Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mentoring alternative academic paths

One of my summer research students was being honored at an awards dinner last night. We started talking, and she mentioned how she felt like she wasn't going to be able to do well in her current major, and that she was uncertain about graduate school, etc. etc. I found myself, almost against my better judgment advising her to take some time off.

I was saying this for the following (obvious) reasons. Grad school has to be a labor of love. In my biased small N experience, those that enter graduate school as "the next thing to do" don't do as well who come in knowing they love research/their subject matter. Also, she's 20 years old. She knows nothing of the world other than school. There is another life out there.

This was against my better judgment for the following (possibly equally obvious) reason. In many hard sciences, (including my field) taking time of is seen as a sign of weakness (see some wonderful discussions about this lead by Isis and FSP at more senior stages of career) and depending on how long/what she does in her time off it may keep her from accepted into a top tier grad school. This isn't the end of a career by any means, but worth hesitating about. Also, somewhere I've picked up the messaging that as academics, we should be recruiters to our fields, and that encouraging students to do something else is somehow playing against the team interests.

Her family, of course, thinks that she is sooooo smart, and wants her to get a PhD in her current field, and an MBA*.

Thus began my inner conflict about whether or not I should have a conversation with this woman about whose desires should be prioritized when it comes to making medium term life decisions like going to graduate school, or if I should walk away from this powder keg an maintain a professional relationship with her. To make matters worse, later in the awards ceremony, I was discussing my life choices with a tenured colleague, who then started musing about the lost opportunities in his life because he didn't travel or work before entering graduate school.

*10 points if you can guess the country of her parents origin. Partial credit given for being close.


  1. I didn't take time off, but I tell undergrads to take time off. Time off doing something career related helps a lot in my field, including helping getting into graduate school. A year or two in DC or at a think-tank or government organization can push a top application over the edge. A terminal masters at a good school in a related interdisciplinary field will also help. Plus there's something to be said for having enough money saved up that you don't lose your ability to digest meat your first semester of graduate school.

  2. I think it's better to start graduate school knowing that you want to do graduate school, so I also vote for the time off if necessary. Like you say, it's a labor of love...

    It's unfortunate that in pure math in the US people don't do much of master's (they rather come as consolation prizes for those who fail their quals). The situation in Canada is very different, everybody is expected to do a master's before a PhD. I find this good, people get to explore more about the research career and make informed situations after that.

    Yes, and China or India? Can't decide. Can I get partial credit?

  3. I meant to say "decisions" and not "situations"