Monday, April 26, 2010

When honesty isn't enough? (A reader bleg)

So my recent post on the grad student-faculty relationship and the grad students' plea for honesty inspired one faculty reader to write in about a grad student who is floundering, despite what seem to be a lot of attempts to reverse the problem:

I am a recently-tenured faculty member in a Literature Department at a large university, chairing my first dissertation committee. The student I am directing applied from a strong undergraduate program, had good letters of recommendation, and proposed to work on a topic close to my own area of research expertise. While there were some weaknesses, the application was competitive on most counts, so we admitted “Alix.”

This is the first place where we (faculty) need to practice some of that honesty, in our admissions process. This goes double for faculty writing letters. Many of us will take a chance on a borderline applicant. Sometimes, it works out well. Other times…

For the first two years, things seemed to be moving along on course. Everyone who worked with Alix praised hir intellectual creativity and enthusiasm. Yet, there were problems as well: an aversion to any readings on [area critical to discipline]; little improvement in hir writing; and a strangely detached quality that many colleagues remarked upon. In regular meetings to discuss hir progress, required at my institution, we faculty pointed out these areas for improvement.

Again, another key: conversations between faculty who share a student to see if a problem is endemic, and regular meetings with that student.

At some point, however, Alix’s performance actually began to deteriorate. Simply exhorting hir to commit more to the craft of writing did not bring any improvement. Meanwhile, ze became ever more unreliable. When the time came for orals Alix squeaked by, though at the lowest possible pass. Afterward, I had a long, and rather difficult talk with hir, pointing out, yet again, areas that need improvement and securing a promise that ze would strive to write with more structure, clarity, and sophistication as ze moved into writing the dissertation. Yet I recently received some pages that I would mark with a C- if I received them from an undergraduate. In response, I told hir that I cannot recommend hir for grants or other opportunities until ze can begin to produce writing at a true graduate level, worthy of a strong endorsement.

Quite frankly, I now I am beginning to believe that it might be better for hir to abandon this career now, rather than spend several more years working towards a degree that may never be granted, writing a dissertation that would be unlikely to become the entry point for a place in the professoriate. I welcome any advice, from professors or graduate students alike, about the best compassionate, yet honest, approach.

And there it is, folks: How does this particular prof best deal with this situation – recognizing, as well, that the "situation" (my unfortunate word choice) is also a person? The student has cleared every hurdle except the dissertation, but each one only just barely. It seems like this prof. has adhered to the "be honest" dictum that the grad students asked us for. Yet things keep getting worse. So what now?

I'm going to start the conversation by raising two things that jumped out at me. The first is the issue of progressive deterioration, which suggests to me something else may be at work here. Mid-20s to early 30s is a time when many mental health issues develop, so maybe there's something there. Grad school stress can also foster chemical dependency issues, especially alcoholism. Either way, these are problems above a professor's pay grade, but s/he is often the first one to really see them. Does it make sense for the professor to recommend counseling? Or should the professor/student relationship remain as strictly professional as possible?

Second is an implication in the final paragraph: Are we right or wrong to conflate "academic career" with "Ph.D."? If Alix said, "You know, I just want to go for a doctorate for my own personal enrichment," would this be a different story? Should it be?

Okay, that's my own two cents, half-assed as it is. I expect you all to use your whole asses to help out. No one comment per-person rule this time, but do keep in mind that this ought to be a discussion, so frame the length and content of your comments accordingly. Anyone caught being a jerk will be ejected from the room with no cookies


tenthmedieval said...

OK, the usual possibly unhelpful UK response here. In the unversities I've studied at or worked in there's been someone with a pastoral rĂ´le for each student, someone who isn't teaching them and won't ever be (so, same school but different department for example) so as to avoid conflicts. If there is such a person in this situation, they need to be involved if they haven't been already. The professor may be the first person to notice what (I agree) sound like life/health issues but it shouldn't be their business to tackle them. Your correspondant should be able to say to the person in that pastoral rocirc;le, "Look, I fear we're losing this one, can you alert 'hir' to the seriousness of the situation and make sure they know help is available for a variety of problems?" And after that, they should be considerate, but should also be resigned to regarding the situation as the student's, or the tutor/mentor's, problem, and not their own. Otherwise, the student will lose the fairness on which the so-far-commendable honesty shown by your correspondant is based. That's what I think, anyway, though my system perspective may be wrong.

