Thursday, February 16, 2017

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I've had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it's been six months and I've got some perspective on it, it's time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I'm in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We all hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It's not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney's snake fight? And what do people mean by defend--is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And they're going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from that other people in your field are doing, and why? What's the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don't worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation--on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits--and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it's optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared, but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing it is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you're working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.




4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don't need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases, and happily there's lots of evidence out there--in the form of their scholarship and public writing--that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn't get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person--is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there's a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well--talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you've learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don't be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn't anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. (The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual, and often-denigrated, approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just more subtly. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off--I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.)

6. Know to Stop

It's two days before your defence. You've prepared your statement. You've anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you've practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There's nothing more you can do. It's time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation, but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you're going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague, like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student. 
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it--your clothes cannot be a distraction. 
  • It must make you feel AWESOME. 

I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn't matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect. 

Other things to bring: 
  • a bottle of water 
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down) 
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to -- methods, results, a key experiment or analysis--flagged 
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring -- it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) -- STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He's been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.) 

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you're going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also--and you should to--figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm cool and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory--a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was no.big.deal. when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you're prepared and and you come at it as a discussion that's intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that's intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Embracing and Resisting Mediocrity

It has been twenty-five days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States. We've already seen a spate of hateful and discriminatory decrees perpetrated by the Trump administration in rapid-fire succession, and a beautiful uprising of resistance manifesting in a variety of forms, including mass protesting, calling representatives, donating to the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, or CAIR, disrupting town halls, punching nazis, and other acts of defiance. Źižek, whatever you might think of him, certainly had a point when he said the election would spark a kind of awakening; imagine how apathetic we'd all be if Hillary Clinton were elected president, even as she in all likelihood furthered Obama's mandate of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and dropping 26 171 bombs on predominantly Muslim countries. I've seen many of my liberal friends transformed into progressivist activists, and the Women's March I attended in NYC was full of newbie protesters whose outrage was expressed more through their signs than their chants. At the same time, in spite or perhaps despite of these developments, studies are showing that productivity has been decreasing across the board.

I feel that. Like some of my cobloggers, I've had to back away from social media a little bit because it was filling my head with too much despair (ok, really, I deleted Facebook from my phone a week ago and now can't seem to redownload it, so not all of this distancing has been by choice...). And how can I reasonably focus on writing about dream interpretation practices in the late fifteenth century when the mothers of fourteen-year-old girls are being deported? (speaking of dreams...I hope you all read Lily Cho's beautiful post from yesterday)

But who am I kidding, I haven't even been trying to work on my own stuff. I've been teaching three classes, all entirely new prep, and continuing to apply for jobs. Dealing with the emotional toll of continuing not to have any idea where we'll be next year, even which country, requires quite a bit of scheduled downtime---reliance on friends, intentional social or cultural outings, TV ok. I simply can't work 12 hours a day like I used to...and nor, of course, do I think anyone should.

I don't feel like I'm doing much right at all these days, I thought to myself as I tried to brew up an inspirational post for this esteemed blog.  I've been teaching well, and even getting liiiiife from teaching, but by this point I've settled into enough of a routine that I have no major streaks of inspiration to write about. I can't blog about the job market, except to say that, uhh, I'm still on it. I keep meaning to do more yoga, more meditation, more blogging, more (or any) creative art projects, more leisure reading, more protest-y things. All of these mores that accumulate and weigh on my psyche, making me feel unaccomplished and worthless. Maybe you've been feeling that way too.

So I guess I'm back to that classic lesson about the good enough professor - maybe mediocrity, or less-than-perfectionism, is sometimes okay. For me, now, this means simply accepting that what I'm already doing is good enough, and recognizing and honouring the things that are going well. I may never be able to do a handstand at yoga, but at least I'm there, wildly kicking my feet in the air and spending some meditative time in my own head. I've been prepared for all my classes, getting the grading done in a reasonable amount of time, submitting applications, and cultivating some meaningful relationships. And I've been doing what I can to resist political normalization, aiming for one Thing a day, big or small. Sometimes that can just be sending a friend a text to see how they're doing.

Paradoxically, if I accept that I'm already good enough, an unintentional side-effect might emerge of becoming better. Wallowing in guilt and productivity FOMO doesn't get us anywhere; it fills us so full of self-hatred that we keep refreshing Twitter or pressing snooze. So being realistic about goals and grateful for the opportunities and achievements that naturally unfold throughout the daily realities of life might just boost my spirits enough to help me find time for more of the things whose absence I've been ruing.

Something that's rarely mentioned when self-care strategies are discussed is that self-care can actually help you become more intentional about taking action in other areas, perhaps without you even realizing it. It helps you become more grateful, a better person. I hate to hover near the productivist argument that being kind to yourself will help you become more efficient, but...it's true? Or, at least, it will help you better identify and reward the tasks and hurdles you are completing, to realize a more concrete schedule that will allow time for care, time for work, time for protest. Again, I don't think becoming better should necessarily be the goal--because then you're caught back in the trap of unreasonable expectations and disappointments. Perhaps embracing mediocrity can also count as a form of resistance against it.

