Academic advising and academia

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I’ve recently talked about the hidden labor of academic advising, and also the need to provide an education in academia and academic culture. I think it’s important to discuss how these two things intersect. If we are trying to bring more first-gen and minoritized folks into this academic sphere, then one of the first steps is making sure that folks know* what it means to be a professor, what it means to do research, and what it means to go to grad school. Because I think the typical undergrad really has no idea about this stuff when they go to college, and the sooner they are aware of this, the sooner they have the possibility of choosing this route (or choose against it, of course).

Let me illustrate this with an example. From a conversation that I have had so many times, with so many students.

I do a lot of advising for students who are pursuing teaching careers. And in the past, I’ve served on a lot of interview panels for students seeking to join the Noyce Scholars programs that we run at CSU Dominguez Hills.  Here’s a thing I’ve heard, something like:

“I want to be a professor. I want to teach at in a university. I suppose I could teach high school for a while, and then after a while I can get my advanced degree and find a university position.”

I hear this all the time. I mean, it’s possible I’ve heard this a hundred times. Definitely more than 50. At least in the population of students I work with, it’s apparently a very common career plan. It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable in a lot of ways. I don’t think it’s based on many assumptions, but it’s not informed by the hidden curriculum.

It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable. There’s just information that these students don’t have. In a single conversation, it’s not really healthful to dive into all of the ways that this isn’t a common career path that would be feasible for most folks**.

Because so many people of our undergrads have this idea of a career plan, then I can infer pieces of the hidden curriculum that our students aren’t aware of:

-What the job of a professor at a 4-year institution is beyond teaching

-What it’s like doing research, and what research is

-That earning a PhD in a STEM field while teaching a in full time K-12 position is somewhere between extremely difficult to impossible, and that leaving that solidly-paying job for a graduate stipend could be perhaps just as difficult

-How grad school admissions works

-The odds of getting a position as a professor after finishing graduate school

There’s no reason that anybody in college would be expected to know this stuff unless they’ve been in a social role where they would just absorb this stuff from their environment. But for most of my students, I suspect we as their professors are the people who they know best who have PhDs. So that means it’s on us to provide this cultural knowledge so that people know the options they have in front of them.

So I’m sitting in my office with a student who has just finished on semester of lower division biology. And is interested in becoming a professor. And who has no prior exposure to research. They haven’t expressed an interest in research, because they haven’t really been aware that this is even one of the options open to them. They’re into organismal biology (including plants! and bugs! and chemistry! Three things that go so well together!), and so we talk about finding opportunities to do some research. About applying to REUs. About finding a chance to work in someone’s lab. About how students can get paid to do research. And that if you are interested in doing a PhD, this is the perfect time to get the research experienced needed to land into grad school.

I could have limited my advising for this student to the pathway towards teaching biology at the high school level. Which is not any less than being a professor, it’s just different. But I would really like this student to be able to make that choice. And a real choice is a fully informed choice. And you can’t make that fully informed choice based on  a conversation, it takes some tangible experience to know the many differences are between K-12 teaching and the professoriate, and what each of these professional routes looks like.

When people talk about increasing diversity in STEM, what that really means is changing the fundamental composition of the pool of people who are applying to grad school, who are applying for postdocs, and who are applying for faculty positions. To change the composition of that pool, we have to bring people into higher ed who don’t even have grad school on their radar. I’ve met so many students in their last semester of college who are only learning that research is cool, and what grad school is. Those conversations have to happen early earlier than that. And opportunities need to be presented earlier. Which means that when these students are applying to your labs and your REU programs, it’s your job to provide that training. This is a lot of work. That’s okay, because, as someone one said, nothing truly worth doing comes easily. I’m not sure how true that is (after all, going out for eggplant parmesan tonight sounds very worth doing, and it’s not that difficult), but maybe it applies this this situation.


 

 

*To be clear, it’s just as important for folks in academia such as myself to evolve so that it shouldn’t be necessary for people to adopt a different identity and conform to the homophilous mold of academia. It’s our job to make this “pipeline” more accessible and remove these barriers tied to social capital. But still, folks gotta know what the career pathway looks like.

**I know of a few people who were K-12 teachers before getting their PhD in a STEM field and them became a professor in a STEM department. (Though think this is common in Education, right?) But in STEM this definitely not a standard approach and the capacity to do so often involves leveraging a substantial amount of financial and familial privilege. This seems to be a little more common for community college positions, maybe?

Academic advising by tenure-track faculty

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Based on some recent conversations, I’m realizing that an underappreciated piece of professoring is academic advising. I don’t think I’ve written about it on here yet (?), but a substantial piece of work by faculty in our department is advising our majors. Just like the unseen labor of writing recommendation letters, doing quality academic advising is very important but how much and how well we do this (or not) generally gets overlooked.

If you’re at a small liberal arts college or a smaller regional state university, then you probably are doing a lot of advising. Continue reading

We need distributed power structures in grad school

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For most grad students in the sciences, their doctoral advisor has an extraordinary level of power over their professional and personal life. This is long overdue for an overhaul. No single person should have that much power over another, particularly in academia where institutions chronically overlook and enable misconduct. Continue reading

Thinking critically about the ways we help our students

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wskqpFolks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.