If there isn't such a structure in your correspondant's institution, though, then, argh, what? How are they supporting other students who definitely do have problems of these sorts?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Tenth -- remind me to introduce you to Notorious if she's at the Zoo!

Right -- I was not Alix, but I sort of was. I came out of Beachy U with fantastic recs (one of which did mention my tendency to procrastinate), great marks, and high SATs. And had managed to be on academic probation after my first term. My papers weren't fantastic, because I had somehow managed to miss out on the importance of historiography, and wasn't getting it. BUT ALSO -- and this is important -- I was in a department in the Southeast,controlled by mostly GI-Bill male faculty who had done their PhDs at Ivies. Even my Doktorvater was from Big 10 State U, and a bit suspect (not least because to our modernist and Americanist colleagues, we Ancient/Medieval types always seem a bit suspect!)

DV sat me down, told me things were dire and that there was no excuse, and he didn't get it. And that he did think that my not working outside school did seem to be an issue for me, because I didn't seem to know how to use my time well. This led to a good discussion of how our stipends were actually not enough to live on, and this was also a stressor.

But -- back to the really important part -- one of our other historians, one of (at the time) only three women in the department, and herself only a sessional person because she was a spousal hire, so had to earn her right to be there (despite a Stanford PhD and multiple publications), took me to lunch. And she told me that she *got* that I was totally overwhelmed and stressed (I had just started a long history of tension-migraines), but that, like most Californians, I was not showing it. Instead, I was projecting an attitude of "everything's cool." I also wore jeans or shorts to class in warm weather, often with flip-flips, and tended to sit out on the quad to study.

To the (older male east-coast) faculty, all of this signalled "not serious and wasting our money." The next semester, I changed my dress to conform to what other female grad students wore. I got a carrel that was right near where the cranky and famous department chair's materials were, and camped there -- sometimes reading a novel, but with a pen in hand as if taking notes. I took department chair's seminar, and tried not to drink too much afterward, when we would talk about how I'd said the same thing in seminar that he later repeated in different words, to correct the nuances, and I Made Myself Look More Concerned. I also picked up a part-time job in the library, having been given special permission.

So... sorry for the novel! honesty early on helped me immensely. And a couple times when I was ABD and making no progress, it also helped snap me back. I progressed painfully slowly, but I was allowed to continue as long as I made constant progress.

But the lesson about playing the game and reading the department was the one that saved me.

Oh -- and as for Alix? Honestly, if the department isn't funding hir, and there are set deadlines for completion, I think the best that the blegger can do is sit down with her and the DGS and talk about what needs to be done. And probably give hir a list, in writing, with reminders of relevant deadlines. It may very well be that Alix is self-sabotaging, and hoping for someone to kick hir out. I'm all for giving Alix all relevant information, asking what help ze needs, and letting hir rise or fall. And maybe also let Alix know that ze isn't letting anybody down if it's not what ze wants to do.

This is a big thing, I think. People who have decided they don't really want to be in grad school stay in because they think they have to. I think the conversation really has to include a discussion of "Alix, why are you here?"

(I have no grad students, but this is a conversation I have with underperforming undergrads all the time)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

oops -- sorry, the point of the ramble was that I changed very little about my writing or anything substantial in my study habits, but my marks went up significantly.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, here's my take. It does seem to be true that at various points along the way this student has been told, clearly and honestly, that there are major problems in hir work, most notably (it seems) at the level of writing and critical, structured engagement with high-level material. So far so good. But, at least from the letter from your reader, it is not at all clear that anyone has actually given this student clear and honest advice about how to go about addressing these problems. This student may need more explicit guidance for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the student's ultimate abilities, or with any personal problems that the student may have.

Listen: I was a "borderline" admit to my PhD program. And I was told, while there, that my work "lacked sophistication and depth" and that the structure of one of my seminar papers was "baroque" - I was told that my understanding of theory was shallow, etc. But none of those comments told me what I was supposed to do to address those issues - they just made me feel like I was a loser. Now, I am not good with feeling like a loser, so I figured it out - both by doing a lot of work independently, but also because I did find a few mentors who didn't just tell me what was wrong but with gave me the tools for how to go about fixing those things. And I needed explicit help with those things because at the same time I was trying to get myself to PhD-level work, I was also trying to acculturate myself to a new region (the Northeast vs. the Midwest), to academic culture (neither of my parents went to any college), and to a new social class (my background is solidly working class). It wasn't resistance on my part that made me unsophisticated, and if I was just told "fix this stuff" without guidance, well, I don't think I would have been able to figure out how to do it.

