Sunday, February 18, 2007

You can lead a horse to water . . .

Recently, I was in a meeting with a colleague when he commented that a grad student "must have gotten bad advice from her advisor"; the context was something to do with a particular theory that a student did or didn't use.

Maybe yes, and maybe no. As profgrrrl and others have commented from time to time, sometimes we're giving advice and they're not taking it. Sometimes the smaller stuff is easier than the large stuff: we can suggest that if they want to submit something to Journal A and Journal A wants Chicago style, they'll have a better chance if the manuscript is in Chicago style. That kind of thing is a no-brainer. The same holds true if it's a really big question--of ethics, say, or of a university deadline.

It's the mid-level stuff that's the problem. Students aren't Play-Doh, after all. We can advise getting in touch with X person or including Y person on a committee, but ultimately we only have two kinds of power: moral suasion and the veto power enforced by quitting a committee. Since no one wants to do the latter except in the most extreme circumstances, we're left with persuading students that what we're advising really is in their best interests. Sometimes they don't believe us and go their own way. Sometimes they're right to do so.

Sometimes, though, they're wrong, and their project will leave people scratching their heads about the "bad advice" they got from their advisors.

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Horace said...

What I find tricky about all of this is the decision involved in taking on a graduate student as an advisee. I've yet to officially sign on as an advisor, and in fact, I've yet to sit on anyone's committee here (though that is likely coming soon).

But as a grad student, I shook my head in sympathy when another student got essentially turned down by every faculty member in his area, mostly, I think because he was a pain in the ass. On the one hand, I thought this was terrible, since he had done perfectly solid work in the department thus far, and wasn't out-and-out rude or beyond the pale with any particular behavior. he was just arrogant and maybe a little less smart than he thought he was. He was owed an advisor by the department, no?

And yet, I wouldn't have wanted him as my advisee--he's the sort who would leave behind precisely this sort of bewildered head-shaking, and as I'm just starting to build a reputation in my department and in my field, having knuckle-headed advisees seems like it would reflect on me in some concrete and consequential ways.

How, then, does a junior scholar begin to sort out when and if to take on an advisee? or do we owe it to them, as I believed was the case for my grad school acquaintance (who simply left the program)?

undine said...

You pose a good question, Horace. I do think that in general advisors ought to agree to be on committees unless the area is just too far out of range or unless they're already on too many committees.

That said, I can see why the student you mention would find it hard to get people to agree to be on his committee. It's a big commitment of time that departments don't always care about very much: "Oh, you have X number of students? Swell. So what have you published lately?" If you add arrogance (whether backed up by performance or not) and other high-maintenance behaviors to that time commitment--well, life's too short for that, especially since once you've taken on an advisee, you can't fire him or her without drastic consequences and a lot of fallout.

So--was he owed an advisor? Not right away. What he was owed is a Dutch uncle talk by someone who could tell him to stop being such a PITA. Didn't the other students tell him this, or did he chalk it up (as sometimes happens) to their "jealousy" over his "brilliance"?

Absent rudeness, though, and the kind of behavior you describe, I'd say that we do have a duty to take on advisees, if the program has admitted them. If we have a problem with the students being admitted, that's another story, one to take up with the graduate director or the admissions committee.