Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Admitting it is the first step.

I saw this over at ianqui's page, where she cited this article in the Chronicle by a particularly disgruntled professor who writes under the pseudonym Lagretta Gradgrind.

This essay is basically a rant about the worst kinds of grad students and how these bad experiences have made her not want to advise them anymore.

Ianqui says she had no idea how much work it was to advise grad students, but she still thinks it's important (I'm paraphrasing based on her blog).

I guess for me Lagretta's disgruntlement rings true, in the sense that I know the worst kinds of grad students and how disappointing it can be when someone chooses to do something else with their life despite all your encouragement and hopes for them.

More importantly, Lagretta acknowledges that the problems may actually be in grad school admissions as much as anything. I've said this before and I still think it's true, so I was pleased to see she called attention to that as a potential source of the problem.

But I also think she understands that many would-be professors go the 'alternative' routes because the system is so broken right now.

In a way, I was really relieved to see that somebody seems to actually get it.

On the other hand, I have to wonder if part of the problem is that Lagretta isn't very good at reading people. She complains that she feels used because it seems like some of these students were just putting on an act to get her to help them. It's hard to know if the students were deliberately manipulating her, because she's gullible, or if they just genuinely realized, late in the game, that this game was not for them.

Most of us struggle with the choice. It's a choice you have to make over and over again, every day. Just yesterday I was talking to someone who is on the verge of turning down an offer for a faculty position, because the reality of the commitment forced a really harsh assessment that was, until now, easy to deny. This is a story I've heard a few times recently, and I'm wondering if it's a new trend.

The story goes like this:

Young, idealistic person applies for jobs, gets interviews, goes on interviews.

Meets faculty, young and old.

Is put off by the reality of complaints, which go like this: "Funding is crap. Tenure is hard to get even when it's done fairly, which in many places it still isn't. Real estate is expensive. We're all getting divorced."

Young, idealistic person gets job offers, and turns them down.

Meanwhile, rapidly-becoming-less-young people like me are at home, not idealistic at all, not getting interviews.


Anyway I guess I think it's unfortunate that someone like Lagretta is so bitter that she doesn't want to mentor graduate students anymore, but in a way I can't blame her. I think I feel much the same as Lagretta in that I feel my calling is as much in mentoring as it is in research. But sometimes it's hard to buy into being part of a system I have so little respect for.

I guess you have to wonder if academia is, as I heard Chris Dodd say this morning, "a country of laws, not a country of men." And which one is better. Chris Dodd was saying that laws are good, because people will come and go with varying levels of integrity (I'm paraphrasing again).

I would like to think that if academia is nothing more than the sum of the people who make it work, then it has the potential to change.

But if academia is just a collection of rules, too heavy and collapsing under its own weight, instead of trying to put your finger in the dike, maybe it makes more sense to just get out of the way.

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At 10:03 PM, Blogger John the Scientist said...

There were some comments in there that made me think that the author was in the Humanities rather than Sciences, and theirs is a very different game from ours.

I've long complained that advisors should do more to help grad students along and less to make grad school just as unpleasant as it was in their day.

But I was a bit surprised by this:

"I have spent countless hours helping them revise seminar papers for publication, prepare for comprehensive exams, rewrite dissertation chapters, craft vitae, compose teaching-philosophy statements, and negotiate job offers."

I'd say that revising papers is part of an advisor's job, and many don't do it well, so I go along with that one. However, prepping for a Comp is on the student adn the student alone. So is rewriting chapters and composing teaching philosophy statements. It just feels to me as if she went overboard the other way and did too much hand-holding, which might have led to certain personality types self-selecting into her group.

Graduate school in the fourth and fifth years is about learning to stand on one's own two feet. I would not have even dared ask my advisor about how to craft a CV (which should be obvious at the grad student level), but I would have polled him about academic job offers.

I'm afraid I'm one of those students who bolted, though, because I took a hard look at the system in my third year and started seaching for alternative careers. I wound up starting an MBA program within three weeks of defending my PH.D., and I'm now happy as a clam in Industry.

Academia is not going to change because it is incentivized to be the way it is, and one thing I've had hammered into my head in private industry is: the vast majority of people go in the direction they are incented. Even Academics.

At 7:41 PM, Anonymous Mandatory Vacation said...

That article really pissed me off. The complaints about students lying to her struck me as particularly disingenuous- it's her job to help them whether they're going to follow her footsteps at an R1 or be a stock broker. If your students have to lie to get your help, there's a whole different level of problem.


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