Columbia professor raises some eyebrows with his frank approach with would-be doctoral students
Like any good graduate adviser, Chris Blattman expects a lot of his students.
But just how he’s expressing those expectations has generated a fair amount of discussion at Columbia University, where he is an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs, as well as some talk outside its walls.
Blattman, who is known for his frank approach to decoding college and graduate school for students on his blog (he once wrote a “how-to” post on e-mailing professors), outlines protocol for would-be advisees in a new post called “If you want to be my student.” Described as “advice on how to manage [me],” it links to a page on Blattman’s website for Ph.D. students.
The guidelines are explicit. Here are some examples, all verbatim:
- It’s always good to send concise written updates (a couple of paragraphs by email) in advance of a meeting and, for specific questions, to try to formulate them first instead of wandering in to office hours.
- Be prepared for me to tell you to drop things that you haven’t sold me on. I will either expect you to downgrade it or give a good argument for keeping going.
Like other busy faculty (especially ones with small kids) I usually need advance time to review something.
- minimum 24 hours for a 1-2 paragraph update before a meeting
- 1-2 weeks for a longer paper or memo
- I only remember something if it’s written down, so send me an email if you need me to do something.
- If you don’t have a response in 48 hours for small things or 1-2 weeks for big things (such as “please read this paper”) then either I’ve been hit by a truck or I just forgot–in either case send me a reminder email.
Blattman says he prefers to meet with core students in small groups throughout the semester, in part to save time and as a “commitment device” for all involved (although he’s still available for office hours to those who schedule a time). And "stay regular" he says -- he'll forget your work if he only sees you "every four months."
Absent family emergencies and fieldwork, he says, in-person participation is mandatory: “To be quite blunt, from experience I’ve seen it is detrimental for students to live elsewhere just to be with a partner and (absent children) generally see grad school – like a job – demanding a physical presence to be effective.”
He also lists specific methodological training and course requirements for core advisees.
Blattman developed some of the ideas on his page with a colleague, Macartan Humphreys, fellow professor of political science at Columbia. Humphreys said they both e-mailed the same set of guidelines to their students, but Blattman put a version on his website (Humphreys doesn’t plan to, he said in an e-mail).
While some have praised the page for making clear what many in academe have had to figure out on their own – at times, anxiously – others have said the page puts too much pressure on students and reads as intimidating. A Columbia Ph.D. student of political science who didn’t want to be named said that there has been some “grumbling” among candidates about the tone of the post in particular -- not the "gist," which seems "reasonable."
The page has gotten 4,000 hits since Blattman posted it a week ago. The professor, who is currently on parental leave, said he was surprised by the attention it was getting, as he had imagined it would be of interest to just a "few dozen people."
Feedback so far from students is “enthusiastic with some trepidation since it sounds like a lot of work for them," he said. "Which it is.”
But the work is ultimately designed to help students succeed, Blattman said. Historically, professors – including him – do a “very poor job” of communicating norms to graduate students.
“Many faculty take a sink-or-swim approach to graduate school and think the strong will emerge and survive,” he said. “But most people, including grad students, benefit from some structure and commitments.”
If he is “marginally more clear” and spends “marginally more time on my students,” Blattman said, they’ll do better on the job market – something that’s good for everyone.
Blattman also said he suspected being forthright about his expectations also would attract better student advisees in the first place, and that the “less committed ones” would avoid him.
Humphreys said the guidelines also are a way to standardize the advising procedure. There’s a lot of variation on protocol for meetings and notice, with some students coming in unprepared and others with a clear idea of what they hope to accomplish, he said. Advance notice of meetings can lead to “much more focused discussions.”
Betsy Levy Paluck, assistant professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton University, and a follower of Blattman’s blog who has served on panels with him, praised Blattman for “operationalizing” the graduate school process – something other professors should think about doing.
“I appreciated the transparency and the directness of how he laid out his expectations for his students,” Paluck said, adding that she had considered posting something similar on her own website for undergraduates. “He’s encouraging them to take an active role in shaping the adviser-advisee relationship and that I think that’s really positive.”
Many professors verbally express such expectations to their students, Paluck said. But there’s added value in documenting them to avoid confusion and help students understand – and not take to heart – why, for example, a professor didn't immediately respond to them about an idea or paper. That could mitigate anxiety – "what marks the graduate school experience."
Paluck said that stems from one major downside of graduate school: that "it's not marked by any real, clear way of evaluating yourself along the way. These evaluative moments come very incrementally, and graduate students are [constantly] looking around themselves trying to figure out how to self-evaluate," based on the "signals" they're getting. But those signals can be erroneous.
As for the frank tone of the piece, Paluck said it was an example of “truth in advertising.” Some students may well wish to find a professor with fewer advisees or more personal time, she said. Others will find his style appealing. The post also has to be read in the context of Blattman's blog, which is often "lighthearted and frank," she added.
Natascha Chtena, a doctoral student in education and information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, and graduate education blogger for GradHacker and Inside Higher Ed, said via Twitter: "Wow, I wish he were my adviser! I think it's extremely clear and helpful but I'm the kind of person who loves structure."
Aaron Bady, a postdoctoral fellow in English at the University of Texas at Austin and a higher education blogger, was “of two minds.”
On one hand, he said in an e-mail: “I worry when a professor is a better advisor by putting more burdens onto the grad student (they have to ‘manage’ him, and they do it by following new rules and expectations).”
It likely varies by field, Bady said, “but many Ph.D. students are not really ‘students’ at all, and their advisers are just that, advisers. Which is why, when advisers start requiring ‘management,’ they can sometimes do more harm than good; it's hard enough keeping body and soul together as a grad student without having to spend precious mental energy ‘managing’ your committee in addition to everything else.”
But on the other hand, Bady said, it’s “incredibly useful to have a clearly articulated set of policies, expectations, and best practices.”
He continued: "I suspect that Blattman and Humphreys' students are very well served by those kinds of explicit guidelines, because it can function a bit like a contract; abuses of the professor-grad student relationship (on either side) are much more likely when there isn't a clear sense of what is expected of each, but if it's written down, everybody knows what they're getting into.”
Blattman said the approach, as outlined, is an experiment, and it could fail. But if it works, and other faculty start to copy him, raising the level of competition, "then I still win, because it will be a better profession."