Saturday, April 17, 2010

The best policy?


That's right: the main concern of our grad students (or at least those who comment here) is that we tell them the truth. Here's some samplings from the comments:
  • "I think the best thing that my advisor does for me is to read drafts of my work carefully and tell me when something isn't working. I know some people whose advisors seem worried about hurting their feelings and so hold back."
  • "If we had a more honest conversation about the quality of my work, perhaps, and we had it out loud with me in the room, I could have known whether I was doing poor work or whether my director was being unreasonable. That might have saved me hours of weeping and wailing and wondering if I should drop out."
  • "I think the best thing for advisors to do is to have a conversation with their advisees, up front, and discuss expectations and working styles. I did this with my current advisor – I was paranoid after being burned badly by my last one – and it’s made all the difference in the world…"
Are we that lame at talking to our grad students? Are we afraid of hurting their feelings? Do we sometimes take the easy road of not-so-benign-neglect just to avoid an unpleasant conversation? What if that conversation boils down to "You just don't have the chops for this"?

Of course, that's not the only concern. Some want more direct guidance:
  • "Please don't assume that we know how you feel about our work. If it's unclear, the chances good are that we're worrying about it."
  • "I'm not sure if i would have responded well to her being more drill sargeant-y, but i think it might have helped to have more concrete deadlines (perhaps even institutional ones)..."
  • "I do wish faculty were more involved in our grad careers. I hear lip service paid to the idea that graduate study is a form of apprenticeship. […] I would value the chance to see, or just discuss, how my adviser does research, for example."
Some point out abuses that go unchecked:
  • "Something has got to be done about the professors everybody knows are horrible to graduate students. […] Either keep graduate students away from them or make a concerted effort to provide additional means of support for the students who have to work with these professors."
And of course, worries about our approach to employment, which tends to focus on academia alone:
  • "There should be a system to help those with PhDs get other relevant non-professorial jobs. It's hard to leave graduate school (with its low but guaranteed paycheck) for unemployment. Make the transition easier, and the graduate students may actually finish."
So, the grad students have had their say. Profs, now you. Do you see yourself, your colleagues, or your institution in any of these critiques? Are these reasonable expectations? Were your expectations and issues the same when you were a grad student?

In the spirit of fairness, I'm going to ask profs to also limit themselves to one bite of the apple apiece for now. If it looks like there's interest in certain topics, I'll do a more open post later, and we can all -- profs and students alike -- comment to our hearts' content.

Please be thoughtful and constructive. But also, as requested by the grad students themselves, be honest.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I purposefully bring people into my lab--grad students, post-docs, and other trainees--who either are smarter than me or who think they are smarter than me. And the deal is that we are extremely honest with one another. I do not hold back anything concerning my opinions of their work, and in return I demand the same of them. This is particularly important in science, where if the people doing the science aren't brutally honest with one another, then mother nature will be.

Historiann said...

I saw a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in your grad student thread. I remember those feelings dominating my latter years of grad school, as I was living in another city, writing my dissertation, and wondering if I would ever have a career.

I had an interesting experience a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old files after finishing my book. I came across a file of letters from my grad advisor I had saved, because they were lengthy comments about chapters of my dissertation. I re-read them, and was blown away at how incredibly encouraging, supportive, and yes, even "nuturing" the letters were. While I never thought that my advisor *wasn't* supportive of me or my work, I had no emotional memory of those warm, encouraging, and even extremely complimentary letters, because (I can only assume) my anxiety and worry dominated my personality at that time.

I am not making an argument here that grad advisors shouldn't bother being warm, supportive, or encouraging--just suggesting that they may be all that already, but it may not be something grad students can fully see at the time.

clio's disciple said...

I don't teach graduate students myself, and that's something of a relief to me. I think I would have difficulty giving a graduate student good guidance. I struggle already with critiquing my undergrads' work in a way that is honest, substantial, tough, and constructive. My memory of grad school is much fresher than my memory of undergrad; I remember the anxiety of grad school in a very visceral way which would definitely affect how I talked to grad students under my direction.