And so. Was I mentally ill? Did I have a drug or alcohol problem? No. Those may be factors in play with this student, but I don't know that I'd leap to that conclusion without a lot more information. The deterioration may be the result of higher level work being expected of the student without the student having really learned the lessons that needed to be learned along the way to get to that higher level. "Deterioration" may actually be stasis - if that makes sense.

I don't write all of this to put all of the blame on the professors here, and there may be some real and specific issues with the quality of work of which this student is capable. But I thought it was worth it to note that what comes through in the letter is that while the student has gotten a lot of feedback on what is wrong with hir work, it doesn't come through that the student has gotten much mentorship in how to address those problems, nor does it come through that anybody has a clear idea of what the student wants from hir graduate education or what hir personal circumstances may be. (Now, it may be true that those things are in place, but it just didn't come through in the letter. I'm only responding to what's in front of me.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Great stuff so far, folks. I have to check out for several hours, but this seems very productive.

thefrogprincess said...

I'm just impressed that all these conversations are happening. My experience has been that professors let you think everything's fine and you just keep plugging away, making steady progress, and then they make up reasons to pull the rug from under you at a very late stage. (Yes, I'm bitter.) So already this seems pretty humane.

As for the question about emotional distress, I'm in favor of addressing that; I've found that some professors can be explicitly uncaring about such things, even to the point of being offended that you're dealing with mental problems. Students who get that sense won't say anything for fear of having the professor think less of them and things might just get worse. So at the very least, in the middle of one of these conversations, either this professor or somebody else involved could just ask, generally, if there's anything else going on. There might not be anything; I think Dr. Crazy makes some excellent points about how unprepared even good and eager students might be for the intricacies of graduate work and once again there are many professors who won't take the time to diagnose this lack of knowledge/preparation for what it is, rather than some innate character flaw. But if there is something, it'll be good for Alix to know that this is a conversation that can be brought up, even if ze doesn't feel comfortable doing so right at that moment.

I don't think professors should take on the role of counselors but I think the "hands off" approach to issues of mental health is offensive and dangerous. Graduate students are people and we're people in an incredibly precarious career position, which is unlike what most of our peers are going through. That professor may be the only person "in charge" that Alix is working with, so at the very least, it's the professor's job to create a situation in which such things can be discussed if they need to be.

At the end of the day, if Alix wants to write a dissertation, that's hir choice and there's nothing really that can be done about. I think this is true even if funding's involved: ze's managed to scrape through at each point so funding can't really be dropped. But it should be made crystal clear, in writing even, that the committee is incredibly concerned about the quality of work and that ze will not receive a PhD if the completed dissertation doesn't show significant improvement. Make it crystal clear that completing the dissertation means nothing if the quality remains poor. And also make it clear that the committee does not feel comfortable writing letters of recommendation etc unless things improve. What's key is to lay out the ultimatum well in advance, not just spring it on hir when it's convenient or right before a crucial deadline.

It might also be helpful to note that at some point (after hir next chapter or some such), they would all reevaluate the situation. That way, it's clear that ze isn't just doomed but that the committee really wants improvement and will respond accordingly if it happens.

squadratomagico said...

This is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, professors do have a particular responsibility to grad. students, to make sure that they are not spending years of their life with expectations of a career that won't materialize. (As recent discussions at TR and Historiann have highlighted for us all.) Yet at the same time, I do believe that grad. school is as much about learning to solve problems independently, as it is about learning specific discipline, fields, and materials. If a student requires too much hand-holding, that in itself is a red flag that they may not be cut out for the highly self-motivated nature of academia.
What stands out to me is that this seems to be a multi-level problem. If the writing really has gotten worse over time, to a level that compares unfavorably to most undergrads.; AND if the student also cannot meet negotiate deadlines and paper-pushing; AND cannot solve problems independently, then s/he seems to have performed poorly at all the skills required for a professorial career. That might suggest self-sabotage, as Janice noted, or else mental issues, as Notorious pointed out.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

What really struck me was this: Simply exhorting hir to commit more to the craft of writing did not bring any improvement.

Well, of course not, if the student doesn't know what it is they're supposed to be doing! (and one way to think about this is to assume that if the student knew what they were supposed to be doing, they'd do it). Telling someone TO write better does nothing to tell them HOW to write better, and it's not just a question of putting more *time* into the work.

