The first big step in earning my Ph.D. was doing a master’s thesis. As part of the process, I had to ask a professor in my department to chair my master’s committee, which would also consist of two other faculty members. Together, this three-person committee would evaluate my work and decide whether or not to accept my paper.
I was thrilled when the professor I selected agreed to be my main advisor. But as the project got underway, she became unresponsive. I would email her with a question, only to never hear back. When I talked with her in person, she wouldn’t remember much about our previous conversations. I worried that her lack of engagement indicated a low opinion of me.
I tried not to let it bother me. I did my research and wrote my paper. I then set a meeting so my committee could discuss the merits of my thesis, with the goal of signing off on my work. I was really looking forward to the meeting, as getting three of the best and brightest faculty members in one room to discuss your work is exceedingly rare – it only happened twice over the seven years it took me to earn my Ph.D.
On the day of the formal meeting, I arrived early, eager and ready for an insightful discussion. And then, the chair of the committee, never showed up. I waited awkwardly with the two other professors for thirty minutes. “She probably got stuck in traffic,” one of the professors said consolingly, “Let’s just reschedule.” So after an odd email exchange in which my advisor didn’t apologize but just said “something came up,” we rescheduled the meeting.
And then, she didn’t show up again. We only waited fifteen minutes this time before deciding to go ahead with the discussion. I tried to act like I was fine, but the mixture of disappointment and embarrassment got the better of me and tears began to roll down my cheeks. The two other professors told me not to worry about it and proceeded to provide wonderful feedback and encouragement. But, even still, my main advisor’s clear disinterest shook my confidence to the core. Later, she did turn in the paperwork signing off on my thesis. But by not showing up to the meetings, she sent a clear message – my work was fine, but nothing special.
For weeks I was shaky. I questioned my abilities and myself. And then I decided that what was most important was what I thought of my work. I definitely saw problems and shortcomings. But I also saw that parts were, as the two other committee members had pointed out, pretty good. Many months later, with help from the remaining members of my committee (who later became my true advisors and mentors), I turned my thesis into a published article, which was well received.
Even now, all these years later, I still run into people who tell me how much they liked the article. And every time they do, I think back to that conference room and the awkward silence as we waited for my advisor who never came. I think back to how small I felt, how paralyzed I was, and how hard it was to move forward. But I am so glad that I did, because getting through that experience made me tougher, more confident in my abilities, and more determined. It also taught me that you should never place too much stock in any one person’s assessment of you, because doing so allows someone else to place limits on what you believe you are capable of achieving.