Friday, May 6, 2016

Choosing Academia: Some Cautionary Notes

Awkward prologue, because I don't feel like making it a separate post:

In recent weeks, I've been surprised by the grief I've felt over my student years coming to an end. Until now, I'd mostly focused on the relief of putting this fiasco behind me, not to mention enjoying our new puppy and attending to other life stuff. But a couple things have brought a pang of sadness. 
A student who has been here longer than I have, someone I've considered a model grad student and one of the few women to graduate recently, just successfully defended her dissertation. I'm so pleased for her, and it has also reminded me how I used to imagine my triumphant dissertation defense, the sense of camaraderie with my professors-turned-colleagues, and the celebration with friends afterward. That picture became less triumphant and celebratory as the years went on, until I didn't really have a picture anymore.

I've also had coffee recently with a history scholar who impressed me very much -- not only is she a professor, she's also a young mom, a rare female academic from my Reformed circles, and involved with the founding of an interesting new theological institute. (In other words, a rockstar in my eyes!) Talking with her reminded me of things I had hoped for myself -- which reminded me, in turn, that I have no idea what my next steps are, what I have to contribute. Generally speaking, I am not anxious about this. However, that doesn't mean I'm not still grieving . . . thinking about how things might have been different, if I had made different choices and received different mentorship.

The two hardest things, I'm realizing, are the relational aspect and the sense of falling short of my potential. Far from a sense of camaraderie, there's a sense that, with a notable exception or two, my relationships with faculty weren't what I thought they were. And then, the sense that I do have a decent piece of historical scholarship in me, but I couldn't bring it to fruition. I'd still like to write it someday. I'm just not sure when, what about, or under whose guidance.
Anyway, there's just a lot on my mind as graduation looms. (I don't plan on attending commencement for my consolation Masters, for a number of reasons.)


There are many posts and articles out there (and even entire blogs!) giving reasons not to attend graduate school. Some are well worth reading and taking under consideration, and I'll reiterate one or two similar points here. However, that's not the type of post I'm primarily interested in writing. Instead, I want to raise some questions I believe are worth asking, and cautions worth considering, before committing to grad school in general, or to any specific program or mentor.

Keep in mind that my advice is colored by painful experiences that are quite fresh, that I am only familiar with programs in the humanities fields, and that things vary widely from program to program. It's always important to gather a variety of input when considering a Ph.D. These are simply things I wished I had known, or had taken more seriously, at various points in my journey. (Note that I am glossing over major issues such as funding and the job market, as discussion of these topics is easy to find online.) All that said, here are several thoughts I've collected over the past few months.

Choosing Grad School

--It is hard for me to encourage anyone to enter graduate school driven solely, or even primarily, by love of their subject. Certainly, passion is important, but "I could read theology for hours" might not sustain you if other motives, like the desire for an academic career, are flagging. Keep in mind that, for most people, the demands of a graduate program do not allow the time or flexibility for leisurely absorption of books that interest you. While graduate seminars can sometimes be invigorating, they also involve a lot of glorified book reports as you and your peers stumble through classroom facilitation. Consider whether you could read more deeply in your areas of interest on your own. If the "guild" issues are important to you, you can always purchase a scholarly journal subscription or two. I realize I sound cynical about the value of a graduate education. I don't mean to suggest that it's worthless -- only that the romanticized image of "the intellectual life" ought to be laid to rest.
--Are you determined to teach on the university level? In many ways, this is the only compelling reason to pursue a PhD. 
--Are you good at seeking out mentors -- even to the point of making a slight nuisance of yourself? I had never struggled to connect with mentors in the past, so I didn't realize this was a problem until rather late in the game. The difference was that, at earlier stages of my education, I was swimming in smaller ponds and drew mentors to myself with seemingly little effort. I took it for granted that I would always find someone who understood my goals, with whom I could communicate well. In grad school, however, I never learned how to take the initiative to find that person. It never occurred to me to drop by a professor's office unless I was seriously struggling. So, I'm not a great person to advise on this, except to suggest that you enter grad school with a networking mindset instead of expecting to be taken under someone's wing. (This may have something to do with the male-dominated environment of many programs. I don't know.)

--If you have struggled with depression and/or anxiety in the past, remember that grad school offers triggers aplenty. Get a support system in place from the very beginning, even if that simply means finding a general practitioner you trust. Try to take these steps before you'll need them, because when you're in the thicket of a depression, reaching out for those resources will feel like a monumental task. Please don't take it lightly -- a Ph.D. isn't worth wrecking your health. Even if you aren't especially susceptible to these things, learn to be comfortable asking for help and making a distinction between your academic success and your self-worth.

