Obligations to Grad Students

Since we're discussing some important issues in the profession and how to help graduate students succeed, I'll continue in that vein to ask more generally about what our obligations are to our graduate students while focusing on a specific sort of case that might arise.  Incidentally, I should begin with a caveat: the scenario I'm about to describe, while remotely related to events at my department over the past year, does NOT apply to any specific graduate student with which I've had experience.  (It was probably most inspired by something that happened to me in grad school.)

OK, so here's the case.  Suppose a graduate student on whose committee one participates has been offered a tenure track job prior to finishing her dissertation.  But the job offer comes with a condition: the offer will be rescinded if the student doesn't finish her dissertation by the beginning of the term.  The institution cannot hire someone for this position without a Ph.D.: they cannot even hire the student as an instructor, say, so the job will definitely be lost if the condition isn't met.  Suppose further that the student has rushed the dissertation so as to get it ready in time, and while it is a serviceable first draft, with some interesting ideas, it is not nearly as good as it might be after another few drafts.  The student is promising and is a very good teacher (which will be the main focus of the job, a job the student eagerly wants).  The question, then, is this: should the committee pass the dissertation more or less as is (the deadline to get the job is within a few weeks, so there will be no time for substantive rewrites) or insist that the dissertation be redrafted and improved, which will effectively lose the student the job?  (We may add other details: the student would certainly be able to put together a very good dissertation if given another year; you will not have to lie in a letter about the quality of the dissertation, for no letters are currently needed, the dissertation is not the worst that has been passed in the program over the years, etc.)

The more general question, of course, is what is our foremost obligation to our students at this stage, especially in a financial climate like this?  Is our primary purpose to help students who want them to get jobs, or is it to get them to write the best dissertation they can (where the jobs will presumably follow)?  Obviously, we want, where possible, to do both.  But this (artificial) case is designed to see which end you think is primary.  Thoughts?

19 Replies to “Obligations to Grad Students

  1. My intuition is that such external factors should not play any role whatsoever in the way committees assess theses. There should be some concrete, substantial assessment criteria for theses which determine whether a thesis can be accepted or whether some corrections are required. Ideally (as in the UK) some members of the committee would be external examiners who had no personal relations to the student and had no idea of their job-situation. I guess my idealistic thought is that there is some intrinsic value in theses satisfying some pretty universal standards based on the subject-matter – making an original contribution to the discipline and so on. I would want to believe that such a practice would better serve philosophy in the long run. Otherwise we get something like competitive grade-inflation and worse graduates.
    I do think as supervisors this sort of considerations should be relevant. Supervisors should be able to advice whether to defend the thesis as it is and go for the job (even on the risk of being demanded changes) or whether to stay on working on the thesis.

  2. Dave,
    Good question. One thing I am sure would bother me is if I thought the student was consciously or not relying on my just passing them on in such a situation. Thus it now occurs to me that if I generally favor passing the student on in such a situation, I would want to keep that a bit on the down low.

  3. “the dissertation is not the worst that has been passed in the program over the years”
    To me, this is the decisive factor, not the job. If the dissertation meets the program’s standard for passing then it should be passed, even if the ctte is well aware that the student could have written a better one. Unless there is some consensus in the the department that these past worse dissertations should not have passed, or a decision that the program is raising its standards from now on, then the dissertation should pass, and the job situation has nothing to do with it.
    The situation you describe is past this point of course, but one wonders whether the hypothetical supervisory ctte has already dropped the ball in agreeing to write letters for the student in the first place — should this student have been encouraged to go on the market given that a years more work on the dissertation was advisable.

