Honesty: honestly?

As you climb the ladder of success, don't let the boys look up your dress!

Notorious, Ph.D. hosted a “listening session” at her blog this week in which she asked, “What do you wish we were doing/not doing with respect to our grad students?,” among other questions, and asked students to weigh in and faculty-types to stand down.  She summarizes the results in this follow-up post, and then asks faculty-types to respond.  Honesty is what the students want–honesty about their work, their talents (or lack thereof), and honesty about their job prospects. 

Of course, there may be such a thing as too much honesty.  “Honesty” can of course feel very aggressive, and can be used as a cover for aggression.  Female Science Professor also has a post up about grad student culture, and the degree to which grad students talk about research and even collaborate.  She credits a conversation with a fellow grad student with perhaps saving her career:

As I have surely described at some point in the past, it was after a particularly brutal one-sided “discussion” with one of my committee members that I started the collaboration that resulted in my first paper with another graduate student. This professor had savagely belittled my research and ideas, told me I was stupid and ignorant (in those exact words), and expressed great pessimism that I would ever get a graduate degree of any sort, in part because he was going to vote “fail” at my defense. I staggered back to the grad office area and sat, stunned, on a couch in the common area.

A senior grad student, whom I didn’t know well because he was in a somewhat different subfield of research, saw me and asked why I seemed so down. I told him that Professor Z hated my ideas and thought I was an idiot. He said “That is actually a good indication that you might be right. Tell me your ideas.” So I did. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then said “I think you are on to something. Let me tell you about some of my work that relates to what you’re thinking.” So he did, and this started a series of discussions over the course of months. We developed our complementary ideas, tested them, wrote things, sketched things, and eventually published a paper in a journal I thought would be out of my reach as a graduate student.

This anecdote suggests a point I’ve made here before, which is that it’s as much your grad student colleagues as your grad advisers that are critical to the quality of education you’ll get in grad school.  Not all attention and interest from other grad students is benign or helpful, but a lot of it is–and making alliances and working together in grad school is a pretty good apprenticeship in collegiality and (as FSP describes above) collaboration in your professional life.

What do you all think?

17 thoughts on “Honesty: honestly?

  1. I completely agree. As a PhD student prior to my orals, my fellow grad students were incredibly important to keeping me semi-sane. They were the ones who assured me that I needed to talk to the dept chair, as The Vampire was truly trying to destroy me. The chair agreed (to my astonishment) and got Vampire’s friends to talk hir down. They didn’t get hir to back off – and it was my grad student colleagues who were there for me as I staggered out of my orals. They were the only ones who could process the Vampire’s savage behavior for me; they were the ones who assured me (rightly) that the other profs were horrified by Vampire’s behavior. They were the ones who immediately removed Vampire from their own committees and warned others.

    They were also the ones who helped me through the self-doubt and to fake the courage to ask a Another Big Name to take Vampire’s place on my committee. The rest of the PhD process was amazing.

    My advisor was the sweetheart, and let such savage attacks (yeah, Vampire blasted him in my orals) roll off of him like water off duck’s back. He didn’t take her seriously as a threat to me or my aspirations and was a bit astonished that I did. Once I told him that, he was very supportive and wonderful, but he never corrected hir. Vampire is probably still there, without grad students or savaging them still. God help ’em.


  2. I purposefully bring people into my lab–grad students, post-docs, and other trainees–who either are smarter than me or who think they are smarter than me. And the deal is that we are extremely honest with one another. I do not hold back anything concerning my opinions of their work, and in return I demand the same of them. This is particularly important in science, where if the people doing the science aren’t brutally honest with one another, then mother nature will be.


  3. I have great colleagues and, among these colleagues, great friends. But even still, if an advisor has decided to go haywire, we are all helpless. In fact, in the situation I’m currently in, I feel isolated even from my closest colleagues and friends because their graduate experience is so vastly different from mine that they have no idea what it’s like for the past five years to have been so awful.

    (Also, in history departments at least, what we do is so different from each other–time period, geographies, methodology–that there’s a limit to how useful we can be to each other.)


  4. The key to all of that, though, is being willing to speak out in the face of unfair treatment. The nature of grad school and solo study produces a feeling of isolation, so you’re tempted to bottle it in. Good for Female Science Professor for reaching out and telling her peer what happened instead of just smiling and saying, “I’m fine.”