Choosing a Program (a.k.a. Departmental Politics)

--A cheerful campus visit doesn't necessarily tell you much about the culture/dynamics of a department. Consider that disaffected faculty or students may not be hanging around where you can see them. If a demoralized student must come to campus, trust me, she'll try to avoid the entire half of campus where she might run into colleagues and be forced to exchange academic pleasantries. (You can sometimes spot these individuals -- they're the thirty-somethings slinking shame-facedly across campus with tote bags full of overdue library books.) It's hard to suggest a way around this, except to encourage you to seek contact with students who have been in the program for several years; don't just have coffee with some starry-eyed first-years and assume you have a read of the campus climate. (More seasoned students are probably less plugged into campus activities and therefore less likely to be involved in outreach to prospective students.)

--Any department committed to placing graduates in jobs will give you opportunities to gain teaching skills. Will your department offer you work as a Teaching Assistant, at minimum? At whose discretion are these, and adjunct positions, assigned? Are there any invisible hoops you'll be expected to jump through, or people whose good opinion you'll need to secure, in order to get these assignments? Again, these are questions to raise with students who've reached Candidacy status.

--Has the department redesigned its program recently, or are they in the process of doing so? Ask questions and proceed with caution, especially if this has occurred multiple times in recent memory. (Over the course of six years in my program, the program was restructured numerous times depending on who was in charge. This meant that a student handbook was never completed, and things like exam reading lists were difficult to get one's hands on in a timely manner. It produced needless frustration and anxiety among students.) If a program is seeking to increase their profile among other programs, or if even a few faculty have this ambition, it becomes easier for struggling students to fall through the cracks.

Choosing an Advisor

--Picking an advisor can be so difficult, because your classroom interaction with a professor isn't necessarily the best indicator for how an advising relationship will go. Simply hearing them talk about their standards and expectations for the advising relationship isn't enough, because reality doesn't always match aspirations. The more relevant question is: do they have a track record of successful advising?  Don't hesitate to ask a potential advisor up front how many dissertations they've advised to completion -- you have every right to know. Can you speak with some current and former advisees about their experiences? Remember that you can always ask a relatively untested faculty member to serve on your dissertation committee, and even work closely with them, without banking on him or her to be the gatekeeper for your future career. In general, be cautious about asking a freshly tenured faculty member to be your primary advisor, even (or especially?) if they're a rising star.

--Be very clear with your intended advisor about such things as frequency of meetings, amount of written feedback to expect, and his or her availability over the summer.

--Encouragement is important. There is a well-known ex-academic blogger who writes something to the effect that you should avoid choosing the kindly advisor who remembers your birthday and bakes you cookies. There may be some truth to this, especially for the career-minded student in a ruthless market. However, an advisor should be a fundamentally decent human being with a teaspoon of empathy (e.g., he or she recognizes that there is life outside of academia), or it's probably not worth the suffering.
--Do you have at least two (TENURED) backup possibilities in case something goes awry? One backup in case advising goes poorly, another in case someone retires abruptly, etc.?

--Are there procedures to follow if something goes poorly with your advisor? Especially if your advisor is someone you like and have enjoyed working with in the past, it's easy to think, "That won't happen to me." Not to mention, this person is probably a major reason you chose this Ph.D. program (i.e., you basically uprooted your life for them). But consider having a conversation about what to do if things aren't going well, and at what point to make that determination (hint: earlier is better!). Though it will be awkward, your professor and department should be willing to let you switch to someone else, if it means the difference between your finishing or not.
--Even if your intended advisor says they don't want to give you a topic, don't take that at face value -- they want you to work on something that's interesting to them and that's in their methodological wheelhouse. I suspect that much can be forgiven or glossed over if you're writing something they're personally invested in seeing published. Take this into account when deciding who to work with.
--If your advisor was a "golden boy" (or girl) in graduate school and is relatively young in career, it's worth thinking about whether they understand what it is like to struggle academically. It's a bit galling to hear from a tenured, much-honored, up-and-coming professor that "You tried, there's no shame in walking away," or "Sometimes it's the more courageous thing to let go."
--Will your advisor be sufficiently invested in your success to vouch for and support you if your path to scholarship doesn't unfold in a traditional way, or in the way they would prefer? Again, sadly, this can be difficult to discern at the outset. Going back a couple of years, I recall being asked things like, "Is this what you really want to be doing?" or "Does the thought of quitting bring relief?" Not bad questions, in and of themselves, but I now see how they helped to undermine my confidence from an early stage. I don't recall hearing things like, "This is a bit of a mess right now, but you've put a lot of effort in, and we'd like to see you graduate, so let's figure out how to make that happen." Hearing something like that would have meant a great deal to me and possibly been a turning point toward graduating. I was actually a bit shocked when I heard that advisors who say such things allegedly exist!

--To put it more succinctly: don't pick an advisor who will make it their business to decide if you belong in the field/on the market or not. Find out up front--will they do what they can to help you finish your degree, even if your dissertation isn't Oxford University Press material? Do they recognize that not everyone wants the same things from their academic experience and future career?
Again, so much of this is reflective of my own particular struggles and disappointments. Plenty of people have had dramatically different experiences. To sum it up, though: don't be idealistic about the dynamics you'll encounter in academia. Only you can decide if the Ph.D. is ultimately worth it to you.