Saturday, October 16, 2010

Help! Advice needed! (Delivering-bad-news-to-students division)

Before I get to the advice request, on a somewhat related topic I just want to say that Greg Semenza, who is a very cool guy, sent me a signed copy of the second edition of A Guide to Graduate Study in the 21st Century. And he quoted and cited this blog in the introduction as well as thanking me in the acknowledgments. (He quoted this post, which I really should put on a "Best of Virago" list in the sidebar or something. He quoted a farming metaphor that apparently I made in that post, but which seemed so hilariously out of character for me, a city/suburban girl, that I had to go back and see if I actually wrote it or if one of the commenters did. It seems I did!) So you must now all buy his book for *your* graduate students, because he is clearly a genius with good taste. And also because I said so. :)

Anyway, the advice I need is related to talking to students about grad school. Greg's book is *awesome* for students already in or accepted to Ph.D. programs, or, slightly adapted, for students in MA programs (which is how I use it). But it doesn't deal with the whole process *before* -- the making yourself competitive for grad programs, choosing them, applying to the, etc. (Let's skip, for the moment, whether anyone should be applying to Ph.D. programs in the humanities at all. I know how to have that talk.)

But here's what I don't know how to do. I don't know how to tell a student "There's no way you're going to get into ______." Or "I really can't recommend you to ____ program." Or, worst of all, "I really can't recommend you for Ph.D. programs." Many of our students, the BAs and the MAs, are often really naive about the competition out there and about the selectiveness of even the state school Ph.D. programs. The best of them, who have all the same natural gifts as the students who will get into the most competitive programs, have never had to compete for admission to anything (we're an open admission school at the undergrad level, and though our MA program is slightly selective--we do turn down some people--it's not terribly difficult to get into). And they don't have a lot of friends (or any others) who are also applying to graduate programs, so they grossly underestimate the numbers of people doing so. They've been big fish in little ponds all their lives and haven't really been pushed, either by their professors or their cohort. (We try, but really, you need a critical mass of ambitious peers to really show you what you can accomplish. And once you're at the top of a group, it's hard to see that there are higher things to aim for.) But they can't possibly see this from their vantage point. And we can tell them, but they don't always get the message. (There are obviously exceptions. But if they were all like the exceptions, I wouldn't be writing this post.) We even have a few faculty members who share the naivety (for various different reasons), and they are often wowed by these students and encourage them to apply to schools they're never going to get into (and only those schools), so we have to work against bad advice they've been given.

For example, about a year or so ago, a former student, whose work in our MA program fell about in the average range for our students, wrote to me to tell me she was going to apply to a particular Ivy League school for the Ph.D. And just that school. But she was going to visit it first to make sure it was right for her. *Headdesk* So I wrote back and gave her the statistics for the previous year's admissions (because I happen to know people at said Ivy and they could give me the cold, hard facts). To my utter shock, this did not deter her! Her response was something along the lines of "Oh, I know it's competitive, but I think I've got what it takes!" *double headdesk* And others to whom I give the bad news talk think I'm just trying to keep them down, that I'm holding them back. (What would motivate me to do that is beyond me -- our students' success is our success.)

For many, I can say a nicer version of "Fine, don't believe me. Go ahead and try." And sometimes I get them to add less glorious programs to their list (or simply more programs), and they *do* get in and go on to good things. (I basically suggest they apply to one or two "dream" schools -- it's good to dream! -- but then to a range of other, more realistic schools. Then I have to help them figure out what those are, because they have no idea.) So sometimes I can work with them and get them to where they want to be, which is in a Ph.D. program on the way to being a college professor. Ooh, and one of the first RBU students I wrote a letter for is now a tenure-track assistant professor! Hooray! So I'm not saying our students should just give it up. I'm saying they need to be more realistic. I'm *pretty* good at getting them to that point (Ms. Ivy League being the weird exception).

But where it gets tricky (and this is really where I need the advice) is with the ones who want me to write letters of recommendation. I don't think students realize we have professional reputations, that we know people at these schools they're applying to, and that our word won't mean anything (for them or for other students) if we write glowing letters for students whose work just doesn't stack up. And writing a truthful, damning letter seems passive-aggressively cruel; I think it would also make me look like an asshole to the people reading it. So the only alternative is to say, "Sorry, I can't do that." But I am such a wuss when it comes to such confrontations, especially when I like the student personally and have been working with them for some time, which is often the case (and this is really where I need your help). I make the lamest excuses just to avoid saying, "I really can't recommend you." For example, once I told a student that since the paper she'd written for me in class was a critical history and not an original argument, my recommendation wouldn't be worth much (which may be true but wasn't the real reason I was turning her down). Help me "woman up" and deliver the bad news. How would you do it?