Again, this isn't to throw it back on the profs, but my reaction was similar to Dr. Crazy's, partly because I remember spending a lot of time in grad school feeling like people (okay, my advisor!) were telling me that my writing wasn't good, that it wasn't historical, wasn't analytical, but never telling me how specifically to make it better. (Seriously: I got the first readers' comments from my first publication and went, Oh, THIS is what helpful feedback is supposed to be like? I'd forgotten because it had been so long since I'd had any! Because that set of comments pointed out weaknesses and made suggestions for how to improve them, whereas my usual feedback consisted of comments on what was wrong, and assumed that I'd be able to figure out how to fix it.)

I think at my grad program part of the issue was that the grad professors were all old enough that their undergrad training had been different enough from our own that they were expecting us to come in with a different set of skills than we did. (Though I'd also wager everyone forgets how much they had to learn at the beginning, once they've been in the field 15-30 years or so!)

I also think the detached thing, and what ADM said about playing department games, may be worth thinking about. I feel like I got a much warmer reception from my grad advisor after I cried in her office one day, just because I was so concerned with (and good at) hiding my insecurities/weaknesses that she thought I didn't give a shit (and the crying showed that I did). So are the faculty judging Alix entirely on hir work, or also on a perception of lack of seriousness? (which matters, I guess, but it's kind of up to Alix how "serious" zie wants to be.)

Although I'll also admit that the description of deterioration read a lot as self-sabotage to me. I know someone who went through a period of serious depression whose performance sounds similar to this (am not sure whether the depression triggered the performance or lack of desire to be in grad school triggered the depression...hard to separate these things).

I will say that it does sound to me as though the dept has been pretty honest and aboveboard with the student. I would suggest maybe having one more conversation about the dissertation, what needs to be done, and what the student's goals are. Because I agree with Notorious, I think it does make a difference if the student wants this for personal reasons or as an entry into the professoriate. Not that there should be entirely different standards, but if a student CAN fulfill the degree requirements without being really competitive for an academic job, I think they should be allowed to do so. But it seems fair to me to tell the student exactly where they'll stand if they continue as they are.

And yes, I think it's reasonable to suggest counseling. BEING the counselor isn't professional (it's not the advisor's job), but I don't think that suggesting counseling, perhaps with the information for school resources, crosses a line. (Unless the faculty member is honestly convinced there are no emotional issues going on, of course.)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

PS - for tenthmedieval: alas there is no such person in the US as you describe. The Director of Graduate Studies may kind of play that role, but that depends a lot on individual personalities and dept cultures.

thefrogprincess said...

About the "perceived lack of seriousness" issue (and I'm speaking here more in a general sense than to the specific situation of Alix): why isn't it the job of advisors to be more thorough in their assessments of seriousness than just "perceptions"? In my experience, focusing on "perceptions" privileges those students who always raise a fuss, who are always at office hours even with nothing to say, who can't figure anything out without asking, who write papers 20-30 pages longer than the maximum stated. Those are the "serious" ones, whereas those who put their heads down and get to work without much fuss, who follow department guidelines, who show up at office hours only when they have something to discuss, who are deemed "unserious". At some point, don't advisors have to start judging on substance, not appearance?

Observant Academic said...

I feel like this is something my advisor could have written about me (it's not me though -- I'm not as far ahead in the program as this student).

There was indeed some deterioration. In my case, it was all stress-related. I had so much stuff to do in so little time that I was completely overwhelmed. I was exhausted and that affected my writing quality for sure. My advisor suggested counseling. And although I was actually seeing a counselor at that point, I still didn't like the suggestion. Yes, things got worse, but as soon as the pressure was gone (at the end of an insane semester of testing/preparing pretty much all day, plus taking two courses and TA-ing), I started feeling much better. To me, the suggestion of counseling felt like denying the stress I was experiencing had anything to do with grad school. Temporarily lowering the research bar would have been much more effective.

(I really like my advisor, but it seemed like we were talking in completely different languages regarding this issue.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

frogprincess -- I think you may be reading a lot more into it than there is, at least to my story. And to some extent you have to be somewhat understanding of cultural signals. I'm actually really glad of that lesson, because it's helped me in many different venues. There are rules of decorum in every profession, and the people at the top generally expect the sorts of standards they were held to -- and that's true of all of us, if we're honest. We're more likely to take students who signal "serious" more seriously.