And I want to echo some of the thoughts of Margeaux Feldman's post about the Women's March and intersectionality. Just as we need to struggle through our mistakes to land at a more inclusive movement, we need to fight against our tendency to judge others on their chosen mode of resistance. To be sure, everyone should be resisting in some way. I am not okay with apathy or wait-and-see-ism, not while people are being deported (to our Canadian readers: you too can make phone calls! You too can be vigilant against injustice! Surely I don't need to cite certain recent events to underscore this point). The time to wait and see has long passed if it ever existed in the first place. But for those of us who are stretching ourselves to make a difference, I echo the words of this smart post by Mirah Curzer:  
The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, 'you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment' or 'you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.'That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.
Focusing on the things where you have leverage and the possibility of shifting policy (even at a local level) requires not getting involved in everything. And we all make our choices and don't owe the world our reasoning--if you're out at a protest and you see your friend posted an Instagram of her cat at home, try not to jump straight to the conclusion that she must not care enough to come out; perhaps she was feeling fatigued and is focusing her energies elsewhere.

Be kind to yourselves and each other, readers! And thank yourself for the awesome humans you are, fighting for manifold worthy causes during a difficult and uncertain time. In sum, this blog might not be the best blog I've ever written, but I'm happy to have pushed past my uncertainty to produce something. And this counts for my daily Thing right? :) Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Christopher Michael Roman for this timely image share. 



Monday, February 13, 2017

Bad dreams


Lately, I’ve been having been have bad dreams. I am not the only one. Mine aren’t all that interesting, but I’m interested in how so many of us seem to be having them. They aren’t necessarily about the political moment but they probably aren’t disconnected from it either.

Sometimes, lately, I’m just scared. I mean, I find a lot of courage and balm-for-the-heart-and-soul in all of the resistance and in the knowledge that this resistance is working. But, just for a moment here and there, I’m also scared. There is no real reason except for, oh, you know, all the reasons.

It feels sometimes like there are no grown ups around. Even though I’m a real grown up (that’s what I keep telling myself), it’s hard to shake the flash of vulnerability that these bad dreams open up. As Aparna Tarc writes in her beautiful essay on the nightmares of a Fatima, a Syrian child who witnessed so much horror, "A Child is Dreaming": “ we all were once children with nightmares, we may still be too close to the violent truth of feeling vulnerable at the mercy of grownups in charge of a big scary world.”

This disquiet, this vulnerability, reminded me of the dreams of terror that Charlotte Beradt collected, with considerable difficulty, in Germany between 1933 and 1939. I found myself rereading them last week. These are the dreams of ordinary people who knew that something bad was happening even if they couldn’t quite pin down what that bad thing might be. This structure of anticipatory knowledge, of knowing before knowing, strikes me as something to hang onto in a time when things can feel really scary really fast.

And when things happen so fast, it’s hard to hang on to the small moments where something bubbles up, reveals itself to us, especially when they don’t feel that great. I’m not a fan of waking up from a bad dream and staying with all those bad feelings. But maybe we can recognize that this disquiet is also a kind of knowledge. As Sharon Sliwinski so brilliantly recognizes in Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming: “Dream-life is one of the key points of contact with this unconscious knowledge that each of us carries but does not quite possess.” Sliwinski’s distinction between possessing and carrying knowledge is important here. There are some things that we know and we know them because we will carry them, maybe only for a while, but we don’t have to keep them. Possession is its own kind of entrapment. We don’t have to fall in. We might just need to hold on for a bit.

Hold on and also remember that there are other dreams too. I had been driven to reread the Beradt dreams of terror because I wanted to remember that one is not alone in one’s bad dreams. Then I remembered that there was another great collection of dreams out there that connect, albeit obliquely, to this moment. During the 2008 US Democratic Primaries, Sheila Heti collected “real dreams that people have had about Hillary Clinton.” I reread a bunch of these too and remembered how funny and charming this project was back then and thought about how strange it was to read them now. It is tempting to fall into nostalgia, to feel as though these dreams captured another, sunnier, time. But we all know better than to think that the past is ever really just about the past. I don’t have a grand theory about the dreams Heti collected but I do know that they helped me remember that not all dreams are bad. I know that seems obvious. But, when you’re scared, even the obvious can seem stupidly out of reach.

Waking up from a bad dream is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever known. And then I lie there in the dark and remember that we are all dreaming and it is not all bad.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Post: The Perks of Saying Yes in Grad School

A few months ago, a mentor offered me the chance to speak with three established scholars about Bob Dylan’s recently awarded Nobel Prize in Literature at a small gathering in New York. Instantly, my stomach began to turn. Beyond basic pop culture exposure (hello, “Soy Bomb”), I didn’t know much about Dylan. I don’t study the great American songbook, lyric poetry, or contemporary artists. There was too much room for error and there were too many gaps in my knowledge. It felt like a no in my bones.

Instead, I said yes. After stalling for a few days, I came clean about my reservations with my mentor and asked for his guidance to make the right decision. He told me that in his experience there are two types of academics, “the ones who say, ‘I don't know, I don't think I can do that...’ and the ones who say, ‘Sure, why not, let's give it a try.’ I have many friends who are the former, but the ones who are most successful are the latter.” After that email, I had no choice but to put my nerves on hold. 

My initial anxieties were just that. During the talk, it became clear that the audience members, many of whom were scholars, weren’t Dylan experts (just like me). These were members of The New York Society for General Semantics, people who get together over wine and cheese every so often to discuss and learn more about the contingency and formation of meaning, symbols, and knowledge. Dylan fans, seasoned academic professionals, and a smattering of undergraduate and graduate students filled around 25-30 seats. I invited my father, who dutifully sat in the front row. I realized that my role was to give this diverse group something to riff off of—throw out some new notes that might harmonize with their own memories and knowledge of Dylan and literature. 

Dylan’s win, and his initial silence after the announcement, had created definitive buzz, especially since he is the first American songwriter to take the prize (which includes $900,000). The New York Times said that the selection “redefin[ed] the boundaries of literature,” while others sounded off angrily on Twitter. There was plenty of debate already circulating for music lovers and literary scholars alike, so, to prepare for the evening, I reflected on the questions provided on the event flyer and decided which one’s I could speak to confidently. 

I started with “What is the literary value of Dylan’s lyrics?” and drew on my knowledge of the history of literary criticism to give an overview of different ways that artists and critics have determined what makes poetry worthwhile. After a few weeks of listening to Dylan during my commute, I picked out what I felt were his most compelling and challenging lines. To answer the question “What is the meaning and significance of the Nobel Prize?” I thought back to conversations in my survey courses regarding the politics of canonization and reviewed trends in the Nobel’s literature award, briefly scanning past selections. I came up with some reasons why I thought Dylan deserved it, but also reflected on the fact that most of my generation would be more familiar with the Beatles rather than Dylan’s songbook.

I was honest with myself about my limited knowledge, which pushed me to uncover interesting research finds and make connections between Dylan and all of the things I do know about literature and literary criticism. Being honest with my audience about my “outsider” perspective made the environment more welcoming and inclusive. No one batted an eye when I flubbed the title of Dylan’s ode to Johanna or read from a prepared cheat sheet of lyrics. They didn’t care if all the notes were right, only that there was talk about music filling the room. I kept my preparation time under control, and in the end, I had fun. That night reinvigorated my enthusiasm and appreciation for what I do every day, largely because so many people appreciated my willingness to join in a conversation with them. I also have a wider net of contacts in a supportive intellectual community that I can reach out to.

Saying yes when it seemed easier to say no reminded me that the life of the mind is not just about finding a niche, but also building communities of learning. The more I insulate myself from opportunities because they don’t align specifically with my research, the farther away I’ll be from the most rewarding part of my chosen career. These realizations extend to my approach to the job market as well. When search committees request an immense repertoire of specialties, it’s easy to assume that my lack of expertise in one or more areas will disqualify me from consideration. (Generally, men are more likely to apply for these kinds of job listings, whereas women tend to balk, not wanting to appear unprepared.) As a hiring committee chair at a small liberal arts college recently shared with me, committees know that candidates can’t always tick all the boxes: they want to see that you’re willing to extend yourself and your research interests to fit their needs. They want to know that you’re willing to say, “Sure, why not, let’s give it a try.”

Graduate students (and particularly women) have been taught a repertoire of maxims to live by so that they can navigate a long and often arduous road to degree: Practice self-care; you can’t always say yes; know your limits. From completing a dissertation, to teaching our students, to braving the job market, and caring for our friends and families, we are also taking on additional tasks that can complicate an already overburdened schedule, often without compensation or the promise of professional rewards attached. We are, for example, writing recommendation letters, volunteering for committees and organizations, attending students’ games and concerts, dropping by department functions, applying to grants and conferences, and trying (repeatedly) to get published. If dissertation writing is the healthy regimen we are supposed to be sticking to, graduate school is an all-you-can-eat buffet of distraction. Learning to say no is important, and it can save you hours, semesters, and even years of putting your research on the back burner.


In the past, I wouldn’t think twice about saying no to things that didn’t align with my current research project or specialization. It turns out that impostor syndrome is an effective way to free up our schedules, but doubting our own potential can also keep us from opportunities that stand to benefit and invigorate us more than the things we end up saying yes to with ease. 

For the sake of my sanity, my dissertation, and my students, I will, of course, continue to say no. But for the sake of my outlook on academia and my career, I have a new perspective on when and why to say yes. 


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Callie Gallo is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University. She worked in broadcast television for a number of years, and is much happier now just watching TV from the comfort of her couch. Her research focuses on new technologies and gender in nineteenth-century American literature, more specifically looking at how people talk about bodies at work in modern industries and economies. She is thinking about taking up karaoke again as a means of coping with the state of the universe and loves a good DIY project.

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.