Elizabeth Keenan

Columnist at vitae

More Bad Advice Grad Students Get

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Image: John Cusack as Mike Enslin in 1408

I’ve already revealed my list of the top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it) five worst pieces of advice you hear in grad school. Now I’m back with five more bits of bad advice. Really, the list could be endless—there’s an unfortunate number of people who are spouting terrible things on this subject, all the time.

Some of the lousy advice I heard myself, and some I heard from colleagues’ horror stories. Since I won’t ever have a tenure-track job, I feel it’s my moral obligation to put some giant, flashing warning signs around the bad advice that perfectly well-meaning people might offer to graduate students.

1. Depression is normal among doctoral students, so you should just tough it out/exercise more/throw yourself into your work/do some yoga. Sadly, depression is common in grad school—or at least it’s common enough to be a fairly large concern. Although, as Jacqui Shine points out, a Ph.D. program doesn’t cause depression—depression does. But even though that’s true, the working conditions in academia can exacerbate all kinds of mental illness. Shine notes that her advisers discouraged medical leave, but that’s only one way that grad school can take a toll on students. It can be a socially isolating experience, made worse by the financial strain of low pay, loan payments looming in the future, and the fear of never getting a tenure-track job.

Within academe, there’s a huge stigma around mental health issues such as depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s regular column on Vitae gives a lot of excellent advice on how to treat your colleagues fairly if they have psychiatric disabilities. But advisers should also be aware of how they treat graduate students. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental illness means that many students don’t seek help. And because many advisers think that stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed (all potential signs of something more serious) are a normal part of grad school, they are often reluctant to suggest students seek help.

Better advice: If you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed, contact your university’s counseling center. They may be more oriented toward undergraduates, but they can often help you find the right sources of help.

2. Grad school is a great place to find a date. What??? No.

Seriously, when I first heard someone say that, I thought it was a joke. And then I kept hearing it. One guy said it was because there were a lot more women than men in his program. Another guy said it was because nerds like nerds. And a third fellow said it was because people work on similar projects and automatically have common interests.

It might be a joke, but it’s one that reveals certain heteronormative gender expectations. I only heard men make this remark. I simply did not hear this piece of advice directed at me as a woman. Instead, I received somewhat different advice from women who’d been to grad school: Only date someone in grad school if you think you will be in a long-term relationship with them. Otherwise, you could get a “reputation” around the department. Oh, the double standards!

Better advice: Do not treat graduate school as a dating pool in which you are a shark and everyone else is a tasty tuna. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal for people to meet in grad school and start dating—you may have similar interests, and dating a fellow doctoral student is an infinitely better option than dating a professor. But, like any “office” romance, you should proceed with caution—not because you could get a “reputation,” but because you’ll have to be around this person for a long time if the flame of romance fizzles. And that can be super awkward.

3. Don’t take classes with Professor So-and-So because he/she is the mortal enemy of your adviser. Academia is a weird place, one in which grown people have wars of words in the tradition of the Hatfields and McCoys, or maybe the Capulets and Montagues. Like those family-oriented tales of murder and vengeance (and, yes, teen romance), academic feuds can inflict wounds on generations of scholars, including early-career graduate students. Over the past decade and change, I’ve seen all kinds of feud-oriented actions: professors who discourage students from taking courses relevant to their research because the other professor is an enemy; administrators who intervene by prohibiting warring parties from being in the same room (and thus negatively affecting students who have both professors on their dissertation committees); and lots and lots of sniping to students about how Professor So-and-So’s theoretical framework in his article is faulty because he sucks as a human being.

It can be very tempting to take sides. It can give a new student an immediate sense of belonging, something that grad school doesn’t offer easily. Suddenly you are part of your professor’s gang. But in the long run, this gets you nowhere, and it will probably turn you into a total asshole.

Better advice: Academic infighting is mostly on a level that you can’t control. What you can do is behave like a mensch. Don’t rise to the bait. Evaluate ideas based on merit, not on who’s speaking. Take classes with people who are going to present you with a broad range of ideas. It may be true that assholes get ahead in academia, but you don’t have to be one. Staying out of petty feuds is a good way to maintain your personal integrity, even if it sometimes feels harder to do so.

4. Don't bother to apply to "teaching institutions" if you're a serious scholar. This is bad advice that old, privileged people give to younger privileged people when they believe in some sort of meritocracy. A more accurate translation would be: “You don’t need teaching experience if your high-ranking dissertation adviser has someone who owes him a huge favor and can get you an interview in a particular R-1 department and push for your hire.”

That kind of tit-for-tat hiring used to be more common, and it sometimes still happens, because academia is not a meritocracy, and “good work” is in the eye of the beholder. There are always golden boys (and, yes, they are most likely golden boys, which in prestigious universities reflects the white guys at the top), but the odds of you being one of them in both the eyes of your adviser and everyone else (see No. 3, above) are pretty slim.

The reality is: You will not be able to choose between tenure-track positions at five different R-1 universities, all with delightful benefits packages, in ideal locations. You will be lucky to get one offer. And, further, jobs at teaching institutions are not a punishment or a sign of failure.

Better advice: If you learn only one career lesson in graduate school, it should be to reject weird, snobbish attitudes about potential employers. Apply to jobs that fit your interests and qualifications. This pool will be smaller than you think, and often leave you in despair. And if you leave out teaching-oriented colleges, you’re deliberately reducing your already low odds.

5. You don’t need teaching experience if you do “good work.” That bit of bad advice often comes in the same breath as the one above. Thankfully, I never heard either comment from anyone in my ethnomusicology department. That’s probably because no one was foolish enough to think there was a freakish abundance of jobs in my field, and because my department had a required course that needed teachers. I knew students who heard this advice in other departments at my university, however, and it usually caused my face to turn into something like Macaulay Culkin on the Home Alone poster (or maybe Edvard Munch’s The Scream).

Anyone who tells you that you don’t need to be able to prove you can teach is woefully out of touch. In the five years I was on the academic market, all but one of my on-campus interviews required a teaching demonstration. Sometimes the topic didn’t relate to my area of specialty at all. In my teaching demonstrations, I had to be flexible and show all kinds of expertise. Once, I was told to discuss “rhythm” for 45 minutes; another time, my scheduled hour-long lecture was shortened to 30 minutes—just as I was stepping up to the podium. Someone who had never taught before would have flipped out way more than I did. (Though I still didn’t feel that great about it, since it was a strong signal that the university wasn't taking my candidacy seriously.)

Better advice: Teach! This is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life, so you should (a) find out if you like it and (b) work to get better at it. Teaching isn’t some gift from the heavens—it’s a set of skills you can develop. Don’t let it take over your life at the expense of finishing your degree, but do put the effort in to learn how to teach well.

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