Uncommon Ground

What graduate students would like to tell their professors

Over at the Daily Nous (a blog with “news for and about the philosophy profession”), a post last Wednesday invited graduate students to leave anonymous answers to the question

What would you like to tell your professor(s) right now, but can’t?

There are a few answers like this

Thank you. I had a great education with you and with the whole department, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without you.

or this

Dear Professor,

you were one tough cookie, relentless and unforgiving. Sometimes it really hurt. Thank you for all that – were it not for the growing pains, I would not have grown. And thanks for all the time you spent on me – being a professor myself now, I can just ask – when did you sleep?

but more of them are like this

To my advisor:

You couldn’t possibly ever understand how much your care, friendship, and ability to consistently challenge and push me philosophically means to me. Thank you so much. And special thanks for being pretty much the only man in my life who I feel like I can trust, intellectually and emotionally, and for being interested in me for philosophical and friendship reasons and not weird sexual or fetishy or emotionally weird reasons.

To (nearly) everyone else in my department: it’s totally transparent that you don’t care about grad students.

Some amount of angst and conflict is inevitable in pursuing a PhD. I’ve never met anyone, no matter how smart or talented she is, who finished a dissertation without facing (and surmounting) at least one significant obstacle. Most encounter two or three. In the midst of those challenges, it’s completely normal for a PhD student to think that no one, including her advisor, cares about her or isn’t willing to give her the support that she needs. What I find so depressing about many of the comments in this post is that they were made by students after they received their PhD. I hope that when my students finish their PhDs, they look back and realize that the times when they were most discouraged and most disheartened were among the times when they learned the most about science and themselves.

Smart teachers use struggle to enhance learning and deepen engagement with their subjects. They call it productive struggle. Why would you encourage students to struggle while learning? (These answers focus on classroom teaching, but the principles generalize easily.)

  • It prioritizes the student-centered portion of lesson.
  • It builds authentic engagement.
  • It emphasizes that [the subject] makes sense.
  • It creates ample opportunity for assessment, intervention, and feedback.
  • It builds perseverance.

I’ve tried to use these principles in advising my graduate students, and I hope I’ve been successful. But you’ll have to ask them how they’d respond to the question at the top of this post if you want to know the answer.

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