Reasons to Reject an Advisee (Ought Experiment)
Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week, a professor wonders when it’s permissible to reject a grad student’s request to serve on their committee, and how to avoid crushing a student if one does end up having to say no:
I hope you don’t think me a monster for this, but I have reason to suspect that a graduate student I’d strongly prefer not to work with is about to ask me to join their dissertation committee. (I’ve not had significant interactions with them to date, but they work in my subfield, at least broadly construed, and they want to meet in order to discuss their project.) Am I actually allowed to say no to these kinds of requests, or is there a presumption in favor of always serving when asked? And if saying no is a possibility, what kinds of reasons are both legitimate and suitably delicate?
It’s Not Me, It’s You
Dear YOU MONSTER,
Oh good, a new thing for grads to worry about!
But seriously: why wouldn’t you want to work with a grad? You get to guide a scholarly career in its earliest stages! Unlike teaching a rotating cast of a 100 fungible faces every semester, you get to spend years investing in one student and one project, watching as both grow and begin to make a contribution in a field that you care about deeply! It’s both a lot fun in the moment (assuming you have a good working relationship) and the kind of work that can have a direct and lasting impact! You get to work through interesting readings together and debate grand ideas, rekindling your energy or interest in philosophy in the way the best teaching moments always tend to do! You frequently learn when you dispense advice, gaining fresh insight into complicated arguments and counterproductive old habits of yours! You get to feel helpful, and very occasionally, wise! And if you have a cynical bent, you gain someone who will index your book on the vague promise that doing so is somehow a professionalizing experience!
Much less rhetorically, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to work with this grad, because you didn’t actually explain your reluctance to work with this grad. You do know that makes the advice gig a tad difficult, right? Given that, the only way to answer your question is to don my trusty hard hat and go mining the conceptual space for likely rationales.
Before I do so, three general considerations:
- Is the issue moot? It could totally be moot. Ask your department chair if you’re obligated to accept committee requests, either as a condition of your appointment to the faculty or due to strong institutional norms or longstanding traditions. This is probably a good step either way, since s/he is presumably in a position to offer more fine-tuned guidance on appropriate rationales for declining requests, and about the student in question.
- Is the student asking you to supervise their dissertation, or to serve as a secondary or tertiary committee member? The former is obviously a sizeable commitment, but the latter needn’t be so. I meet weekly with the students I’m directing, but if I’m just on a committee, then I insist on semesterly checkups and make myself available on an as-needed basis after that. And even then, I mostly focus on paper feedback, and defer to the advisor on matters of career strategy, professionalization, and the like. It’s not necessarily all that much work. So on the assumption that faculty have a pro tanto obligation to help graduate students in their department when asked, it seems to me that one would need to have an especially strong reason to refuse mere service on a committee, but wouldn’t need as strong a rationale to refuse to supervise a dissertation.
- Do you have to issue a definitive verdict at this upcoming meeting? I think it’s perfectly acceptable to defer your decision for a semester or two while working with the student on a provisional or probationary basis. Tell them you want to see how well you work together. Tell them you want some time to evaluate their progress, or to see how the project develops. “Let’s see how it goes” is a perfectly fine response, as long as the benchmarks are transparent to the student.
“You’d be better served by Professor S. Omeoneelse.”
This is probably both the best rationale and, if you’re a monster, the best deflection. There are many forms this rationale can take. Perhaps someone else in the department is more of an expert about the topic being proposed, or is more aware of the relevant and changing literature. Students don’t always know us or our interests all that well, and can make honest mistakes about who the right person to ask is. Heck, maybe you’re no longer even doing active work in the subfield for which you’re best known. Perhaps the subfield is a match, but you share it with a senior colleague – the sort of person who can offer meaningful resources or pull together CV-improving opportunities, in addition to opening more doors with their shinier letters and friendly phone calls. This one is obvious, and you get the point. Sometimes you actually are just the wrong person to ask.
“I have too many students right now.”
