Monday, February 6, 2017

Guest Post: The Grad School Decision: Thoughts and Advice for Students, Professors, and Mentors

Last weekend, I took a two-day workshop on active listening organized by my campus’ student union.

The workshop was geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, but needless to say the skills could be widely applied. I started thinking about the conversations I have with my friends and family, especially regarding personal difficulties or decisions, and how I can be a more effective support person. Specifically, I started to notice that people were coming to me seeking certain things, whether they (or I) realized it: sometimes they need hard, clear advice; sometimes they need commiseration; and sometimes they just need someone to listen deeply, and to leave the analysis and decision-making up to them.


To be clear: these needs aren’t always mutually inclusive, and it’s ok for me (and others) to mistake one conversation for another. Communication is hard, and as they reminded as in the workshop, there is no ‘right way’ to support someone. But the very act of stopping, listening, thinking, and setting your own concerns, experiences, and judgments aside can be as valuable as it is challenging.


So why is this post about choosing to continue grad school?

Well, it’s February. The applications for scholarships and programs are submitted, or about to be. Grad committees are meeting. And students everywhere are seriously contemplating whether or not they should go to grad school, and where. And though many students may not have heard back on their applications, the decision starts to press in from all sides (especially if your lease expires in just a few months).

In this post, I hope to offer two things: reassurance to my fellow students or would-be students; and advice to profs, supervisors and mentors who will be consulted on this major decision.

To students and potential-students:
· It’s ok to want to go to grad school, even if you don’t see a job at the end of it.

· It’s ok to not want this (anymore), even if you’ve worked towards it. It’s ok to feel worn down, or like you aren’t up for this, or like you want to put your energy elsewhere. You are so wonderful, and you will be valuable no matter where or how you work, fight, and love.

· It’s ok to feel weird at any/every stage of the process. I felt sick to my stomach when I got my acceptance. I’m not the only one.

· It’s ok to prioritize family, community, health, comfort, geography, and financial stability in your decision-making. You are more than just a student, and your program will go smoother if you let yourself know this.

· It’s ok to think short-term: does your funding package appeal because it’s more than you make at your retail/service job? Does student-status look better than precarious work or unemployment? It’s ok if this is your motivation, rather than a passion for research and teaching. Maybe your motivation will shift, maybe it won’t. 

Which brings me to this:

· It’s ok to imagine yourself dropping out or not finishing. Sometimes, just the knowledge that you can leave is the only thing that keeps you going. (Shout out to RM and MK: one or both of you told me this when I felt full of despair).

· It’s ok to leave. Whether that means turning down that offer next month, or leaving your program mid-way through.

· And above all: this decision affects you most of all, so centre yourself and your needs. No matter what your decision, your supervisor(s) will be fine. That helpful grad coordinator or administrator will be fine. Your best friend in the program will be ok. You’re the one who has to live with this decision, so listen to yourself.

To the faculty, advisors, supervisors, professors, and mentors:*
This is when my thinking around active listening comes in. I can imagine it’s incredibly difficult to provide emotional and professional support to your students. Maybe you feel invested in them, or maybe you are too busy to be the kind of helpful prof that you had or needed or wanted. But if you know you’ll be a part of these conversations, my primary advice is to apply the basic principle of active listening: wait, listen, think, and try to gauge what the student actually needs from you.

· Do they need information? That could be straightforward. Maybe they just need to be put in touch with a grad coordinator. Maybe they need that kind of tacit knowledge Aimée has discussed. Or maybe they need the kind of information that feels like gossip but is actually vital. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them that that star academic probably won’t give them the support they desire, try and put them in touch with a grad student or colleague who can speak honestly with them.

· Do they need advice? This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend? Does this difference mean something to you? More on advice-giving below.

· Do they need reassurance? Don’t we all. If you’re not able to give the kind of emotional support they need, especially during that awful period of waiting-to-hear-back, then just ask them “Do you have someone you can talk to about this?” This can help to signal that maybe you are not that person, and can remind them about that other student going through the same process, or the career counselling services on campus.

· Do they need space? Then please give it. Note if you are always the one starting the conversation about [ominous tone] next year. Note if they try to change the topic. Give them back control: remind them that you are available to talk, and let them start these conversations when and if they need them.

Some general advice:

· Your student is not you. What was right for you won’t necessarily work for them. They can’t follow your trajectory–times have changed and so has tuition.

· No matter what decision they make, they will never be wasted. Yes, professors have told my friends that if they don’t go to grad school, it would be ‘a waste’ of their ability; this can sting. If your student is talented, intelligent, passionate, and skilled, they will bring that spark to any job, career, program, or path they choose.

· You don’t need to know their personal context in order to respect it. Maybe they are hesitant to move away: they don’t need to disclose to you that they want to be near a sick relative, or that their partner’s job is a priority, or that they need to prioritize adequate mental health services. You just need to recognize that geography is a major concern for them.

· Money is personal. They may need more–or less–than you did. Again, they may not want to disclose that they are supporting dependents, or dealing with debt, or accounting for the cost of healthcare, divorce, family planning, a long distance relationship, etc.

· We all value different things. Some people prioritize prestige or reputation more than others. If they signal that they don’t share your values, that’s not a judgment on you. Rather, it’s a sign that they know themselves pretty well.

· Just because the academy needs them, doesn’t mean they need the academy. Shout out to HM for this. This applies especially to students who are marginalized within institutions. Yes, we need more Black and Indigenous students. More students of colour. More queer and trans students. More disabled students. More students from working class backgrounds. But it’s not on your student to make diversity happen. If they fought to earn a degree or two from institutions that aren’t built for them, then they are fierce as hell, and you can remind them of this. But if they are ready to leave and put their energy elsewhere, that’s ok too. Back to my first point: they will never be wasted. And if you feel like they would have stayed if the university didn’t have oppression built into its very old, very white bones, then let this be your motivation to make the institution better for the next student.

*I came to my PhD with the support of some amazing professors and fellow students. The advice offered here is modelled off of supportive behavior I have witnessed, and should not be taken as shaming faculty and instructors for being imperfect. Your efforts are so valuable and so deeply appreciated.

Kaarina Mikalson is in her second year of her PhD in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. She doesn’t regret it (yet), though the initial decision made her nauseous and weepy. She reads CanLit and comic books, and currently researches the Spanish Civil War and labour in literature. She plays roller derby, sews and embroiders, and now owns a soldering iron, so she’s ready for the apocalypse.

1 comment:

  1. > This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend?

    This actually indicates a good rule about picking a supervisor but hard to see at the start for the student. I cannot provide advice as a friend, I'm not friends with my students, I'm never friends with my students. They get my professionalism, they get my professional support, they don't get my friendship - it's a blurring of the lines I think is a mistake.

    Now other people think differently - and that's ok but as a student, you need to know up front what you are getting ask around.

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