Who’s Responsible for a Ph.D. Student’s Success?

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By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

A few years ago, I strolled into a popular campus coffee shop where I had arranged to meet a doctoral student. At first I thought she was running late, but then I spotted her “official” Ph.D. adviser sitting at a table. “Uh-oh,” I thought. I scanned the crowded atrium and there was the student — hiding in the far corner, peeking out from behind a potted tree.

If that scenario sounds atypical, bear in mind two things:

  • I have a Ph.D. in English, and formerly held a tenured job. But now, at Duke University, I am in academic administration as a “complementary adviser” for a wide swath of doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences. As such, I provide students a confidential, informed space to discuss their academic and professional development.
  • This doctoral student had sought me out to talk about moving into a nonfaculty career after graduation. She did not expect her main faculty adviser to approve of this plan (as it turned out, her professor did support diverse career outcomes).

Students seek me out for advising and coaching, in part because I occupy a space on the margins (quite literally, at times) of the evaluative structures of Ph.D. programs. Robust student interest in the kind of complementary advising I do suggests it’s of value to doctoral students. Yet I often wonder what type of conversation might have ensued that day if the doctoral student and I — rather than quietly leaving the coffee shop to chat outside — had invited the professor to join us at our courtyard bench.

Sure, collaborative graduate advising does happen sometimes. I don’t operate within a bubble at Duke. I’ve talked extensively with professors about doctoral-student advising and mentoring, and they are largely supportive of my role. I have strong support from senior campus leaders.

Yet the institutional structures endemic to all research universities render ongoing, timely communication difficult with faculty members. And in some quarters of the professoriate, there remains a residual degree of skepticism about potentially “outsourcing” Ph.D.-student advising to nonfaculty professionals. I’ve heard professors at Duke and other institutions ask, “Doesn’t complementary mentoring let professors off the hook from fulfilling their advising duties?”

My initial response was somewhat defensive. What assumptions were these faculty members making? Did they subscribe to some outdated model of guru mentoring, that left no room for anyone outside the dissertation committee to advise doctoral students and offer other informed points of view? In fact, the core work of advising students through degree and dissertation requirements will, of course, always be the exclusive province of doctoral-program faculty members. But there’s more to it than that.

In my own role, I’ve shifted away from an “advising” model — which suggests lots of “telling” — to a “coaching” model, informed by the training I recently completed to become credentialed by the International Coaching Federation. I’m not a career coach, nor do I plan to become one. But my work with doctoral students is influenced by coaching. Professional coaches don’t tell people what to do. They help people to solve their own work and life problems, formulate strategies, enhance self-awareness, set goals, and exercise accountability.

Over the past four years, I’ve had a luxury available to few others in higher education. I get to spend most of my time mentoring, advising, and coaching Ph.D. students. In 2019, I created an interdisciplinary group-coaching program, “Ph.D. Transitions,” initially offered to Duke’s doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences. This past fall, in the midst of the pandemic, 43 busy doctoral students in 16 programs attended six additional Zoom hours of small-group meeting time over two months. Of that group, 39 remained actively engaged throughout a chaotic semester. This spring, I am coaching an additional 50 graduate students, including some from STEM fields and professional schools.

Having now coached nearly 200 doctoral students in group settings, I’ve learned much about what graduate students need and how they might be better served by their faculty advisers and Ph.D. programs. And if I hoard this knowledge, perhaps that’s just a different way of letting faculty advisers “off the hook.” I offer the following reflections for all professors, staff members, and Ph.D. students (who often play unrecognized roles as peer mentors).

Enough about career diversity already. That may sound heretical to many graduate-education reformers, and I am not suggesting that academe stop exploring ways to prepare Ph.D. students for multiple career paths. But lately, that topic tends to hijack most conversations about graduate-education reform more broadly. Many of the challenges that doctoral students face are embedded within the structure of Ph.D. programs and exist independently of how job markets operate in any given year. And these evergreen problems (see below) are what students most often raise in our coaching conversations.