Look, we’re busy folk. If you’ve previously determined that you can only really afford to take on a certain number of students without compromising the quality of your attention and feedback, then you can make a decent case that it may be in the student’s best interest to work with someone else. Tenure-track professors might have an especially strong reason to operate with a cap, and the same could be true for senior faculty facing a high demand while balancing significant institutional obligations or overseeing large research projects. (What about associate professors? Here, as in all things, associates tumble nobly and stout-heartedly into the Service ‘Donut Hole’. We salute you.)
Of course, this rationale has a downside. What if, a year later, a really promising student enters the program, and wants you to supervise the kind of project that instantly catches your interest? As common as it is for academics to draw self-preserving bright lines, it’s equally as common to relent and find time in one’s schedule for some new and worthy task. Our lives are basically just a series of increasingly overwhelming exceptions and ad hoc commitments. So ask yourself: is your cap truly firm, regardless of who’s asking? If not, then you’ll probably have to provide a new rationale when the student you previously rejected complains about the exception you just made. True, the fallout of such a complaint would probably be minor at worst, but the point is that citing limits is rarely a sustainable rationale when it comes to interesting work. So what’s really driving your reluctance in the present case? Is it a self-imposed limit? Then fine. Is it that this student, in particular, isn’t exciting enough to warrant an exception? Then, if we’re being honest, we’re probably talking about a different rationale than available time.
“I can’t get behind this project.”
This is the sort of rationale that gets tricky, fast. Yes, we sometimes disagree with the direction a student wants to go, or with the kinds of ideas they want to defend. We’re philosophers. We disagree a whole bunch. We’re professional disagreers. But if mere disagreement is a terrible reason to reject an article you’re refereeing, then it’s an even worse reason to reject a student that wants to work with you. Why? Precisely because you disagree, you could prove to be an incredibly valuable interlocutor to such a student, and push them to develop the strongest possible version of their position. And isn’t that exactly what an advisor should do? We learn by debating. We learn by being challenged. We learn by sitting down with the smartest person we know and seeing which arguments can survive their withering stares. We shouldn’t be creating clones. We should be trying to cultivate the strongest work we can, both for the student’s sake and for the sake of the profession as a whole. And disagreement can serve that cause.
Of course, there is a highly personal line here, somewhere. If you think tables don’t exist, and the student is challenging your orthodoxy with a desk-rich ontology, then you probably should still work with them. If the student is a libertarian, and you like to redistribute five things before breakfast every morning, then you probably should still work with them. But what if you work on queer theory, say, and the student wants to argue that being trans is nothing more than self-deception? Maybe it’s noble to delve into the project anyway, and attempt to steer it with genuine argumentation. But it’s also just fine to find that line of inquiry offensive, and to confess that it’s not the sort of project you can support. These lines do exist. Is it a case of silencing? Well, there’s a difference between a controversial project (which we should welcome, regardless of disagreement) and a project that’s personally offensive or repugnant (which we don’t have an obligation to personally oversee, because we’re allowed to have values and preferences and stuff). Think of it this way: no student is well served by a supervisor that doesn’t believe in their project.
“I don’t think you’re a good enough.”
I’ll confess, I’m rather suspicious of this rationale. It’s called grad school. Isn’t it your job to help the student improve? And if you don’t know the student particularly well, can you really trust your judgment about their potential, anyway? Stars who look like a lock in their first year can flame out, and a number of talented philosophers in the profession today were late bloomers who took a few years to even reveal their promise.
