Are We Setting the Career-Advice Bar Too High for Graduate Advisers?

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By James Grossman

There was a time in academe when every doctoral student had a doktorvater — a synonym for dissertation director, translating roughly as "professor-father." The doktorvater’s role was clearly defined, intellectually magisterial, and blatantly hierarchical. He (because at that time, it was almost always a he) might assign a dissertation topic outright or provide access to an archive via a note of introduction to its gatekeeper.

Pathways to career success in academe back then were generally narrow, sharply defined, and marked by footsteps to be followed. At the end, the successful initiate was appropriately placed in a teaching job, often through the doktorvater’s personal or institutional connections.

That last stage went by the wayside nearly two generations ago, a casualty of long-overdue changes in hiring rules, guidelines, mores, and procedures. Pieces of the rest survived, however, including the term "placement" and the narrow definition of career success.

By the time I entered a Ph.D. program in history in the mid-1970s, doktorvater was seldom heard — except from: (a) senior scholars of a certain intellectual tradition, (b) a few students who wanted to be part of a disappearing world, and (c) people making less-than-complimentary jokes. Yet less than an hour into my first graduate seminar, the instructor informed the half dozen of us that our goal should be to replace him. Another senior professor blithely asked students querying about assistantships, "Who is your patron?"

Those archaic norms and practices had staying power even as the old system withered away. Doctoral programs today still use words like "training," "production" (even worse, "overproduction"), and "placement." Patronage systems remain evident, along with an academic ethos that generates among many students a sense of intellectual and institutional dependence on their dissertation adviser. The doktorvater has slipped into retirement, but his children and grandchildren seem to have difficulty abandoning terminology that signals his (and now, her) continuing presence, even if in the shadows.

As executive director of the American Historical Association, I’ve been thinking about the implications of those norms for Ph.D. advising because of the AHA’s continuing efforts to broaden the career horizons of doctoral students. Graduate advisers who have spent their professional lives in academe have — with good reason — worried that they cannot responsibly offer advice on nonfaculty careers in which they have no expertise. Meanwhile, history students have shared with us the difficulties of even approaching their professors to discuss the pathways toward nonacademic work.

Mutual discomfort discourages open conversation, as neither party wants to broach the topic.

Solutions here are not straightforward. The current conversation on graduate-education reform — an expansive terrain that stretches through the sound bites of Twitter, the maze of advice blogs, "quit lit," pages of higher-education journals, conferences, and books — leaves no shortage of advice for both graduate advisers and their students. To some extent, the striking evolution in this debate (and even in some guidelines from university graduate divisions) is a shift toward defining the adviser as a "mentor" — a broadly framed role that is perhaps characterized as a trusted older person who provides support, proactive guidance, and the wisdom of experience over a period of time.

Unlike the doktorvater — or even the more modern and modestly construed "dissertation adviser" — the mentor does not necessarily occupy a singular role in a Ph.D.’s career. Over four decades, I’ve probably had five mentors, which is not an unusual number. These women and men taught me things I needed to know at different stages of my career, and all of them were generous, patient, and wise.

But not wise about the same things. And I am realizing that might be one problem with some of the current discourse about "mentorship."

Much of what I read about what is expected of a graduate "mentor" might be setting the bar too high. I say this with some trepidation — aware of the danger of a bar set too low considering how many doctoral students head off to the archives without conversations about archival practices and procedures, networking with other researchers, or even the nuts and bolts of research on the road. All advisers can, and should, inform students about these and other aspects of working on a dissertation.

I’m less certain that all research faculty members can offer good advice on career paths beyond the professoriate or even on the vastly differing academic settings, other than a research university, in which new Ph.D.s might eventually find themselves. Can professors advise their students on mental health, grad-school finances, peer cultures, family issues that can arise from research travel, social media, technology, and aspects of identity outside the adviser’s experience? If experience is a central aspect of mentoring, how can a mentor feel comfortable when conversation stretches not only beyond scholarly experience but into an "outside world" that many academics find perplexing, at best?

So what can the dissertation adviser do when students ask about such concerns?

First, establish that they are important and legitimate. And then make clear that, for many aspects of career preparation, students can and should go elsewhere for advice. Ph.D.-granting institutions have resources for nearly everything.

Scholarly societies can fill in some of the gaps here. The AHA, for instance, offers a Career Contacts program, a career fair at our annual meeting, and other networking resources.

In some cases, the adviser will know where these resources might be. In other cases, someone else will know, and the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative is funding experiments in how departments can help with this navigation without piling still more obligations onto faculty members whose customary workweek already exceeds societal norms.

For now, the most important thing professors can do is reassure their advisees on this front. Make clear to them: It is legitimate, reasonable, and wise for doctoral students to explore a wide range of careers and, in doing so, to seek out a wide range of resources beyond the home department or even the university.

Narrowing the expectations of mentorship, therefore, with an emphasis on multiple sources of advice and support, can both enable more effective mentoring and enhance a student’s sense of agency. Well-mentored students learn the mysteries, methods, and pathways of the discipline. They earn degrees. And they navigate job markets. Let us begin finally letting go of references to students being "trained," Ph.D.s being "produced," and proteges being "placed."

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. A version of this essay was first published in the association’s newsletter, Perspectives. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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