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How to Talk to Prospective Students
March 23, 2014 - 8:11pm

Photo of typed page with hearts drawn in the marginsKelly Hanson is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University--Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter @krh121910.

This morning, I got a text message from my childhood best friend, telling me she had gotten into graduate school. I of course called her immediately and we chatted excitedly. But there were also questions swirling about in my mind—about the market, about funding, about which program is best for her, and so on. I had doubts not about her, but about graduate school itself. These are, in some ways, doubts we’ve all had at one point or another--but they are doubts unique, I think, to current graduate students, not prospective graduate students.

In these moments, I wonder what we, as current graduate students, owe prospective students? Do current students have fiduciary obligations to prospective students? What ethical obligation do we have to voice these doubts? Are such doubts simply dark moments, unique to our own personal experiences? Or are they important questions every potential graduate student should be aware of before entering graduate school? To put it another way: when we see all the bright and chipper young faces at visiting weekend for prospective students, what questions should we as current graduate students—from first years to nth year ABDers—ask prospective students?

On the one hand, talking to prospective students is a selling point for your program. Obviously, it is in everyone’s best interest to present the university in a positive light, to not trash our professors or experience, and to help our school get the best candidates possible. It would be unprofessional to speak ill of our colleagues or employers, and it would present an unappealing version of  life in your department to the outside world. It could damage your future career opportunities. In some ways, we really should be nice, and not scare the children.

On the other hand, of course, there is a wrinkle in this seemingly smooth cloth, the seedy underbelly of academia: capitalism, privatization of universities, and the knowledge that there are fewer academic jobs than there are new PhDs. Anyone entering graduate school without, at a minimum, a keen awareness of this fact is setting themselves up for disappointment at best, and a waste of their time and financial resources at worst. I’m not going to take the extreme “just don’t go”  route. That is not what this post is about. And frankly, I don’t think that is useful advice—as some have pointed out, the advice to “just don’t go” to graduate school assumes that there are better options available, which just simply isn’t the case for everyone.

So, I want to ask: what are our ethical obligations as graduate students—both as potential mentors and friends of new students, but also of colleagues and employees of institutions that we may love, but don’t always like? What can and should we tell doe-eyed prospective students so that they make an informed decision about their futures without trashing our friends, our schools, and our chosen career field?

In the spirit of giving ethical advice to prospective students, here are some questions and concerns that every prospective student should ask themselves—and that we as current graduate student should at the very least consider bringing up if students seem to be viewing the prospect of graduate school through overly rose-colored glasses:

1.    Are you aware of job market conditions? It should be news to no one that the academic market is not good. This is not unique to academia—the market isn’t really good anywhere. But prospective students should research job data for their prospective fields, and be aware of job market trends when they sign up for graduate school. If graduate school is the start to an academic career, we should all be aware of what kinds of jobs are available in our fields, and what it means to compete for these spots. Both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education can be helpful resources in this regard.

2.    What kind of jobs (plural) are you interested in after graduate school? Every single person entering graduate school, regardless of their intentions, should be prepared to walk away after a decade of work to take a job that might not require an advanced degree. This doesn’t mean you won’t get a great job, or find a career you love. And it doesn’t mean working a low-paying job in a field you hate. It does mean that there are limited jobs for those with PhDs, and your eventual career path will likely look nothing like your advisor’s did. To find a fulfilling job with a good salary and benefits, you might have to turn outside of academia. Is that something you’re prepared to do?

3.     Graduate school is a stepping stone, not a solution. Graduate school and a PhD, in particular, are advanced requirements for future careers. What are you planning to gain from your experience in graduate school?

4.     Will graduate school help or harm your financial situation? If you have limited loan debt from undergrad and are financially stable, graduate school likely won’t hurt your financial situation. But if you have massive student debt from undergrad and think graduate school is a good way to “defer” paying the loans, graduate school will be a difficult experience for you. We have written about the pros and cons of taking unfunded positions in graduate programs, but the real thing to consider is a cost-benefit analysis for yourself: what are all of the costs and all of the benefits to you? This includes comparing graduate school to other options, and considering hidden costs. For example, years of low-wages is a hidden cost of graduate school, because you earn less and have fewer advancement opportunities than you might have had at a better-paying job. Even with a good funding package, graduate school is an expensive choice.

5.     Ambivalence is a bad sign. We should reflect hard on what we really want out of life. But we should especially reflect on our feelings about graduate school. Why do you want to go to graduate school? If you’re considering going to graduate school because you’re not sure what else to do, or because you’re really smart and think you might be good at it, then maybe don’t go. Taking any job that you’re ambivalent about is not ideal, but committing a decade of your life to a low-paying job that requires long hours is a poor investment of your time, and everyone else’s.

At the end of the day, I think our ethical obligations are simple: make sure prospective students know that graduate school can be an amazing experience, but is in no way a guarantee of a job in academia. Our job is not to tell students about graduate school, but rather to help guide them in deciding if graduate school is a good choice for them at this point in their lives. Questions like this are, I think, one way to start.

What advice do you have for prospective students, or those about to speak to them?

[Image by Flickr user pidoubleg used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

 

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