On the other hand, I think that I also learned things in grad school that couldn't have been explained to me verbally; I had to learn them experientially. If someone were shadowing me as I did research, for example, it would just look like me reading and taking notes, reading and taking notes, taking a walk while thinking things over, and so on. My advisor certainly gave me some useful tips, but I am not sure an explicit discussion of how he did his work would have helped me form my own research process. I may need to post more about this on my own blog...

Caroline said...

I'm looking forward to hearing what professors say about helping grad students find jobs beyond the academy. With fewer departments hiring, professors also need to think of ways to prove that a PhD can be an asset on the non-academic job market, especially where the humanities are concerned.

Emotional support is critical to grad student success, but in the end it's all about getting a job.

Post Academic

Historiann said...

Caroline, Tenured Radical made several suggestions in January as to what grad programs and students could do to maximize their employment options. I thought they were good ideas--some of the grad student commenters weren't so wild about them, but I still think that programs should consider them:

Ruth said...

For whoever mentioned the committee that reviewed students each year but never gave them feedback--if you are in the US, you have the right to see anything in your file (except letters of recommendation to which you have formally waived your right of access). When I was DGS of my rather large graduate program I had to do privacy training and I learned this. The results of your annual review are "student records" under FERPA and you have a right to access. I'm not a lawyer, but I am pretty sure you can verify this elsewhere.

JaneB said...

Historiann, I think you make a really important point. To make a single contribution to the discussion - as an academic, I WANT everyone in my group a partner, an honest partner in a joint journey to learn a little more about how the physical world works. However, particularly for graduate students in the earlier stages of their work, there is a huge amount of anxiety and self-doubt. The power imbalance is made much more acute by the student's emotional/experiential state during the process, and however much the supervisor aims to ameliorate that and to be supportive/firm/honest and open/whatever they perceive the student needing at that time, the student will often not receive the actions/messages in the way they are intended.

I find it very easy to worry myself in circles about students and what _I_ am doing wrong - I'm learning that sometimes it isn't anything to do with me, the barriers to communication or reasons why they aren't responding to my comments or to deadlines are entirely of the students' making (not necessarily their DELIBERATE making either).

And it is THEIR degree. I keep telling myself that...

Janice said...

I've been coordinator of my small department's terminal M.A. program for about twelve years, on and off. And I've just about been sucked dry: not because the students are bad (far from it!), but because the guilt, the worry, the responsibility all becomes a bit too much after a while. There are so many ways in which the grad student's journey can be derailed that even the best-intentioned supervisory relationship can be problematic. And that's where a dean, director or coordinator comes in to presumably fix things.

And while we're concentrating on keeping everyone on a path to completion, life can throw curveballs at the students and faculty. A devastating car injury, an unexpected pregnancy, illness or whatever, can put supervisor or student out of action at critical points in their program of study. Sometimes the problems are less obvious and dramatic but I've seen students devastated by an inability to just start writing or unnerved by a personality conflict that's poisoning the classroom experience for them.

And then all the carefully constructed timelines and plans go out the window. Once again, everyone has to work to come up with solutions and schemes to support the student to completion: even if it's just following protocols, it's a lot for supervisors, students and program directors to keep track of. But if we don't hear about the problems, how can we help?

What worries me the most are the silences that often greet me. Silences to my emails checking up on students I haven't seen. Phone calls that go unanswered. Reports that are promised but never make it into my hands. Silences to my questions of "how are things going?" Or, in some ways worse!, cheery, non-committal smiles that clue me in that there's a problem, but one about which no one will speak to me.

I hear, after the fact, about crises and problems and work-arounds that should never have been attempted and I'm saddened that both the grad students felt that they couldn't tell me about their issues and my colleagues wouldn't do so, either. I try to establish as much as possible of an open-door policy to the students from day one, encouraging them to bring any problems to me, but it's an uphill battle.

I don't see, in my colleagues, anyone who's actively trying to duck responsibility or refusing to help fix problems, but I do know such attitudes exist among profs. That makes it even more important for students, when they get blocked by such types, to know whom they can reach out to in an alternative. I'll be working, from my end, to reach out to you, but I can't see everything and that's why I feel like such a big failure as a graduate program coordinator, some days.