After all, if I have a student who appears attentive, takes notes, seems awake, and is somewhat tidily put together, my first impressions are going to be better than they are of the student who rolls in barely on time in pajamas and seems to spend hir time texting or surfing the net.

Once the work comes in, it's a bit different, but in many situations we don't have time to be seen on our merits. It may not be fair, but it's true in so many ways. And getting the skinny on how I was seen has really served me well since.

lilychung said...

When in doubt, consult the ultimate widom of I Ching. There is a new book making I Ching so easy to read.

thefrogprincess said...

ADM, I was referring less to what you wrote and more to what New Kid wrote (about how once she had cried in front of her advisor, she was seen as more serious). You're right when it comes to dress and whether you're taking notes or surfing the web, etc. Actually I think the latter example is more than reasonable. But the stuff that I mentioned does go on, it goes on in my department, and I think it's ridiculous.

Harriet said...

Some of the above responses have been marvelous, and I think will be a greater help than I. I can speak to the issue of mental illness or counseling, however. I am a doctoral candidate who has negotiated and is successfully living with suicidal depression. The student may be open to a suggestion of counseling, particularly if it is made in an informed manner (letting the student know what facilities are available). This requires the utmost caution on the part of the professor, however. A professor recently suggested I seek counseling in response to the stress I currently face. Ze did so, however, in an email that was CC'ed to prominent members of the department. Ze believed that there is little stigma about mental illness in our field; whether or not that is the professor's belief, it may not be the belief of the student. The suggestion of counseling is best couched in a face to face conversation, perhaps prefaced by some questions relating to the concern of the student's sudden change in behavior. I like frogprincess's take on the subject, and do believe it's worth bringing up. It requires that you bring it up informally but still behave professionally, however, which can be difficult. Put your hard hat on, I guess!

Harriet said...

@thefrogprincess -- I've had similar experiences with "perceptions." I am a funny, socially adept person, and therefore people seem to think I'm tougher than the average graduate student. It's a little strange to have to consciously perform "being overwhelmed," but I've done it a few times the past year.

Anonymous said...


I'm the letter writer, and I'd like to thanks everyone for their insights and comments. I'm glad to hear from folks at all different stages of the profession.

A couple of bits of clarification:
First, Alix is aiming for an academic career. (I still think the question of how to evaluate grad. students who do NOT have this goal is interesting, though.)
Second, on the "detached" thing: I was searching for the right word and this is what I came up with... but what I meant by it was the fact that myself and many other colleagues feel Alix is always in a dream world, inside hir own head. This is one reason that underlies hir poor writing: ze keeps on saying that ze "writes for hirself" and not to communicate with a reader. I keep on saying that this is not a useful way to approach writing, and that ze needs to compose in a more architectural manner, keeping in mind a reader who has no idea where ze is going or what the background is. Ze keeps on ignoring this advice, producing inferior writing, and then somehow using the "writing for hirself" response as some sort of defense. We've had this conversation repeat about 4-5 times and I know other colleagues have discussed it with hir as well.
Finally, as to the issue of pragmatic advising verses criticism: I have tries to offer specific advice, writing feedback, etc., but either Alix is not taking it (as above), or I'm not framing it in terms that ze grasps. But the writing problems go beyond this as well. For instance, ze does not prof read ~ spelling errors that a spellcheck could find; notes to hirself in capital letters in the middle of a paper; incomplete footnotes. Even aside from the unprofessionalism of the writing content and sophistication level, there is a question here of unprofessional form. Lack of proofreading to me signals a larger problem of lack of caring or lack of attention to detail.

I have tried to help this student, but sometimes I feel that ze isn't trying to help hirself, and that's highly frustrating. If ze were responsive even with these little things -- basic proof reading, deadlines, etc. -- it would be easier for me to feel like there was a possible future here. But the problems are so huge, and hir response is so unyielding.

But, again, thanks for all your comments -- I'd love to hear more.

Sincerely, Your Frustrated Colleague

Dr. Crazy said...

I didn't mean to imply that a suggestion of counseling would be amiss. I hope it didn't seem that way! It's just that from the letter, it's not clear that anybody really knows very much about what's going on with the student beyond the work that is being submitted, whether in terms of the student's aims for life after grad school or in terms of what's happening right now with the student.

