In light of my last post, which continued my somewhat dubious tradition of trashing Chronicle columns (about which I sometimes feel guilty, because I acknowledge that writing such columns isn't easy - although you know, people call me on it when I write troubling or stupid things, and besides, Chronicle columnists are getting paid for their insights, so I don't feel quite as bad as I might otherwise) - in any case, I thought I would say a little bit about the very real problem of frustrating grad students, based on a sample of one - myself.
did prompt me to think about the frustration that must be felt by even people like my own fabulous adviser. Think about how often we ordinary undergraduate faculty get frustrated with our students, and how great it feels when someone finally works hard, and gets it. If most of my teaching energy were dedicated to just a few students a year, or ten or fifteen students in a five-year period, and a lot of them dropped out of academia or got worse jobs than they could because of their spouses (usually husbands) or kids (usually true more of women), had big emotional problems, were difficult to get along with to the point where it presented problems in the job search, or were lazy or overcautious in their research - it'd be really tough. All of these things have happened to my adviser and other advisers in my PhD program, and though they don't complain, this got me to thinking about how hard it could be for them.
While I don't supervise graduate students, I do want to acknowledge the frustration that it must frequently inspire. Undergraduates can be frustrating enough, and our relationships with them last, at the most, usually no more than four years. My graduate advisor was stuck with me in one way or another for ten (yes, ten) years. I'm sure that over that length of time frustrations are only magnified (although hopefully the rewards are also concomitantly more satisfying). I also want to acknowledge that I cannot fully understand those frustrations without being on the advisorly side of them.
That being said, I can look back now on my own graduate career with a little bit of critical distance, and so doing, I wince at my own failings as a student.
So, in what ways was I frustrating?
First and probably centrally, I was incredibly intimidated by my big-name advisor. On the one hand, I think that she has a relatively intimidating demeanor. (For instance, you'd visit her in her office to discuss something - a paper, plans for the following semester, whatever - and you'd say your piece, and she would sit. And look at you. And sit. And look. And the silence would stretch out. And you'd start worrying about what you said wrong or what you should have said or what you didn't say, and just as when the professor sits and waits in class, you'd rush into the breach to say SOMETHING to break the silence. And then feel like you'd turned into a blithering idiot. It was a little unnerving. Eventually, you learned just to wait until she wanted to say something - if she was okay with the silence, then let there be silence - but initially it freaked me out.)
On the other hand, I was also easily intimidated. I went straight to grad school from undergrad. As a kid, I had always been shy around adults, and I hadn't really shed that by the time I started grad school. My undergrad profs were mostly distant authority figures to me, not human beings (I was really startled when I had one prof tell me he had had no idea what to say about one book we read in class [it was a common syllabus across three sections so he hadn't picked that book], because profs knew everything! And I was equally surprised when my undergrad thesis advisor told me she worried enough about missing class that she set three alarms - why would a prof worry about teaching? It was just what they did!). And because I hadn't worked fulltime between undergrad and grad school, I didn't get any experience working on at least a semi-equal footing with people older than me - my whole life, adults had been people very much further up a social hierarchy than I was. While I don't mean to suggest I should have been able to speak to my advisor as a peer (I wasn't her peer!), I would have been easier to deal with if I had possessed more confidence, socially and intellectually, and hadn't seen myself so much in the role of a supplicant.
I mean, it can't be easy to advise someone who sits dumbfounded by nerves every time she appears in your office.
Especially when that person has worked so hard to hide those nerves and cultivate a poised and unruffled appearance that you have no idea if she actually cares about this work at all, or indeed, what she is thinking about anything.
Second, partly because I was so intimidated, but also because of the experience I did/didn't have in doing original research, I was quite bad at articulating what I was thinking about my current work. If asked how my work was going, I'd say fine. Full stop. I never figured out that such conversations with faculty were an opportunity for self-promotion (in a tasteful, modest way) rather than mere politenesses. I never knew quite how to describe what I was doing - I was reading stuff, and when I'd read enough stuff, I would write stuff. What else was there to say? Therefore, I'm quite sure that when there were weaknesses in my work (and oh, there were weaknesses in my work!), it was very hard for her to pinpoint what exactly I was doing that I shouldn't, or what I wasn't doing that I should. I suspect that discussing my work with me often felt like throwing darts at an invisible board.
