Needed: A New Graduate Adviser-Advisee Relationship

How can graduate advisers think strategically about their advisees’ career preparation within the flawed system for Ph.D.s? James M. Van Wyck provides advice.

November 27, 2017
 
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Dear graduate advisers,

I write to you today about your students' futures -- all of them.

We live in a new normal when it comes to the outcomes for graduate students. That new normal is shaped by the academic job market’s perverse ability to find new levels of woefulness. Charts mapping academic job postings in History and English resemble hills you shouldn’t ski down unless you have great health insurance.

The academic job curve has been trending downward for so long that we’ve worn out the word “crisis.” What crisis lasts for two generations? The academic job market isn’t in crisis. It’s simply found a new baseline.

In this new norm, it takes a village to find a career befitting your students’ credentials and talents. And you’re a vital part of helping prepare your Ph.D. students for a range of possibilities. You can’t just take responsibility for the academic possibility and outsource the others. That is to say, you can’t fall for the canard (let alone perpetuate it) that professors cannot advise graduate students who are heading toward a life beyond the professoriate.

The outsourcing of career preparation by graduate advisers happens all too often. It begins with the presumption that a graduate adviser’s job is to train professors, and it manifests itself in the actions -- both large and small -- that shape the attitudes and futures of advisees.

Graduate training involves an apprenticeship, but it’s a more open-ended one than once prevailed. Which means that you are intimately involved in the success or failure of each of the careers of your students, even if they choose (or are forced) to look for work beyond academe.

This culpability exists even in the face of the abysmal academic job market -- maybe especially because of it. After all, should credit be given for placement in the best of times, with no reckoning be taken in the worst of times? Discussing how to rework graduate education in light of the vanishing tenure-track job is worthwhile, but please don’t allow discussions of ideals to distract from the real lives of your current students.

As we wait for systematic changes, what can graduate advisers do to think strategically about career preparation within this flawed system?

A substantial percentage of graduate advisers absolve themselves of the need to do anything at all, because they feel unprepared. But such an excuse doesn’t pass the sniff test. And that’s because it takes little to bring yourself to a place where you can do tremendous amounts of good in the lives of the advisees you currently have.

So how might you best approach a task for which you feel underprepared? For starters, it might help to put yourself in the position of the graduate student for a moment. If you feel unprepared for the future, how might they feel?

Match your empathy to action. To help your students find the career path that’s right for them, remember that networks and conversations matter, perhaps more than anything else. Here are some specific recommendations along those lines.

Don’t dismiss career preparation as beyond your purview. Instead, initiate conversations that show you are open-minded on the subject of possible careers for Ph.D.s.

I hope you want to be an adviser who will help students achieve goals of their own design. To do that, you have to know about the aspirations of your advisees. Most Ph.D. students enter graduate school today with a realistic understanding of the realities of the academic job market, and many graduate programs are rethinking the ways these students are trained for life after graduate school.

But your voice, for better or for worse, will often matter more than many of the other voices your advisees hear. For better or for worse, the graduate adviser-advisee relationship shapes each step of a graduate student’s training, and exerts an outsize influence on professionalization and career preparation. For many graduate students, the opinions of advisers are all too central to how they feel about themselves and their futures. Early on in graduate school, for example, a discouraging comment from you can curtail or even short-circuit nontraditional career preparation.

Encourage a strategic, long-term approach to graduate training and career preparation. Ph.D. programs are often structured on the assumption that graduate students have similar strengths, preferences and career goals. And if your students are not careful, they can begin to conform their desires to these assumptions. So as your students make their way through the prescribed course of study, take time to encourage them to identify their strengths, and to map out short- and long-term goals. Urge them to meet with career services professionals early on in their training, not as they are wrapping up their time with you.

Allow time for chats about the future, and find ways to map progress over the course of an advisee’s training. Such documents needn’t be fancy; a one-page Word document with a list of goals, with clear steps and timelines for achieving each of them, will orient advising sessions and keep both you and your advisee on the same page.

To initiate these conversations effectively, learn about the resources that are out there. Know where to point your students. For example, you should be aware of established career preparation sites like Versatile Ph.D. and should keep your eyes open for exciting new ones like Imagine Ph.D.

Allow me to repeat myself: encourage your students to keep their options open from the very start. One practical way would be to highlight opportunities for your students, such as the Possible Futures Career Fair at this year’s MLA convention.

Assess your network and connect your students with your contacts. Networking is essential. “But my only connections are other professors,” you say, “and who on the tenure track has the time to network outside academe?” No, I’m not asking you to rub shoulders with corporate types in hotel ballrooms. I’m asking you to look at the connections that you already have and consider how to connect your students with them.

In fact, perhaps the most important step you can take for your students is to recognize that you have contacts that they can benefit from. Even the best graduate advisers I meet often need prodding to recognize that they are likely well connected. And you almost always are. Your contacts as a tenure-track professor range from the former colleague who now works at the National Endowment for the Humanities to the person you tutored in graduate school who heads up an ed-tech start-up and the undergraduate who took your senior seminar in the ’90s and now runs a consulting firm.

Let’s back up a second and consider why networking matters. Networking is the key to securing the kinds of jobs Ph.D.s want and can do well. (The numbers vary, but a conservative estimate is that at least 70 percent of all jobs are found via networking.)

Some academic organizations are ahead of the curve in this respect. For example, the American Historical Association’s Career Contacts program arranges informational interviews between Ph.D. students and history Ph.D.s who have built careers beyond the professoriate. This program and others like it make networking a part of the fabric of our professional organizations in ways that make a real difference in the lives of graduate students. As a graduate adviser, please acquaint yourself with these types of initiatives, and then speak as highly of them as you can.

Take the time to jot down a list of possible connections for each student -- connections that are useful for one won’t necessarily be so for another student -- and add to that list as connections occur to you. You might use your alumni relations office and/or your career services office to help you connect with former students and connections, but oftentimes LinkedIn is your best bet. And given how LinkedIn works, you’ll likely be found by your former colleagues and students, taking some of the burden of reconnecting off your shoulders.

Once you’ve assessed your network, the next step is to connect your students to your contacts. You might begin by quickly learning what an informational interview is and then encouraging your students to do the same.

Attend to the structures around you. Whenever possible, make graduate education more about your students than it is currently set up to be.

I know I’m asking for quite a bit. But the times demand it: today’s graduate advisers must learn to work in a new normal, one that sees graduate students scrambling to fashion futures for themselves.

The good news is that this work doesn’t need to be shouldered alone. Today’s graduate adviser must make a habit of ceding control to a plurality of advisers. For the sake of your students, learn to collaborate with Career Services and other on-campus resources.

In the new year, I’ll spotlight some of the resources that are already on your doorstep.

Bio

Graduate Career Consortium logoJames M. Van Wyck is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Fordham University, where he is also a core planning group member on Fordham’s NEH Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. project, “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” He is also a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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