Monday, January 07, 2008

Just how much did you know?

At a couple blogs I read, there've been some discussions about grad school applications from the admissions side. Some of the comments sort of blew me away because they expect the undergrad applying for admission to know the quirks of the potential grad faculty.

Let's acknowledge that the field is very different from mine, and maybe things work very differently.

Here's how I chose my phud program, coming from a regional university where several faculty were encouraging me to go on. I talked to faculty members, and made lists of places I was considering. My advisor called someone she knew at the local flagship and asked him about programs in the field. He suggested a couple as being strong. I also looked at the Newsweek grad school information for my field.

What I didn't know, and really had no way of knowing, was that the flagship scholar was incredibly conservative in his scholarship, and suggested only the most conservative schools, including none with prominent feminist scholars, because he didn't think feminism had anything to do with scholarship. And he hated theory.

And so, I ended up at a pretty conservative English department, where out of 25+ tenured faculty, two were female (things did improve while I was there!). Theory was weak there, but improved tremendously with a couple of hires and a tenuring. I wasn't a great fit, but I made it through and the rest was history. But how was I supposed to know? I didn't have the resources, really, given where I was, to know about all sorts of grad departments. (And while it was conservative, it was an overall strong, large department with fair depth in most fields.)

And yet the comments on the other post suggest that I should have known which schools in my field had the best scholars interested in what I wanted to work on, which would be supportive of women, and so forth.

Maybe I'm totally clueless, but I don't think most people actually know that much detail about schools they aren't closely associated with, and those that do know, don't necessarily talk to people applying for grad school.

Here's an example. While I was a grad student, through a mutual friend in my program, I met a grad student at Berkeley who'd chosen Berkeley to work with Stephen Greenblatt. The student had done his undergrad at Yale, and gotten into Berkeley. He had the right connections. He was white, male, upper class, had gone to the right prep school. I'm assuming if his advisors at Yale had been able to warn him of a problem, they would have, right? Within a year or two of his arriving at Berkeley, Greenblatt had moved elsewhere. The student ended up working with a fine scholar, finishing his dissertation after several years, and then leaving academia.

Another example: in my grad program, there was a famous scholar. Every year, students applied to the program thinking they would work with him. Once in the program, no one worked with him. And a year after I got there, he took early retirement in a settlement to avoid a lawsuit brought by a male undergrad for inappropriate sexual behavior. No one warned all those grad students ahead of time, not their undergrad advisors, not when they were at interview dinners alone with other grad students, no one. But pretty much everyone knew this guy was a problem. But no one said anything, until students came, and then they figured things out pretty quickly, realized they'd better keep their mouths shut, and found someone else to work with.

I could give other examples. My point is that even when people know, they don't tell undergrads everything for a variety of reasons. And people often don't know a whole lot about the intricacies at other schools, about Joe Schmoe's sexism, drinking problem, whatever. Or maybe they don't consider the sexism or drinking a problem.

So I'm wondering, how much did you folks know about graduate programs when you applied? How did you know what you knew?


  1. When I applied to programs (a year ago), I knew only what the particular scholars-of-interest-to-me made public. By that I mean I looked hard for Google-able stuff (ranging from web sites to archived listservs). I also took advantage of blogging buddies who are faculty at various and sundry other places -- people I knew and trusted and what not, not just Jane Random Blogger, PhD.

    I did ask those people specific questions about specific people they might have known from grad school or conferences, and I got good answers. I also asked those people questions about their perceptions of schools/departments in general, and I also got good answers. In fact, one of the answers changed my mind from going to previously-#1-school to the place I am now, and I could not be happier about it.

    I am in a situation where one of the rockstars I wanted to work with will be retiring in a year and thus isn't on any more committees -- but I'll be taking seminars with her until she leaves, and she is very supportive of my work in other ways, so it's not a tragedy. If I had known this ahead of time, would I have changed my mind about this school? Probably not, because I didn't put all my eggs in the working-with-her basket.

    So, I think I was somewhere in the middle of the range of knowing things ahead of time.

    On the other hand,
    I see a lot of the MA students here applying to PhD programs without knowing a thing about the people in it. I've done my best to hook them up with other grad students in the blogosphere who are at their target schools, because I'm a big fan of knowing a little something about what one is potentially getting in to....

  2. Anonymous10:32 AM

    [sorry, this is long]

    This is in history, in the late 1990s.

