Lies and Other Advice

Alfreda James shares insights for any new or soon-to-be Ph.D. interested in the day-to-day life of a career education professional.

June 19, 2017

Agreeing to become an American Historical Association career contact might seem like an extension of my role as a graduate career counselor. Both my job and the AHA program require direct contact with new or soon-to-be Ph.D. students. But there is a difference, and the distinction rests in students’ professional motivation.

The AHA mentees want to move into counseling and advising. They want my job or something like my occupation in a research university. The unspoken competition doesn't bother me. Nor do I feel like I’m in my dotage when speaking to would-be peers with no knowledge of card catalogs, typewriters and WordPerfect.

Here are some lessons that I share with any new or soon-to-Ph.D. interested in the day-to-day life of a career education professional.

Lesson No. 1: Lying is an art form and sometimes a form of protection. The tall tale is an example. Graduates can tell tall tales about themselves, advisers and motivations. But the career services professional listens for gaps between individual action and expression.

For example, Graduate Student Alpha, let’s call her, does a fine job explaining research in her lab. Her exact role, however, is less clear. More than objectivity, more than personal shyness, her reticence may reflect a crummy relationship with a primary investigator. You, the career counselor, need to consider if she is hesitant to disclose a poor workplace relationship. Or maybe Graduate Student Alpha is a slacker who does the minimal amount of work. Or perhaps she’s struggling with her decision to consider alternatives to an academic position.

The 26-year-old version of myself had the audacity to lie to a Baptist preacher about church affiliation! I wanted to sidestep a conversation about the condition of my soul. Likewise, graduates avoid full disclosure about shifts in personal values and professional interests.

But for a new professional, especially a recent Ph.D., running an administrative gantlet of assessments, goals and workshops, lying can seem like personal betrayal. You’ll contend that you can relate to the struggles of Ph.D. students. You might even have data supporting the efficacy of professional development for Ph.D. students. How dare they not share? Career professionals need to develop a reputation for confidentiality first.

Lesson No. 2: Interest does not always equal attention. Did only three students show up for a nighttime presentation on interview skills after the event organizer promised an audience of least 50? You will forever question the attentiveness of student leaders when it comes event planning. You will wonder who lied to whom: the students who clicked yes to the RSVP or the event organizer who issued an emailed invite full of misspellings and later claimed to have sent a correction that confused the intended audience.

The remedy to this situation of big promises and little audience turnout is humor and constant communication in the planning stages. When students approach me about working together, I’ll reflect with them about past events gone wrong. Or I'll ask my tentative event partner to identify by name her co-organizers. Why? Because if she can't remember the names of the people who share programmatic goals, then demand for an event might be limited or nonexistent.

I once worked with a graduate student leader who planned an entire event by himself. He ordered food, arranged the speaker (me) and secured a room. But only two students showed up. In the event postmortem, I learned he never directly communicated with his peers at any stage of his work. He did not obtain consent or agreement. He couldn't identify people who shared his goals.

Was there any humor? Yes, my own schadenfreude in dissecting leadership failure with a management graduate student!

Lesson No. 3: Get comfortable with students who are just plain not ready for informational interviews or networking events. Conversion comes at an individual’s pace. First-year grad students may roll their eyes when you speak about transferable skills. An interactive workshop on interviewing skills gets hijacked by passivity, cultural misunderstandings or even a bad server connection. But as you become a more seasoned professional, you accept unpredictable students and conditions. You learn to modify coach-like enthusiasm according to the rhythm of individual students.

Lesson No. 4: Watch and listen. I know one professor who routinely sneers whenever anyone from career services speaks. I can't determine if this faculty member has an involuntary tic or disdain for the work of my colleagues. So I am cautious. Discursive language and questions are central to new ideas, especially on a research university campus. But some faculty members get stuck in complaint mode. Find reliable faculty partners willing to constructively discuss professional development. Also, view your job from the perspective of faculty members who already have multiple priorities. Position yourself as an administrator prepared to help.

Lesson No. 5: Read, especially if your educational credentials are more archival than empirical-evidence based. You’ll need to adjust to students engaged in state-of-the-art research using computer and other technologies that didn’t exist a few years ago. Reading outside topics in higher education is undervalued but essential. I suggest The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner, or even the 470 pages of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, to understand the long slog associated with science research. You’ll learn that the young scientists have entered a scholarly apprenticeship that might not pay dividends in results for two decades. If you are a STEM Ph.D., read anything by the late Sherwin Nuland for insight about achievement, frailty and resilience.

Graduate students and postdocs bear more than credentials. Make sure your zeal for background information includes talking to people. Students are more than demographic points in the institutional database. URM, STEM and F-1 are categories or a way to organize information. But career counselors should to tune in to how students define their needs by following common social media sources. Nothing surpasses insights learned during old-fashioned conversations. Sometimes it's better to turn down the volume on strategic planning and listen.

Career services is not a haven for a Ph.D. waiting for a tenure-track job or management role in a prestigious foundation. The best people in this profession pivot like athletes through generational differences, job market changes and shifts in institutional priorities. We are constant learners. I personally know nothing about CRISPR, but you can bet I understand that CRISPR is a new genome-editing tool.

Counseling graduate students isn't rooted in a single discipline. My daily routines and knowledge span layers of boundaries. Newcomers to graduate career counseling should consider joining the Graduate Career Consortium. The GCC highlights best practices while giving its members a place to commiserate, celebrate and exchange ideas to guide the newest cohort of graduate students. If you can't join us this year, then certainly follow the GCC during its national meeting hosted by the University of Texas and M. D. Anderson Center in Houston, on Twitter @GradCareers.


Alfreda James is assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the career center at Stony Brook University and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top