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What is our ethical obligation to graduate students?

October 5, 2015

What is our ethical obligation to graduate students?

We’ve all been there: you are sitting across the table from a brilliant, highly-achieving undergraduate student when they tell you what you may have suspected; they are considering graduate school.

Even if your disciplinary home has relatively “good” placement rates, given the overall state of the higher education field, you will likely hesitate. You will tell them to ask the requisite questions: Why are they thinking of graduate school? Do they want to teach? Do research? Be a scholar-activist? If it’s the latter, is there another way they can do this? Are they sure they can get funding? How much? Will it be enough if they end up taking more than the given time to complete?

Lately, these dilemmas have become more acute when deciding what to share about my contingent faculty research and other work on the state of higher education with current graduate students. How much is too much information? Where is the line between helping graduate students make sure they are as prepared as possible for the job market, while also alerting them to the extremely arbitrary nature of the selection process in a market that is as oversaturated as academia’s is today?

Just as I long-ago decided that I would stop advising people not to do a PhD (they don’t listen anyway!), I have started to offer the following advice to current graduate students: enjoy what you are doing now. Live in the present. Celebrate the gift that is the “life of the mind.” I truly believe that if you are going to graduate school with a tenure-track job as they only end-goal in mind, particularly in certain disciplines, you are seriously misguided. But if you are going to graduate school because you love to research and learn in community with others who love researching and learning, then brava.

The truth is this: graduate school and its aftermath was extremely difficult for me emotionally, as it is for many. And, although I decided not to go the tenure track route, I feel so fortunate for the time I spent in graduate school in community with others, living the “life of the mind.” It truly was a gift. So, while I will insist that it is ethically suspect to keep the realities of the job market from graduate students - or worse, not be informed about them as an academic yourself - I also think that it is important to allow graduate students to enjoy their time as graduate students. Enjoy every minute. (Well, you probably won’t enjoy *every* minute, but you get the idea.)

How do you negotiate this dilemma? Feel free to leave suggestions for advising graduate students in the comments.

Gwendolyn Beetham is the Director of the Global Village at Douglass Residential College, the women’s college at Rutgers University. She is also the Assistant Editor of University of Venus, the Co-Chair of the NWSA Contingent Faculty Interest Group, and a 2015-2016 seminar fellow at Rutgers’ Institute for Research on Women.



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