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Derek Bowman

I see how a more mindful approach to grad student mentoring may allow an individual faculty member to better help an individual candidate to succeed. But I don't see how the profession as a whole can use this to help grad students as a whole be more successful. This isn't going to improve the supply of available jobs - at best it will improve the completion rate for PhD programs, leading (at least in the short term) to even more PhDs searching for the same too-small pool of faculty jobs.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Thanks for your comment. Here are a few thoughts in reply. The point of the post wasn't just about mentoring (though that is a big part of it). The post also suggested that perhaps programs should adjust their admissions policies to better ensure student success. My message was: I don't think any program should see a 50% attrition-rate, combined with (say) a 40% TT job-placement rate, as acceptable outcomes. The main point of the post is that insofar as these things seem common today, programs and faculty should probably rethink admissions *and* mentoring policies. If programs admitted fewer students, but then heavily invested themselves in ensuring that as many as they do admit success--both finishing the program and getting good jobs--then that, I think would be a great improvement. Which is why I think we should be having these conversations.

All that being said, even if admissions policies didn't change--and even if the academic job market stays terrible (as it probably will)--I still think improving mentoring would be a significant good. As someone who almost failed out of grad school, my biggest fear of all wasn't that I would never get a tenure-track job. It's that I would have wasted eight years of my life for *nothing*--not even getting the degree I was working toward for nearly a decade: something that would have made me feel like an abject failure, and probably also look bad to non-academic employers. At the very least, if better mentoring ensures that more PhD students at least finish the degree successfully--and in a timely manner (e.g. 5-6 years instead of 7-10+)--then at least many of those who don't get tenure track jobs could at least know that they had been a success in one important sense: successfully receiving a PhD, which they could then at least have on their professional resume as an accomplishment.


I think it's important to not generalize too much here. I spent a ton of time in graduate school *extremely* stressed out and annoyed because people wouldn't *stop* trying to "mentor" me. Not everyone needs or wants advice about how to succeed, and when students have very different sets of values and goals from mentors, that advice can be really hard to deal with (especially when there is pressure to please the people doing the mentoring, but their suggestions and "helpful" advice are unwanted). I luckily had an adviser who didn't treat me this way and indeed treated me as though I was his equal both professionally and philosophically. I wish that all of the faculty in my department had done this; the very worst part of graduate school, for me, was feeling like I was being treated like a child in various ways, and one of them is by people doing pretty much exactly what you describe here.

Of course, it's probably helpful to a lot of people--but I'd just encourage people to be careful: do you know that the grad student has similar goals to you? Do they value the same things that you do? Are you certain they want your advice? (Make sure to ask first!) etc.

Marcus Arvan

Hi anonymous: Interesting. Those are very good points. In many ways, I think we basically agree!

As I noted in the post, I think good mentoring *tends* (though I don't want to generalize too much!) to involve meeting "students where they are", figuring out what the want and need to be successful--in a way that treats them as adults with their own preferences, values, and so on. I certainly don't think good mentors should treat students like children. So, for students like you--who, let's say, have a good professional sense of where they'd like to go and how to get there--I'd be inclined to say a good mentor would be like the one you mention: the one who treated you as an equal professionally and philosophically. I also entirely agree that it is probably a good idea for mentors to ask whether the student wants help or advice (and indeed, precisely what kind of help or advice they are looking for).

This is the approach I adopted with the person I'm mentoring. She had a professional disappointment, and I approached her asking if there is anything I could do, noting that I had grappled with similar things in the past, and that I had developed some strategies that worked for me that she might be able to use if she was interested.

My concern, though--at least the one that inspired the present post--is that I've seen all too many grad students "fall through the cracks" because faculty weren't willing to go out of their "mentoring comfort zone" and do more, as a mentor, to help struggling students succeed. In other words, while I think you are absolutely right (about basically everything you said), there are good reasons to have a more open and candid conversation about things faculty and programs can and should do to help students who currently fall through the cracks not needlessly suffer that fate (when there are things a good mentor, and good program, could do to help).

Anyway, thanks so much for your comment: really good points! :)

Trevor Hedberg

I would propose there is at least one more group of grad students that could be added to this list, though they might overlap a bit with some of the other categories. An appropriate label might be the "disillusioned." These are grad students who lose their love for philosophy during graduate school or otherwise come to dislike philosophy as it is done in an academic setting. I've run into quite a few of these folks over the years, and as one might expect, as their loathing of graduate school increases, they tend to struggle more.

