how ‘who you worked with’ doesn’t work

“Who did you work with?” It’s a question applicants get all the time on the job market, and for good reason: if you know someone’s dissertation advisor, you probably know a bit more about how that person works, the kinds of questions they study, the sorts of methods and theory they use. Of course, the American job market doesn’t want to hire disciples, so a student can’t be too close to the teacher: there has to be some difference, theoretical or methodological, creative or substantive. Yet there needs to be some commonality too, if nothing more than a commonality of competence. Knowing someone’s mentor has chops is supposed to translate into knowing that person has chops as well. Those of us who have grad students have them because we believe that being a good sociologist can be taught, and that skills—even excellence—can be reproduced. And so status moves forward, down the genealogical line: begat, begat, begat.

There are a lot of problems with this focus on individual-level mentoring, with an advisor’s status functioning as a high-level credential (eg: “Oh X is solid. She worked with Y”). First off, the sociology of it is not at all obvious to me. It’s simply an empirical question how much a mentor matters in the formation of good scholars: we are, after all, a big wide community, and why can’t it take a village to raise a sociologist? That “village” might extend beyond a graduate school to the discipline as a whole: think of a student at a low-prestige grad program whose mentor is not well-known nor super invested in the discipline (or grad students). Yet this grad student reads widely, attends conferences, and networks assertively, finding other people to read her work. She doesn’t have the currency of a high status mentor, but she might well have some good publications. It’s interesting how much the status of the mentor still matters when I think about that student’s chances on the market (and the status of her university).

I’m not saying anything new to say that it’s deeply ironic how a discipline so committed to fighting inequality in the world at large maintains such deep inequalities in its own house. And a focus on mentors as tokens of worth, while important and understandable, can have a significant role in maintaining those inequalities. What if, instead of thinking of ourselves as a guild of masters and apprentices, we thought of ourselves as a community of practitioners, eager to help everyone get better at what they do? I have no idea how that would work out practically, but it’s worth thinking about, and I’ll write more about this. If you have any thoughts, do please let me know in the comments or over e-mail.



Written by jeffguhin

September 7, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Posted in academia

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10 Responses

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  1. Perhaps an applicant without a high-status, well-connected mentor is more employable — cheaper, and easier to push around.

    Liked by 1 person

    Donald Frazier

    September 7, 2016 at 6:52 pm

  2. I think some of this is status signaling, but some of it is also grasping for someone the interviewer already knows (of). If I meet someone who studied under Jeff Guhin, that tells me a bit about them, and if the choice is between that and someone who studied under John or Jane Doe, PhD, the familiar probably wins out. In the absence of anything like a standard curriculum (or even a standard hidden curriculum), it can be helpful just to know that so-and-so worked with/under/around a known quantity. That, and if they really do know the person, they can call them and ask about the person.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 7, 2016 at 7:44 pm

  3. We don’t fight inequality because inequality is inherently bad, we fight inequality because we think the basis of (certain) inequality is not justified. For instance, we protest inequality based on race because we think that race should not be the basis of rewards. But we don’t fight inequality based on competence, insofar as we think that competence should be the basis of rewards.

    Insofar as status of advisors/institutions/programs can be a useful signal, why should we protest using it as useful screening tool? Sure, I’m sure that the process of gaining access to prestigious advisors/institutions/programs is subject to some cumulative advantage process (that may be partly based on race, gender, and other factors that we think should not be basis of rewards); but when we think only of status of advisors/institutions/programs, insofar as it can serve as useful signals of quality, there’s no reason to oppose it. Sure, we should study whether there is indeed correlation, but it seems rather unjustified to say that we should fight it because any inequality is categorically bad. You’re essentially saying that, for instance, when we choose which movie to see, we should not look at any ratings on the rating websites, since those ratings cause inequality. From my understanding, we are not “so committed to fighting inequality in the world at large.” Sometimes, we like inequality! (e.g., Do we think all papers should receive the same number of citations? I hope not…)

    Liked by 1 person

    Disgruntled grad student

    September 7, 2016 at 8:29 pm

  4. as a grad student who is currently on the market this issue is rather important to me. i find it annoying. i attend a pretty highly-ranked program and will probably benefit from that affiliation. however, i haven’t “worked with” any faculty in my program. i have taken methodological classes that helped me conduct my own research and there have been times here and there when faculty have given me general professionalization advice. but they haven’t been involved in my research in any significant way. i do my thing. they do theirs. i am a “student” of my chair (and the rest of my committee) only in the sense that we have institutionalized roles to play.

    and, to be clear, i’m not criticizing my department. i am overwhelmingly satisfied with the training i have received and in my interactions with faculty, including those with my chair. i suspect that my experience is common, but i also know students in my own department that have had more intensive working relationships with faculty. in fact, i chose my committee chair because i thought they would leave me to my own devices, which they mostly have, and for that i am grateful.

    i just wish that committees would evaluate me (and my competitors) on my (and our) own merit, and not on some highly dubious signal of quality. how many people actually work intensively with their faculty advisers? if the number is not large, then why do we care whose student someone is?

