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advice for a new grad director

This year, I’ve been on sabbatical, removed from the ordinary cares of teaching and departmental affairs. But in one short month, I’ll be returning to Albany and to “normal” life. I’ll also be returning to a three-year term as grad director.

When I was a grad student, I was only vaguely aware that we had a grad director. I certainly couldn’t have told you what the grad director does.

My sense of that is better now, but I still wonder what my goals should be as I take on this role, and how I should manage the inevitable challenges of the job.

I can imagine two basic strategies, probably not mutually exclusive. One is bottom-up: Talk to lots of grad students, figure out what they see as their problems and issues, and do what I can to solve or ameliorate those.

The other is top-down: Think about our strengths and weaknesses as a department, what our niche is both in sociology and within the university, and where we want our grad program to be in five years, and develop a plan from there.

Okay, maybe there’s a third — muddle through — but let’s assume I’m going to be a little more proactive. Also, let’s assume I have roughly zero control over financial resources. And I already know that one of my priorities is going to be better data collection on student trajectory and placement, a project that the current grad director has started but that we still have way too little information on.

What do you think? If you’ve been a grad director, what accomplishments are you proud of, and what were the challenges? If you’re a grad student, what does your department do well? Or what do you wish your department would do differently, and think a grad director might be able to change?

Written by epopp

May 29, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

15 Responses

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  1. A key first question, I think, is to determine what you are actually empowered to change.

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    Rich

    May 29, 2014 at 9:45 pm

  2. Rich beat me to the obvious question. Other questions include the following.
    Do you really think you are working on behalf of the students — to solve what they perceive to be their problems? Could such an attitude run you afoul of the major professors and of those responsible for teaching programs? Does your department cede authority for strategic planning for the grad program to the grad director? (If yes, it is unique.) How much service activity can your career (and family? sanity?) stand at this point?

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    Randy

    May 29, 2014 at 10:41 pm

  3. I’m excited about this thread, Beth. I just finished my first year as DGS and I’m finally beginning to feel competent at it, but I would love to hear others’ thoughts.

    For a new director, I would definitely encourage them to give themselves the year to get the lay of the land and learn all the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy and policies.

    Now that I’m putting my mark on the position, I am working toward a couple goals:

    1. To make things more explicit for students. For example, we have always had end of the year evaluation letters that told students whether they were making satisfactory progress. It was really only in the case of outstanding progress that there would be details on what exactly was outstanding or in the case of unsatisfactory progress that there would be details on what needed to be done to improve. This year I collected CVs and an update on the past year (things that wouldn’t be on a CV, papers sent out but rejected, grants applied for, etc.), in addition to faculty feedback, and wrote detailed letters for each student about what they accomplished this year and should be thinking about this coming year and moving forward. In my grad program, professionalization was much more by observation and learning from peers, but I’ve learned that’s not the case in my current department and I need to jump-start some of that.

    2. To work with students on their own terms and in the realities of today’s job market. It is clear to me that not everyone in my department wants an R1 job (or will get one). That’s always been the case, but we just kind of ignored it and told students what they needed to get that R1 job. Unfortunately (and this is related to #1 above), this meant that a lot of students who didn’t want the R1 job filled in the gaps and assumed that they didn’t need a publication if they wanted to be at a SLAC or a policy job or that quantitative methods weren’t important if they wanted to do ethnography. Now I’m working to acknowledge students varied career plans and getting all students prepared for those plans. I tell them that the first four years are the same regardless (become competent across a variety of areas and methods but become an expert in at least one of each, present, publish, teach) and then – after they’ve tried on those different hats – to decide what they’d like to pursue post-grad school ans spend the last couple years creating a CV that works well for those goals (more teaching for a teaching-intensive position, more publications for an R1, an internship and more methods training for policy, etc.).

    If I had a goal for myself, it would be to figure out how to be DGS without shouldering so much of the students’ stress and strain. Like Randy alludes to above, this is a significant service commitment and one that I’ve found requires a lot of time and psychological resources. I would love to find a lighten the load a bit. I’m hoping the second year is easier in that respect. .