Susan said...

I think honesty is good, and "standards of satisfactory progress" are also useful. Most such standards are extremely optimistic, but helpful as a starting point, and they force conversations. (And for anyone in the US who gets Federal loans, they are required.)

I'm thinking a lot about the question of how we help people get jobs outside the academy: not easy, since many of us know nothing else. But just because we don't know it, doesn't mean we think you've failed if that what you've done. I'd be encouraging but ignorant, I think.

I'm also intrigued about how we build a program that supports people until they are done, and doesn't kick them out fo the nest so we can have someone new and shiny. I think that's an important change.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm glad so many faculty are chiming in here. I think that the responses here are thoughtful. There's definitely some feelings of anxiety & uncertainty going on, as Historiann points out, and I think that we, as faculty, have an obligation to diffuse whatever of that is in our power to do so (ugh. convoluted syntax there!), realizing that we'll never fully eliminate it. It would be nice for some transparency. As both Anastasia and FrogPrincess pointed out, faculty have conversations about their grad students, which strikes me as fine. What strikes me as *not* fine is that the grad student him- or herself is often the last one to know. And I think it's usually just because we, like many others, don't know how to have a difficult conversation. But that's an excuse, not a good reason.

Psycgirl said...

I'm very glad to see both of the posts on this topic, and comments from faculty members - especially as a graduate student blogger who has blogged about student-faculty relationships and my own experiences with a power differential.

The only thing that makes me sad about this, however, is that I doubt mentors who do abuse their power and treat their graduate students poorly would recognize themselves in graduate student descriptions of such situations.

Anonymous said...

While we have a PhD program in my department, we don't accept many students in my area of expertise. I have had one student and it has been a very negative experience. I think my student is extremely intelligent, has good ideas and analyses, but unfortunately ze has none of the practical skills that would be required to succeed -- things like: ability to pay attention to details, meeting deadlines, proof-reading (I've been so dismayed by this!), etc. Most devastating of all, ze consistently "writes to hirself" rather than writing to communicate with an imaginary reader. I cannot tell you how many times I have, quite openly and honestly, critiqued this writing tendency, every time with strict promises of reform, and every time unfulfilled.
Part of the problem is that I genuinely like the student's ideas, which ze can explain very well in conversation. So, I'll be encouraging and positive. Then, I'll get a morass of writing that is so flawed, I can't even provide a quick fix with a pen -- I would have to re-write the whole thing from scratch myself. And aside from the convoluted expression, also riddled with errors that proof-reading should find -- which tells me, again, that ze is only writing to hirself and doesn't care to clean it up in the most basic way. But, this dynamic probably comes across to the student as me oscillating wildly: one day I'm encouraging in conversation; the next, after getting sloppy writing, I'm ripping hir a new one.
I've gone to my chair and confessed that I feel over my head in how to guide this student. And my chair, who also has worked with hir, has agreed that ze is stubborn, and "a dreamer" who lives in hir own head and does not try hard enough to respond to outside critiques, communicate with readers, etc. But there is no institutional mechanism for dismissing hir... we never boot students.
I'm waiting to get more writing soon, hoping for some improvement after our last serious talk about it... but fearing the worst.

Anonymous said...


I can't talk long because I'm preparing for a course but I've read a few of your posts and I really felt compelled to write something. You've said, again and again, that your student "writes to hirself" as though what that means is self-evident. Yes, you've given us a few examples of the various problems which you understand that phrase to encompass, but it seems to that the term is more personal than academic. It means to call attention to what you precieve as the student's personal failing than specific issues with hir writing.

Here is the thing: writing problems are notoriously difficult to diagnose because to write well requires that one manage to a multitude of psychological, emotional, and intellectual dynamics. If your student fails to proofread her papers, I imagine she is trying to get those documents to you within the prescribed deadlines. Rather than spend so much time judging her, how about you engage with her thoughts to self? This would be a far more productive excercise than spending your time complaining to your chair (I'm dumbfounded that you would do such a thing) and waxing about how this student doesn't have the right stuff. She is in the program. She cares about the material. She would be a valuable addition to the profession.