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