Sergio Tenenbaum has an interesting guest post today at Daily Nous on our duties to actual and possible graduate students. Toward the end of the post, he lists what he believes to be some of the "less obvious ones in an admittedly dogmatic fashion" [my boldface-explained below]:
- We should be extremely open with prospective students visiting our department (we have not only the negative duty of not lying but also positive duties of disclosure, such as informing students if it is unlikely that they’ll be able to work with someone in their field, and even letting them know if we think that they should choose another program).
- Faculty should typically accept every request to supervise as long as they are competent and not oversubscribed (and the threshold for “oversubscribed” should be a number that toddlers cannot count to).
- Graduate departments should fund conference travel for students and ensure that graduate students interact with visiting speakers.
- Sabbaticals, leaves, etc. should not interfere with graduate supervision (I think this is obvious, but since there is an explicit rule to this effect in my department (while we have no explicit rules, for instance, forbidding us from hitting our students), I decided to list it here anyway).
- Graduate departments should put a special effort into helping students prepare their applications for teaching jobs. Most faculty in PhD programs have never been on a search committee for a teaching job. Departments could bring in people from teaching institutions to help.
- Recognizing that many graduates will end up in non-academic careers, graduate departments should support non-academic career-planning, for example by connecting students with earlier graduates who have made successful transitions from the doctoral program to positions outside academia.
I'm on board with most--and perhaps all--of these, but like a few other commenters at Daily Nous, I would like to say a few things about .
Before I get to that though, and as a preliminary to lead into my discussion of , I would like to comment on another part of Tenenbaum's post--the part where he reports grappling as a graduate student, retrospectively, with his decision to enter grad school. Tenenbaum writes:
Attached to my graduate school acceptance, there was a letter explaining that the job prospects for the incoming class looked grim due to the end of mandatory retirement. The letter made no impression on me. First, I was truly outstanding (one of my undergraduate teachers showed me his letter of recommendation and it clearly said so). And even if, per impossibile, I failed to receive multiple offers from prestigious universities at sunny destinations, I would have enjoyed the life of the mind for four years; I would certainly be then deciding on a new career with a smile on my face.
Seven years later, when my most likely prospects seemed to be law school or shoe shining, I had a rather different view of the matter. I felt immense regret about my previous choices; they were the outcome of the foolish dreams of a deluded child. I envied my high school friends who had perfectly acceptable jobs with nice four-digit monthly paychecks. Worse, I had uprooted myself to take a dead-end two-year job. (Interesting story: I was told by the Chair that they were hiring for two temporary positions but that one of them could be converted into a tenure-track job. It turned out that this was strictly true, but ever so slightly misleading. The position that could be converted to tenure-track was not the one I was being hired into. I still admire this man’s dexterity in handling pragmatic implicatures!). If I didn’t get a permanent job during this stint, should I apply for other temporary positions? When should I give up? How old would I be by the time I quit? I seemed destined to a life of throwing good money over bad (metaphorically, of course, as there was very little actual money of any kind around). I realized that young me had not only deliberated badly, but that he was in no position to deliberate well; he could not have understood what it would be like to be where I was.