Let's put this into a few more specific (but totally fictional) situations. How would you deal with each of them? Updated to add: How would you deal specifically with being asked to write a letter of recommendation in each of these cases? That's the key issue for me. Assume that we've already had all the "should you go to graduate school?"/"what's graduate school like?"/"what's on the other side of the Ph.D.?" type talks.

1) An MA student has mostly A- and B+ grades in hir chosen area of specialization and doesn't realize those are damning grades for an MA student applying to Ph.D. programs, and wants you to write a letter of recommendation. You gave hir an A, but in a less relevant class where earning an A might have been easier (say, a methods class or an undergrad/grad survey). [Hm, in this case, I might just go ahead and write the letter, describing the level and expectations of the class as well as hir work in it. And now that I'm not Grad Director, I might not look stupidly naive myself for recommending hir. What do you think?]

2) A student (BA or MA) is applying exclusively either to unrealistically competitive schools or to schools that rejected hir in the first round the last time ze applied and won't add less selective schools to hir list or drop the ones that didn't accept hir the first time.

3) Your department has a 0.000 batting average with getting any of your students, BA or MA, into the nationally ranked flagship school program up the road, and you know everyone in the department in your field (and in a number of other fields), and the student asking you for the letter is not even close to best of the students they've turned down.

4) The student asking you for a letter has barely survived hir Honors thesis or MA experience, kicking, screaming, procrastinating, and delaying all the way, and hir work isn't that outstanding. You know a Ph.D. program isn't right for hir *personally* as well as professionally. How do you convince hir of that when ze's got the classic combination of unrealistic goals and terrible working habits?



Anonymous said...

Ok, before I respond at all, do you remember this compendium of stuff about grad school that Horace put together? Here's the link to all of his posts:

Basically, what I typically do is bombard students who are unrealistic about their expectations and about what graduate school is with information. For the most part, that separates the "unrealistic but really committed" from the "unrealistic and totally clueless and lacking in ability/persistence." So, for example, for a student in scenario 4, I would start by showing them the MLA job information list, and then showing them a typical CV for a new PHD on the market. A student like that is usually completely lacking in awareness about the reality of scholarly expectations as a prerequisite for academic jobs, so making that clear usually weeds students like that out.

As for recommendations, I usually have a conversation with the student about the kind of letter I would be comfortable writing and I tell them how such a letter would be translated by an admissions committee. 9 times out of 10 they withdraw their request, and for the rare few who don't, they usually miss my deadline for supporting materials without which I won't write a letter. If push comes to shove, though, I will write an honest letter about the student, and bizarrely, some of them get in anyway. So, yes, I think the letters that we right do reflect on us and are important, but I don't think it's terrible to write a letter that isn't glowing - our colleagues at other institutions understand that it's part of our job to do so. (And usually I put somewhere in the letter that I had a conversation with the student about the sort of letter I'd be able to write and that the student wanted that letter anyway.)

Clarissa said...

In case 1, ("An MA student has mostly A- and B+ grades in hir chosen area of specialization and doesn't realize those are damning grades for an MA student applying to Ph.D. programs"), why not just say exactly what you say here: "These are damning grades for an MA student applying to Ph.D. programs."? That will be honest and, hopefully, thought provoking for the student.

In case 2, I really don't think it's my responsibility as a prof and as an advisor to decide what's realistic or not. I remember when I first told my undergrad advisor that I was going to end up getting a PhD in Spanish lit at an Ivy League school (after confessing that at that point I didn't speak a word of Spanish and hadn't read a word of Spanish literature even in translation) she laughed hysterically. Ten years later, when I got my PhD from Yale, we met again and she apologized.

My point is that you never know. No matter how well you think you know a student, you might just turn out to be wrong about their potential.

Flavia said...

Dr. Crazy said a lot of what I would have said--including showing the student the JIL in his or her desired field, tabulating the number of jobs, and giving him or her a sense of the HUNDREDS of people applying for those 20 or 30 jobs.

I think with scenarios 2 & 3, I'd give all the advice and warnings I could give--perhaps including saying I would not write a reference letter if the student didn't ALSO include some more reasonable schools--but go ahead and write the letter. Those candidates might have a shot, or at least it sounds that you wouldn't feel as awkward writing for them.

With scenarios 1 & 4 it's harder. I've never refused to write a letter, but I've strongly urged students to take some time off from school, and explore their options. I emphasize that smart people will always be smart people, no matter what profession they're in, and that many people are happier having jobs that they like reasonably well--but that give them the money and the leisure to travel, take a class here and there, buy season tickets to the theatre, or whatever. (And contrast that with the years of penury and self-doubt that grad school involves.)

