as a full-fledged scholar. You may well have misgivings about some of the work currently done in the field that you are entering. For your objections to be taken seriously, you must master the skills in question before developing your critique. Your professors and fellow students will find you tedious if, not knowing what you are talking about, you develop lengthy objections to being instructed in the use of what, to them, are the standard tools of their profession. They will be doing you no favor, if they allow you to avoid mastering them.
Once you get into the best program possible, and have progressed well into your coursework, you will need to choose an advisor with whom you can work to write your dissertation. You need, in effect, a mentor – someone who will insist that you do good work, who can develop you as a scholar, and who will help you obtain your first academic position. In this regard, you should beware of a few pitfalls:
You may know of a good classical liberal scholar, whose work you admire and who might be great to work with as a colleague. Here, you need to be careful about three things. First, he or she might be at a school or in a department which, itself, is not all that good. The bulk of your courses will be taught by others, and your degree will be from that not-so-good school. Second, such advisors may be at that school now, but will they stay? If they are good, they might move on, thereby leaving you without an ally. Third, you need to find out about their professional reputation. Will working with them help you get a job? What may have attracted you to them may not be something that other scholars in your discipline rate as highly as you do. Further, even if they are very well-known, check out the character of their reputation. Are they genuinely respected, or are they merely notorious?
Beware of the “alternative” scholar who shows interest in your work. For example, I have known Marxists interested in the work of classical liberal students. Such an advisor could be stimulating and challenging but, it would seem to me, in most circumstances, to be the kiss of death as far as the job market is concerned. Their recommendations would typically be good only at schools that want to hire a Marxist.
Guard against the genuinely nice person who, despite his misgivings, allows you to work with him even though he has no real interest in your project. He may well allow you to dig yourself into a pit from which you can never get out – producing work that is of interest to you but to no one else. Further, as Mr. Nice Guy never had any real interest in your project in the first place, he is less likely to exert himself to get you job interviews or to give you enthusiastic recommendations.
So, other things being equal, I’d suggest that you seek out a scholar who is well-placed, and well-informed; who does good work that is widely recognized; who is not a maverick; and who, while not necessarily sympathetic towards classical liberalism, can get interested in work that relates to both your interests and his.
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