    I came out of a chi-chi SLAC that sent quite a few people to grad school every year, and I got advice from 3-4 professors who read and re-read my Statement of Purpose and talked to me about grad school. So I feel like I got good mentoring. To figure out which depts could support my interests, I looked at the fields offered, prof specializations, classes taught, and the dissertations in progress in the AHA directory of depts--webpages were still rudimentary at this point, but I checked. I focused mostly on whether they had experts in the right times and places rather than thinking about whether I was thematically or methodologically on board with the work of those experts. I did know that the advisor was crucial---although I applied places without identifying an advisor, and focused on the advisor more during the "where to go" process.

    Details of specific programs---not much. One prof who had just finished at a program said, "oh, they won't like it if you say this", re one school. Another prof said all the grad students she met from Yale seemed unhappy. Another prof said Yale would be very open to what I wanted to do. That's all I remember. I wound up attending the school that really tried to recruit me, talking about their new hires and their plans for the future that made them a good fit for me. It wasn't the most prestigious dept I'd been accepted to, but they treated me well, so that even though their grand plans did not work out after all, my plans are thus far working out okay.

    I decided against one school partially because when I visited, my prospective advisor had mixed me up with some other applicant, so I didn't think I wanted to work with him. Two years after I finished, as a prof, I heard from a second-year lit prof that he was a legendary misogynist. First I heard of it.

    This is somewhat linked to comments on my post about writing letters, in which Notorious PhD says "you should discuss how a student fits the program" and I'm astonished: "I'm supposed to know what's going on with those depts and profs?!?"

    The lesson I would draw---those who are reading and training graduate students have a responsibility to explain to their colleagues what makes a student a good fit for them. This ought to be part of casual conversation and networking. As an example, I have several good friends in mid-level PhD training programs. I have no idea what students would be welcomed in those schools. We chat a lot about teaching, but that usually doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

  3. This is a great post. Personally, I knew absolutely nothing about grad school when I applied, and I was someone who in theory had the resources to have known quite a lot and to have gotten good advice: I did my undergrad at an Ivy with a strong program in my field. But I was a public school kid from way out west, with parents who were first-generation college students, and no one I knew had gone to grad school; I myself only had only a hazy idea of what a PhD entailed. I also hadn't built personal relationships with my undergrad profs: I did fine in my classes and my instructors were perfectly kind, but I never felt confident that I deserved to be where I was, or that I was worth their talking to.

    So when I applied to grad school I just applied to programs that I'd heard of and that I had a vague sense were strong in my field (I'm pretty sure I looked at U.S. News, too). I didn't know that you were supposed to be thinking about potential advisors. I didn't know that you were supposed to focus on a department's strength in senior faculty (who can direct dissertations) rather than junior faculty. But for that matter, I didn't really know what I wanted to do--not subject/authors, not theoretical interests, nothing. So though I asked for rec letters, I otherwise didn't have a single conversation with anyone who knew anything about grad school.

    I'm kind of amazed that I a) got in, and b) survived. But as you point out (with your Berkeley/Greenblatt example), knowing more about the process doesn't necessarily make a difference. Grad school might have been less awful for me, in the early years, if I'd known what I was doing. But would I have been any more prepared for some of the crazy things that happened along the way? Or more happy or successful? I'm not sure.

  4. Yeah, I did the whole US News ranking and reputation for figuring out where I applied, and I made sure there was more than one person whose stuff I liked at each dept., but, really I had no clue that departmental or methodolgical squabbles _existed,_ much less that I should be knowing about them and knowing how to "politic" and make tactical moves around them. Plus, I had no clue that I might like a person's work and just not get along with their personality or teaching style --- I love the people I'm working with now, but if I had stayed with my original research field I'd have had to leave here, because my sense of humor and interpersonal skills totally clash with the profs in that other field.

    So, yeah, it's a bit unrealistic to expect undergrads to figure out all the intricacies of the profession before they get in there --- particularly because all this stuff is not even on most students' radar at a young and innocent age ;)

    and also because what sort of stupid department would make these types of rifts and squabbles and prejudices and assumptions easily known --- they're gonna post their feuds and weaknessess on their web site? That's why the phrase is "I know where the bodies are buried."

  5. Like Flavia and Sisyphus, I had pretty minimal knowledge about grad school in general when I applied. I applied pretty stupidly--to four schools, three of them Ivies--and somewhat randomly; location was a big factor, because I wanted to be near a boyfriend (with whom I broke up the July before grad school started). So yeah, I was pretty clueless. I think I'd read over the websites and looked at the faculty members who seemed interesting, but I didn't even really know what I wanted to do; I came into grad school with a 19th/early 20th c. focus, in fact, and switched to Medieval in my second year. It's a wonderment that I got in where I did, seriously.