No. 1 problem in graduate programs? Communication. Faculty members say the darndest things. Whether it’s, “You don’t write academically enough,” or, “You’re not cut out to be a professor,” a single comment can sometimes lodge in an advisee’s head, sabotaging that student’s budding sense of confidence and spilling into multiple arenas. More often, the issue is what’s not said. Students often need coaching on how to be mentored — how to initiate communication and clearly articulate their needs to advisers. Even the most proactive students, however, won’t thrive if faculty members remain unresponsive to emails for weeks at a stretch, as far too many do.

Immutability breeds impostor syndrome. Doctoral programs fall short in helping students understand different stages of their training. By highlighting the theme of “Ph.D. Transitions,” my program underscores a key imperative of doctoral training: navigating continuous change. Too often, students assume their current challenges (managing all the reading, settling on a dissertation topic) stem from some personal deficiency or lack of talent. What happens, however, if the challenge gets reframed as a change-management issue? A student may find herself flailing after coursework ends, once predictable structures like class meetings and frequent deadlines disappear. Strategies that guaranteed success for years suddenly stop working. Helping students cultivate a deeper awareness of these stages — and the changes in behavior and mind-set they require — can help them regain confidence and a sense of control.

Intradisciplinarity is overstated. In a siloed academic world, it’s easy to assume that the scholarly and professional challenges of Ph.D. students in art history differ greatly from those in, say, musicology or neuroscience. Yet as long as these groups are at a similar phase of graduate training, they tend to share concerns. Two students from different disciplines, but at the same stage of training — like students in their first year of graduate school, for example — may find more common ground than two students in English who are at different stages.

Peer mentoring remains a largely untapped resource. On final evaluations, students often write, “I can’t believe how helpful the other students were,” or, “I thought I was the only one who had this problem.” Students often rate “peer mentorship” about as highly as they do “questions from the coach.” That said, the coaching process enables the kinds of conversations that aren’t organically happening among student cohorts within Ph.D. programs.

Structure is really important. Harnessing the collective wisdom of doctoral students counters the traditional academic-mentoring model, as does the format of our coaching conversations. While conversations must be fluid enough to meet the evolving needs of students, they offer a far more structured encounter than most have with faculty advisers or other cohort members. Academics have a deep affection for the meandering conversation — which doesn’t always serve advisees well. A more-structured model can be found in coaching: Each sequence of coaching sessions is governed by: (1) a contract, identifying expectations and desired outcomes; (2) clear student-driven goals; and (3) by the end of each session, a prompt for students to commit to taking concrete steps that support their larger goals.

By sharing these takeaways from the group-coaching experience at Duke, I hope to highlight areas for which faculty members and Ph.D.-program administrators can exercise additional leadership. Like professionals in other fields, professors stand to benefit from more institutional support and training in skills such as communication, advising, and mentorship. Individual advisers and doctoral programs alike might experiment with different models of interdisciplinary group advising.

Without letting faculty “off the hook,” however, any effective intervention must also seek to empower students in their own professional development. We can no longer provide Ph.D. students everything they need for their professional or academic development.

This trend might seem less alarming in the context of larger currents in organizational history. The late Peter F. Drucker, the influential management theorist, pointed out that modern knowledge workers could no longer expect to remain with their organizations (or even careers) for a lifetime, and, as such, could not look to organizations to manage and advance their careers for them. When we consider the experiences of many new Ph.D.s in 2021 — both those gravitating beyond academe and those inhabiting increasingly tenuous university positions — it’s easy to see how the imperative to “manage oneself” holds currency in graduate training as well.

What would it look like if Ph.D. programs trained students to manage their own professional lives — a process that includes developing resiliency, problem-solving skills, and the ability to understand and adapt to constant change?

This approach can be more time- and energy-intensive for faculty advisers, especially those who commit to move away from a centuries-old apprenticeship model and a guru-advising habit. Yet by empowering students — and by acknowledging the critical role that fellow faculty members, professional staff members, and peer mentors can all play in diverse advising networks — professors are freed from the burdens of one advising model that has outlived its usefulness.

Maria LaMonaca Wisdom is director of interdisciplinary advising and engagement at Duke University. Formerly, she was executive director of a humanities institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an associate professor of English at Columbia College in South Carolina, and a scholar of Victorian literature. She is on Twitter @mlwisdom.

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