These recollections ring painfully familiar to me. When I first entered graduate school [at the age of 22], I recall being well-aware of many of the risks [though I do seem to also recall many programs misleadingly implying that their graduates tend to finish within five years]. However, like Tenenbaum--and, I suspect, like many other people entering grad programs--I suffered from irrational optimism. I believed that I would be the exception: that I would finish in five years, that it would be a fairly linear process of success, and that [of course!] I would get a tenure track job at the end, [obviously!] well before my thirtieth birthday. In a word, I was foolish--very, very foolish. Seven years later I was 29, hadn't finished, hadn't published anything, and didn't even have a viable dissertation project. Indeed, my first attempt at a prospectus that year was cancelled by my committee the day before due to its lack of promise. I was devastated, and hated my earlier self for his decision. I wished I'd never entered graduate school. Then, somehow--I still do not exactly know how [it still seems to me something of a miracle]--I finally came up with a viable dissertation, finished my program, and got a temporary job. For a brief period of time, I no longer regretted my previous decisions. Then came the next seven years of struggling on the tenure-track job market, wondering what in the world I would do with my life if I could not get a TT job. At which point again, many times, I regretted ever getting into philosophy for a living. Finally, last year, at age 38--or roughly a decade after my 22-year-old self assumed he would have a comfortable tenure-track job--I got lucky [yes, lucky]: I finally landed a TT position. And so here I am, as puzzled as ever. Was it a good decision to pursue a PhD in philosophy? I have to confess that I don't even know how to answer that question. In one sense, it retrospectively seems incredibly foolish. In another sense, it seems the opposite.
Which brings me back to Tenembaum's . Do grad school professors have a moral duty to accept every request to supervise a graduate student as long as they [the supervisor] are competent and not oversubscribed? A couple commenters over at Daily Nous have raised concerns. "Interested" writes,
Supervision, as I see it, is a very serious commitment to the student and her project. I see an obligation to supervise only those students whose work has convinced me that their thesis/dissertation will be excellent — a genuine contribution to the given topic. Agreeing to supervise a thesis/dissertation without being convinced of its genuine promise strikes me as a mistake on many fronts. If I were a graduate student I wouldn’t want to be carried along if my work weren’t of the highest level; I’d want my faculty to tell me as much by not agreeing to supervise. (Of course, I wouldn’t really want the experience of hearing the bad news; but I do think that it’s news that I’d rather have.)
In my earlier days as an assistant/associate professor I used to follow your (2) in practice (though not out of some normative obligation). The end result: I had committed to supervising students whose work I could not sincerely defend as genuinely excellent. This helped nobody. I decided to change my practice as above (viz., agree to supervise only those whose work has convinced me of high-level promise to the field). I believe that my current practice is a better one than one that follows your (2).
I am not at all sure that "Interested" is wrong. But, let me offer another perspective for consideration.
Again, "Interested" speculates, "If I were a graduate student I wouldn’t want to be carried along if my work weren’t of the highest level; I’d want my faculty to tell me as much by not agreeing to supervise." Personally, counterfactual speculations like this tend to raise red flags for me. How, precisely, does one know what one would want as a grad student unless one has actually been in the relevant circumstance? It sounds perfectly sensible in the abstract to think that, if someone didn't think much of your work, you wouldn't want them to "carry you along." Okay, but I've been there. When I was at my lowest point--really struggling as a grad student, but working hard to make something of myself--I asked a faculty member in my department not to supervise me but simply serve on my committee. They declined. Frankly, I don't blame them. In one sense, they had good reason to decline: I hadn't done all that much to inspire confidence. Consequently, I'm not sure they had a duty to be on my committee [qua Tenenbaum's 2], let alone be my supervisor [had I asked]. Still, I would like to suggest that three things--kindness, epistemic humility, and fairness--all support presumptively taking on students through a kind faith about what they could become with sound mentorship. Let me explain.
I know the faculty member who turned me down wasn't intending to be punitive. Rather, their decision simply represented their estimation of my overall promise. Still, for all that, I was at the lowest point in my entire career. I didn't believe in myself, and I worried constantly about what a failure I was becoming. What I needed at that point--and eventually got from another faculty member--was someone to believe in me, or at least take me under their wing and help me find a way through. Indeed, given the very disturbing facts we know about the psychological stresses graduate school places on people, I am inclined to think that kindness alone supports helping out grad students in that kind of situation: mentoring them not because they are the most promising, but because they need it...and, as I will mention shortly, because of what they could become [the heights they could unexpectedly rise to] if provided that kind of kindness and mentorship.
