That’s not always the best question to get from your advisor… but it’s a useful one to hear! The sentence that earned me that critique was, roughly:
“I will explore cartographic representations of Newfoundland, Alaska, Hawai’i, and Nunavut at key moments of state formation.”
My advisor was kind enough to point out that if you are going to “explore” something at the PhD level, you will lose a finger (as part of the new system in place for punishing people who do poor work or don’t finish their work in a timely fashion, thereby becoming a drain on the taxpayers of Ontario). (Canada is a draconian, scary place.) (I am kidding about the finger part – you don’t have to believe everything you hear about Canada-land, even if most of it does turn out to be semi-accurate. Question everything!)
Instead, he suggested I should demonstrate, show, explain, interrogate, or otherwise Action Verb (but not explore!) SOMETHING through my topic. We also worked on narrowing my scope, although other professors have already asked me if my focus was too limited! So we’ll see how that pans out.
I am writing about this exchange here because I find it endlessly helpful to bounce ideas off of people. It is immensely useful to meet with my advisor, of course, because he’s really funny (sometimes on purpose!), and he’s honest (which is what everybody needs from their supervisor – I can’t think of a situation where I’d prefer to be lied to), and he knows a lot about Canada, which is my field of research, as well as visual culture and cultural studies, which are part of my project, too. I would suggest that if you are looking for an advisor or committee member, you should get along with them well enough to work with them and they should have some expertise in your area or contribute in some way to your topic. I put those in the order that I prioritize them, but of course each student (and most programs!) are unique, we’re all snowflakes, etc. However, you aren’t doing yourself any favors by working with people who are unavailable or less than cooperative. This comes up in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, but it also seems to be true (if the plural of anecdote is “data”).
It is also quite valuable to talk to non-professors (or professors from other departments) about my work, for two key reasons:
(a) It’s been said that “If you can sell it to your grandma at a Christmas party, it’s a good topic” (also known as your “elevator sound byte” or your personal sales pitch, since the end goal of all this school is to do something with yourself, which will mean selling your ideas in a palatable way). If you can captivate your grandma (or other not-necessarily-interested audience member) with your topic, you might be on to something!
(b) People who aren’t in your field will often give you interesting insights into your topic, or prompt you to take your research in new directions, or make you think about things from another perspective. You don’t have to change everything to fit Uncle Bob’s ideas of nationalism (especially if he’s had too much eggnog), but you can consider his critique and ways to work around it in your writing. Or you can give him more eggnog and ignore him. [I don’t have an Uncle Bob, but it took me a shockingly long time to come up with the name of someone who is not related to me.]
That’s enough for me to feed into the ether for today. Got to get back to editing, meetings, researching, and writing. The work of a doctoral students is overwhelming…ly AWESOME! I am enjoying it quite a bit! More about my new job (and the Canadian election debates – on tonight!) later.