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