I often say, "you seem like a really cool, interesting person--and I bet you have cool, interesting friends, right? You don't have to be in grad school to meet those people." And I give examples of my own non-academic friends who have book groups and take language or cooking classes or whatever in their spare time.

Sometimes it works, or sometimes I can steer them (if they're undergrads) into an M.A. program first/instead. Or I suggest something like a library science degree, or looking for cool jobs/internships with arts organizations.

But if they persist, I write the damn letters. My letters are always upbeat and positive, highlighting genuine strengths. . . but capable of being read between their lines.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, to Crazy and Flavia, let me clarify something (and I'll update the post and put this up there): in all of these scenarios we've already *had* the job market talk and the admissions statistics talk and so on and so forth. And they've read Semenza's book. My problem is with students (past, present and potentially future) who still don't get it after all of that.

And to Clarissa, let me clarify something else: it's not the list of schools that's the point here, it's the letter of recommendation. It *is* absolutely my job in that letter to say to that school whether I think the student will succeed there, and I'd rather not write a letter that says said student won't. And if it's not my job as advisor to advise, what is my job? -- they might not take my advice, but isn't it my duty to give it? In which case, my question is *how* to give it. In that case, I think maybe Crazy's last paragraph is the route I should take. And yeah, I think you're right about scenario #1.

I guess what I'm really asking for here is advice about how to talk about the letter of recommendation honestly in all of these scenarios. Assume that we've done everything else up to that point.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I see better now what you're asking. And with that in mind, what I say is the following:
"We've discussed the realities of pursuing graduate school, and what getting in and succeeding there takes. As I've explained, it's important that you have the best possible letters of recommendation to support your application. I want to be honest with you: based on my knowledge of your work [insert list of things here, such as missed deadlines, poor attention to detail, weak arguments, lack of originality, whatever], I will not be able to write you a very strong letter. A letter i would feel comfortable writing would say [insert sorts of things one would say], and admissions committees will interpret a letter like that in the following way [insert that here]. Is there anyone who can write you a stronger letter?"

Lots of times they are so horrified by having their history thrown in their face they say that there is another person whom they will ask. Sometimes, though, they respond, "No, you're the professor I know best!"

To which I say, "Well, then I will write you a letter, but you should be aware that my letter will likely not do a great job of enhancing your application, and I would encourage you to be thinking about alternate plans should your applications to graduate programs be unsuccessful."

Dr. Virago said...

Crazy, yeah, that's what I'm going to have to get better at saying. I can think of too many times where I didn't have this conversation, and the students who really needed to hear that spent lots of time and money applying to programs and didn't get into any of them. And that's no good, either.

And to Flavia, I think I may use your "smart people do many things" type talk over and over in the future. So thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

One thing I've done occasionally is to talk about what a student wants and how to get it. If they're going because they "love to read" I talk about how graduate school is really about writing criticism and suggest reading lists and reading groups or auditing classes as alternatives. Otherwise, I tend to agree with Dr. Crazy: facts and standards first, then conclusions about the immediate case -- school X will be looking for these qualities in applicants (time management, originality of ideas, thoroughness of research, completeness of reading, number of foreign languages, number of medieval classes taken), and your M.A. thesis showed gaps in some of these areas that I will have to mention. I would also stress to a student that a letter-writer has a double responsibility, one to the applicant and one to the school, and so I will be honest in what I report. That allows me to avoid one kind of confrontation; often I am more willing to write a tepid letter (after warnings) than to act as gate-keeper myself for another department.

Dr. Virago said...

Anon - in all these cases, we're way past the "I love to read" conversations. We're at the "OK, here's my list of schools and my writing sample" point.

You know what I think part of my general problem is? I've given all of this advice and had these talks but done it too subtly. I think I do that thing where I pose advice in a question -- "Could you wait until next year to apply, when you've had time to revise this writing sample?" -- instead of a statement. Students don't hear the implicit, polite form of suggestion in a question. [Wasn't this a discussion on another blog recently -- anyone recall where?] I need to start saying things more directly: "This writing sample isn't strong enough and time is too short to bring it up to speed this year. My advice is to take a year off and work on it in the meantime."

Janice said...

I'm forthright about telling students that I can write a letter about them but it won't be in support of their application. As Dr. Crazy said, that's usually when I don't hear from them again.

I'm not trying to be mean or exclusionary, but when students who's best work hasn't made it out of the B range in my courses expect me to get them into grad school somewhere, I figure that I have to be blunt.

