Okay, I've said I wouldn't spend so much time railing against Chronicle columns, but really, when life hands you lemons...
Pseudonymous Lagretta Gradgrind states that throughout her career, her "greatest desire and preoccupation have been graduate education." She has "compromised [her] personal life and [her] research productivity to nurture and guide [her] many doctoral students." And now, after twenty-five years, she's "wondering why." (Personally, I think I'd wonder why I was willing to compromise my personal life and my own research productivity before twenty-five years had passed, but then, I'm selfish like that.)
She catalogs the variety of disappointing student types she has encountered through the years. One is the student who regurgitates her mentor's research without ever really acknowledging that fact. Okay, definitely frustrating, I can buy that. Another is the student looking more for a friend than a mentor, who knows no boundaries, and I also agree that these students are troublesome.
And then she goes on:
Another familiar type is the student who swears she wants a career at a major research university where she can become a leader in the discipline and where she, too, can work with graduate students. So you throw yourself into guiding her, and she constantly enlists your help in preparing for that career. But you start to notice that she always takes shortcuts in her research and resists your every attempt to move her work beyond a penchant for the facile, one-dimensional thesis.
Then, out of the blue, she announces that she has accepted a position at a nonresearch, nontenure institution, claiming she finally realized that teaching meant more to her than anything else.
Okay, I'm tired and can't think of an elegant way to put this, so: WTF? First, does she really mean to imply that those who express interest in a research career but end up at nonresearch institutions (putting aside the linking of nonresearch with nontenure) do so because they display a "penchant for the facile, one-dimensional thesis"? That someone who states that teaching means more to him/her than anything else does so only because they're a hack who can't actually do real research on their own?
But more troubling is the implication that the only worthwhile investment is in a student who wants to be at a major research university, and that someone who takes a different career path is categorized as one of those disappointing types of students who makes Gradgrind question her dedication to graduate education.
She also notes:
A variation of that type is the student who claims to want a plum academic career but who, upon completing the Ph.D. and landing a research position at a major institution, suddenly leaves the profession, insisting that family considerations were paramount after all.
Damn. God forbid people actually consider their family when planning their careers. How dare they.
It's not that any one of those decisions is "bad" on the face of it. People need to make the best career decisions given their circumstances.
What is frustrating is the apparent deceit of would-be scholars enticing you to help them become the field's next superstar, only to discover that it was all bluster and empty talk.
Clearly Gradgrind feels strongly that these changes in career trajectory amount to betrayals. And I'm sorry that she's found such students so disappointing.
But I call bullshit.
First: she seems to assume that her dedication and guidance will guarantee that a student end up at a "major research university" and have a "plum academic career." Has she paid attention to the job market lately? Maybe she's in a field that suffers no glut - they are out there - but in much of academia, many new-minted Ph.D.s who want to be at a major research university will take a job at the nonresearch, nontenure institution (and no, the first does not necessarily imply the second, thank you very much), simply to stay in the profession. Is it all that surprising that a student in such a position might claim a great love of teaching, even if they don't feel it, in order to reconcile their desires with the reality of their luck on the market? The alternative is disappointment and bitterness. And you know, if I'd worked with Gradgrind, and failed to get a plum research job (as, in fact, I did), I'd probably claim a desire to teach, too, rather than acknowledge my failure to an advisor who so clearly considers teaching a come-down.
My point here is this: a student who takes such a position may well have wanted a research position, but given the vagaries of the job market, could not get one. Gradgrind sounds like she's blaming the victim.
Second: she also assumes that focusing one's graduate training on a particular kind of career means that one will automatically be happy if one achieves that kind of career. But life is not that predictable. Maybe that plum research job lands you in the middle of a cornfield where there is no employment at all for your spouse. Maybe it lands you in the middle of a wildly overpriced urban center where you will never be able to afford the kind of schooling you want your kids to have. Maybe you just find that the amount of time you don't get to spend with your family is not worth the career glory. Why is it a betrayal for someone to realize this and decide this career is not for them? Such a decision does not mean that the student in question didn't want the career to begin with.
Gradgrind characterizes these career moves as "deceit," because the students in question professed to want the biggest, best, shiniest, plummiest research position they could get.
Of course they did.
Graduate programs WANT their students to aim for big, shiny, plummy positions. While there are programs out there that do a decent job of preparing graduate students to teach and thus accept the reality of their students working at teaching institutions, and there are also programs that celebrate their students following the academic path that speaks to them most directly (my program was like this), there are plenty of programs that continue to believe that the only acceptable career path is one that takes you straight into an R1 school.
Students in such institutions are not stupid, and they know what it is that they're "supposed" to want. Any number of bloggers I've read, or commenters on blogs I read, have said that they couldn't talk to their grad advisors about wanting jobs at teaching schools, because their advisors looked down on such jobs and the culture of their graduate programs scarcely acknowledged that such jobs existed.
If you were in such a program, do you think you'd tell Gradgrind you wanted a job in a teaching institution? If you were concerned that the path to success in an R1 might take you too far away from your family, would you say so?
The culture of academia still values research success over teaching success. It still expects a career trajectory built on having a stay-at-home spouse (oh, let's be real, a wife) to take care of all the little piddly mundane things (like all the housework and care of the kids) that might get in the way of Thinking Deep Thoughts. Graduate students who are intelligent enough to get into a Ph.D. program are also usually intelligent enough to figure out what the profession, or at least that program, values most.
Such graduate students are also intelligent enough to realize that their advisors have significant influence over the course of their careers. In fact, I'd suggest (based on what I read around the web) that grad students may overestimate the degree of power that their advisors have over them. Is it surprising that if students believe their advisors value a plum research position the most, those students will tell their advisors that such a job is what they want, too? At least, until they have that signature on the dissertation submission form?
I don't believe such statements are deceit, because first, I don't think a lot of students entering graduate programs have any idea what a faculty job entails, let alone an R1 job (there are probably plenty who do, but I knew many who didn't). An R1 job? That's the best? Sounds good! It takes a little while for someone who has been good at school their whole life to figure out how exactly that translates into the ideal career for them.
Second, students do what they have to do to maintain positive relationships with their advisors. If that means avowing love for the research path above all others, students will do so. While ideally students and advisors have a much more egalitarian relationship in which students can speak freely about their true career interests, and I believe these relationships do occur, in practice it's not so simple. Often, grad students feel obligated to live up to their advisor's expectations for them.
Hell, I have a friend who after working full-time as a professor for something like six or seven years, at a good job, has decided to change fields and was pretty apprehensive about asking his/her former advisor for a letter of recommendation, because s/he was afraid the advisor would be angry that s/he was leaving academia. (no longer LD)H has often worried that he's let one of his graduate mentors down by changing fields. Now, in neither case were the mentors remotely upset - they wanted their students to be fulfilled in their careers. But I don't think it's coincidence that both these people worried that how their advisors would receive such news - and for both, this was long after they'd finished their dissertations and earned their degrees. And both earned their degrees in programs willing at least to question the prestige hierarchy that dominated academia. If they were still students, in a program to which non-R1 jobs were invisible? I wouldn't be at all surprised if they had practiced the "deceit" that Gradgrind describes.
It is definitely instructive to see a faculty person talking honestly about working with graduate students. But I suspect that Gradgrind's characterization of certain students as disappointments does nothing but reify a value system in academia that places all the prestige and worth in jobs that very very few Ph.D.s will ever get.