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    jessica

    May 29, 2014 at 11:03 pm

  4. Thanks. This is all very helpful. My impression, although I will have to confirm this, is that the grad director has a fair bit of discretion over, for example, student support efforts — the first year proseminar, providing resources to learn about various career paths, advising, and so on. There is certainly no authority to make strategic decisions alone, but I think that there is openness to thinking about the big picture in the department right now — we’re undergoing a demographic transition. There is a grad committee (which the DGS chairs) that initiates such conversations and brings them to the broader faculty (in consultation with the chair and others).

    Jessica, congrats on making it through year one. Your goals sound very concrete and constructive. We also have students who take a variety of paths, and need to support all of those. I think one of our strengths is that there is not an expectation that R1 jobs are all that count, but research-focused faculty (myself included) still don’t always know how to prepare students for other kinds of jobs. One challenge is that our students are very aware from day one that they need to publish, but that doesn’t mean they know how to get there — it would be good to help with that process.

    But your larger point about learning the ropes in year one is probably the best idea. Then if I have any energy/sanity left, I can think about broader projects in years two/three.

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    epopp

    May 30, 2014 at 12:50 am

  5. In my grad program, I saw two DGSs and each had their own style and set of priorities. Neither supported students who were considering anything other than a TT position in the future, though. I think any DGS in any program should be fostering open and frank conversations about the job market and about opportunities outside of academia. Best of luck this year!

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    rglw

    May 30, 2014 at 2:32 am

  6. Your program sounds very similar to my own, with a lot of autonomy on student support. As part of this, the previous DGS had established a fairly regular lunch series> on topics relevant to students so that he could continue to socialize/professionalize them post-Proseminar (like many places, students take that their first year). While students appreciate the topical ones, the open forum (and we gave students the option submit questions/topics anonymously) worked very well my first time around.

    The lunch series and your concerns about preparing students for non-TT careers brings up another piece of advice. You don’t need to do it all. I’m lucky that my grad school is making a huge push at professional development and is offering a ton of workshops and resources. But, even before that push, the career center would meet with students about non-academic careers, our grants office would talk to students about funding opportunities, etc. If you don’t have those college or university-wide resources, take advantage of your fellow directors (particularly in social science departments) to pull together student-support efforts for your grad students while sharing the burden of delivering them.

    Speaking of other directors, I met the political science DGS at an informal event last summer and he became a sort of mentor to me this year. Both he and my department’s former DGS have been great to have around to ask questions of. If you can, find someone who can give you insight like that if you need it.

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    jessica

    May 30, 2014 at 10:59 am

  7. “This year I collected CVs and an update on the past year (things that wouldn’t be on a CV, papers sent out but rejected, grants applied for, etc.), in addition to faculty feedback, and wrote detailed letters for each student about what they accomplished this year and should be thinking about this coming year and moving forward.”

    So you did this for each student in your grad program? Holy cow! I’m a fourth-year grad student in an elite department, and If I ever got a detailed email from my DGS indicating that they’d actually read about my activities this year and wanted to help me chart a path for moving forward, I’d faint. Bravo, Jessica. Your department is richer for you being there. We should all be so lucky.

    I’m afraid mine is much more the standard situation where “professionalization” happens as you observe from a distance and pick things up as you go. The DGS is only aware of extreme cases, mostly failures. I like the freedom of this arrangement, but I also dig the idea of a DGS having their hand on the pulse of what students are up to and the sort of progress they’re all making. That would make for stronger training. I doubt many DGSs would implement what you describe above, Jessica, but a very cool idea nonetheless.

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    anonymous

    May 30, 2014 at 11:54 am

  8. As a student who just went through first year and had a lot of exposure to our (extremely helpful) DGS, I’d like to second Jessica’s comments about making things explicit. Never underestimate the extent to which the university’s bureaucratic rules and department’s tacit requirements will remain bewildering to most grad students.

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    Zach

    May 30, 2014 at 3:32 pm

  9. This is great, keep it coming if anyone has other thoughts. @Jessica, I wouldn’t have thought about DGSes from other departments as a resource — I will keep that in mind. I’m also a bit in awe of the individualized letters. Although the current DGS has instituted annual (possibly once a semester?) meetings with each pre-ABD student to go over schedules and progress.

    @Zach — good reminder. They may bewilder the grad director as well.

