February 27, 2008

Advice for choosing your graduate school

My latest newsletter, "Mean and Nasty Academics," generated a lot of email and also comments in the Writing Club. Here are some comments from Writing Club members on a thread on the message board called "Advice for Prospective Graduate Students." I've edited out confusing or identifying details.

  • I have another suggestion for potential grad students when evaluating departments. Most of the time, current grad students will not say anything negative about the people in their department for fear it will get back to the professors. I personally will give a realistic picture of everything administrative (requirements, money, office space, all of which are not the best in my program), but would NEVER EVER say which professors are bad to work with. In general, I have a nice department with friendly, helpful people, but there is one professor in particular who is a nightmare (not the one on my committee, btw!). She is just awful. Abusive is a GREAT word for her. She is a pretty big name, though, and puts on a good show for prospective students. So when we get one coming through who is really excited about working with her, we (not just me but the other grad students too) try to dissuade him or her. We have to do it subtly, though. We will never say anything bad about the professor, but we do make comments like “MOST people are great to work with.” and “Don’t make your decision to go to a particular grad school based on one professor, because they could go on sabbatical, they could leave… or they could be a nightmare to work with!” Often, though, the potential grad students don’t pick up on our subtle messages, but we aren’t willing to say any more. So when I have friends who are looking into Ph.D. programs, I always tell them to pay attention when the grad students are neutral about something, or try to avoid the topic, because that is a big red flag.

  • One thing I realized is that it it sometimes worthwhile to ask current grad students at one school if they know anything about other programs that you are considering. Sometimes they will have friends there or have heard gossip. We have no problem being upfront about other programs, just not our own! I had one friend who was looking at a school that is a good school but happens to have a very dysfunctional department, and I was able to tell him some info (not a lot, but some), and connect him to other friends at other schools who knew a little more.
  • Gina’s newsletter got me thinking about all the advice that I have given friends of mine who wanted to do Ph.D. programs. The first thing I usually do is try to talk them out of it, but I always fail. So after that, I give them advice on what to look for in a program and what questions to ask. I looked through my emails to find my “best of”... I wanted to share some of my other tips and hear any from you guys.

    • I would only recommend a Ph.D. to people who really want to do academia, or who are in an area where you really NEED a Ph.D. to do a particular non–academic job (usually in the sciences). If you’re not sure if you want to go into academia, then I would wait before going back OR if you really want to go back to school, make sure you go somewhere that gives you a masters if you quit. (my university only started doing this last year; if they had done it in year 2, I guarantee I would have quit!).
    • If the school has an admit day where they fly everyone out, make sure to swap info with the other admits on at each university b/c it’s a good way to make connections...You can also compare notes since you’ll probably have all gotten into different programs and heard different things.
    • Do not go anywhere just for one person. If there is ONE professor that you really want to work with, but don’t want to work with the others, that’s not a great bet, b/c people go on sabbatical, they leave, or sometimes end up being horrible to work with. Incidentally, this is true for the job market too, as we keep getting told (although we know it anyway).
    • Be sure to ask where they have placed people recently. I am not talking about the superstar graduate from 15 years ago, but in the last 5 years, where have they gone? A lot of times, websites or brochures will list recent placements, but they might not be representative or even all that recent.
    • Also, ask how long it takes people to get out. I would actually ask current students this. do not believe anyone who tells you you can get out in 4 years– this is pretty much impossible. 5 is the minimum. (this is true at least in my field– the only people I know who have finished in 4 years came in with their own data for their dissertation on day 1 of year 1 of the program.) What are the requirements? Are they comparable with the requirements of other schools? (I wish I had asked this question!)
    • Find out how accessible the professors are– do they like grad students? Do grad students get to do a lot of good research and get co–authorships? (if you hear the word “apprenticeship” this is a good thing) What is the funding like? Are they really strict about cutting you off after a certain point? (this is less of an issue in [our] system b/c if you TA for a class, it pays your fees). If they are strict about cutting you off, do they at least do their best to get you out in time? ([Another school I know] is like this– they will cut you off, but they also don’t try to hold you back for the most part). All things being equal, it is better to go somewhere with more money b/c you will get better funding (less TAing/teaching is always better). More funding will in general make your life better.
    • Do they kick a lot of people out? If so, why?
    • Since I am a particularly negative Nellie about academia, I often recommend that my friends go lurk/post on PhinisheD, since there are a lot of people there who love academia, just to get a more positive viewpoint on it. It is the right path for some people.
  • I would also ask them to think of their life commitments and plans before starting on a Phd. I am told that research shows that married men finish their grad school faster, and married women slower. Also do you think your spouse can live with you needing to devote so much time to the dissertation. Do they understand what it takes ? My husband often jokes about starting a ‘Distressed spouses of Phd’ clubs, as does my sister who is married to an ABD. It can’t be done if people around you are not supportive of this project which can run into several years.