This brings me to the issue of epistemic humility. Tenenbaum writes,
Admissions procedures are like the Dark Arts; the unholy incantations we use to cull files sometimes work, but often completely misfire. I shudder to think about what my batting average would be for predicting student career success in their first year.
My experience is that this is not merely true of admissions committees. During my time in graduate school, I saw a number of students that everyone underestimated going on to succeed in ways that no one [as far as I could tell] ever expected. The simple fact is, a lot happens during grad school. People change. Some stumble, some fall. Some pick themselves back up again. Some don't. I've simply seen too many "unexpected successes" to side with "Interested." Even if a student hasn't shown "great promise" by year four or five of graduate school, there are plenty of cases just like that where people develop great promise later on. Hence again, I am inclined to think not that kindness suggests taking on struggling grad students, but also charity: a kind of faith that, with the right kind of mentorship, even struggling students can develop. Again, I've simply seen too many cases of precisely that to think otherwise.
Further, this isn't just a phenomenon I've experienced: it is a common one in intellectual history. Long-time readers of the Cocoon may recall that one of my only hobbies is reading biographies. I am currently reading Einstein's German World, which contains biographical accounts of Einstein as well as a number of his famed scientific contemporaries: Paul Erlich, Max Planck, Fritz Haber, and others. One of the most striking things about these individuals is that many of them were deeply underestimated, and did not succeed until someone saw something in them and gave them a chance. For instance, Einstein's first doctoral supervisor, Heinrich Weber, is thought to have written him a negative letter of recommendation--one that effectively made it impossible for Einstein to get an academic job, leading Einstein to his now-famous job at a Swiss patent office [see Isaacson, p. 6]. Weber was by no means the only one to underestimate Einstein. Einstein's math professor, the great Hermann Minkowski, famously called Einstein a "lazy dog." [Brian, p. 31].
[Paul] Erlich's path as a scientist was not an easy one [p. 17]..."Shunted as an assistant, forced into impossible conditions, totally ignored by the university, I thought myself quite useless. I never received a call to even the most minor position and was regarded as a person without a field--i.e., as totally useless." [Einstein's German World, p. 25]
As quite a young man...[Planck] completed his Habilitation in Munich when only twenty-two, but discouragements ensued: Boltzmann did not read his thesis...theoretical physics had only two professorships in Germany...[and] Planck marked time for five long years, during which he had his first encounters with academic envy and professorial squabbles. [Einstein's German World, p. 37]
For years [Fritz Haber] cast about, trying to find metier and mentor...At every step he encountered failures and rebuffs...Willstätter commented..."his early failure was complete and of long duration.' [Einstein's German World, p. 76]
These are four of the scientific giants of their age, and they were all underestimated by most of those who thought they could reliably detect "promise." In the latter three cases [Ehrlich, Planck, and Haber], it was only when someone took a chance on them [Fritz Althoff] that they found their footing and developed. As Ehrlick wrote of Althoff,
I myself owe you...my entire career...If you, with your strong hand and brilliant initiative, had not come to my aid...I would have been left to wither away entirely. [p. 25]
And so, I suggest, epistemic humility presumptively supports taking on students, even when they may not appear all that promising. In this world, people can and do "surprise"--and we see in cases like these that humanity may have been denied some of its best minds had "unpromising" people simply been passed over.
Finally, I want to suggest that fairness presumptively supports taking on students as well. Grad students invest anywhere from 7-10 years of their life in a grad program--years where they could be making a viable career for themselves somewhere else. Not only that: the department they are a part of typically gets a great deal out of them [viz. course TA's, course instructors, etc.], for relatively little compensation in return. It is only fair, I think, to give them the best support the department can while they are there. So much hangs on it for them. Provided the student is willing to work hard--and the department does not think them so unpromising that they should leave the program entirely--it seems to me that every faculty member in that department should support the student to best of their ability.
Or so it seems to me. I could be wrong, and am [as always] willing to rethink the views I put forth. What do you all think?