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Flexibility: what’s your backup plan?

April 4, 2011

Professor Jim Elliot passed away at the beginning of March.  A meticulous researcher, engaging advisor, and good friend, James Ludlow Elliot was known for discovering the rings of Uranus, studying the Kuiper Belt through stellar occultations, and being a stalwart proponent of women in planetary science.  Obituaries appeared in the New York Times, Sky & Telescope, and on the MIT News site commemorating his contributions to the field of planetary astronomy.  Jim, we’ll miss you, your mentorship, and your love of teaching.  His passing will be marked in June with a “Jimboree”, a celebration of his life and research accomplishments.  Leave a note in the comments if you’d like more information about the memorial.

I mention Jim’s passing because I was slated to work for him my second year of graduate school.  In MIT’s planetary science department (part of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences), you work on two different projects with two advisors during your first two years, in order to demonstrate competence in multiple research fields and methods.  During the spring semester of my first year, when I was starting to organize my second year project with Jim Elliot, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.  Knowing he would spend the summer and probably the fall semester of my second year focusing on radiation and chemotherapy treatments for the tumor, I opted to work for another advisor in planetary geology.

But what if I’d be set on working for Jim, doing an instrumentation project and studying Kuiper Belt objects?  It was best for Jim to focus on getting better, and for me to focus elsewhere on my research.  No one else in the department would have supervised a similar graduate project.  What would I have done?  What’s Jim’s current student to do, three years into a PhD program and rendered advisor-less?  Work with a professor whose research interests don’t necessarily jive with hers?  Forge ahead independently without much in terms of supervision?

For many graduate students, they enter graduate school with a clear idea of the project they will work on and who they’ll work for during their N years in their PhD program.  However, the straight and narrow path isn’t always the one we wind up taking.  Advisors battle cancer, go on long sabbaticals, or even leave academia.  You may find Bayesian probability less exciting than observing or instrumentation projects.  You may find that the working style of that particular superstar professor just doesn’t mesh with yours.  (You might even transfer schools!)  Regardless of the reason, that project or person you had your heart initially set on just won’t work out the way you initially thought.  I was lucky in that another professor was graciously willing to advise me and fund me for my second year project, and that I was willing to work on isotope geochemistry problems instead of dwarf planets.

What’s a graduate student to do in creating alternative plans?  I’d encourage the readership of this blog who’re considering graduate programs in planetary science to choose a program that presents numerous options: are there multiple potential advisors and projects that interest you?  If your first-choice advisor, for whatever reasons, cannot advise you any longer, is there someone else in the program who you’d be excited about working with for five or six or however many years?  Are your “backup” plans as attractive as your first choices?

If you’re an undergraduate considering the graduate school path, try to develop a broad set of skills, whether in hardware or software or physics.  Participate in research in different fields or subfields so that you’re not restricted to one topic.  Study processes or ideas that can be applied across the solar system and beyond.  While it’s important to be clear and firm about what you want out of a PhD program, can you be flexible, and create a set of abilities that translate to different aspects of astronomy, physics, geology, or even engineering?  Adapting to an unexpected situation might lead you to something new you love.

Have you had any surprises in your graduate school career or beyond that changed your plans for research?  Or did everything work out the way you initially planned: one advisor, several focused projects, graduation, bam?  Do you have any advice for students in the process of selecting a graduate program in terms of flexibility or developing a range of skills?  Let us know in the comments.

Alessondra is a graduate student at MIT finishing her master’s degree in planetary science.  Follow her at or on Twitter.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sona permalink
    April 4, 2011 11:03 pm

    Very important yet simple question! do we have alternative plans?…. i would say creating and polishing a “career plan”, or a “project plan” or anything like this is very sensitive and time consuming, it is not like buying milk that if i don’t find it in nearby Safeway i can go to SaveMart 2 blocks away!!!! and it even takes more time to have our alternative plans updated… the trick is how much time and energy should we spend on “alternative” plans? I think the answer depends on probability…. we need to be aware of what is the probability of changing our current plan and depending on that number we can manage and spend some time for creating and updating our alternative plans… after all, nothing is 100% satisfying and meant to be, so yes! we need to be prepare to show more flexibility when we face the unexpected situations…

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