The Importance of Good Advising: Part 1

Opportunistic Disparity and Serendipity

This past summer I worked at a national laboratory that sees several thousand students come through its doors each year to develop their skills and networks. Orientation blew my mind. When my group was surveyed regarding where we were academically, I realized that graduate students made up something like a tenth of the room.

Wait… how did these kids get jobs here so early on?

I didn’t even know national labs were a thing until like a year before. Let’s not even get into that being a problem.

When the high school students raised their hands, I almost lost it.

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?! I hardly knew anything coming out of high school, let alone that opportunities like this existed.

How was it that these students were three, four, even seven years ahead of where I was in regards to their connections? Simply knowing someone involved in research at a national lab can be the difference between working summers in pizzerias and fast-fashion retailers (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience), and building a network on which an entire career’s foundation can rest.

I was quite aware of the inequality of opportunity in America, but this was something else. I considered myself unbelievably fortunate to have had the academic guidance I had received in my life. I was aware that I would not be here today at all in the first place if it weren’t for the advice of my academic advisors and mentors. If I was lucky, what were students who were years ahead of me? Super lucky?

WHAT GIVES?

I have been thinking a lot recently about the extent to which serendipity and luck has has such a profound impact on my academic pursuits. I love where I have ended up. I am so incredibly happy in graduate school, but I was completely unaware of this option until a somewhat unreasonably late time. I am interested in exploring the role that luck played into my present circumstances. I want to understand what it was that made the ultimate difference for me. I need to understand, so that I may more effectively communicate these opportunities to those early in their academic careers.

Students need to know about what is possible for them. NEARLY EVERY TIME I BRING UP TO PEOPLE THAT I GET PAID TO GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL, I AM MET WITH DISBELIEF.

Why is it that so many are unaware that these* opportunities exist?

WHERE IS THE FAILURE IN COMMUNICATION?

*(let alone many many many others)

Are we really getting our best and brightest into graduate school? Or would something like shyness inhibit someone from finding out, simply because they never went to office hours and had someone tell them?

I will begin to explore these questions by retracing my own path to graduate school and looking for instances where earlier intervention may have made a substantive difference in my preparation. (I had very weak application in hindsight, so it is amazing any school took me at all, but more on that later…).

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Michael Pilosov
An (applied) mathematician on a mission. Denver, CO.
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