[Photo via flickr user Lonely Dimple and used under Creative Commons license]

On average I get about an email a week from an undergrad who is thinking about going into my field or looking to attend Michigan State University and wants some advice on the process. The conversations quickly turn from archaeology specific to grad school in general.

I’ve attended three grad schools and looked at about a half dozen when I was searching for my school. I met with lots of different grad students and have gone to three department mandatory “introduction to grad school” seminars.  I heard a lot of great advice as well as a lot of bad advice when I was in the process of looking and getting introduced to this grad lifestyle. I’m definitely not an expert on what you should tell someone who is interested in grad school, but I’ve picked up a few good tips from both getting and giving advice.

1. Don’t scare them: There are some grad students out there who tend to be angry, whether its because they didn’t get funded or their proposals weren’t accepted or something else. Having an undergrad ask your advice is not the time to vent your frustration at a personal problem with grad school. It is fine to warn them about certain things, but don’t try to scare them away. The worst interaction I had with a grad student who was giving me advice was when she spent an hour at a coffee shop with me complaining about how awful her life was in grad school. Vent frustration elsewhere.

2. Be positive but truthful: It’s great if you love your department and want to share this with someone asking your advice, but also be honest. Don’t sugarcoat the experience too much. We don’t want to scare them, but we don’t want them to be shocked when they find out that this isn’t an extension of undergrad, and that their free grad student lunch was just a fluke while they were visiting. Be enthusiastic, be positive about your experience, but its important to be realistic as well.

3. Don’t gossip: I remember walking up to a grad student at a university that won’t be named to ask about their experience with a professor who would have been my potential advisor had I gone there. The student rolled their eyes and proceeded to give me a massive list of reasons not the involve myself with the professor and why all the students who worked with this professor weren’t as good as the others. Don’t do this. You don’t need to share insider knowledge or gossip about the department. Like #2, err towards being positive and truthful about interactions. Never start a sentence with “well, I heard that Prof X did this…” You are a representative of your department and grad school in general, so a little professionalism is always good.

4. Take the time to give advice: This is someone who may be your colleague and peer one day, so take the time to answer questions and meet with potential grad students. It really doesn’t take up that much time, it looks good for your department and your personal image with the department, and it may pay off for you in the future. Visiting grad schools and asking questions can be a little intimidating. Remember your experience, and try to help out those just starting the process.

I also always suggest that they take a look at GradHacker. It’s not just self-promotion; it is a great way for them to see what grad students are worried about, thinking about, dealing with and trying to accomplish in their professional and personal lives. Grad school is a complete lifestyle change, and helping them understand that it has both positives and negatives is something our authors illustrate extremely well!

Do you give advice to future grad students? Do you have any advice for grad students who are asked about their experience, their program, their department or grad school in general? Let us know in the comments below!



7 Responses to Don’t Scare the Children: Giving Advice on Grad School

  1. Pat says:

    I’m not sure whether this advice is aimed at protecting the advice-giver or helping the undergraduate being advised. It seems to me that someone who had made up their mind ahead of the fact to be neither too positive nor too negative and to avoid gossip (I’m not sure where the line is drawn between ‘gossip’ and ‘information’) might not be the most useful source of advice, from the prospective student’s viewpoint.

    Would you rather the student who bad-mouthed a potential professor to you had kept quiet until you were enmeshed in the program, investing your time and money? Though the student was a blabbermouth, you still got the benefit of an uncensored opinion. And those opinions of the prof would have been out there, potentially affecting your prospects, whether anyone was ever tactless enough to let you know about them or not.

    On the other hand, you’ve outlined good rules to follow if the goal is for the advice-giver to act professionally and in a collegial manner. It’s a pity that honesty and professionalism can pull in different directions. If I were making a serious decision about grad school, I would look for advice from people who hadn’t read your rules.

    • GradHacker says:

      I can definitely understand that perspective as well. It is good to know sometimes exactly what you’re getting yourself into with grad school- so blunt honesty can be good. I guess my advice comes from erring towards the side of professionalism, and not letting personal issues color your perception too much.

  2. justaguy says:

    I make a concerted effort to scare every prospective grad student I come across. I do this for a very important reason, the prospects of graduate school as a gateway into an academic career has changed dramatically in the past decade. There’s still this belief in American culture that grad school is something you should pursue if you’re really passionate about a subject, and that there will be a career waiting for you at the end. In my discipline there’s something line one tenure track job for every 10-15 new PhDs. Academic departments are great at reproducing academics, but not so much at adapting their training for a non-academic world. So, there is a very good likelihood that incoming PhD students in academic departments without industry applications will find themselves in debt and with few employment opportunities at the end of several years of very hard work.

    I am as blunt as I can in presenting this perspective to prospective students, because they don’t seem to be getting it elsewhere in the applications process. While professors I talk to are aware of the grim job prospects anyone entering the academy now will face, none of them are upfront about this with incoming students. And presenting it as bluntly as possible makes sure that they’ll take it seriously.

    Everyone I’ve spoken to who is on the academic job market at the moment has described it as ugly and terrifying. We do a disservice to prospective grad students if we don’t help them understand what likely awaits them at the other side of a PhD.

  3. Maram says:

    I did my MA and Phd i the UK as an overseas student and I also get loads of questions on a regular basis about prospective students from my country wanting to do their Mas and PhDs abroad and seeking the advice I never had in my day. I’m sorry but no, I do not sugarcoat the experience at all. It is a massive investment of time and resources: apart from the Department itself, they need advice on funding applications, on immigration issues, on life in the UK in general. You often find yourself trapped in departments that ignore you and really ostricised from the world. All I say the prospects is to be prepared to face a hard world and a hard life as there are no helping hands anywhere, neither topic-wise nor general life-wise. And I give them a list of aspects to consider: to go for smaller departments with less PhD students that are slightly more spoiled as a result, and where they get some teaching opportunities, rather than big departments with 50 PhD students nobody cares about.

  4. Myra says:

    I tend to agree with justaguy. I think the same rules that you listed (ie be practical, but don’t scare them away) apply to the general graduate school picture, but it is important to let potential school-ers know that the market outlook for PhDs is not too rosy, despite what a lot of graduate training institutions still believe. This isn’t to say that it’s always terrible; my own field is actually booming, but in general a graduate degree is not valued in the same way that it used to be (neither is an undergraduate or law degree, for that matter) even five or ten years ago. Passion and drive are very important, but so is being able to eat, and there’s a bit of a tightrope to walk in terms of helping students be realistic and understand that they may have to view a PhD as a means of personal satisfaction rather than means to an employment end, and totally scaring them away from something that often is still very worthwhile.

  5. […] and helps shift my focus off of the negative aspects of grad school. As we’ve written about before here on Gradhacker, being open to those discussions of what I enjoy about grad school is a great way to re-connect to […]

  6. […] and helps shift my focus off of the negative aspects of grad school. As we’ve written about before here on Gradhacker, being open to those discussions of what I enjoy about grad school is a great way to re-connect to […]

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