Can You Rank Crotchetiness?

If you can't, what do would-be graduate students really need to know about their potential professors and departments?
January 9, 2007

If departments really wanted to help would-be graduate students find a good place to earn a Ph.D., they would publish a new set of rankings: on the crotchetiness of each faculty member. So said Timothy Burke, an associate professor of history at Swarthmore College, in a discussion of how departments could be more transparent about the experience of graduate students.

Mensch-iness rankings of professors would also be helpful, joked Burke, in his talk last weekend at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

While the comments were focused on history departments, many of them would apply to any disciplines, and especially those where a majority enter the academic job market. Burke wasn't entirely serious about personality rankings, but his point -- and one greeted with nods by the graduate students in the audience -- was that individual characteristics of professors may be far more important to a graduate student's success than a department's stellar reputation or a university's lavish resources.

Burke and others on the panel noted that graduate departments have evolved over the years, and that it is frequently possible today to find some statistics about job placement rates or even the kinds of positions that recent Ph.D.'s have earned. But speakers at the history meeting suggested a level of detail that is relatively rare in terms of what programs provide both to prospective students and those working toward their doctorates. Burke offered the following as information that should be available for every graduate department:

  • For individual faculty members who have been in a department over a long enough time to have a good sample, precise information on the numbers of students they have advised on doctoral programs, their completion and dropout rates, time to degree, and specific jobs earned by new Ph.D.'s.
  • A list of any "foreseeable changes" in personnel, including relevant tenure clocks, retirements or possible moves.
  • Complete data on funding of graduate students -- how much money, sources of funds, how long money lasts (for duration of degree or shorter).
  • Average time for Ph.D. completion in a department.
  • The exact process -- both official and unofficial -- of how graduate students are evaluated.
  • The true scholarly strengths of a department, acknowledging that many departments don't have the depth to cover all periods or regions, and that just having one person with a particular specialty may not make a Ph.D. program viable.

While no one at the session said that they provided everything Burke would like to see (let alone the crotchetiness ranking), some said that their departments were working to make substantially more information available.

Sophia Rosenfeld, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in history at the University of Virginia, said that her department has placed on its Web site detailed information about each recent Ph.D. recipient. For privacy reasons, the information is password protected (although Virginia will give a password to any prospective student and provided one for Inside Higher Ed to review the site). For each new Ph.D., one can find out the name, subject of dissertation, faculty member who advised dissertation, current employer, nature of job (tenure track, term, etc.), and any relevant factors that relate to a student's status (geographically constrained search, intentionally off the job market, etc.)

Rosenfeld said the level of detail made the information much more valuable than aggregate data. Any careful reader could see, she noted, that those who end up working on certain topics with certain professors "are almost guaranteed employment" in tenure-track jobs, while those focused on other times and periods have far less certainty.

The information is intended to be both "sobering," in that some students will not have it easy obtaining the kinds of jobs many want, and "inspiring," in that some do, she said.

A similar approach -- although without the names of Ph.D.'s or their professors -- is used by the philosophy department at Princeton University on its Web page.

Honesty shouldn't end with the moment students are admitted to a graduate program, Burke said. One of the "most painful" things for departments is to tell students "you need to get out of here," he said.

In theory, students receive feedback through grades on papers or in courses, through comprehensive exams, or other discussions with faculty members. But Burke said that too many departments keep on the "wounded but bleeding" graduate student -- who for some combination of reasons isn't likely to finish a Ph.D. or find the academic job of his or her dreams. He suggested the use of mandatory completion dates (with exceptions for various personal circumstances) to prevent such people from lingering and to help them get out "before the heavy psychic damage."

Panelists also discussed the extent to which comprehensive exams are a poor reflection of whether graduate students are actually likely to succeed as professors. For example, Burke suggested much more training in graduate school on "everyday business" -- how to apply for a grant, how to give a short paper, how to write a syllabus, how to bring scholarly background to public debates. Such information isn't taken seriously in many a graduate program, yet has much to do with whether people advance in the faculty ranks.

Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University, endorsed the idea of giving students more honest feedback, earlier in their doctoral educations. But he warned that this wasn't always straightforward. He cited examples of graduate students who -- at the time of their orals -- seemed "pathologically shy," such that they might never function well in front of a classroom. A few years later, some of these people excel as teachers, he said.

Audience members raised a number of issues. One faculty member noted the role of university lawyers in squelching some of the transparency panel members wanted to see. It can be hard to have an honest conversation with a student if a lawyer must approve the topics to be discussed, this person said.

In conversations after the presentation, graduate students who were present praised just about every idea discussed, several saying that they wished they had known more before enrolling in their current programs. But in a sign that the crotchetiness factor is very much alive in graduate programs, several graduate students approached about being quoted in this article offered variations of: "I work with Professor X. Are you crazy?"


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