Dr. House: one cool adviser


Here’s some grad student perspective on pop culture. (Or pop perspective on grad culture.)

Dr. House — the curmudgeon diagnostician and title character of a popular television show — would be a really good adviser.

Don’t get me wrong, the character is selfish, unpleasant, and rude. I wouldn’t want him as my GP. (I’m sure he’d love the NHS.) But if he diagnosed signals of new physics at the LHC instead of obscure diseases in patients, I’d sure want him as my adviser…

Fig 1. I doubt the studio execs would be interested. (Image credits: see below.)

Ok, bad idea for a television show. But I stand by my claim that he’d be good for his graduate students. I recently wrote about my awesome adviser waxing a bit abstractly, so here are some concrete examples of why Dr. House would be someone you’d want to be thanking in your dissertation.

Spends time with you. Sure, a lot of that time is spent belittling you — which isn’t so cool, Dr. House — but at least he’s there. You can’t learn from an adviser if you don’t spend time with your adviser.

Brainstorms. The most valuable thing an adviser can teach his/her students is how to think about research problems. House’s group brainstorming sessions are admirable because he always asks the right questions and dismisses implausible ideas with “the blinding light of reason.” (Mixed with an unhealthy dose of sarcasm.) What I mean by this is that he…

Explains why you’re wrong. House’s team are the Watsons to his Sherlock. They’re wrong more often than they’re right, but House is there to explain their errors. Not just say that they’re wrong, but to explain why — albeit tersely and rudely. The point of grad research isn’t just to find the answer to a question, but to hone the deductive tools to prepare you for every other question you’ll face in your career.

Unorthodox. House’s medical team will break into their patients’ houses, dig up graves, and take risks that would make the board of directors wet their pants (not the UK-US ambiguity). It’s not recklessness, but it’s thinking out of the box towards a goal. Ok, it is also a little bit reckless; but you’ve got to be willing to rock the boat a little if you want to make a splash.

Appreciation for the big picture. House’s patients are plagued by obscure diseases manifested as incongruous symptoms. (He faces a disease-symptom inverse problem, if you will.) Making the diagnosis often requires an only-on-TV combination of wit and drama that boils down to House realizing how unrelated parts come together. Today’s particle theorists are trying to reconcile baryon asymmetry, dark matter/energy, neutrino mass, etc. etc. etc. A good adviser will make sure a student can appreciate how his/her project fits into this big picture.

Appreciation for the human aspect. House delights himself in deconstructing the other doctors in his department, much to their annoyance. While pressing other people’s buttons isn’t ideal for professional development, an understanding of the human-aspect of doing science is important. A lot of the `business’ of doing science is still influenced by who you know (collaborations, for example), and a good adviser will help you with your career as well as your science.

Entertaining while professional [enough]. As rough as his personality may be, House is serious about medicine. It’s one thing to try to `get past’ his personality en route to the medicine; but if one can actually derive amusement from it (this requires a certain thickness-of-skin), then it’s a win-win situation. It’s unlikely that your personality will be a perfect match with your adviser. If you can take those differences in stride, though, you can let them colour your academic relationship rather than sour it.

Image credits: Hugh Laurie from a House M.D. promotional image that’s floating around on the net unattributed (ostensibly to Fox), chalkboard (work of M. Carena) from Fermilab Today.

5 Responses to “Dr. House: one cool adviser”

  1. 1 not done yet

    About point 1,
    You CAN learn without meeting your adviser, but not a whole lot. I can say that I have learned 1, or maybe 2 things- and I have NEVER met with my adviser (it has not been for lack of trying though!). While I hope to get to see him to discuss (what I hope to be) my final draft of my thesis, he has repeatedly refused to meet in person, or respond to email within a few weeks.
    Quite a shock to read that some people actually have an adviser willing to mentor, teach, etc.

    Nice work F.T. Thanks for the blog

  2. 2 Matt

    Here’s a question I’ve had since I started doing research a few years ago (I’m still an undergrad). None of my friends seem to know the answer and I’m not sure who to ask, so I figured I’d post it here:

    When doing research in a particular area (let’s say physics) and you need insight from someone who’s an expert in another area (let’s say statistics). If you go to them and ask them for help on your data, and they suggest something that helped you reach a conclusion worthy of being published, does the person from the other area (statistics) get any credit? If he had no part in the real understanding of the research, or the intuition involved, but till contributed with an idea about handling a dataset that would have otherwise been dealt with incorrectly, does he get credit or no?

  3. Hiya Matt — good question. I’m not actually sure of the answer myself, but depending on how much the other person contributed, they would either be added as an author or given credit in the acknowledgements. (And of course any relevant works would be cited in the references.) Given the scenario you painted, I’d lean towards the latter. I’ve heard of people who were listed as authors without doing terribly much on the project, but they should at least have a good understanding of what’s being proposed in the paper. Authorship is like a stamp of approval, if you will: if your name is on the author’s list, then you’re vouching for the quality of the research. An acknowledgement, on the other hand, specifies what the other person contributed and gives credit for it, without tying their academic reputation to the paper which they otherwise didn’t work on. At least that my understanding of how it would work.

  4. According to the plot, Dr. House is in Princeton, isn’t it? Note also, from a trivia page: “The aerial shots of the hospital are actually of the back of Frist Student Center at Princeton University.”

  5. 5 robert

    For a physicist the coolest thing about Dr House is his creator – writer/producer Matt Witten, whose big brother just happens to be called Edward

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