I've had some students thank me for being brutally honest about the job market and getting them to think about viable alternatives (though there are fewer of those these days for generic humanities grads).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm with Dr. Crazy on this one (and I have a couple of M.A. students with Ph.D. ambitions who I'm going to have to have similar talks with myself). I'll probably go the route of telling them the kind of letter I would write: "I can say X & Y [positive things], but I will also have to mention A & B [negative things]. In this case, those negative things are likely to remove you from consideration for the program."

I'm also making a special effort to keep up to date with my own M.A. students, with meetings at the end of every semester to talk about the strengths and weaknesses I've observed over the course of a given semester. That way, they have a chance to improve before it's too late, but if they don't, I don't feel like I've let them go on thinking things were fine, only to yank the rug out from under them at the last minute.

Dr. Virago said...

Notorious -- Yeah, you'd think that copious comments on their papers every semester about what worked and what needed work (at least that's what I do), along with the grades assigned, and so forth would get the message to them, but I think maybe you're right to have those meetings. I think I may adopt that when I go back to teaching. Again, the things I do are too subtle.

But then sometimes there are the students who spring things on *me* at the last minute!

Sisyphus said...

You just gotta woman up and tell them what you just told us. Sorry. It's painful to say and to hear, but students who really have a dream aren't going to hear "no" unless you say "no" --- they are going to wish their dreams into what you said and delude themselves.

I would suggest that you need to practice *how* to say it, not what to say --- write out a little spiel and practice reading it, maybe even have it somewhere in front of you, for moral support if nothing else.

There's also a really tough but useful sigh that you can make, and then just wait them out for a bit before you tell them your bad news. It really ups the seriousness and worry factor, in a good (tho painful) way.

As for what students are going through in apps, have you looked on that who-got-in website or the livejournal community for applying to grad school? Last I looked, which was in spring, students who were getting in were doing multiple years of apps just to get that genre down. The crazy job market competitiveness has trickled down.

Leslie M-B said...

Good questions, and excellent discussion.

I won't address your cases specifically, but more generally: I often run into the situation where students ask for letters because I'm the instructor who has been nicest to them, or whose class they enjoyed the most--but they earned Bs or Cs (or in some cases Ds) in my classes. So I say that I have to reference their grades in my class, and point out that they're maybe not in the top 25%, and that I'm unable to write them a distinguished and distinguishing letter, and I emphasize they need exactly that kind of letter. At that point, some students still want me to write for them--and I write lukewarm letters--or they find another writer.

Dr. Virago said...

Sisyphus - Oh yeah, I know GradCafe. I recommend it to students all the time, just to let them know what a struggle it is. (And yet, some of them still don't get the message. Again, clearly I am not being direct enough.)

But, off topic, your mentioning it to me made me go back a check it out, and I got totally distracted by the thread discussing James Franco's admission to Yale's English PhD program! (Have I ever mentioned that he was in my discussion section when I was a TA, the first time he went to college? Hence my obsessive reading of that thread.)

Anyway, I think you're spot on about the "wishing their dreams" into what I say and about needing to be more direct with them.

Dr. Virago said...

Leslie -- Oh yes, those students! I get those, too. Either I've been nicest to them or else they've just talked to me more than others. I find those easier to deal with, than the kinds of cases I've outlined above because the grades are a little more obvious. It's harder to explain to an A/A- student from our university what they're up against, what extra and extraordinary things their competition may have done on *top* of their similar GPAs and more prestigious institutions.

Clarissa said...

I have to say that I care about my students a lot less than everybody in this thread cares about theirs. I just say "yes, I will write a letter" or "sorry, I can't." You, guys, are such dedicated teachers, it's admirable.

I just wonder, though, if you spend so much time counselling students in such a careful, thought out and caring way, how do you find time for your own research, rest, and hobbies??

Bardiac said...

I think you're right that these students need to hear "no" and not some subtle response. My tendency with these discussions is to close my office door and be as honest and straightforward as I can.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

On the problem of being too subtle, is this the post you were thinking of?

I haven't got anything useful to add to the great things other people have said.

Dr. Virago said...

DEH - Yes! That's it! Thanks!

Clarissa - Well, for four years I was the official advisor for our MA program, so in that case I got a course release. :) And a lot of the general advice (about getting into, going to, and surviving Ph.D. programs, or about the brutality of the job market and whether they should even pursue this, etc.) was given in workshops and in the methods of research class for the first years, which I also used for about 10 minutes each class for advising issues. So that's how I managed the time.

