Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tips for Graduate Students Negotiating with Faculty Members

I have noticed that when a group of graduate students is meeting with a group of faculty members, the students tend to recede into the background, and become an unheard audience at an impromptu faculty meeting. The effect can be avoided only by making sure only one professor is present, who then cannot help but talk to the students.

The phenomenon is reminiscent of the way men often (less often than formerly) ignore women, but it stems from somewhat different sources. Faculty are usually rather older than students; they know each other better than they know the students (who are, on their time scale, "just passing through" the college); they share esoteric information that the students would need, in some conversations, to fully grasp the issues under discussion. And, yes, they may look down on students, although just as often they fear that these young, vigorous people, better informed about recent developments in the field, are about to eat their lunch.

Of course, the main reason students may feel cowed, especially when a possibly life-changing issue is on the table, is the difference in power between the faculty and the students. The student can't help feeling that if the people on the other side of the table wanted to, they could kick them out on the street and make them work for a living. And, under some circumstances, they could and they have. The power difference is not illusory.

However, the students must take some of the responsibility for their reticence. Most graduate students have voluntarily postponed their adulthood by staying in school. There is a striking difference in behavior between the typical grad student and one who has returned to school after years in the real world. The latter type seems more grown up; they know better what they want and how to get it. Whereas those who have spent every year since age 18 in the university have gotten into the habit of deferring to faculty members in all things academic. Foreign students (who for some reason it is now politically correct to call "international") are often at a disadvantage because they don't speak the language used in the college as well as the faculty do. And, although I hate to say it, this is usually their fault. Students who invest little effort in learning the local language because they have so many other pressing demands on their time will end up paying for it with a lot more effort and time later.lang Some of this effort will be spent in negotiating with the professoriate without being able to communicate clearly.

Is it important to be able to negotiate? After all, as an undergraduate you didn't have much to do but get high marks, and you must have gotten pretty good at it. But in graduate school things get more complex, more like real life. There is a smaller group of relevant fellow students, who form coalitions that start to want things from the university. But even laying that aside, finding an advisor is a series of negotiations, and so is working with the person you get stuck with. Picking a dissertation topic is perhaps the most important negotiation; if you blow that one, you may pass many sad years.

There are two key things to keep in mind:
  1. You are an adult. You have the same right as any other fool to be heard in any discussion you take part in.
  2. In almost all cases, students have more power than they think and the faculty less.

Point one I've already alluded to. If you act and talk like a grown-up, people will eventually treat you like one. This may take some patience, and the ability to control your temper. If you make a remark, and it is ignored, you may have to make it again, even interrupt the person who began speaking on some random topic after your last deeply insightful remark. Without being a jerk, go ahead and interrupt. Just copy the way they're treating you. I know this may sound scary, but if you're lucky you'll have at least one other grad student, postdoc, or even visiting scholar as a model. Observe what they do.

The task is made slightly more difficult by the desire of some academics always to be the most flamboyant and outrageous character in the room. Actually, such a person can be found in many human groups, which is okay, in moderation, because they can be entertaining. But they are tiresome to negotiate with. For one thing, they are perfectly willing to stray off the topic at hand in order to make a brilliant observation. When someone does this (for effect, or perhaps because they haven't quite grasped the topic at hand), point out the navigational error and guide them back.

The flamboyant types can also be tricky because they sometimes get belligerent, or pretend to, just for the hell of it. I don't know how to deal with people like that in a dark alley, but in polite society the best way is to become more polite. The thing about academics is, if you back up your position with an argument, they have to take it seriously. The guy in the dark alley might pull a gun on you, but in academia the argument is the gun.machismo

Point two: Students have more power than they realize. For one thing, they will usually have allies among the faculty. If the person or group you are dealing with is being unreasonable, there are usually other faculty nearby who will appreciate your position, or at least be willing to talk you out of it without foaming at the mouth. But if there aren't, then there are people outside your immediate vicinity. There are deans and provosts and associate and assistant deans and provosts, people whose job is to question every decision the faculty make. There are even shadowy figures beyond that circle, including the dreaded Press. The deans and provosts definitely don't want anything ever ever appearing in the Press, and so they will hasten over to the department in a trice if something suspicious seems to be happening. The faculty are perfectly aware of this, and they want the deans and provosts to hear of some complaint as little as the deans and provosts want the press to hear of And that means that whatever subgroup you are negotiating with, even if it's just one person and that person is your advisor, is vividly aware that they can't just decide to screw you. If someone forgets this in a moment of rashness, they end up causing problems for other members of the department, and losing credibility.

On the other hand. You can get screwed, although you have to contribute to your own demise. If you contact the press at the first sign of trouble, or air a blogful of complaints on the first day you arrive at school, you are asking for trouble. The problem is that you are kissing your allies goodbye. Even the Administration people who would usually rush over to help would be glad to see you go, because you have already fired your big guns; they have nothing more to fear from you. (Well, you could sue them, but don't count on getting anything for the vast sum you will spend.)

The surest way to get screwed is to write a bad dissertation for a professor who has left your department. If the advisor were still around, you might have a champion, and might get through. Once he or she is gone, if the faculty decide your work is just too awful, you won't be able to negotiate your way out of it. The moral of that story is to write a good dissertation, or be sure your advisor has tenure and a solid marriage or civil union.

But I digress. One final observation that may be more on point. Among n faculty members there are famously at least n+1 opinions. This works in your favor if you get a bad deal from a subgroup and want to appeal to the entire faculty. Correspondingly, it works against you if you get a good deal from a subgroup. Anyone who has sat on a committee knows that no matter how carefully it crafts an agreement, no matter how many objections are anticipated, it will be rejected or rewritten when brought to the entire faculty. So don't get too excited after your get two friends together and convince some subcommittee that allowing the graduate students to sell coffee and doughnuts in the front lobby would be a great idea. Your work has just begun.

Note lang Some people learn languages better than others, of course. But usually the younger you are the easier new languages come, another ability the faculty may envy in the students.

Note machismo Male faculty may find this a sad commentary on their masculinity; women are fortunately not playing this game.

Note blog And now blogs are adding a whole new dimension. What department wants its name to be part of a URL that also includes "ihate" before the ac or edu bit?

No comments: