Graduate student/faculty relations

Sharleen talks about how evil junior faculty can be in their approach with grad students:

(…) in academia, (…), there are limited options, and a poor grad student may have to work with the asshole who has naive, unethical, or objectionable approaches to working with grad students. Now, we could simply say, the ones who survive are the ones who deserve to get jobs/get the PhD. We could point out that the market is much tougher. But if we respond this way, we’re not critiquing the culture of academia (a culture which, if I may point out, is largely responsible for the other problems that we all bitch about); we’re justifying it.

I’m unsure why she points at junior faculty as the source of the problem. She’s probably got some personal experience going.

However, I agree with her criticism of the tough love approach to supervising graduate students. I don’t think it can be justified from a pedagogical point of view, it is not justified from a management point of view, and so, indeed, it might be some kind of power trip.

On the other hand, I disagree with her implication that there are no choices. In most cases, the graduate student can go with another supervisor. It might costly, but it is almost always an option. Or else, you can simply go out there and find a job and be happy.

Repeat after me: the world is big and there are almost always options. Unless you are a slave stranded somewhere, you can almost certainly find another job, another graduate program, another project… it might be costly, it might imply extra work, but it is most often possible.

The reason why these professors are getting away with treating graduate students badly is that graduate students allow it. If they chose not to go with this “evil” supervisor, there wouldn’t be any problems any more.

That’s how the real world works. Evil employers will have trouble finding good employees. The good employees will leave for a better employer. That’s the market at work.

The day when the employees stop leaving, because they are scared or tired, the market stops working and the trouble starts.

Generally speaking, academia doesn’t have so much a culture problem as it has a market problem: too many potential candidates for some positions leading to a general degradation of the working conditions for everyone involved.

Daniel Lemire, "Graduate student/faculty relations," in Daniel Lemire's blog, October 25, 2004.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

4 thoughts on “Graduate student/faculty relations”

  1. You’ve taken my words out of context; I meant that compared to the example of whom to be friends with in the world at large (which comes immediately before the section you’ve excerpted), grad students have more limited options. I would fully support finding another supervisor or person to work with; I’ve done it myself. Though switching programs isn’t as easy or convenient as you make it seem–credits may not transer, money may not be there, etc.

    The reason I specifically address junior faculty is that my post is a response to an ongoing discussion on junior faculty blogs. Since that’s who I’ve been engaging with, that’s the category I’ve included. Doesn’t just have to be them, though.

  2. Sorry if I took part of words out of context. I do agree that there can be a tremendous cost at switching program or dropping out of graduate school. This being said, that’s pretty much life all around. What are these kids to do later if they find a job and get an abusive boss or abusive peers? Are they going to stick to it because “it is too expensive to switch”? It is necessary that students and employees be willing to move, otherwise, all hell breaks loose and you get abusive supervisors and abusive bosses.

  3. I think whilst it’s true that students can switch it is psychologically very difficult to do so because in British universities at least it’s not part of the normal culture.

  4. Whose culture Claire? Of course, if you go see employers, they will point out that employees should never leave their employers, and so, companies will have a “culture” whereas you are not supposed to leave. Strangely enough, they will hire someone has their CEO that has changed job 12 times in the last 12 years. Same applies to programs, universities, and supervisors, if you ask the university, it will tell you to never switch, to stick with your present course and so on… that’s because the university benefits from you in your current course and if you change, they might loose you and the money you bring in.

    Ok, maybe I’m too cynical, but I’m pointing out that universities are in a conflict of interest here and maybe students should listen to what their own mind is telling them.

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