Advice: on protecting grad students from their own optimism

I’ve written about how lucky I was to get the academic position I currently hold, and how I was prepared to quit science if I hadn’t gotten it. I’ve suggested that current grad students hoping to go on in academia follow my example: recognize that the odds of success are long, and have a backup plan.

A fine and sobering essay over at Inside Higher Education reinforces this message, while also suggesting that it may fall largely on deaf ears. Grad students are atypical: most were at or near the top of their class in school and college, and so they’ve learned to be optimistic about their academic abilities relative to the academic abilities of their peers. Even though that optimism is no longer justified.

As a mentor, I’m not sure what to do about this, beyond what I already do. I already talk frankly to prospective students about their long-term goals, and the likelihood of achieving those goals, before they even formally apply to join my lab. I’d be uncomfortable doing more than that–for instance, refusing to take on students whose long-term goal is a career in academia. That smacks of paternalism, as if I knew better than them what would make them happy. But then I read things like this IHE piece and I wonder if I’m doing enough.

6 thoughts on “Advice: on protecting grad students from their own optimism

  1. I’m a final year undergraduate studying BSc Ecology and ought to graduate with a good first if my luck holds out. I went back to university as a mature student after 5 or so years of working in charity marketing following my first degree (BA Philosophy). I’ve continued to work in the not-for-profit sector almost full time whilst studying for my BSc, and so I have significant experience of working outside of science/research/academia. I know what career awaits me if I don’t pursue postgraduate study when I finish my undergraduate degree (or if I fail to make it to the next stage after that).

    It isn’t naive optimism that pushes me towards postgraduate study. It’s the sheer horror of knowing how it feels to do a job that doesn’t match your interests, that doesn’t challenge you, that doesn’t align with any of your skills. Every other week I seem to read one of these articles aimed at making people aware of the difficulties of pursuing a career in academia. I’ve read the report from Science is Vital on the dire prospects for post-docs in the UK. I’ve read the news stories about academics working 70-80 hour weeks. I currently work for a professional body and part of my role involves advising science graduates about their next steps and hearing their frustration when they’re unable to find work. I’m well aware of the struggle ahead of me once I graduate. But I can’t accept that I shouldn’t even bother to pursue postgraduate study.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it does students a disservice to assume they are all naive. Yes, realistic expectations are important, but it seems a shocking state of affairs when the most reasonable option is to dissuade bright minds from pursuing careers which are of ultimate value to society as a whole. The real horror is the lack of funding that makes the scrabble for these jobs so intense. It seems so very wrong that right now I could easily be earning around £30-40k a year if I’d stuck to my first career in charity marketing, just from writing marketing materials which anyone with half a brain could write. And now my absolute best possible prospect, if I’m very lucky and work very hard, is – after four years study – to secure a PhD place with a stipend of something like £13.5k/pa to research my chosen area (ecosystem functioning). And all because I’d like to spend the rest of my working life doing something that might at some point be of benefit to the world. Clearly I’m crazy … but I’ll still be applying for those PhD places.

  2. Yes, it’s the paternalism that bothers me too. I don’t want to tell anyone not to go to grad school–who am I to tell anyone they have to do anything? But protecting them from their own optimism seems like what is required.

    Perhaps part of what I need to do as a mentor is to reveal to them the structural forces that conspire against them, both in the institution and in the job market.

    Rachel, my heart goes out to you: as a professor, I avoid all the horrors of meaningless / dull / too-easy / otherwise unfulfilling work. You are right to aim high and I admire that. But are good jobs for smart people of the kind you seek still available? Or do most of today’s cohort have to expect to create those jobs for themselves? I always had a real dread of working for fools concerned with minutiae; I love my job; others similar to me in most respects are not going to have the same ‘out.’

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