I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”

So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration: Continue reading

Do you write your recommendation letters?

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This is a question for both the people requesting letters of recommendation, and those who are signing the letters of recommendation.

About a month ago, a blog post-ish thing was published in Science, that was griping about a not-rare phenomenon. Sometimes when junior scientists ask for letters of recommendation, they’re asked to write a first draft of the letter. This is, allegedly, “minor fraud.” Continue reading

If you have a bad advisor in grad school

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A couple weeks ago, I emphasized that most PhD advisors are really good.

In a haphazardly conducted poll, one in four people reported their PhD advisor that was not caring or helpful. Crappy advisors may not be the norm, but we still have 1 in 4 too many.

I’ve seen a variety of situations, choices, and outcomes over the years, and would like to share some thoughts with grad students who are experiencing a bad PI. I’m hoping those of you who have gone through nasty experiences might be able share insights as well. I’ve just been a bystander, and there should be many more voices than my own.

When dealing with a bad PI, I think there are two big questions:

  1. What can be done to ameliorate the situation?
  2. When should you bail on your PI and move to a new lab or even a new institution?

Continue reading

A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring

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I just returned from a tremendous meeting of the Entomological Society of America. I experienced a lot of moving moments.

I attended my first EntSoc meeting twenty years ago, as an early grad student. I’ve skipped the last few years (because family). This return brought a flush of friends and close colleagues that I don’t see on a regular basis. I got to meet PhD students who are being advised by my own former undergrad students. When I was in grad school, my advisor had two small kids. At this meeting, I got to see his older daughter, now in a MD/PhD program.

There are so many scientists who made a difference in my life — professionally and personally —  and having so many of them gathered under one large roof was overwhelming. Continue reading

Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school

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Now’s the time of year when prospective grad students need to get serious about applying to graduate programs.

Students are probably relying on their professors to guide them through the process. While professors are generally well informed, we have to be careful to not overestimate how well we can steer our students.

Please remember a few facts:

  • The grad school application process varies dramatically, even among subdisciplines.
  • Procedures vary greatly among different universities, and many are idiosyncratic.
  • Personal experiences with the grad school application process >5 years ago are outdated.

Undergraduates typically have misconceptions that are particularly difficult to dispel. After all, telling our students a set of facts doesn’t necessarily make them understand how important these facts are.

Undergrads are often very surprised to discover that the process is haphazard, and how their personality and professionalism affect the outcome. Even if you tell them about it in detail before they start.

What is the fix for this? Undergraduates should be getting direct advice from current graduate students who are just a little further down the same road. Ideally these students are alums from your lab or your institution, but if you need to stretch further to find grad students to advise your undergrads, it’s worth your while.

In addition to talking with grad students, it’s not hard to find quality contemporary advice to share with your students, like this post by Christine Boake. Be careful to provide information germane to a particular field, because sometimes it’s not obvious that what appears to be written as generalized advice may work really well only within certain disciplines. If you are in ecology, for example, here’s another great post about the grad school application procedure from Dynamic Ecology. If you know of others that you want to share, please post them in the comments. (You can do it anonymously.) I wouldn’t even know where to start for physics, chemistry, computer science, cell/molecular biology, and so on.

While you’re at it, please don’t give generalized advice to students wondering whether to do a Master’s or Ph.D.

Advice on whether to do an M.S. before the Ph.D.

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If you have undergraduates who are thinking about doing a Ph.D., they may be seeking advice about how, or whether, to do an M.S. first.

I’m in a field in which the M.S. is entirely optional. Some people have ’em, and many don’t. (I don’t.) Many folks have strong-ish opinions about whether or not doing a Master’s is good. Some say it’s good because it helps you hone your experience, get into a better lab for the Ph.D., and results in a higher quality dissertation research. Others will say that an M.S. could be an unnecessary, financially and temporally expensive detour that might result in a subpar experience. In addition, sometimes students get trapped in M.S. programs for a long time, as many M.S. granting institutions like to treat their graduate students like the Ph.D. students that they can’t train.

Here’s my suggestion for those who are about to advice a promising undergraduate for or against the M.S.:

Throw your experiences and biases out the window.

There is no generalized reason why an M.S. degree is, or is not, a valuable precursor to a Ph.D.

The reasons that a Ph.D.-bound student should pursue or avoid an M.S. are entirely individualized, based on a given student’s experience, aspirations, and opportunities.

The things you need to take into account in this calculation are many, but they pertain to the student and not any generality that you might have to proffer. These include:

  • How difficult it is to get into a good lab for the PhD
  • Whether professional success in the subfield is associated with having an MS
  • Whether the student can afford the MS financially
  • Whether the experience of the MS would alter the decision to do the PhD
  • The specific program and lab that the student would go to for the M.S.
  • Whether the student has temporary geographic constraints
  • Whether the student has a realistic idea about what life is like in a PhD program
  • The presence, absence, or specifics of the student’s career plans
  • Whether the student’s probability for success in the PhD would be altered by having the experience of an MS
  • and I’m sure there are may more

You know your students well, or at least you should know them well. Dispense your advice on what they, in particular, need and what is in their best interest. Everybody is different, and the landscape is constantly evolving. What worked for us, just a few short years ago, can’t be used much to inform contemporary decisions.