grad skool rulz #18 – what professors can do to help


Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.

I’ve only been on the other side of the PhD for five years and I haven’t had chaired any dissertations, but I do feel that I should at least mention what faculty can do to help grad students finish in a reasonable time, barring a Skocpol style incentive system.

  • Grad students have lives and they need you: It’s easy for professors to get wrapped up in their own publications and promotions and forget that grad students need your time if they are ever to proceed with their own lives. I am not saying you should martyr yourself and spend all time on graduate students, but you should periodically ask “what can I do *this* semester to help my students move along in their career?”
  • Expectations: Like all ventures, explain to your graduate students – over and over – what you expect.  From the beginning. Write it down. Also try to gauge their expectations. If they want an R1 career, make it clear what they will need an exceptional dissertation or a top journal hit. Teaching colleges require less spectacular research but a big teaching portfolio. Be clear on what kind of support you can provide, both socially and academically.
  • Timeliness: This is real important – respond to dissertation drafts and letters of recommendation in a timely manner. Don’t you hate it when reviewer C takes a year to read your paper? Well, guess what? Your students feel the same way. Every semester you fail to graduate someone because you couldn’t take the time to read a chapter literally costs a grad student thousands of dollars in lost income.
  • Calm Criticism: It’s entirely legitimate to tell a student that they need to work hard and do better. However, it’s never useful to do so in a way that demoralizes the student. Be stern and demanding, but be nice, constructive and uplifting. On a related note, avoid changing the goalposts or providing ambiguous advice. Consistency is a virtue.
  • Stability: Academia is full of divas. Don’t be that way. You should be the stable coach who taps into the right emotional pool to help students move on with their lives. Don’t turn mentorship into another stage for acting out your bad side.
  • Reasonableness: Set research goals that your students can acheive and where there can be a reasonable time table for the completion of the project in a few years.. Also be prepared to help students work to acheive those goals, instead of letting them figure it out for themselves.
  • Match students with goals: Notch expectations to ability and career goals. The student gunning for R1 needs an advisor who will demand good work, but the person aiming for community college teaching merely needs to produce a satisfactory dissertation. Also, remember that if you have PhD students, you are probably a respected, if not leading, member of your academic community. You are the best. In contrast, your students may not be.  Most will not engage in the research career that you have. Your talent and career may not be theirs. Set goals that both produce quality scholarship and allow them to work toward goals that match their ability and desires.
  • Gentle Triage: This is tough, but needed. You have to really see which graduate students are willing and able to complete the program. Help people make the decision to pursue academia or another career. On the other hand, don’t “write off” students just because they aren’t perfect. Remember, many leading scholars failed a grad school test or acted like morons 30 years ago in that seminar. Give people second, third and fourth chances. Tolerate people who work differently than you do and don’t automatically dismiss them.
  • Selection:  Accept students who you think you can have productive relationships with based on research focus or personality. It’s ok to turn down students if the fit is bad. This is the flip side of grad skool rulz #7.
  • Face to face time: Get ’em in the office. Frequently, at least a few times a semester. Take ’em out to lunch. Anything to keep them on the wagon.
  • Let them shine: It’s often the case the students apprentice on the mentor’s projects. That’s great, but make sure they complete their own work as well so they don’t look like they’re just your research assistant.
  • They are future professors: Above all, these are adults who have begun a career. Treat them with dignity and respect.

R1 faculty, please add your own advice in the comments, especially if you have a solid track record placing PhD students.

Written by fabiorojas

March 30, 2008 at 3:34 am

5 Responses

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  1. Great post!



    March 30, 2008 at 5:28 am

  2. As a graduate student currently, I love these post. I just wanted to let you know so you keep writing them. Maybe this could be a short book for how to survive and thrive in grad school.


    Richard Pointer

    March 30, 2008 at 5:27 pm

  3. well said, fabio — just the boost i needed. i’ve always tried to spend a lot of face time with students, but chair duties have made this more difficult lately. i’ll try to catch up this summer…



    March 31, 2008 at 4:47 am

  4. Great stuff. We should get the ASA to publish these (and other forms of on-line institutional knowledge) in a book. So rather than having a Centennial History of ASA, we have a blogger’s book of advice.



    March 31, 2008 at 8:20 pm

  5. One thing I’ve found particularly troubling in the past has been the near unanimous refusal or inability of professors to help even with basic guidance during PhD program searches.



    April 2, 2008 at 2:29 pm

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