Fall 2011

More than a PhD

A graduate education can provide unexpected benefits

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Mike Austin Illustration

Working toward a PhD, a student gains intellectual muscle and, at the end, a diploma proclaiming that he or she is a practicing scholar. A fortunate student might also gain a bonus: a relationship with a faculty mentor who shares everything from practical advice to enduring wisdom.

The advisor might help the student keep a dissertation on course, learn to make valuable connections at conferences or land a great job. And
although it’s not inevitable, sometimes the student and advisor become good friends. 

For Louis Matzel, PhD ’87, a bond with his graduate advisor, Ralph Miller, started on Matzel’s first day in Binghamton. Miller spent hours that Saturday helping his new student hunt for an apartment. Later, at a restaurant, Miller refused to let Matzel contribute toward the bill. 

“He told me, ‘When you get your PhD, you can take me to dinner,’” Matzel says. “I still owe him that dinner.”

By Matzel’s account, he also owes Miller a good deal more. Miller’s deep involvement in his grad students’ work, and the spirit of discipline and fun that he brought to his psychology lab, helped Matzel add a PhD to his master’s in just three years while having a terrific time.

Miller, distinguished professor of psychology and director of graduate studies, runs a tight laboratory. Matzel isn’t sure what magic Miller used to keep his graduate students moving on schedule toward their degrees. “It was clearly by design,” he says. “We didn’t have any stragglers, and I know that’s really unusual.”

The prospect of conducting experiments often intimidates psychology students, and that fear is one of the biggest barriers to finishing on time, Matzel says. But in a lab like Miller’s, which completes an experiment on average every day and a half, the work becomes second nature. “It was just what we did every day. We all liked doing it, and Ralph liked being part of it.”

That appreciation for the nuts and bolts of research has stuck with Matzel. It makes his current job as professor of behavioral neuroscience at Rutgers University a delight. “I’m amazed that they pay me to do this stuff,” he says.

Guiding students as they grow into skilled researchers is a crucial aspect of Miller’s work, but his role as graduate advisor also takes many other forms. “Helping students learn to present themselves well and build bridges to other academics is important,” Miller says. So is teaching them to make good use of academic conferences.

“I get them to at least two conferences a year, using money from my grants to pay their way,” Miller says. He urges students to give presentations at some of those events, rehearsing and critiquing them for as long as it takes to get their performances right.

Learning how to teach

“The type of advisor you are depends greatly on the type of advisor you had,” says Martha Escobar, MA ’00, PhD ’02, associate professor of psychology at Auburn University.

She and Matzel both emulate Miller’s style.

“I take my students to conferences and take them to meet people who will be important for their future,” Escobar says. 

“In my laboratory, as in Ralph’s, no one ‘owns’ a research project,” Matzel says. He and his grad students collaborate on design, execution and analysis.

“We could contrast this approach with one where an advisor gives a student a topic and tells him or her to go into the lab and pursue it,” Matzel says. That sink-or-swim strategy sometimes works well, he says. “But I like to think that multiple heads, and hands, are usually better than one.”
Of course, besides serving as models, excellent teachers also help students learn to think and act for themselves. So it’s no surprise that some of Miller’s alumni have embraced different teaching modes.

“I have admired and benefited from his hands-on style,” says Aaron Blaisdell, PhD ’99, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. But that’s not the tack he takes in his own lab. “I’ve tended to be more of a Type B personality and use gentle nudges and prodding to direct my students,” he says.

Blaisdell also teaches by example, sharing drafts of his grant proposals and manuscripts and leading his students through extensive group discussions. “I set a style and culture in the hope that the students will pick up the bits they find useful while they learn to find their own style.”

Stay focused, find a job

When you’re writing a dissertation in philosophy, it’s easy to start musing so deeply on the work that it becomes your entire universe. “That’s very unproductive in the grand scheme of things,” says Elizabeth Randol, PhD ’01.

So Randol looks back with thanks on the way Bat-Ami Bar On, her advisor, helped her “slice and dice” the project into manageable chunks and focus on getting it done.

“She said, ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone, but you need to get out of here and get a job,’” says Randol, policy director for Pennsylvania
Treasurer Rob McCord and director of the state’s Women and Money project.

Helping students stay on track to finish their degrees and find work is an important aspect of the graduate advisor’s mission, says Bar On, professor of philosophy and women’s studies, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and chair of Judaic studies at Binghamton. It’s part of the bargain she strikes with all of her PhD students.

“We are going to map your education semester by semester,” Bar On tells them. “I’m responsible to get you to the best possible place that you can get into in four years.”

Long before Randol started writing her dissertation, Bar On suggested how to lay the groundwork for that project. For example, when Randol wrote papers for her courses, Bar On encouraged her to choose research that would help her later with her capstone project.

So when the time came to start the dissertation, Randol already had a hoard of raw material to draw upon. “It helped me to craft a much broader end-product that had been thought about over a number of years,” she says.

In 1999, Randol got her first teaching job when Bar On recommended her to fill in for a colleague at the University of Scranton who was going on sabbatical.

“She’s a fantastic teacher,” Bar On says.

Randol says she is grateful to Bar On, not only for her scholarship and teaching, but also for the wisdom her advisor passed along. “I’ve only continued to grow more appreciative of that as I’ve moved through my professional life.” 

For Matzel, Miller continues to take his colleague and former student’s interests to heart. Take the time Matzel found himself without any grants. “Ralph lent me money to run my lab,” Matzel says.

If Matzel sends Miller a grant proposal or paper he is writing, Miller responds with generous comments and suggestions. “I almost feel it will be an imposition, because I know how much time he’s going to put into it,” Matzel says. Luckily, Matzel sometimes gets a chance to return the favor.

More than 20 years after he earned his PhD, Matzel is no longer surprised by Miller’s generous spirit. But, he says, he’s a bit surprised at how their relationship has endured. “He’ll always be a friend of mine. I don’t know that everyone would say that about their graduate advisor.”