  4. Jussi and Nicole: I intended for this to be a case in which the student might indeed be thought to have passed some minimal quality threshold, but the question is whether or not this should be sufficient for someone capable of much better. So while the diss may be better than others that have passed in the program, there are nevertheless flaws that could be fixed with a few more months of work, let’s say. I think insofar as there’s an obligation to produce excellent Ph.D.’s, meeting minimal standards may be insufficient if the candidate is capable of much better. Furthermore, it’s unclear if there are minimal quality threshold requirements that are even articulable.
    Here’s a related but more likely scenario to ponder: someone without a Ph.D. will still be hired, but as an instructor. So failure to pass this person will wind up costing her several thousand dollars/year.
    Jussi: At the risk of stating the obvious (or the analytic), I’m not sure how realistic your idealistic intuitions are. Even with such a policy in place, it would be hard to remain unmoved by the students’ plea.
    Nicole: Regarding the letters, you raise an interesting concern worth an independent post: should committee members write letters for students at an early stage of their diss writing? I think a student’s decision when to go on the market is entirely his/her own: there are all sorts of financial and personal considerations that bear on the matter, and I also think that if you’ve agreed to be on a committee you’re obligated to write a letter on his/her behalf. You may simply not be able to write anything detailed or all that positive if you write an early letter, though — it might indeed be better to write no letter at all. For our purposes here, though, suppose the student got few or middling letters and still got the job (perhaps it was her pedigree and teaching excellence that did the trick).
    Dave: This is an important practical consideration. Were it known, though, that the committee members generally were empathetic or soft-hearted or generally inclined to do whatever they could to get their students jobs, it may not matter how down low it was kept. There are definite worries about abuse here worth considering.

  5. I come at this, I suspect, from a different perspective than that of most of the other commenters, as I am at a SLAC – not a research university – and our interests in hiring are not so restricted to someone’s promise as an important philosopher.
    However, setting that difference aside, I appreciate two points made by Clayton Littlejohn:
    1) “it seems that an undergraduate’s ability to get into a good graduate program can depend to some extent on where they received their undergraduate degree. I’m sure we don’t want hiring decisions and decisions on who to interview to depend on some high school kid’s ability to select an undergrad program that is a good launching pad to prestigious philosophy graduate programs.)”
    2) “Let’s say that pedigree is measured by ranking on the Gourmet report. That’s a reflection of the overall strength of a department” He goes on to consdier how prospective grad students will pick programs for special area interests if they believe being ‘Leiteriffic’ is the be all and end all.
    The first point bears real consideration, especially as high school students applying to undergraduate schools rarely are doing so with a career in philosophy in mind. It also bears consideration if we think we would like to open up careers in philosophy to people who did not go to the best high schools or have the best chances at the more ‘elite’ undergraduate schools. The fact that we are not even sure of the educational superiority of the ‘elite’ colleges only exacerbates the problem.
    The second point is also important. With all due respect to Brian Leiter, he has particular interests and particular philosophical views. So do the people to whom he turns for counsel on his rankings. To avoid getting caught in anyone’s cross-hairs, let me draw an analogy to the new effort to rank journals. The rankings I have seen include not one journal in environmental philosophy and, I think, only one in any area of applied ethics. I cannot recall if there were any in aesthetics or philosophy of mathematics or philosophy of education.(In earlier times, there probably would not have been any journals in feminist theory included.) So, suppose students start to think they can only get jobs if they publish in the ranked journals. Is this good for them? Is it good for philosophy?
    Psychologists tell us we are inclined to self-replicate in hiring decisions [all of us; not just academics]. Do we, as academics, really want to do that? There are enough biases/prejudices/pet peeves at work in hiring already. I don’t think aquiescing to the ‘this is the way things are now in U.S. philosophy’is desirable or the best we can do.

  6. Hi, David (if I may) —
    I wonder whether you interpret a putative “obligation to produce excellent Ph.D.’s” as a putative obligation to produce excellent dissertations. Is that what you meant by “Ph.D.”, or did you mean the person actually receiving the degree? (And to whom is it an obligation?)
    Maybe there have been other bits of evidence (including the drafty dissertation itself) that the student is, or is not far from being, excellent (whatever that means), even if the committee is well aware that in its current state, the dissertation itself isn’t. In that case, then if the committee thinks that the dissertation (as is) meets its standards of adequacy, then maybe they could, with clear consciences, pass it while strongly recommending that the student improve it.
    The student probably keenly knows that he/she needs to do that, anyway, especially if they have hopes of cannibalizing it later for publication as journal articles and/or manuscripts.