There are only three possibilities here. Possibility one: the student could improve with hard work and careful oversight, but you’re reluctant to offer it, because that would involve hard work and careful oversight. Essentially then, you’re just redirecting the work to whichever one of your colleagues has the flimsiest boundaries or hardest time saying no. Not cool, dude. Not cool. Possibility two: the student is unlikely to make sufficient progress even with hard work and careful oversight on your part. This is a challenging market, and far from every student has what it takes to succeed. But if the student genuinely falls into this category, then it’s not about finding the right supervisor. Instead, it’s probably a matter for the DGS, Wielder of the Mighty Criterion of Adequate Progress. Possibility three: the student is fine, but doesn’t rise to the caliber of student with whom you’re interested in working. Exclusively the province of powerful faculty, this rationale is either about protecting one’s reputation or controlling how one spends their time. And I can understand both motivations. Really. Still, I’m suspicious. It all goes back to that student who may not seem special yet, but who’s on the cusp of a novel idea, and would really thrive under the right guidance. Instead of restricting oneself to grooming preordained stars, what would happen to our profession if those with the most to offer took a chance on a wider set of students? Remember, we’re not necessarily talking about commitments here – there’s nothing wrong about setting up a provisional one or two semester experiment, and making a decision about your involvement at the end of that probationary period. Take a chance. Maybe they won’t surprise you. But maybe they will.
“I’m not comfortable working with you.”
This one depends on why you’re uncomfortable. If the student’s behavior is disrespectful, harassing, or even alarming, then you have a good reason. If for whatever reason, your personalities or temperaments are so misaligned that you can’t stand interacting with the student, then you probably have a good reason (and it’s one the student would likely come to share in short order). If something about the student’s background gives you significant cause for concern, or you can already foresee that you’d have a hard time writing them a letter of recommendation no matter how good their work ends up being, then you probably have a good reason. If you don’t like working with libertarians or women or Christians or stoics, or heaven forbid all four, then… well, then get over yourself.
Even when this rationale applies however, it’s usually the kind of rationale that you can’t come right out and say to the student. In that case, I’d advise you to select the next most plausible rationale on the list.
And the verdict is…
Looking back at the five rationales I canvassed, a common theme quickly emerged: the best reason to refuse to serve on a committee is when it’s not in the student’s best interest to have you on their committee. In other words, it isn’t necessarily about what you want, or what you like, or even whom you like. Your interests are relevant, of course – it’s your time and energy, and comfort with both the project and the student are probably overriding concerns. But even those are cases where it wouldn’t be in the student’s interest to work with you, because you’re loathe to spend your time and energy on them, or because you wouldn’t be able to adequately support them. So while your interests do matter, it all comes back to the student.
My advice? Make the best decision for the student, and if possible, explain why it’s the best decision for them. And if you’re not in a position to confidently predict whether working with you would be in the student’s best interest, consider deferring your decision by offering an exploratory, provisional semester.
What say the rest of you? Are there rationales I missed? Am I disturbingly wrong about some of the rationales I mentioned? Weigh in in the comments below! Or just, you know, decline to work with me. That’s probably fine, too.
— Louie Generis
Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.
There is another way of not being good enough that is worth breaking out as a separate category: the student is not properly receptive to guidance. This is, for me, the biggest deal-breaker. If you’ve gotten to the dissertation stage and you are not the sort of person who is willing to give the right sort of uptake to criticism and who is able to take direction, then I’m not going to sign on for this long-term commitment. This is not a case in which it is best for the student for me not to direct them. This is just a matter of not being willing to waste my time talking to walls.Report
Ooh, you know what, you’re right – that absolutely ought to be a separate rationale.Report
I am sure that a one graduate student refrained from asking me to join their dissertation committee because they assumed (spectacularly wrongly) that I did not respect them intellectually and feared a rejection along one of these lines. I am not someone that usually gives off negative signals, but I do understand why the student thought what they did. I regret that a lot. The experience has been good in making me more careful not to give a falsely negative signals to students. For what it is worth, the student in question is now very successful — but think how much more successful they’d be if I had played more of a role!!Report
There are so many things to say here. I guess I like your overall conclusion, that what matters is what’s most helpful to the student. That’s what I always think about when weighing whether or not to do the things I don’t want to do regarding students. But you left a lot of grey/gray area for professors to use to get out of doing things that they don’t want to do. And that’s bad. We all don’t want to do some of the things that our jobs require us to do. That’s just life in the grown up world.