  6. Anonymous3:20 PM

    I think I was really lucky and got good advice. I went to the grad advisor for my dept (in my own chi-chi SLAC); he gave me a list of the 20-30 top history programs, general reputation-wise, and told me to look them all up in the AHA directory of departments and figure out which had people whose work looked like stuff I would be interested in (well before departmental web pages, here). Then he told me to go look up what they'd actually written to see if their work and their approaches seemed congenial to me. Doing this allowed me to come up with a short-list of schools that seemed like a good idea at the time, and which, looking back, were in fact the best schools for what I was interested in.

    I think a key thing here was reading people's scholarship and figuring out if approaches were congenial. Granted, as an undergrad you're not always very sophisticated in doing so, but again, I was lucky in that my alma mater really taught us how to dissect historical scholarship/think historiographically, so I was able to get some useful information from the exercise (my impression is that not everyone who started grad school with me would have been able to do so).

    (I also applied to a few other random Ivy-types out of the conviction that since they were good schools, I should apply, but I only got in to my short list of places!)

    My thesis advisor was a recent-ish medieval studies Ph.D. from Yale and fairly connected to a lot of the top academic circles, and we talked a LOT about grad school. She was incredibly helpful, and she made sure I thought about things like, is this person going to retire in the next three years? And somewhere in there someone clued me in to look only at senior faculty (senior, but not about-retire-or-die senior!). For instance, someone whose work I really liked wasn't tenured yet when I was applying, so I didn't apply there.

    I actually don't think the Greenblatt thing is anything anyone could have predicted or warned someone about, unless Greenblatt had actually accepted an offer somewhere at the time your friend of a friend was accepted. It's true that big names are flight risks, so to speak, but I don't think that can be predicted ahead of time. (Unless there's something specific to Greenblatt and Berkeley that I don't know, of course, like it was common knowledge that he was itching to decamp.) I think I was warned vaguely about the flight risk possibility, too (though my experience has been that if a big name is lured somewhere they often negotiate to take their students with them).

    I think the personality thing is much harder to negotiate with applicants - for instance, I had a lot of problems working with my advisor, just personality-wise (approach-wise we were completely sympatico). But I don't know if anyone could have "warned" me about her, because her working-with-students dynamic was really different from her conference demeanor, which is frequently described as delightful. And the majority of scholars in my field are going to know her from the latter, not the former.

    Now, the notorious drunk or lecher, someone with problems the profession in general knows about? That's hard (although there's a famous medieval historian who allegedly drank himself to death who appears to have been great to work with, because he churned out the students like whoa and most of them are employed now). I actually think that grad students in my program would have warned off prospective grad students interested in working with personal nightmares, if we'd encountered them. A lot of times you don't, though. And I really don't think colleagues will rat out colleagues, esp. if you're trying to attract a bright prospective student. So that's a problem, definitely.

    I guess I was lucky to find out this stuff, and maybe it's not as common as I thought it was. I do think, though, that applicants can find out some of the information you're talking about, but it probably does make a big difference that I was at one of the top SLACs in the country, which had a strong tradition of getting people into grad school.

    I also suspect it varies a lot by field and other factors - if you're talking about Ph.D. students rather than M.A. students, that's a whole different demographic. And I suspect that the sciences, or lab-oriented social sciences, operate completely differently given the collaborative nature of the field and the different way networking works for them.

  7. I was pretty clueless, I think, although several faculty members at my undergrad school were kind enough to take me under their wing. I looked at the US News rankings and the department web pages (such as they were, in 1997), but in a lot of ways, I didn't know what to do with the information I found there. I didn't have a clue what academic research entailed, had read very little secondary scholarship, and had a vague notion that I wanted to be a medievalist, so matching my research interests to those of potential advisors wasn't going to happen in any case.

    I applied to ten schools because one of my recommenders insisted on double digits, and another one insisted that he wasn't writing any more letters once I hit number ten. I ended up getting fellowship offers from Home State Flagship and the University of Basketball, plus an acceptance without funding at a school way out in the Midwest, which I didn't seriously consider. I went to visit the University of Basketball over spring break and decided that everyone there seemed really friendly and nice, while the English department at Home State Flagship was widely rumored to be a shark pit, so I accepted the U. of B's offer, and the rest is history.

    As it turned out, the University of Basketball was a fairly blah place to be a medievalist and a great place to be an early modernist. It's possible that I would have found this out if I had done more research in advance; it's also possible that I would have gotten more acceptances and more fellowship offers; but on the other hand, things worked out just fine, so I can't complain.

    (Amusingly, if the exact topic of my dissertation had been revealed to me in a fit of clairvoyance and I had known more about how to research faculty interests, I probably would have figured out that the U. of Basketball was exactly where I was meant to be, but I would have selected a different potential advisor than the one I actually ended up with! The advisor-student matchup really comes down to personality and personal style, and I don't think there's any reliable way to ascertain these things until you're actually a student in the program.)

