Giving Honest Resources to Prospective Students

A question for the peanut gallery –

I’m starting to get a trickle of the interested-in-grad-school student emails. So far the few I’ve gotten have been great. So, I’m revising my prospective students page after noticing a few things in year one. The first was a lack of some students realizing that I wanted to know their interests beyond ‘marine ecology’. I wanted a research question – any question, no matter how broad – as having a question does not guarantee it’s what you’re going to follow in your graduate career. It was just to see how students think and what I might expect from them. Now I’ve made that a wee bit more explicit, and the division between potential masters and PhD students on the page. This is all ok

OK – honesty aside, as who knows if one of the potential mentors I interviewed with is reading this, but, one of my potentially most embarrassing moments as a prospective PhD student was my first meeting with her. I had just taken a cross country flight or two, and then went to dinner with them. The first thing they asked me was, “What are you interested in?” And, indeed, I answered, after far too long of a pause, “Marine ecology.” Long pause. Then, they were kind enough to gently say, “OK, what about marine ecology?…” After I screwed my head back on a bit straighter, we had a lovely conversation about ideas, work, etc., and I passed out as soon as my head hit my pillow that night. So, you know, everyone flounders a bit. Particularly when extremely jet-lagged and getting an adrenaline rush of peering into the future.

OK, so, my question – One thing I’ve been pondering, though, is putting a piece on the page as a heads-up about the prospects of a PhD or masters student. In particular in reading Jacquelyn’s recent piece and the excellent discussion therein, and thinking about the answers to my question, “Why this degree?” to prospectives last year, I’ve realized that most students just haven’t thought about it, or have unrealistic expectations. My question is, what should we be telling them? This page – the prospective students information – is perhaps the venue they will scan most closely, and hence one of the best places to give students some knowledge about what this degree can do for them and what long-term challenges will be once they enter the employment market. I’m trying to be brief, and provide a few helpful, if sobering, links to start further reading. So – do you think this is a good idea? And if so, does the tone veer too far one way or another? I’ve tried to be gentle, if cautionary.

Or, maybe I won’t put this up at all…

— Here’s the new section

Why a graduate degree?

Why are you interested in a graduate degree? If you have no research experience aside from working as a lab tech, a masters degree might be what you’re looking for. Or it’s excellent as there are a wide variety of career options that are open to you with a masters. Do some homework – ask yourself how this degree will help you achieve your professional goals. For a PhD, I know the default answer is always “So I can be a university professor.” That’s great, and I look forward to working together to help you achieve that goal. Do some reading, though, and make sure you know what you’re jumping into (and be sure to read the comment thread at that link). The job market for academics is never great. This is not to discourage you, but take a breath before diving in and think about long-term goals. Know also that a PhD is amazing training for a wide variety of careers as well. So, think about your long-term goals and why a PhD is the right road for you. You may also be interested in checking out this book.

8 thoughts on “Giving Honest Resources to Prospective Students

  1. This is a great idea! Too often, prospective grad student sections of websites consist of “Here’s what I expect from you,” without any “What do you expect for yourself?” I think this points to a few things, including a need for better undergraduate advising, but the least we can do as PI’s is be as up front with students as possible. Not only does it serve them better, but it should also serve us better, because we’re more likely to take on intellectually mature students.

    • Indeed. I thought about doing something like this last year, but, waffled, not wanting to sound too negative. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think this is really a service. And something worth hearing.

  2. I have an old post on protecting grad students interested in academia from their own optimism:

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/advice-on-protecting-grad-students-from-their-own-optimism/

    In the letter to prospective grad students on my lab website, I specifically ask them to talk about why they want to go to grad school in light of their long-term (i.e. post grad school) goals.

    And then for anyone who says, “I want to be a prof”, I make sure they know that they’re going to need to be both *very* good and *very* lucky to succeed. And for anyone who says they want to do something else, I say that’s great (I certainly don’t think academic careers are somehow superior to non-academic ones). But I make sure they’re aware that I may not be able to help them with their career development all that much, though I’ll do the best I can. I’m a prof, and one without many non-academic contacts. So I don’t know much about what it takes to succeed in any other career, just as non-academics know little about what it takes to succeed in academia. I also have limited ability to even put students in touch with people who could help them get into non-academic careers. Basically, I do what you do: I make sure prospective students have their eyes open, and that they’re thinking far ahead.

    • That’s great. I may steal the IHE link as well. The mentoring thing has always bothered me a bit. We want to train students to not just be replicates of ourselves, and yet, it’s hard – particularly early in one’s career – to do otherwise as it’s what we know.

  3. And there’s this old post as well:

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/on-academic-ambivalence/

    That post and the comments make the point that, while job prospects are bad in academia, they’re bad in lots of fields, especially ones that pay decently. I’m sure it’s for this reason that I’m increasingly encountering prospective grad students saying things like: “Yes, I know the pay in grad school sucks, and the prospects for academic jobs aren’t good. But the job prospects in alternative careers that pay well aren’t good either. Plus, I’d hate doing anything besides research, or at least would enjoy it much less. So at least in grad school I’ll be doing something I really enjoy for a few years, and giving myself a (small) shot at doing that for the rest of my life. I’m putting off the time until I have to do something I don’t like for good money, or (more likely) something I don’t like for not much money.”

  4. After doing this for over 30 years I have concluded that getting good graduate students is really a crap shot. The real challenge is giving them the skills, confidence and creativity to be in charge of their future rather than their future being in charge of them. I tell them that right up as JB 2.0 knows. I disagree with JF about the job market. Excellent students have always gotten jobs – I tell my students that if they want to have control of their future by the time they finish their goal needs to be that people write job descriptions explitly hoping that they will apply. This gets the message across and works pretty well. They either kick ass and have it their way and look for something else to do. I’ve never had a perspective grad section on my web page as a course filter for assertive confidence.

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