Anyway, I think using a provisional semester is your best advice here. And I think telling the student exactly what your reservations are will be the best way to make sure that the correct decision is made at the end of that semester. That way, you’ll know whether or not the student is taking your concerns seriously. And if it turns out that they aren’t, that’s a good reason not take them on as an advisee.Report
Thanks! Though I’m hoping I left less grey area than you’re seeing, since I agree with you: folks shouldn’t approach important aspects of their job with a “how can I successfully opt out” mindset. So let me try to rewrite the casually mulled considerations above into a decision procedure…
We have a pro tanto obligation to help the students in our department, if asked. This is especially hard to override if we’re just being asked to serve on a committee, because that kind of work needn’t be especially arduous. Even if we are being asked to direct the committee, objections like “I don’t have the time” and “I don’t think the student is good enough” rarely hold up. Even if they do hold up, rather than rejecting the student outright, you should offer a provisional semester. And if there aren’t red flags at the end of that semester (like “this student should be referred to the DGS” or “I find this project absolutely repugnant” or “this student is harassing me”), then you should take the person on as one of your students.Report
Yeah, that’s basically a good procedure. But I guess I’m not sure what the DGS is. The Division of Grating Students? What would constitute a reason to refer a student there? Having a repugnant project? Or harassing their professor? I guess those might be good reasons. But again, a little murky. Is the student really working on a repugnant project? Are you sure? If you think so, then clearly you’re not the best person for them to be working with. Hopefully your department has someone who doesn’t think the project is repugnant. Is the student really harassing you? If so, then that’s a very serious problem, and warrants an appropriately serious response, which requires more than simply rejecting them as an advisee. Or are they just asking you to look at their work, you know, the way I imagine diligent advisees do?Report
DGS: Director of Graduate Studies.
The faculty member whose function it is to make sure that graduate students are making adequate progress toward degree completion.Report
I am a graduate student who was turned down by a well-regarded philosopher in my department. They told me that they were currently sitting on too many committees and finishing a book so they couldn’t take on the work. Of course, I had been warned by the other graduate students that this department member had a reputation for not wanting to attach their name to many dissertations (perhaps as few as 8 in 10 years) and that they are also adverse to doing work that takes time away from their own publications. Nonetheless, I was told by my adviser that not asking them to join on a topic that was clearly in their target area would be an insult to them and a waste of a valuable resource for my work. Prior to the rejection, this philosopher told me that in order for us to even meet to talk about their participation on my dissertation committee, I should be sure to have read their primary book on the subject along with several papers, which I did do. I gave the best pitch possible despite sensing their resistance throughout our meeting.
The whole process felt pretty disheartening. Even though everyone else told me that it wasn’t about my abilities, it was hard not to take it personally and not to feel as though I was somehow sub-par. In the end, I found better members for my dissertation committee and it’s come off really well. But I am writing just to offer a gentle reminder that the confidence of graduate students (who are moderately self-aware anyway) can be a pretty precarious thing, so please tread lightly.Report
Look, I’m just going to be blunt: every part of this story is infuriating. I’m really sorry.
I wonder if anyone would be willing to defend the behavior described above? I think it would be a debate worth having, here. Especially since behavior like that is only possible when it’s enabled, or at least goes unchallenged.Report
Who is supposed to challenge it? Grad students?
I can promise you that people don’t really like that. It makes them feel bad or something.
That’s another thing, why do professors take challenges like this as personal attacks? Nobody’s perfect, so if someone tells you you’re not, that doesn’t mean they don’t look up to you! It just means they actually tell you things.
What about that Louie? What about THAT!?Report
No, I don’t think grad students are the ones who are supposed to challenge it. They’re certainly not the ones enabling it.Report
So what then? Are they just supposed to sit back and hope that someone swoops in and rescues them?Report
No. There are many things students can do to make grad school less stressful and demoralizing for each other that don’t involve challenging the kinds of professors that are already inclined to see students as intolerable burdens, and that don’t involve trying to change the culture of a profession at the same time that they’re desperately trying to break into that profession.