Do you have any advice that you wish someone had told you before you applied to graduate school? You could save someone a lot of heartache if you posted it here!

February 26, 2008

Do you feel pressured by your mentors?

So many professors have told me that they feel "overly mentored" by their chair or others in their department, in their quest for tenure. Even though the mentoring may be meant in a kindly, helpful way, it can result in the mentee feeling inadequate, bullied, or even paralyzed.

If you are in this situation, and giving direct feedback to the mentor is either not helping, or not advisable in your situation, then you need to work on your own point of view. You need to work on not giving too much power to the mentor, and feeling like you are the one in control; the one making decisions for yourself.

Here is a great 6 minute video by Byron Katie, illustrating a cognitive-behavioral technique for convincing yourself that you have choices, even if you are being pressured.

You can also see examples of the process she calls "The Work" which is a series of techniques for questioning your beliefs that keep you trapped.

I haven't read anywhere else about this problem of overeager mentors doing more harm than good in academia. If you have examples that you can share, please let me know, or comment here.

February 25, 2008

Hazing and Bullying: One Academic's Story

In response to my newsletter article ("Mean and Nasty Academics" -- see previous post), I received some insightful replies. One of them is reprinted in full here, with permission of the author, leaving out any identifying information.

About ten years ago I helped form an organization for students with disabilities at an Ivy League University. At our first meeting with graduate students, we went around and talked about our experiences and needs from the organization. There were students in professional programs and students in academic, arts and sciences programs.

The students in arts and sciences, of whom I was one, uniformly told of harassment and abuse, loading on extra work, being stifled especially in bringing up ADA-related requests for accomodation.

In contrast, students in professional programs told of faculty who were solicitous and kind, who sought to adapt the program to fit the student's abilities.

I had experienced hazing in the first year particularly; since my funding was year to year, I was in a precarious position to file a complaint. Then I fell off a library stool, and suffered a major broken leg. Suddenly the funding was there, for the next semester. Guilt worked.

Ten years later, I see how callow and unprepared I was for the Ivy League academic culture. The Department now has shifted graduate advisers to one who is rigorous and defined about what a student needs to do, and these standards apply across the board. She is also approachable, and stands up for the first-year students in the required colloquium.

What worked best for me was to find my strength, in talking about subject matter and approaches to subject matter. Absolutely never to talk about personalities, say "I'm sorry," or admit weakness. For accommodation, I would go to the Student Disabilities Coordinator, and vent, and we would work out an approach to the faculty member involved, or the library, or whatever was needed.

The disabled Arts and Sciences students at that first meeting were all women, so we may have been getting a double-barreled dose of hazing.

In thinking about that experience, I can see that what (some) men gain in going through fraternity initiation, or playing team sports, may help in cultivating stoic endurance, or understanding a culture based on stoic endurance. Women are not socialized to such a culture. People with disabilities have no toehold in academic culture to which to be socialized. I joined, as student representative, the all-campus committee called Architectural Barrier Removal and Prevention, and it became my support group. Didn't support the academics, but allowed me as a person to believe that I fit on that campus.

Circling back around to the hazing itself, what was so scary? First was the private discussion with the Chair of Graduate Studies, who said "Don't talk about your disability," in a threatening tone. That's in contrast to ADA requirements that you DO bring up your disability and what accommodations are needed. I had a required course with this man, and needed to change my seat in a seminar so I could hear all the discussants. I asked to do so, he said "All the seats are fixed." I had counted on taking a lighter load in the first semester, as I had in a State University; he announced that all first year graduate students were required to take a full load. The summer after the first year, my mother was dying, yet I had to finish incompletes, in order to get (or release) that funding for the next year, so I couldn't go visit her. Then I broke my leg, and *really* couldn't go visit before she died. Of course once she died, the Department and teachers in other departments were a bit kinder.

Having finished in that program, I don't feel bitter. I had some support, in the following years, and survived. My dissertation was MacArthur "Genius" Grant quality, though I don't know anyone to nominate me for it. OK, I'm laughing.

The message is that doing good work is a way of undoing the sting of harassment, and the pain of bullying, a way of asserting one's self. It doesn't make it right, or helpful.

I could have finished sooner without the bullying. In my time there, I've seen incoming faculty come to the tenure decision point and be denied. Although I don't know their experiences, I would bet that they were harassed, disrupted, and bullied when requesting those things that would help them complete tenure. I talked with one who made it, who needed a semester off to finish her book, but was needed in the Department for teaching, so they said. She thought that the tenure clock would be postponed automatically. I said that wasn't a sure thing, based on an earlier tenure candidate who had not gotten an extended time to file for tenure. I suggested that she check it out and make a formal request. She did, finished her book, and got tenure.

And now that I know them, and they know me, for most I would say that these are all nice people. But until you have a good long basis of understanding, and even after, it helps to think of them as tricky, mean, nasty, SOBs, every once in while, not constantly.

