In my professional capacity, I frequently work with undergraduate students who are considering graduate school in chemistry. For some of them, that choice reflects a love of chemistry and a genuine intellectual desire to do research and/or pursue a career in science. Many of these undergraduates have read widely and forged relationships with faculty. They make their decision to postpone their career for half a decade or more with eyes wide open.
Others, however, bright and successful though they may be, are not so well-informed. They may easily gain admission to programs, but their reasons for wanting to go to graduate school do not arise from a genuine interest in chemistry. Rather, they demonstrate an unwillingness to make an immediate career decision and cite a need to procrastinate in their job search. I have even heard reasons like “because my [boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other] is going to graduate school and I want to go with them.” (This makes me want to cringe, but who am I to tell someone how to live their life?) In short, they seem to be choosing graduate school because they feel like they have nothing better to do.
I never want to discourage anyone from following their heart and I refuse to think (despite or because of my own experiences in graduate school and career) that I know better than anyone who is making this very personal decision. When they ask for my advice, I hesitate to say anything other than “are you sure you have thought this through?” and then I send them in the direction of CJ’s blog.
I would appreciate hearing someone else’s take on how to handle this with tact and concern. How do you stress to students that graduate school undertaken for misguided reasons may result in anguish and that the rewards are not guaranteed?Professor Cramer responds:
To be honest, I think we have to salute this questioner for having achieved what seems, to me, to be pretty much the optimal combination of compassion and self-restraint. By contrast, many people confronted with situations like this, while admirably motivated by concern, nevertheless engage in a bit of hubris in assuming that they know better what an individual should do with their life than does the individual. Relying on my own experience as a faculty advisor, and also as a Director of Graduate Studies, I have seen students excel who I never thought would make it, and I’ve seen seeming superstars crash and burn as disconnects between expectations and reality set in. And usually that process takes two to three years — as that’s about 10-15% of the life span of a person that age, one can be forgiven for doing poorly with predictions made based on antecedent circumstances.
I see at least a couple of factors here. First, people have to be allowed to make mistakes — we learn from them — they build resilience. That said, it is CERTAINLY appropriate to have a conversation that focuses on questions like, “Why do you want to go to graduate school?”, “What do you want to do afterwards that makes graduate school the right choice for you?”, and “Do you feel like you’ve done enough research on what to expect that you understand what graduate school is going to be like?” Sharing information and experience surely cannot hurt, and may moreover be useful in guiding an individual’s choice of programs, assuming grad school continues to be thought to be the preferred option.
Second, one should not discount the enormous potential influence of both a program and of an advisor. Trying to align desired outcomes with the right programs and people can be decisive in fostering success. Impressing upon ANY student (whether you think they’re burning to be a Ph.D. or not) that they should address those questions during program visits and talks with prospective advisors is noble work. We programs and advisors are supposed to do our best NOT to have a lot of crashing and burning going on! (Mind you, it is simply unrealistic to think that every admitted student will be successful, but that’s a topic for another time.)
I’ll say again that I like very much how the questioner put it: one should structure one’s response around “tact and concern” while recognizing the fundamental agency of the individual.Readers, what do you think? What's the best advice to someone who is waffling a bit about graduate school? How do you inform while respecting their agency?