Finally, because of my intimidation and inarticulateness, when things weren't going well (or even when they were), I would pull the grad student vanishing act. This wasn't hard - for a variety of reasons, in the best of circumstances I could go about my business without running into my advisor. So it wasn't so much that I skulked through the hallways or avoided any particular campus spaces actively to avoid her - I just didn't make a point of going to see her. (Which also meant that I didn't have to work actively to avoid her and therefore become aware of my avoidance - I'd just occasionally think that gee, I hadn't spoken with Advisor for quite a while... and then would go back to my latest dissertation-writing block.)
To be fair (to me), my vanishing act was also inspired by my family's mantra that no news is good news - the idea that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume everything is going well (we're a relatively uncommunicative bunch, my family). So it didn't really occur to me that without something specific to go on, my advisor would assume the worst. (This also bit me in the ass at Former College, I think, but that's a whole other story.) I was honestly surprised to find out that she was worried about my progress because she hadn't heard/seen anything from me. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course, but I was. (I was kind of naive.)
In other words, my communication skills were crap in a variety of ways.
Looking back, I can see that these qualities, combined with my slow progress (medievalists take longer than those in some fields, but ten years is still slow - I was working full-time for the last two years of those ten, but yeah, slow), would have made me a frustrating student.
I have frustrations of my own with the advising experience, although they're probably as much about a mismatch of styles as anything else (communication is a two-way street), or else they're side effects of the typical structure of graduate education.
But I'm sure I wasn't an easy student. I don't think I was the most difficult out there - hey, my propensity to vanish meant that I wasn't very demanding! - but I wasn't a shining example of the student any advisor would love to work with.
That being said, I did finish, and I have been employed in tenure-track positions. I was successful at Rural Utopia, and whatever my problems with Former College, I don't think that in general (barring the one point I mention above) they have had anything to do with the frustrations I presented as a graduate student - because being a grad student is really not very much like being faculty. Gradgrind herself admits that graduate school is an "emotionally fraught time;" take away that particular emotional freight, and you have a very different person. (Being on the tenure track is emotionally fraught, too, but in a different way.) While I was frustrating as a grad student because of the personality traits/experience I brought to the table, those traits and experiences took on a different significance in grad school than they might have elsewhere.
I have no idea what effect these frustrations have had on my advisor's view of graduate education. She may share some of Lagretta Gradgrind's disillusionment with training future scholars; I have no idea. But she has always seemed to have a clear sense of the external structures constraining students' behavior. She is well aware that plum research jobs don't always fall into her students' laps, not because they don't try enough or aren't qualified or were secretly deceiving her about their interest in R1 jobs, but because the job market is capricious (when her first doctoral student went on the job market, there was ONE medieval history job opening. ONE. Her student did get the position, but Advisor has no illusions about the possibilities for her students). She has never treated me as "less" than anyone else because I have worked at small teaching institutions. She has never considered someone who stepped back from academia for family reasons as "deceitful." I think she regrets it when someone leaves, because she believes that her students who finish are all qualified to hold jobs and she would like them to do so, but she recognizes that this is the student's decision, not hers. And she also recognizes that academia is not the most family-friendly profession. I do think she's somewhat disappointed when a student puts family before academia, but she does not characterize it as deceit.*
My point, I guess, is that the frustrations that individual grad students offer do not have to sour someone entirely on graduate education. Even if a graduate advisor decides that they no longer want to negotiate those frustrations - which is their prerogative, and frankly, understandable - I think it's important to recognize that those frustrations, however much they originate in the student's psyche, are the product of a specific professional and institutional culture, and not simply expressions of a student's poor moral fiber.
*At least, as far as any of us could tell. I think grad students can tell about this kind of thing. I should add that this description is based on my and my cohort's experience only.