I had dinner with an early-career philosopher friend the other evening, and at one point the conversation turned to a topic I have cared a great deal about ever since I was in graduate school: helping graduate students succeed. As readers may (or may not) know, I attended two different philosophy PhD programs: Syracuse in the late '90s, and then Arizona (where I transferred because four of our star faculty at Syracuse were simultaneously hired away by other programs). I have very fond memories of joining both programs. It was truly exciting--and more than a bit humbling--as a young person who loved philosophy to join programs with so many talented and brilliant people. I particularly remember the grad students in both programs. Basically everyone who entered the programs was smart as a whip, with a history of academic success. As a naive newcomer, I confess that I expected that most of the grad students I knew would succeed, get tenure-track jobs, and go on to have long careers in the academy.
Of course, and unfortunately, I was wrong. While I don't have the statistics in front of me, I seem to recall coming across a statistic several years ago that something like only 50% of philosophy PhD students ever finish the degree, let alone finish and get a tenure-track job. At any rate, even if this statistic is wrong, every graduate program I've ever visited or heard about has plenty of students who fit that description--students who hang around the program for 7-8 or even 10 years, only to fade from view, never finishing the degree. Moreover, at least in my own experience, it tended to be very surprising which students those would be. A few cases aside, I don't think anyone--neither I, nor the faculty or other students in the programs I joined--could forecast very well which new students would succeed and which wouldn't. For my part, some of the students I felt sure would succeed didn't, and some who I expected wouldn't succeed did. Indeed, from my perspective at least, some of the most brilliant grad students I knew didn't make it, whereas some of the "less talented" ones did. Why?
This brings me to the conversation I had the other night. My friend, who came out of a non-Leiter-ranked institution, has in my view done spectacularly well on the job-market--far better, for what I can see, than many candidates coming out of fancier programs. In past conversations, and this one as well, I remarked that I think it has probably been because, in addition to being a good philosopher, he has been a "real professional." He has, as far as I can tell, done just about everything right as a grad student: he's published, networked, has a positive online presence, and so on. I knew a handful of students just like him in my many years as a grad student--and they too are to this day have gone onto have more successful careers than most of the other students I knew.
Anyway, my friend and I then discussed how grad students "go wrong." We both noted that although there are a lot of really talented grad students, for one reason or another many of them don't end up doing the kinds of things they need to put themselves in a position to succeed. Either they are brilliant or they don't publish, or they don't network, or they alienate their faculty advisors, and so on. As someone who made a number of mistakes in graduate school myself, I very much identified with our conversation here. "Doing everything right" in graduate school is tough. Many grad students are young, still "finding themselves" (and yes, making mistakes) as human beings. And grad school can be a real trial: journal rejections, competition for faculty support, trouble developing dissertation topics, comprehensive exams--they can all get you down, destroy one's confidence or zest for philosophy; and so on. I struggled with many of these obstacles, and so did many other people I knew...and I finished the PhD myself only by the skin of my teeth.
It occurred to me later on--after the conversation--that in my experience there are many different "common types" of graduate students. Although I don't ordinarily like "putting people into boxes"--and I by no means intend to generalize or derogate any category of person--I do think it can be helpful (for reasons I will give momentarily) to reflect on the different types of ways graduate students can struggle and/or fail. Here, then, are a few broad categories that in my experience grad students can fall into (and indeed, for my part, at different times in my grad career, I found myself more than a few of the categories I list):
- The professionals: grad students who "do everything right", acing their coursework and comp exams, publishing successfully, getting faculty support, network effectively, etc.
- The force-of-willers: grad students who make various errors but somehow "don't let themselves fail", doing whatever it takes to overcome setbacks (writing more papers, learning how to network, etc.).
- The perfectionists: grad students who are often incredibly brilliant, but never send anything out to publish because their work is never "good enough."
- The self-doubters: grad students who are perfectly capable of doing good work, but are paralyzed by self-doubt.
- The isolators: grad students who--either because of personality quirks or (more often?) lack of confidence or even mental health issues--withdraw from the department, rarely seeing their advisors or attending departmental functions.
- The distracteds: grad students who, for one reason or another--perhaps because they feel like they "need an outlet" to deal with the stresses of grad school--end up spending more time on hobbies (e.g. music, videogames, dating, etc.) than they do on philosophy.
- The alienators: grad students who, for one reason or another--perhaps out of insecurity, or megalomania, or mental health issues--alienate members of their department.
Again, I don't mean to say that these categories accurately "define" anyone as a person (I myself fell into several of these categories despite thinking that none of them define(d) me as a person!). My reason for listing them is to simply draw attention to some common ways that--in my experience--grad students can either "go right" or "go wrong." Can you think of any other common categories?
This brings me, finally, to the point I want to argue for--which is that it seems to me rarely discussed what programs and faculty should do given that grad students predictably end up in many of these categories. As my friend put it--and this is my experience too--faculty and grad programs often appear to see it as their job to "give grad students information" (on how to publish, network, etc.) but then leave it up to grad students to either do those things or not. This common approach--if indeed it still is common--fits with the common saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink." Alas, I want to suggest that this approach is a mistake. If my years as an educator--and my recent work mentoring a PhD student at another institution--have taught me anything, it is that if you want people to succeed (as I do), you need to meet them where they are, providing some real, concrete, hands-on direction to help them successfully grapple with the things they are struggling with (including, yes, whatever character-deficiencies they might currently possess). I know, I know - I've heard it many times: grad school faculty aren't "baby-sitters." I agree, but I also think there's a difference between being a baby-sitter and being an effective professional mentor. Baby-sitters watch over children, protecting them from harm, doing things for them. A good professional mentor does not do things for a student. What they do is help those they are mentoring understand what they are doing wrong, and then learn how to do better.
Here, I think, is a helpful example - one I think I recently learned a great deal from. I currently mentor several people, including (as I mentioned above) a grad student at another university. This student does good work, but do to perfectionist tendencies and poor planning does not get work done and out to journals in a timely fashion--things she needs to do to succeed as an academic. For a while, I handled her situation the way I have seen so many academic mentors do, letting her "figure out her own problems", expressing some displeasure with her performance (viz. "You need to be more productive and get things out"), and so on. Alas, none of this worked. Then I took a very different tack: I carefully explained to her how I get things done--how I make clear, concrete daily and weekly goals in my head about exactly what I need to accomplish and when (by what date), and then hold myself to those goals, never falling behind (or, if I do, making myself catch up the next day). I then helped her draw out a daily and weekly plan of her own to illustrate--and, so far, it has worked like a charm!
I'm not saying I'm a perfect mentor, by any means. What I am saying is that I think PhD programs and grad faculty should think about and approach these issues more carefully than they often appear to, and at all relevant junctures--not only when it comes to particular students, but also when it comes to decisions about how many students to admit to a program to begin with. I say this, again, not because I think we should be "baby-sitters", but because I think it is the responsible thing to do with vulnerable people (grad students) who have so much at stake (7-10 years in grad school, even if they succeed!). Given how terrible the academic job-market is these days, I think we should move away from a "sink or swim" approach, and instead make it a point of ensuring that as many grad students as we admit go onto succeed--either by adopting more hands-on mentoring strategies, or by restricting how many students one's program admits (so as to better serve the students who are admitted), or both.