    Liked by 2 people


    September 7, 2016 at 9:04 pm

  5. “In the absence of anything like a standard curriculum (or even a standard hidden curriculum), it can be helpful just to know that so-and-so worked with/under/around a known quantity.”

    how is it helpful? i’m not trying to be combative, but i don’t think i buy it. don’t you think it’s just as likely that using this sort of heuristic leads to biased, suboptimal decisions? i can see how it would make us feel better about having to make a hard decision — friends and known-quantities have a way of putting our mind at ease. but i honestly can’t see a way that it improves our collective decision-making. knowing that a student has benefited from a relationship with a known mentor to the tune of high-quality, independent publications or research potential (as evidenced by a book contract or something) = obviously useful. Just knowing that someone inhabited the same airspace as important-in-the-fieldX or i-went-to-grad-school-withY = not useful.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 7, 2016 at 9:13 pm

  6. @anonymous_young_scholar I think it is helpful because like most snap evaluative judgements, it is a cognitive shortcut. If I am forced to make an evaluative choice about someone – be it selecting a potential collaborator, new hire, student admission, etc, any information is helpful. Including the information that a person whose judgement I respect (and am familiar with) has chosen to work with or mentor this person already, and has done so successfully. Particularly in the case of the mentor/mentee advisor/advisee relationship, but a series of paper collaborations between peers works well, too (albeit differently). Lacking that information, they’re just a name on a page with other names on a page vouching for them. Institutional prestige likely stands in at this point, but that’s just the “I know your mentor” effect writ large, isn’t it? I’m not arguing using this information leads to (necessarily) better decisions, it just leads to easier decisions – thus helping by making the decision problem go away.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 7, 2016 at 10:58 pm

  7. As a very senior person who does not plan to look for another job, I also find this to be a less than helpful question if the goal is to use it as a way of sorting or ranking people.

    One way of understanding it is like “who’s your daddy?” or “are you related to the Smiths in Springfield?” That is as trying to locate someone in a social network. At its most benign, it is: do we know anybody in common? Or: what kinds of ideas can I assume you’ve been exposed to? Where might we start our conversation? If you are on a path that begins with identifying rank and current location, if the interviewee is a student it isn’t illogical to ask “who are you working with?” as a narrowing down of location.

    All students have advisors and faculty they work with, in the sense that all students ought to have faculty reading their papers. I would say I “work with” any student whose papers I comment on, and would consider it appropriate for students to respond that way to the “works with” question. So for some people, the answer would be: I’m working on X’s Big Project [like grad students in physical sciences who are working in a particular lab]. But for others it would be: My project isn’t closely tied to my mentors; My advisor is X but I also talk a lot about my work with W, Y and Z.” For others, it might be: “I talk to different people about different parts of my work. I’ve learned a lot from my assistantship and collaboration with X, but the person who is advising my thesis is Y.”

    So while agreeing with the people who criticize the question, I can see it arising logically in a flow of introductory back and forth, and suggest that people can plan for and craft appropriate responses that keep the conversation moving forward toward the opportunity to make one’s elevator speech.

    Liked by 2 people


    September 7, 2016 at 11:01 pm

  8. I agree with olderwoman that this question can sometimes be the ASA equivalent of “so, what’s your major?”. It gives people a way to make a connection and have something to talk about.

    But to the extent that people use it as a quality signal, I agree that it is frustrating. I’m not sure how big that extent really is, however. I’m sure it matters at least a bit for candidates who are on the bubble for a particular job. But, to consider limit cases on the R1 job market, a person with a solo AJS probably doesn’t need advisor halo and someone without any pubs at all probably won’t benefit from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    Steve Vaisey

    September 8, 2016 at 1:01 pm

  9. Adding more in. (1) The really good advisors who work with many students tend to work with students of all abilities. So it is actually a false signal to assume that working with Famous Advisor means that a student has been somehow screened to be better. It is at best a signal of the genre of training a student has received. (2) Some Famous Advisors send signals about which of their students they are enthusiastically backing for high places, and which not. I have seen people with fewer publications get job offers because Famous Advisor vouched for them enthusiastically. But it was the vouching coupled with FA’s stature that mattered, not just FA’s stature. (3) Agree that people use advisor as a cognitive shortcut to “what kind of sociologist are you” and also agree that this is a poor proxy. I do urge young people on the market to plan for this question and be prepared to give an answer that moves the conversation in the direction they want it to go, rather than just getting annoyed at it.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 9, 2016 at 2:06 pm

  10. Thanks for all the really helpful comments everyone. I think another big problem that adds to this is what I’m calling “the myth of the artist” which can happen across methodologies and areas of empirical focus, but I think can be more pronounced certain places rather than others. The problem with thinking of a sociologist as a lone genius rather than one worker in a collective project is that it makes how that genius came up even more important: who “trained” you to be the brilliant artist you are? Etc.

    That said, I’ve asked people who they’re working with all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem as a banal place-holder in conversation, but as with anything, differences in status can make the banal no longer banal. As such, “who you worked with” takes on the same stakes as checking ASA name tags, which, for me, are also mostly banal, but which I understand can be sources of great status anxiety for others. Like Micah said, looking at a name tag or asking about an advisor are often just means of locating someone within a network so as to have a means of talking to someone and figuring out to whom you are speaking, but of course that necessarily carries with it all sorts of differences in status and prestige that might affect how we engage others, try as we all might be to engage everyone democratically and with a focus on equality.

    That’s not say that I won’t ask “who are you working with” anymore, but I’m trying to be mindful about how I ask it, and in what context.



    September 9, 2016 at 4:44 pm

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