For example, in this case: senior grads should talk to junior grads in the same program about which professors are actually available, which ones are supportive, which ones give good feedback, and just as importantly, which ones aren’t worth approaching even if they do happen to be the Local Big Name on X. And prospective grad students considering offers from particular programs because they’d love to work with LBN should ask the students already in the program whether LBN is actually willing to take on students, because a variable like that is incredibly relevant to their decision. In short: grads don’t need power or political capital to support each other. And grads should support each other.Report
Yes. I like that. That’s good.Report
I would imagine that this person would defend their choices on at least a couple of fronts. First, one of the benefits that should come from being successful in philosophy is working with only the students who you like, who like your work, and who you think exhibit the illusive spark of genius that philosophy is built upon. Philosophers who have managed to attain a certain level of name-recognition should be free to pick only those students they want to associate their name with and whose future work will gain them further recognition. Second, graduate school isn’t preschool. It’s not the case that everyone gets to win the prize of working with their desired mentors. Having graduate students motivated to prove their mental mettle in order to gain the notice and favor of respected members of the field is not only motivating, it prepares them for how the discipline works.Report
This is a deeply upsetting potential defense because it seems to reinforce some problematic power dynamics within the field of philosophy between those who are well-established and those who are starting out, particularly the veneration of well-known philosophers with name recognition, regardless of whether or not that person’s work is still currently relevant.
It’s doubly upsetting to hear it from a rejected grad student because the morale is already so low among grad students at philosophy programs everywhere and I would hate to think that people are walking around thinking that their problem is lacking an “illusive spark of genius.” Because how on earth are we supposed to strive toward that?
Finally, because grad school is indeed not preschool, there should be less of a tolerance for rudeness, dismissiveness, or premature judgment. I mean this in general; I can’t tell from your specific instance if this professor was being dismissive or judging prematurely. But I do think that rejection of a student (short of situations around rationale 5, which can be tricky) does require an explicit and respectful rationale.Report
Well, they were being dismissive, in the sense that I was dismissed as a candidate worthy of working with. And I can’t say whether the judgment was premature; I can say that they know me a little, have read my work, even claimed to like my work, and they have asked me personally to help out with research on their work in the past. I also know from experience that this person selectively cherry picks among the grad students they think are most talented, co-authoring with some, and so on. I was clearly not seen as a potential member of this preferred class. It is also maybe worth mentioning that our philosophical approaches are not perfectly aligned (something I perceived as beneficial to my work). Perhaps, we are even sometimes fairly opposed, which might mean that I was not seen as good acolyte material?
There really isn’t anyway to know. But I offered the above (hypothetical) defense because I don’t think my graduate experience is that anomalous. And I wonder if there is a split in how professionals feel about when they are bound and not bound to participate in the development of the graduate students in their department. Are the expectations really equal across all levels of career advancement? Is there not a special privilege granted to some in choosing only the best students? And if someone wanted to defend such a privilege, wouldn’t the judgment of graduate students, as you mentioned, often be “premature”? Hence the need for philosophers believing that they have developed a reliable *spark meter*?Report
*Well, except for the fact that sometimes grad students won’t do that for each other. But your response is good enough for a Friday morning.Report
My first thoughts were along the lines of what the first commenter said. I’ve never advised any PhD dissertations (and, God willing, I never will), but I’ve met enough graduate students to know a very common pattern in incoming graduate students: very smart young men (most are men) with high levels of confidence in their abilities (this is less common – many grad students haven’t yet found their confidence). When you put those two things together, you often have someone who is not very coachable. I could definitely understand not wanting to advise a smart, uncoachable person.Report
I’m sure you’re probably a really nice guy. But so much of your advice seems like a round about attempt to maintain the status quo. For someone in my shoes, working very hard, and not just at normal work things, but working hard to stay positive, remain patient, and to accept the fact that most people would rather dismiss what I have to say, and what I’ve been through, than take it seriously as reliable testimony, I have to say that reading advice about how professors can deploy round about strategies to maintain the status quo is, well, just another thing that I have to grin and bear.
And I guess I’d like to know if you’re aware of this (that is, whether you’re aware that you’re protecting people who don’t need help from people who do) to and if you are, I’d like to know why you’re doing that?