I have recommended that students (both ones who are doing well and ones who are doing poorly) seek counseling - but only after I have a better sense of the whole picture of what's happening with the student, and, as Harriet notes, in a face-to-face, informal way. I've never suggested counseling based on the quality (or lack thereof) of work that the student has submitted. That's what I mean when I say more information is necessary, but I did want to make it clear that I don't think a suggestion of counseling is the wrong way to go - just that it may not be the default response when a student is performing as this student is.

Joe said...

I will definitely say that these past few blogs as well as the comments contained within, have really given me a much clearer understanding of the pitfalls of graduate studies. I also will have a much clearer sense of how to work with my graduate adviser, when the time comes. This, at the very least, makes this blog extremely relevant for me. Thank you for sharing this with us, Girl Scholar :)

Dr. Crazy said...

My last comment crossed with the comment from the letter-writer. With greater detail from that comment (the "writing for hirself" thing as well as the problems with proofreading, etc., as well as the fact that this student claims to want an academic career).... I wonder if the issue may just be that the student is incredibly unclear about what an academic career in the study of literature involves. I've encountered students like this, and at a certain point, after one last attempt at explaining it all to them, it's entirely reasonable to say, "Look, this is what you need to do, and if you don't do it, you will not be passed through. Those are the rules of the game, and if you want to "write for yourself" you'll need to do that on your own time." And, in fact, it might be useful to write what needs to be accomplished formally in the form of a contract, with consequences for not meeting the terms stipulated and a timeline for re-evaluation of the student, and to have the student as well as you and the DGS and maybe even the dean of graduate studies (?) sign off on that document and follow it to the letter.

Anonymous said...

Lots of excellent points here. I would add that if your university's health service offers some sort of support for grad students -- e.g., programs about stress management or a dissertation support group -- that could be a good place to refer a student who seems overwhelmed. Forms of support such as these could serve as a fruitful "first contact" with the health service and could prompt the student to seek counseling if necessary.

A grad student said...

I appreciate the concern for mental health issues that many of the commenters have displayed; of course it is a positive quality for professors to acknowledge that their students have lives and minds beyond what they choose to share in their schoolwork. I would act with caution, however, when recommending counseling to a student. Whether or not a student would feel a stigma in choosing to seek counseling independently, it is very easy to feel that another is placing a stigma on you with the suggestion that psychiatric help might be needed. I had a close friend at the Master's level in graduate school who, due to stress management and self-confidence issues, was encouraged independently by two professors to see a therapist. (I'll set aside the fact that, logistically, this is difficult advice to take at a small institution that offers no such services to its graduate students.) In this case, the advice crossed a line: although I am sure the faculty meant to be constructive, my friend felt instead that ze had been judged, pigeonholed, and dismissed without having even realized that hir character was up for review.

Alix's situation is obviously very different from my friend's; for one thing, Alix is a much more advanced student, and so presumably has more of a relationship with hir adviser, so similar advice might be received more in the spirit it was intended. I don't have any suggestions for alternate courses of action, I just wanted to throw my word of caution in.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm glad everyone has been so helpful (and who knows? Perhaps the I Ching is the solution! My i Ching widget on my desktop says "retreat", FWIW)

My own approach (and keep in mind that this is an M.A. program) is to do a lot of handholding at the beginning, with lots of feedback, then to gradually back off, figuring that independent work habits are part of the skill set one needs.

I've got one student going through a difficult time in hir personal life right now, and I advised taking a semester leave of absence. S/he elected not to, but I like to make sure that students know the options. I'm ashamed to say that this post has made me aware that I don't know what counseling services my university offers... and my own history with this in grad school gives me an idea for a later post.

Finally, the issue of constructive feedback: When I was in grad school, I kept gettting the comment that my papers "felt thin." I asked several times what this meant, and no one could tell me. Only four or so years after graduating, getting a job, working on my own writing, do I finally get what that means. Often, we can see that something is wrong, but don't (or can't!) explain it sufficiently. That's definitely something to work on.

Today is packing day, but I'll try to check in before I leave.

Historiann said...

Sorry I missed this discussion yesterday when it was hot. I just wanted to say that I liked Notorious's suggestion that mental illness or substance abuse might be indicated in the differential of a student whose performance and behavior is like this one. We tend to think that once people graduate from college that they're fully cooked--when I think the 20s can still be "dog years" (compared to later adult years, anyway) of personal growth and change. And, she is absolutely correct that there are some mental illnesses that manifest themselves commonly in the 20s--schizophrenia among them, but also bipolar disorder and others.