    Post Academic


  5. Thanks, Historiann and Notorious Ph.D., for getting this conversation going. I’m a few weeks from defending and a few months from taking a job where I will (eventually) have graduate students of my own. It’s an egalitarian department with a small PhD program, so I could end up on committees rather soon. I’m sure that learning to advise grad students is a gradual process that changes with each student, and that I’ll benefit from mentors at my new department. But if anyone (graduate student or professor) has some positive or constructive experiences or advice from either side of the new prof/grad student relationship, I’d love to hear them.


  6. Thanks for the shout-out, h’ann. And I totally agree about the importance of other students. They are there to share your triumphs, and to give you honest feedback because that’s what they want from you, too.


  7. I think it’s a commonplace now that graduate students in anything but the smallest departments form reading groups, study groups, and other sub-cohorts that help to sustain or overcome the isolation in ways that were not the case in my day. It would be a very interesting study to read a couple of generations of dissertation acknowledgments sections to see how the culture has evolved in that respect. It’s a very stylized genre of academic expression, but still I think the changes are very apparent and overwhelmingly a good thing.

    For all of that, it remains a stage where there is often considerable hesitation to talk about specific research for fear that something might get “stolen” (not necessarily or at all by your near cohort-mates but simply by virtue of being “out there” in general), or else be meanly criticized or something. This is obvious human nature, but something that needs to be worked on, to the extent that one can manage natural reactions.

    And, as thefrogprincess notes, once you get in a department of your own, unless it’s truly vast in scope, you’re likely to be surrounded by people who do very different things. And while this can be wonderful, it also limits the degree to which you can really share ideas in depth (especially early on). From that point, cohort-formation is external to the department, but I think it still builds on the quality of the collegial experiences you’ve managed to have at the larval stage. I guess the bottom line is that learning how to be simultaneously competitive and collegial with larger and larger groups of people is no easy thing.


  8. Establishing a good network of colleagues is one of the most important outcomes of graduate school (and at least in the sciences, of the early post-doctoral years), imho.

    Andrew, as you note, all students are different. We don’t have much of a faculty mentoring system here at my institution but I’ve cobbled it together as I’ve gone along and that’s been helpful in thinking about advising. A key for me has been recognizing that the best advice might not come from faculty. Classified staff (office managers and so on) have great insight into the life of the university. I think the biggest thing I do right is having a “my door is (almost) always open” policy but I can see how that would not work for every adviser. Whatever you figure out that works for your students has to work for you too, otherwise it won’t work for any of you after a while.


  9. I got a great deal of emotional support from my grad school colleagues (bless each and every one of them). Some of that was crucial to helping me through real crisis moments.

    But nobody was anywhere near my intellectual niche of practice. That distance only grew when I went to work at Regional Comprehensive U where I’m the only pre-modernist (Anglophone). But here, reaching across specializations and disciplinary boundaries has helped me concoct a similar support group.

    Getting that support somewhere, whether from classmates, colleagues or other intellectual peers, has to be critical to helping anyone navigate academia. The problem is that we’re often the least well-equipped, in terms of emotional intelligence and working conditions, to both notice and support our peers and students properly.


  10. I’m in an undergraduate honours program and we are the first ones to go through it as a group. The eight of us are such good friends, are so knowledgeable of what the others are up to–their successes, struggles and frustrations–and are so supportive of each other that it has been noticed by professors in the department who are not directly invested as either profs or as supervisors in our program. Every so often someone will mention that they are surprised at how well we get along, ect. We have used our collective action to bring up our concerns to the department, to apply to grad school and to ready ourselves for exams in a way that would not have been easy on our own.

    Next year I’m starting an MA and I must say that if I get with a group of students who are half as supportive and generally great as the group I am with now, I would be thrilled. It’s so great to have people who are there for you to bounce ideas off of, to read your work and to have your back in bad situations.


  11. I think Indyanna is right, that this is something that has changed. I did my degree in a relatively small program; my advisor had a student a year ahead of me, and one two years behind or so. My year group was very close while we prepared for exams, but afterwards, I traveled, one of the 3 americanists dropped out, etc. So I had good colleagues, but in the end, it was sort of odd. I had friends through grad school, but only one in my field… That said, they helped me through some very rough moments!


  12. My graduate school experience is relatively recent and I now am working with grad students at the public university I am now employed at, so I feel like I can understand the demands of both structural positions to some extent.

    There is an ideal of mentorship in PhD programs that is just that, ideal. It rarely works in practice the way it is supposed to. Brilliant friends of mine from graduate school did not make it through because of the misanthropy of someone on their committee. PhD programs seem designed to make one feel insecure and to trigger traumatic transference issues (hence so much whining by so many amazing people). I had a professional career before graduate school, so managed to have some sense of perspective, but it can be hard to be 30 and still be literally dependent upon the approval of a parental figure for financial, professional, and personal sustenance. This is especially true for queer people, people of color, women, working class people who have another layer of issues to negotiate at the same time (imposter syndrome etc.).