Sorry to be a nuisance, but that’s my honest two cents.Report
One aspect of committee membership that hasn’t been addressed yet, which it might be worth throwing into the mix, is letter writing. My understanding (which might be misplaced) is that graduate students have a legitimate expectation that members of their committee will be prepared to write them a letter of recommendation, when they go on the job market. If a faculty member felt they couldn’t write a supportive and honest letter for a student, that seems to me like a prima facie reason to gently suggest the student look elsewhere for a committee member.Report
This is a good aspect to bring up, but I’m somewhat unsure about the “legitimate expectation” to get a letter of recommendation.
First of all, I don’t know what sort of letter I* will be able to write somebody at the start of the dissertation process. Depending on how the work goes and what the final product is like, I might not be able to write the person a very supportive letter at the end of the day, and I wouldn’t want anybody to presume that just because I agree to be on their committee that I’ll be writing them a strong letter. (I also think that for letter writers to maintain their credibility, they need to be honest in their letters.)
Secondly, for similar reasons I think it’s probably early at the start of the dissertation process to judge that you’re going to be unable to support somebody on the job market. Why not do your job advising the person and see how things turn out? (For the reasons LG gives above, I can imagine exceptions to this, but as a default I think you should let things play out.)
*I’m speaking hypothetically here, as I’m not at a PhD-granting institution. I do think, FWIW, that when it comes to being the director of a dissertation, letter writing considerations do weigh more heavily. If I’m distinctly unenthusiastic about a student and I think another faculty member is more enthusiastic and otherwise would be suitable for the student’s interests, steering the student that way is probably in their interest. But even there, I’d be wary of judging people too quickly or on superficial grounds.Report
When I asked someone, a well-respected philosopher at our department who is working on precisely my area, he did not even give reasons, simply said no. He may have mentioned something about being busy, but in the same semester took on another student who asked him after me. All things considered, I am better off now, but it still hurts somewhat (and I am still not sure of the reasons, apart from perhaps personal dislike).
Another story, and something to avoid: a friend of mine when asked a professor to be her advisor, got the “probationary period” answer. So she was on probation for 2 semester, writing her proposal. As she finished it — just a couple of weeks before the defense — the professor said no, unexpectedly. She basically had to start over. Please, please, NEVER do that.Report
It’s good to know that there are professors out there who are worried that grad students will be resistant to mentoring. I can safely say that at my program, the vast majority of professors (who are generous enough to advise dissertations) are almost completely uninterested in mentoring. I know someone who, after their proposal was approved, was told to come back after they had finished a draft of the dissertation. All five chapters of the dissertation. My advisor is not quite so hands off, but I can safely say that they give me comments about once a semester. Sometimes less. The general impression the professors give is that we dissertation writers fall somewhere on their to-do list below their articles, books, classes, and family life.Report
In response to 1grad’s comment here, it occurs to me that another valid rationale for failing to agree to take on an advisee is that you know that you would simply not do any of the things for any advisee of yours that advisers are supposed to do (meet with your advisee, provide feedback, submit progress reports to the school, actually write and submit letters for your advisee when you agree to do so, and so on). It’s of course not valid that you would not do these things for your advisees, but it seems to me that, given that you would not actually do any of these things, it would be valid not to agree to take on a student as an advisee.
I mention this because in my department, there are a number of professors that simply don’t provide feedback and meet with their advisees and other students for whom they’re serving as committee members. If they do happen to provide feedback, it takes them six months or more to do so. Meanwhile, students run through their funding and have to pay several thousand dollars a semester out of pocket to the grad school in order to continue to be officially enrolled while waiting for their adviser to get around to reading their work. Since these professors are simply not going to do the work entailed by being an adviser or committee member, their refusing to take on advisees seems to me to be the next best thing for the students.
In my department, students by and large figure out who the bad advisers are and choose to ask less irresponsible professors to advise them. The problem with this, however, is that the proportion of professors that are unwilling to do advising work is so high that the professors that are in fact willing to do advising work end up being so overwhelmed with advising requests that they too can’t meet their obligations in a timely fashion.Report