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    epopp

    May 30, 2014 at 7:01 pm

  10. I don’t know that the letters are awe-worthy or should cause fainting. They certainly varied significantly in detail and could have been much more in-depth. But it was important to me to do something personal because I had planned to meet with every student on campus (not unlike the pre-ABD meetings currently in effect at Albany) and the year just slipped out from under me.

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    jessica

    May 30, 2014 at 7:11 pm

  11. This year I collected CVs and an update on the past year (things that wouldn’t be on a CV, papers sent out but rejected, grants applied for, etc.), in addition to faculty feedback, and wrote detailed letters for each student about what they accomplished this year and should be thinking about this coming year and moving forward.

    I can’t help but admire your dedication, but I also have to say this seems like a waste of your time. Does it do anything useful for the grad students? How much of the information in these letters could just be conveyed collectively cohort by cohort? In the specifics, are there any real consequences for students who don’t follow your suggestions in the letters? If not, what’s the point of making it look like an annual report?

    I think grad students should be supported and expectations should be clear and fair. But grad students are not children. The DGS is not a high school counselor, or a Human Resources Manager. A letter system like this seems like a displacement activity for you. You get to feel good about being incredibly “responsible” in a way that also sucks up a lot of time that might be spent doing other things. The students come to feel entitled to large volumes of “feedback” that is most likely decoupled from any actual consequences for their funding/continuation in the program. I don’t like it.

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    Gabriella

    May 31, 2014 at 1:49 pm

  12. Thanks, Gabriella, for sharing your thoughts. I agree with much of what you’re saying and, in an ideal world (or a different department), the students would know what they need to do from department culture and interactions with peers and advisers. Unfortunately, in evaluating my own department’s strengths and weaknesses and where we’d like to (and can) be in the near future – like Beth discusses doing above – it became clear that students in my department might need more explicit feedback to live up to their potential. Like I said above, I hope it’s a jump start that gets things going without the DGS being on the hook for all of it and doesn’t kick off a trend of students relying on it.

    To answer your specific questions, I think that the students found the feedback helpful. In my program, some of it could be conveyed cohort to cohort, but I think that when it was personalized they were more apt to listen. Additionally, people in the same cohort can be at very different places (and heading very different directions). The letters came out of discussions the faculty had about student progress and next year’s funding decisions, so are certainly linked to matters of import to students. If a student fails to follow through with what it recommended and is out of the guaranteed funding window, that would influence priority for funding. I think that they will be very helpful to me next year as well, so that I can look at the letter next year and determine how the student fared. Given that a DGS (and department) also suffers when a student flounders, I feel like it is in my best interest to do what I can to help students succeed.

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    jessica

    May 31, 2014 at 5:26 pm

  13. This may not apply to Jessica’s case, so please don’t take this as targeted to this specific case. But more generally I think there are gendered elements at play here too: If women feel, whether because of internal sense of obligation or external expectations, an obligation to make jobs like DGS more labor-intensive, that is likely to come at the expense of research agenda and so on. It may (possibly) be good for the students, but bad for the careers of the people doing it. I try to be aware of this but know I am susceptible to it. The best career advice might be “keep the ship afloat and don’t worry about anything else.” But it’s not the best for departments or students if everyone pursues that strategy.

    On the other hand, I once heard a faculty member (a while back, not in my department) say that grad director is the boy job and undergrad director is the girl job. So at least, perhaps, we’re past that?

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    epopp

    May 31, 2014 at 6:08 pm

  14. Jessica, thanks for your very reasonable response. It’s good that there’s a connection to funding and general progress in the program. I hope I did not come across as too annoyed in my original comments. I think, maybe like Elizabeth, I am a quite sensitive to setups where the faculty, especially women faculty, are cast implicitly or explicitly in some sort of counseling or “den mother” role. I think labor-intensive arrangements like the one you describe can also feed off of the laudable desire of women in those positions to be responsible and help their students.

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    Gabriella

    May 31, 2014 at 6:47 pm

  15. “Given that a DGS (and department) also suffers when a student flounders, I feel like it is in my best interest to do what I can to help students succeed.”

    Again, all of us should be so lucky to have a DGS bring that sort of attitude to the job. I doubt my DGS loses much sleep over a student floundering.

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    anonymous

    May 31, 2014 at 10:00 pm


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