  7. Vance, you make a great point. I was deliberately ambiguous with the “excellent Ph.D.” line, but you’ve pointed out an attitude it’s hard to avoid (and that many faculty have, I think), one that typically applies throughout the various hurdles of a grad student’s career: some students may be passed along almost independently of their actual written work, depending on what various faculty members think of their overall excellence as philosophers (or perhaps what they think of as their excellent promise as philosophers. So while a prelim or masters hurdle or thesis defense may not be excellent (based on the kind of independent objective standards Jussi seems to have in mind), when combined with consideration of the student’s overall promise, one may pass the student with a clear conscience, as you put it.
    One wonders, then, if this sort of practice is in the ethical clear.

  8. I am but a lowly graduate student in another field, but I have to ask: if the diss. could be better, isn’t it your job as an educator to both expect and demand this of the student? Or is the fact that the student produced something that wasn’t particularly good – although “not the worst” – outweigh professional responsibilities to the field itself?
    (Also, the traditions of academia are such that this wouldn’t be possible, but couldn’t you explain to the student that you expect a better version of her work to end up housed on your shelves, or the institution’s shelves, within a year?)

  9. David,
    I know it would be hard not to be moved by the student’s plea and given that the work satisfies some standards by which other work has been passed, it’s true that one probably would. But, similar situations seem to rise elsewhere too. Many undergraduates would probably get jobs if their work would be passed, many new professors would get tenure if their articles were accepted for publication, and so on. Should we change our assessment on the basis of these considerations in these cases too. If we should in the graduate student case, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t elsewhere. But that seems like a modus tollens to me. I guess I would still want to believe in some sort of state-given vs. object-given reasons distinction here. Taking into account only the object-given ones seems to me what academic integrity consists of – and that seems like an important virtue.

  10. David,
    Seems to me whether you should “endoctor” the grad-student depends, to some extent, on the expectations of the prospective employer. If the only reason they won’t hire the student-sans-PhD is that there’s some broad institutional policy against hiring non-PhDs (but, absent that policy, they would hire the unendoctored — this is getting out of hand — student) then that’s at least a consideration in favor of endoctoring him.
    If, on the other hand, they want him to get a PhD partially in order to prove that he’s up to the standards of the school that’s graduating him, then that’s a consideration in favor of holding him the precisely the same standards you’d hold any grad-student (even if those standards are agent-relative, such that x might not be granted a PhD for some dissertation that’s of lower quality than one for which y received a doctorate).

  11. Pass ’em. The students meets the criteria for a PhD at the institution, they meet the criteria for the job, a TT job they want is on the line, and no there is no guarantee that the student will get a job next year with a better diss.
    The reason not to pass them is that better work can be done by the student. But that is, by hypothesis, irrelevant to whether they qualify for the PhD, to the institution hiring, and to the student. The work will no doubt get fixed up as the student in their new job cannibalizes their diss for publication.
    I suppose I diverge from some commenters here in seeing the director’s obligation to the long-term welfare of his/her student as quite serious.

  12. Just a quick point: Heath, I think you’re right to point out that there is a serious obligation a diss director has to the long-term welfare of his/her student. It’s the kind of relationship that differs significantly from an instructor’s obligation to the welfare of his undergraduate students, say (thus marking a relevant disanalogy to the cases Jussi mentions).

  13. I tend to agree with Nicole (and others) that reaching the minimal level of quality is a decisive factor, but I think the job is something that should figure in to the committee’s assessment of the situation. I think the committee needs to keep in mind two values: the good of the student and the good of the department. I think these two will be largely congruent (though of course there may be exceptions).
    In this case, it seems to me that writing a dissertation that is less than what the student is capable of is not likely to detract much from their success as a teaching philosopher. Further, it benefits the department to place students in tenure-track positions. So, it looks to me that both the student and department do best by granting the doctorate on the basis of the less than stellar (but minimally passable!) dissertation. In a different case, it may turn out that what is best for both the student and department is to continue to work on the dissertation, and I would expect the committee to encourage this course of action in that case.