  8. I second what every one else says -- at least those who say they were kind of clueless and lucked into their situations. In fact, my story is pretty much the same as Flavia's, except that it was a different Ivy college I was coming from.

    But I wanted to add that I chose schools not only by the US News rankings (and some other ranking book I got from the bookstore), but also by whether or not they had a Center for Medieval and Renaissance studies and by how *many* medievalists they had. I think I figured I'd have a better chance of getting in as well as more people to work with. I don't know if I knew at the time why more people to work with was a good thing.

    Also, at some point in the process -- I think after I'd applied -- I got my hands on "Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to MA and PhD Programs." And I think I used the advice in that to decide between the programs who'd accepted me -- it taught me about advisors and their importance. I also went to the NY Public Library -- because I was out of college and didn't have an academic library -- and spent a day reading the books by the senior scholars in the places I was considering.

    But mostly, I was lucky, not just in terms of programs and fit, but also timing. I was the penultimate advisee of my advisor and he cut off people behind me who hadn't already started their dissertations with him when he decided to retire. He didn't retire particularly early, but he didn't hang on extra long like some people do, either. If I'd been any slower than I was, I might have missed my chance.

  9. Well, I knew where the school WAS, roughly... I could find the city at least.... I couldn't move, as my hubby was in the Air Force at the time, so I ended up at the only available place.

    I was a terrible fit -- but it has worked out ok... after the first rough year or so, I figured things out.

    In retrospect, I should have gone to law school, but that seemed so boring...

  10. Having done this just a couple years ago ... I was incredibly lucky and had two wonderful profs guiding me through the process. The list of places to apply was cobbled together for me: 1) I took some of my favorite books written in Renaissance studies, googled the author to see what kind of university he was at, and if it had a respectable-looking program, applied there (no, this did not include Greenblatt); 2) applied to two or three schools known to be strong in theory; and 3) asked my advisor at the time where he thought I should apply. This ended up being seven schools in the states, only one of them Ivy. And all the programs I got into felt *right*, in one way or another -- though for the record, I ended up deciding on a school from category 3!

  11. I, too, was pretty clueless, *and* applying from Israel *and* changing from a poli sci MA to a lit PhD. however, I got to where I thought I wanted to be, took my first class with the person I thought would be my advisor (yes, I had read her scholarship), and we did not get along at all. I also found out that students who wanted her on their committee accepted that along with her fame went at least 2 additional years of diss writing (she was very picky). I had an unemployed husband and 2 kids at that point and could not see signing on for 2 extra years to get her name behind me.

    ironically, we now get along well, and she's written recommendation letters for me because she really did like my research directions and designs. but we never would have succeeded together as advisor/advisee.

  12. I'm somewhere in between. I got most of my info on my own - I am, if nothing else, a research geek. Because I was returning to school after about 7 years, I did check out info about the job market. I had a decent job and I didn't want to sacrifice that for complete financial uncertainty. This didn't stop me from going to grad school in English, though (of course, the comp/rhet job market is a bit better).

    I did restrict myself regionally. At the time I still had elderly grandparents and I wanted to be close to them. And this brings me to a topic I don't think I've seen come up in this decision: some people (traditionally women) are restricted by geography. Sometimes people can't apply nationally because Life gets in the way. I only applied to 3 programs.

    I wasn't as savvy about planning who would advise me, but that turned out more than ok. I was fairly savvy about financial issues, choosing a program with a decent health insurance plan (right there you can tell I was older than most new grad students).

  13. Totally clueless? Check. Applying to mostly well-known places to maximize my chances of being close to my girlfriend? Check. Completely lucked out? Check. Despite being a white male from an elite SLAC, I was basically an affirmative action candidate, along with most people in my class and the year after mine, b/c the DGS at the time wanted fewer Ivy-produced students in the program than usual.

    Using myself as an example of what not to do, I advise the very few students from my school who are thinking about a PhD to do a lot of research, early on. First off, on how difficult it is to get a good job in the profession, so they have a clear sense of the odds from the start. Second, on whether they'd be better off applying for an MA program than a PhD program. Third, on how to distinguish good from bad from outright exploitative MA programs.

    But again using my experience as an example, I stress that since graduate admissions are such a crapshoot--small applicant pools, usually, faculty rather than admissions officers evaluting applications, more attention to shaping an interesting cohort that will mesh well with and reflect well upon the faculty--they should apply where they think they would best grow into the kind of professor-to-be they want to become, because you never know when or how you might get lucky.