I respect the concern that "A grad student" expressed about faculty recommending counseling. But, a recommendation is just that--a recommendation. Most of the people I know who have seen or are seeing counselors or therapists are normal, healthy, functional people--they just have problems at certain points in their lives for which they need some additional help. If students can come to see counseling as a normal part of health care--just like vaccinations, mammography, and colonoscopy, for example--that's all to the good. If a student's professor recommends that ze consider counseling, that's not a diagnosis--it's just a suggestion, like any other, that might be helpful. And if more than one professor suggests it--that might be a sign that it's something to look into, rather than a one-off suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Your Frustrated Colleague said:

Thanks again to all who contributed (and to anyone else who might choose to write in still). I've appreciated the support and advice from everyone here, and have a clearer sense, now, of some viable courses of action to consider. I just hope it will wake "Alix" up!

hylonome said...

Too late here, but one final thought for the frustrated colleague. I had finished the Ph.D., and even had a job as a visitor, when someone who had been on a search committee that read (and rejected) my writing pulled me aside at a conference. He said my work was great and all, but was rejected because fields are communities and that part of what counts as success (on even the most modest terms) is being able to speak to the them. My writing sample didn't make even the most modest gesture to other readers. So I went home from the conference, re-read the sample, and wrote an effusive thank you note. Not only did this guy not have to do this, but he fundamentally enabled my career. Perhaps a comparable story could help with this student: it's just not possible to write for exclusively for oneself in a professional capacity.

Harriet said...

Historiann: I agree that the recommendation of counseling is only a recommendation, rather than a diagnosis. The caution that was expressed by various commenters, however, is due to the way that that recommendation is perceived. Regardless of whether the professor making the recommendation stigmatizes stress and depression, there is a stigma. Thus the student who receives the recommendation may understandably feel shame, embarrassment, or self-consciousness -- again, regardless of the professor's intent.

I do think that it's possible to have a conversation where the positive elements of counseling can be discussed, framing counseling as a means to ameliorate the overall health of the student. What "A grad student" and I were cautioning, however, is that the professor is in a position of power, and the suggestion of counseling -- due to social stigmas -- is all too easily seen as a dismissal of the student's stress and worry as "being crazy."

I think you make a very good point about the need for professors to say something, but I believe that there is a certain delicacy to the subject, due to the way that mental illness and stress are perceived and portrayed (both in society at large and within academic departments). I have had professors make a positive impact by framing that "I'm a fraud and stupid and useless" feeling as something "not okay" that needs addressing. As I said above, however, I've also had professors make me feel like I'm crazy and worthless, just by suggesting counseling in a certain way.

Grad School Drama said...

I'm so sorry I missed this discussion... well, when it was happening... but I am thankful that it is out here to read.

I do hope that you post a follow-up conversation/continuation as time goes on--even a thread. I feel strongly that there are many times when my colleagues hear criticism however are not given explicit tools to foster their development. Quietly, many of the people in academia succeeded because of their natural inclinations (for writing, research, etc.). It then makes it difficult for specific information to be disseminated, because, well... they haven't needed *that* type of help. I realize this seems counter-intuitive, for aren't we learning how to guide ourselves and, then, others through this process? Yes and then no. Pride and fear keep students in the closet about their challenges. We become isolated and, yes, depressed--but the isolation is enough to cripple development in that resources, encouraged by communication, are never revealed.

Anyway, sorry for the super-late post. I will be watching more closely in the future!!!

Anonymous said...

Late to this -- but I had a similar experience with a grad student. I felt like I used every tool I had (and even tried to learn more tools from anyone willing to help) to help this student succeed. They were clearly bright enough (which is what made the process difficult).

Eventually, I instituted a group wide 'expectations' contract within my lab. Every member of my group would come up with goals for a semester (for them as well as for me) and we (me and each member) went over the goals, why they were important, and what realistic progress on these goals would look like. Together we would agree and then both of us would sign the contract. Obviously, I wouldn't dismiss a student for not meeting their goals, but it gave us all an idea of EACH of our expectations.

Turns out this exercise was also very helpful for me -- I realized IN WRITING what I expect from my students, what they expect from themselves and what they expect from me. I think it cleared up a lot of misconceptions that I didn't even know were there.

In the end, the aforementioned student decided that they were not meeting their goals because they were not really excited about pursing a PhD -- after many long talks with me, family and a counselor, they left grad school. They are now have a job that makes them happy -- and this make us both happy.