"Of course Locally Known College would hire me if I got a Ph.D.," said "Polly," with a grin. "I'm special."
The scene was homecoming at Locally Known College. I was chatting with Polly, a student who had completed her B.A. in English several years earlier. She had worked her way through college and managed to graduate without debt. After graduation she secured a job, and recently she had made a down payment on a small house. Polly had no intention of throwing that away on something as risky as academe. When she called herself "special," she was poking fun at people who, against all odds, pursue graduate studies in English.
In satirizing faculty wannabes, Polly hit upon one of the biggest challenges facing advisers at small liberal-arts colleges. Students come to us after 18 years of training in feeling special. When they arrive on the campus, the college welcomes them with celebrations. Faculty members learn students' names and solve their problems. When they compare notes with friends who get no such attention at large universities, students at liberal-arts colleges conclude they are superspecial. Many of my superspecial advisees assume they will dance through graduate school and saunter into tenure-track positions at Locally Known College.
My mission as an adviser isn't to dissuade everyone from graduate training, but to help students make informed decisions. I've directed them to the wise observations of William Pannapacker and to the snarky insights of Lee Skallerup Bessette, but eventually I realized that many students wouldn't accept the facts about graduate school and the faculty job market.
Perhaps, however, I could get them to analyze themselves. So last semester, I drew up a questionnaire that I had my advisees fill out before I would discuss graduate school with them. The first two questions seemed obvious.
- What are three good reasons for you to go to grad school? The following do not count as good reasons: I don't know what to do with my life. I can't find a job. I don't like my current job. I don't know where else to meet a significant other.
- What are three good reasons a graduate program would find your application more attractive than 300 other applications? The following do not count as good reasons: I like books. I've always enjoyed reading.
- If you don't get into graduate school, or if you earn a Ph.D. but can't get a professorial job, what else could you do to lead a satisfying and meaningful life? As an undergraduate, I certainly wouldn't have known how to answer that one. People who applied to graduate programs got in, didn't they? People who completed graduate school got jobs as professors, didn't they? Professors wrote books and received royalty checks and movie deals, didn't they?
- Are you prepared to spend two years to earn a master's degree and another four to seven years to complete a Ph.D.? When I was an undergraduate, I had no idea how long I would wait before people addressed me as "Dr. Adams." I certainly would've considered other careers if I had known that my high-school 10-year reunion booklet would list my career choice as "student."
- Most doctoral programs require students to demonstrate competency in two foreign languages. Other than English, which languages do you know? That question may be a bit misleading. A graduate student doesn't actually have to know other languages in order to complete a program. A person only has to pass tests in foreign languages. The foreign-language crash courses at research universities show students how to do that, but they do not actually teach the languages. Nonetheless, I believe my advisees should know that foreign-language requirements await them.
If a professor had placed that question in front of me when I was an undergraduate, I would've been flummoxed. I enjoyed reading, and I'd looked at descriptions of graduate programs and thought it would be neat to take a seminar about Nathaniel Hawthorne. Other than that, I had an absence of direction in life and lacked a long-term relationship. Did anyone need better reasons for making a major life decision like graduate school?
Worse than that, I thought that studying literature at the graduate level would help me write literature. I had no clue that becoming a literary professional has nothing to do with creative writing.
That question would've puzzled my undergraduate self. My alma mater, Flyover College, didn't have terribly competitive admission standards, and I had no idea that acceptance into doctoral programs was cutthroat. I had high GRE scores and I'd published a couple of poems. Did I need something more?
Because my advisees rarely explore career possibilities until I nudge them, I added this question to the list:
(To be fair to my undergraduate self, I should add that one of my professors wrote a novel and actually sold the movie rights.)
With those three questions, I could've considered the document complete, but I decided to add two more.
With those questions, I believed that I had an excellent document to help students understand themselves, but one of my advisees inspired me to add the most important question of all.
Locally Known College had blessed me with an incredibly intelligent and bookish advisee named "Lionel." Everyone in the English department assumed that Lionel was headed for graduate training. A colleague once remarked, "I can't imagine him doing anything other than becoming a professor."
When Lionel submitted his proposal for a paper in an upper-division course, I saw that he'd chosen a topic on which I had published an article, so I gave him a copy. When Lionel came to my office to discuss his paper, he held up my article and asked politely, "Did you give me this to make me interested in grad school?"
I chuckled and said, "I may be the only person in the department who doesn't push advisees toward graduate work."
Lionel wanted to know the genesis of my article. I explained that it had come from a chapter in my dissertation. I described the hours of research, the visits to a library with a collection of rarities, and the time I spent thinking, writing, and revising before getting the dissertation past my committee. Finally I detailed the work involved in transforming the chapter into the article that Lionel had read.
Lionel said, "I'd have a hard time devoting so much time and energy to something so ... so ..."
"Inconsequential?" I offered.
Lionel blushed. "Well, yes."
I shrugged: "That article was inconsequential. It didn't feed or house anyone. It didn't even stop people from throwing money away on lottery tickets."
Lionel looked distressed. "So why do all that work?"
"Many reasons," I replied. "Literary scholars perform research because they find their topics fascinating. They enjoy the mental stimulus of crafting their insights into articles and books. Some find that research brings new energy and insight to their classroom performance." I thought about my own motivations. "Publishing also feeds the ego."
Lionel decided that wasn't enough for him. In fact, he chose to take on a different major. My experience with him inspired me to add another question to my list:
- In graduate school you will compete with students who find joy and purpose in their research. In your own upper-division English courses, did you enjoy doing research and writing papers at least as much as you enjoyed reading the literature itself? When I was an undergraduate at Flyover College, I thought of research papers as drudgery, and I didn't know any English majors who thought otherwise. For that matter, I suspect my current students prefer searching for friends on Facebook to literary research.
Feeling that I had created a darned good questionnaire, I ran it past my colleagues. Several conceded that perhaps advisers should give it to students interested in graduate school, but one simply looked me in the eye and said, "Adams, you're cold."
My colleague's response startled me. A liberal-arts education should get students to reflect on what constitutes the good life and to explore their own values. Furthermore, professors claim that a liberal-arts education prepares students for careers. I thought that my questionnaire promoted those goals. Why would someone at a liberal-arts college object?
The answer is obvious. Teaching colleges sell themselves as little Disneylands in the business of making dreams come true, while my questionnaire suggests that some dreams do not match the students who have them.
Nonetheless, I vow to proceed.