That said, I asked the chair to be replaced as grad director permanently -- not just during sabbatical -- because it *was* sapping my energy.

thefrogprincess said...

Dr. Virago writes, Yeah, you'd think that copious comments on their papers every semester about what worked and what needed work (at least that's what I do), along with the grades assigned, and so forth would get the message to them, but I think maybe you're right to have those meetings.

Of course, I don't know exactly what you're writing on these papers so it could be that you've been quite explicit. But, as a graduate student myself, when I read "these are things to work on," alarm bells did not ring for me. It just meant I need to work on X for the next time. I think it's possible not to be high on oneself or delusional about one's capabilities but still view graduate school as a learning process, especially early on. I read "things to work on" as just that: this is what you do to reach the next level, which is not the same thing as "you're not demonstrating that you're capable of reaching the required standard."

Dr. Virago said...

FrogPrincess -- It depends on the student, their work, and what I know of their goals. What leads me to having to have the kind of conversations above is the student who doesn't let me know they're applying to Ph.D. programs, or applying in my field, until the 11th hour.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a regional university in the South, in the social sciences. I just did this this week, and it was hard. But I also knew it was right.

Student was in an undergrad course year ago and could not write. I had to almost dictate final paper to get it even close to grammatically correct. Wants to apply to our MS program.

I told her that unless she could show me specific ways that she has worked on her writing since year ago, that I ethically could not recommend her to any graduate program at this time. Basic grammar skills were not there, let alone more complicated abilities to synthesis and compare/contrast. I said all those are critical skills for grad school and if she could not show me she had improved, that I would not be able to be a reference for her. That I wished her well, but that my own professional ethical standards required that I tell the truth to the committee and this was what I would tell them and I understood if she then chose not to have me write a letter for her. She withdrew her request to me and actually wrote me a nice note about how someone needed to tell her just how bad her writing was and I was the only person who told her that and she believed me and would work on it.

Sometimes brutal honesty is best.

Doctor Cleveland said...

One of my fellow MFA students and I were both applying to PhD programs during our final year. My classmate thrived in poetry workshop, but struggled badly in the required lit-crit courses. I suspect our faculty had been very clear about this with hir. Yet my classmate applied to more than a dozen dream schools, including every Ivy-League PhD. Ze was clearly shocked and distressed when ze got in nowhere. But when ze had received rejections from all but one of those programs, including a rejection from our own school, ze told me, "There's still a chance. I still haven't heard from Yale." I wish that story weren't true.

People have to accept reality on their own terms; all we can do for them is tell the truth. I feel when I've told an adult student the truth, I've done my share of the conversation; hearing the truth is their job, and I neither can nor should hear it for them.

I believe my colleague needed to be rejected by Yale, and not by our seminar teachers. I think it was better for hir to understand that ze was rejected by those admissions committees rather than rejected by our faculty. So my choice, like those of some other posters, is to be absolutely honest about what my letter will be like, and let them decide if they want a letter like that.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion. I say channel our former advisor Dr. K, who would be clear, firm, but gentle in telling people No. I also say if they haven't given you a month in advance with materials, so too late. I also like the materials need more work and I would advise you work them up for the next year before you apply. And yes, of course you have to be brutally honest in your letter.
-the General

Dr. Virago said...

Anon, Dr. Cleveland, and The General -- thanks for your helpful comments.

S_moores said...

As someone who has some experience with what you're going through, but on the other side (I am now a second year Ph.D. student) I can honestly say that in the cases where students ask you for letters of recommendation to schools they have no chance of getting into, say NO.

In my MA program I asked for my three letters (to several different schools) and all of my letter writers were perfectly honest with me. I wanted to go to Notre Dame (didn't get in sadly, now I don't know what to do with this Notre Dame tattoo, jk I do have a ND tattoo, but for a different reason) and all of my letter writers were honest and said, "You're great and they would be lucky to have you, but there's no way you're getting in." The problem was really with a friend who was going through the same process and he didn't have the grades I did and for some reason they didn't say no to him. They lagged with the letters for a while and finally gave in. What happened though was that this student asked each writer for thirteen letters even though he was only applying to twelve schools. He opened the extra letters from each writer and what he discovered were letters that were less then great and he was devastated and he never applied and is a paralegal now.

Sorry, that was a long narrative, but my point is that the humiliation that student faced was something no student should face. He was aware of his short comings, he wanted to ignore them, but when his advisors didn't tell him that they couldn't, or even shouldn't recommend him, it killed him. Graduate school is not for everyone. Sometimes you have to say no, that you cannot write a letter that will not be glowing. It's hard to say, but the student will respect you for being honest.