    In redesigning PhD programs we would do well to take some of the pressure off the advisor/dissertator relationship. (Even the good ones are often so sought after that they have no time for really strong mentorship.) This means building strong cohorts and thinking about how to build in a broader and more systematic mentoring system. Like many others, I would not have gotten through without my peers.

    Ah, so much more to say, but I’ll leave it at that…


  13. Let me just heartily agree with AsstProf’s point about the additional “layer of issues” that “queer people, people of color, women, working class people” have to deal with. A few months ago at my blog, someone pointed out differing levels of ability/disability and I’d also like to add mental wellness, especially depression or anxiety which I think are more rampant than people want to admit. So many times I feel as though faculty treat us all as though we are married, white, wealthy, men and have access to the resources and support married white wealthy men supposedly have.


  14. All great points. Many of our graduate students have two pretty much equal supervisors–often of different genders and ages. It’s no panacea, but it does lower the pressure a little, I think, and in some cases students seem to feel free to ask one of the two advisers questions they wouldn’t like to put to the other.


  15. In the program I work at, the number of students is so small that they have a very limited cohort of peers and in some fields there are no others. Additionally, I’ve seen a number of faculty leave for research for one to two years at a go and leave their students behind. Some have been terrific at keeping up with their students, some have not. As a newer prof, I do some babysitting of students. And I dislike that term, but it is what it is because I cannot fully advise the students and sometimes when I have advised student when the advisor decides to show up, they get pissed off at me for trying to “advise” their students.

    In the larger program I finished up in, it was full of good people. A tad competitive at times but good people. I bless them both for their help in pushing me at different times.


  16. Per Tony Grafton, and others above, I think that anything structural or practice-related that deflects, refracts, or otherwise shifts some of the burden off of the traditional dyadic and hierarchical advisor/mentee relationship is very healthy for all parties. I was a visitor in a doctoral department once where the graduate school required one more committee member than the department in question thought meet and optimum. This was resolved by the appointment of an extra member on a sort of auxilliary basis (that wasn’t the exact term of art, but it will do) for each committee. I served in this capacity on several committees and one of the (pre) dissertation students informed me that the role of the “aux” member was to “keep the regular committee members from beating up on the student” in meetings and exams. Hir advisor and my colleague told me a day or two later that the role of the “aux” was to “keep the committee honest; to keep it from going too easy on the student.” This was said in total good will on both sides and the role in fact turned out to be precisely a flexible buffer for all parties. And I think this feature contributed to the overall healthiness of the situation in that particular program.

    One other thing, if you find yourself anywhere within traveling distance of a standing seminar in your field at a research center, independent research library, or even another department, these forums often attract standing faculty from departments that don’t have graduate (or at least doctoral) programs. Such scholars often are eager to offer expertise, advice, networking contacts, sometimes even letters, to advanced students not their own. Since such relationships are almost by definition mutually beneficial (at least potentially), some of the heirarchical or authority issues that would arise in your own department even with secondary or tertiary advisors simply don’t materialize.


  17. According to where I have taught community college psychology courses for eight years without promotion from adjunct standing, sometimes, if students are not getting the grades they request, it is best to let another instructor take over the courses you are expecting next semester. The actual language used was. “let someone else have a crack at it.” This is the teaching only institution context. Where, I presumed we were to spend our time solely on educating the non-traditional learner. Well, I guess we are. We are teaching them that if they cannot get what they want in life, take it from someone else. As a matter of fact, hurt them in the process if you can and all gang up on that person and speak horribly of them so you can feel that much better as you pass your instructor in front of the food bank next semester while you are driving a new car that you can afford now because you do not have $100,000 in student loans that you will never pay off due to sacrificing a decade of your life to giving, sharing, enhancing, and mentoring the lives of these very people that throw you under the bus as soon as you structure an academic environment with integrity. Even worse, is the faculty that condone and reinforce student bullying adjuncts! .Administration simply cannot tolerate the few left that care about the grade as being correlated with the rubric. I have been told that it is really not a good idea to “make waves,” I am without money, career or belief that I spent this near decade in a productive pursuit. I wish I could find wise or eloquent words, but they left with hope when my passion for education and teaching was suffocated in Spring of 2015 on a beautiful island with dark secrets…


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