For these folks -- in contrast to most of the other groups you describe -- I think the right move is for them to leave their graduate program and to pursue a career outside of philosophy. In practice, I've seen this often result in taking a terminal MA instead of seeing a PhD through to its conclusion. Where members of this group get into the most trouble, from what I've seen, is when they continue along with their graduate studies despite hating it (e.g., because of their investment in the program up to that point or because they believe they have no other career options). Often, after many years of toil, they find themselves set up with low odds of landing a job that they may not really want anyway. Philosophy faculty are often not well-positioned to help grad students find non-academic careers, but at a minimum, I think this group is helped when they feel like leaving their respective programs is not viewed by the faculty as a failure or disappointment. A little reassurance and encouragement can go a long way in such cases.

Filippo Contesi

Marcus, I would like to suggest that in many cases there may be reasons to alienate members of one's department that are more, for lack of a better phrase, 'desirable' than "out of insecurity, or megalomania, or mental health issues": e.g. ethical reasons in the presence of less-than-ideal moral behaviour from members of the department. If one is an "alienator" for some such reasons, then one can also very well be a perfect "professional". Then the questions are: will someone like this person still be successful as "professionals" usually (in your experience) are, and should they be? :)

Filippo Contesi

Or can one (be a perfect "professional" but also an "alienator" for ethical reasons and such)?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Great addition! In fact, I'm surprised I left it out, as I was a "disillusioned" in graduate school for several years.

However, I have to disagree with your advice. While it may make sense for some disillusioned students to leave their program, I think there are at least two options: (1) leave, or (2) change your attitude so that you become less disillusioned.

I chose the latter. I stopped worrying so much about competing, professionalization, etc., and instead just tried to enjoy doing philosophy for its own sake. And it worked! My disillusionment faded away - and I'm certainly glad I didn't leave my program. I now love being a philosopher, and am glad that I have the career I do.

Trevor Hedberg

Marcus, I'm not sure it is within most graduate students' power to alter their outlook on philosophy in the way you describe. A disillusioned attitude will probably manifest gradually over the course of a few years in the program. Some students can and do escape that mindset, but a lot of them don't: it's very difficult to dislodge attitudes that get ingrained that deeply. So if I were in the position of giving a grad student in those circumstances candid advice, I would strongly encourage them to consider their options beyond philosophy and not just continue on in the hopes that an attitude adjustment will solve the problem or that things will otherwise get better. Continuing along is risky, and the more one invests in the program, the more psychologically difficult it will be to leave the program later if things continue to go badly.

So you're right that there are more options available to disillusioned grad students than leaving the program. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, that's still the advice that I would give them.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: That may be true, I'm not sure. I know many *don't* escape the mindset--but I cannot help but wonder how often this may be from one not recognizing that it is one's own attitude that needs to change. It took me many years to realize that, although there are things about the profession that disillusioned me, it was primarily my response to those features of the profession that made me unhappy--responses that I was able to change.

I don't mean to suggest that everyone can change their perspective or attitude in this way. I would just caution people about quitting too quickly out of disillusionment, in part because they might find the world outside of academia no less disillusioning. I worked in the private sector before attending grad school, and I was disillusioned there with many of the same things (viz. power hierarchies, seemingly-arbitrary rules, etc.) that made me unhappy in academia. I ultimately learned that *I* needed to change--that since the world would probably never be the way I want it to be, I have to learn to find and focus on the good things about my situation.

That's all I meant to suggest. I am sure you and I, like most people, know people who are unhappy wherever they go--whatever town they live in, whatever career they have, and so on. In some such cases, the lesson to learn is not to cut and run (which may be the "easy way out", and not ultimately a way out of unhappiness at all). It is that one must learn to work on oneself, discover why one is disillusioned or unhappy, and see if it is the result of one's attitude more than the world around oneself.

I am sure there are many people who--after thinking about all of these things carefully--should still leave the profession. But I would caution others from jumping to such conclusions too quickly. I'm glad I didn't!


What's needed to help grad students succeed is to admit less graduate students, and to hire based on merit and not demographics and connections.

Well that would be a start!

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