Why do I post this person's recounting of her story? I believe that the more we air these kinds of stories, the more likely it will be that administrators will do what's right, and not just what's expedient, when it appears that academic bullying is involved.

February 24, 2008

Mean and Nasty Academics: Bullying, Hazing, and Mobbing

“Tenure is supposed to protect scholars from outside control, but it does a lousy job of protecting them from one another.”
-- Kenneth Westhues, quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education

I don't usually post my newsletters here, but I think this is a subject that needs to get more airing. So here is the text of my latest newsletter, called "Mean and Nasty Academics." (If you'd like to sign up for my bi-weekly (sometimes less frequent) newsletter, go to this page, which also lists the bonuses you will receive.)

Another reason I'm posting this newsletter issue is that I have received some interesting replies from my newsletter readers that will help those of you struggling with these issues. I will put these replies up in later posts.

Mean and Nasty Academics

"I was surprised to experience hazing as a graduate student, not once, but continually and by multiple professors… I watched how some of the other women faculty members in the department were treated, and they were second-class citizens at best." (Twale and De Luca, 2008, p.84)

"A tenured full female prof gets up to talk, and an untenured junior faculty man tells her that her ideas are not really important, that it may be a concern of hers but not ours. And the entire faculty went along with it, including the women... Be invisible. We weren’t supposed to say anything, even the strong women who could hold their own. Women sensed they were in a powerless position." [Ibid, p.85]

As an academic coach, I could add many more examples of graduate students and professors of all ranks being victimized by mean, nasty, harsh, underhanded, passive aggressive or bullying behavior at the hands of other academics.

The only reason I don’t give you details of what my clients have told me over the years is that I need to protect the identity of the victims. However, I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that I have heard numerous examples of departments ganging up on one individual, of professors being shunned, of tenured professors harassing other tenured professors, and of incredibly harsh treatment of graduate students by their advisors or other professors.

Bullying and emotional abuse don’t only exist in academia (see Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace). But Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca, the authors of Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, suggest that there has been an increase in “bullying, mobbing, camouflaged aggression, and harassment” (p. xii) within academia.

In working with people who have been the victims of bullying, I find that one of their first needs is reassurance that they did not do anything to deserve such treatment. So let me say that No one, ever, under any circumstances, deserves to be humiliated, undermined, insulted, shunned, marginalized, ganged up on, or even spoken to harshly. If it has happened to you, you did not cause it to happen. And you are not alone.

What Can I Do About Bullying?

There is no space here to review the reasons that academics can be so cruel to one another. Instead, I’ll focus on what you can do about it. The following suggestions are summarized from the Twale and De Luca book; additional comments from me are in brackets.

  1. Avoid becoming part of an abusive department. Before you attend graduate school or accept a job, do your homework. Look at faculty turnover rates, policies and guidelines regarding harassment, and level of enforcement of such policies as seen in grievance filings and resolutions. [Note for prospective faculty: Talk to all the current and past faculty members that you can.] [Note for graduate students: Look at graduation rates and time to degree for both your prospective department and advisor, and talk to as many more advanced graduate students as you can to find out the “hall file” on any prospective advisor or department that you are considering.]
  1. If you are the victim of any kind of abuse:
    1. Document all communication concerning the abuse and take notes on all occurrences.
    2. Share with a close friend and/or colleague to get their take on the situation.
    3. Assess the situation coolly and continue to observe and collect information in order to see who is involved and how widespread the problem is.
    4. Don’t react precipitously or impulsively.
    5. Don’t react in kind. [Note: if you are equally rude, you won’t come out looking better than the perpetrator.]
    6. Show appropriate assertiveness. [Note: the way to do this could be the subject of a book, so get help with this if you don’t know how.]
    7. Get institutional support. The authors suggest that professors contact a local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. [Graduate students should contact their Director of Graduate Studies, the chairperson of their department, or their dean.]
    8. [Note: educate yourself about bullying – see links below.]
    9. [Note: If necessary, get help from a therapist or academic coach that is knowledgeable about this kind of situation.]

Luckily, academia has many wonderful people in it, who are horrified by the notion of abuse, and who would not stand for it if they were made aware of it. By exposing such behavior to the light of day, we can increase awareness and help increase the likelihood that administrators will intervene in cases of academic bullying.

Have you personally experienced an incident or situation in which you were bullied, abused or mobbed (ganged up on) within an academic setting? If you were, and you’d like to share it (with names and identities changed) in order to help the readers of this newsletter better understand what can occur in academia, please write me at gina@academicladder.com

Twale, Darla J. & De Luca, Barbara M. (2008) Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


If you have been the victim of bullying in academia, this informative blog has many useful links.
Bullying of Academics in Higher Education

Also see: “Mob Rule: In Departmental Disputes, Professors Can Act Just Like Animals” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

And it can happen to postdocs: When Bad Things Happen to Good Postdocs”