  14. I guess this then becomes a question of institutional design. Should it really be the case that persons who have strong obligations for the long-term well-being of the student be the ones who evaluate how good the person’s work is? It seems to me like this is the sort of conflict of interests we should try to avoid.

  15. On a related note, William James touched on a similar scenario in “The PhD Octopus,”:
    Some years ago, we had at our Harvard Graduate School a very brilliant student of Philosophy, who, after leaving us and supporting himself by literary labor for three years, received an appointment to teach English Literature at a sister-institution of learning. The governors of this institution, however, had no sooner communicated the appointment than they made the awful discovery that they had enrolled upon their staff a person who was unprovided with the Ph.D. degree. The man in question had been satisfied to work at Philosophy for her own sweet (or bitter) sake, and had disdained to consider that an academic bauble should be his reward.
    His appointment had thus been made under a misunderstanding. He was not the proper man; and there was nothing to do but inform him of the fact. It was notified to him by his new President that his appointment must be revoked, or that a Harvard doctor’s degree must forthwith be procured.
    Although it was already the spring of the year, our Subject, being a man of spirit, took up the challenge, turned his back upon literature (which in view of his approaching duties might have seemed his more urgent concern) and spent the weeks that were left him in writing a metaphysical thesis and grinding his psychology, logic, and history of philosophy up again, so as to pass our formidable ordeals.
    When the thesis came to be read by our committee, we could not pass it. Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear. So, telling him that he was temporarily rejected, we advised him to pad out the thesis properly, and return with it next year, at the same time informing his new President that this signified nothing as to his merits, that he was of ultra-Ph.D. quality, and one of the strongest men with whom we had ever had to deal.
    To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of. We wrote again, pointing out that a Ph.D. in philosophy would prove little anyhow as to one’s ability to teach literature; we sent separate letters in which we outdid each other in eulogy of our candidate’s powers, for indeed they were great; and at last, mirabile dictu, our eloquence prevailed. He was allowed to retain his appointment provisionally, on condition that one year later at the farthest his miserably naked name should be prolonged by the sacred appendage the lack of which had given so much trouble to all concerned.
    It does seem to be a sadly prescient essay.
    (By the way, does anyone know who the philosopher James discussed is? I’ve been curious to know for years.)

  16. I think you’re setting up something of a false conflict, Jussi. Why think the committee’s interest in the student’s long-term good implies an interest in passing unqualified students (which I take it is the sort of thing you’re worried about)? I think it implies exactly the opposite.
    The obligation for the long-term well-being of the student cannot be an obligation to see that student succeed by any means whatever. It must be an obligation to help them succeed using only permissible means, like receiving one’s PhD on the basis of an at least minimally qualified dissertation, and then there is no conflict of interest at all that I can make out.

  17. That’s an amazing anecdote from James, Mike M. I have no idea who that philosopher might be, though.

  18. I think, as Jussi has, in effect, said, this discussion does bring out the merits of the British system where examiner and supervisor are roles always held by distinct people. Supervisors should take an considerable interest in the academic career prospects of their supervisees. Examiners should concern themselves only with the question, Is this work good enough to be awarded this degree?
    The second question should never of course be remotely identified with the question, Could this candidate improve on this thesis if s/he had another year or so to play around with it? By that standard more or less no PhD is ever good enough to pass.
    (Most PhDs take way too long anyway. (Mine certainly did.) Just as my undergrad ethics students are about to sit an exam which will measure what they are capable of producing in a strict two hour time limit, I like the idea that PhDs should be thought of as measuring what students are capable of producing in a strict 3 year time limit. (“Right, that’s time up, please stop writing and put your pens down.”) An ethos that seems to have some footing in the US says, if it could be made better in more time, always take that time. THat’s great if you want half your students to be practically middle-aged before they go on the market for their first proper job. If you don’t it’s surely a badly misplaced form of perfectionism.
    (Let’s face it, after all, it can be said not just of me but of virtually every professional philosopher, that the number of people who have read my published journal articles, while certainly tiny, is positively colossal in comparison to the number of people who have read my PhD thesis, which I’m pretty confident, after c15 years, is still two: the internal examiner and the external exmainer.))

Comments are closed.