Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.
Having been out of graduate school for several years now, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the advice we received in graduate school often did not match our reality or our preferences. I’ve written about the “publish or perish” emphasis and the lack of emphasis on teaching in most graduate programs. There are other manifestations of this lopsided emphasis on research.
Recently, I was reminded of the lopsidedness, when I volunteered to do a “Critique Me!” session at the winter meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) this year. At this session, faculty from all kinds of institutions and backgrounds volunteer to offer advice to current graduate students regarding the job market. They specifically offer advice on each person’s CV, personal statement and whatever other materials they may have brought with them. The organizer of the session very accurately described the format as similar to “speed dating”. The “experts” sat at different tables and every twenty minutes students moved around from one table to another. We briefly explained our background/expertise (such as working at a small liberal arts college, part of an academic couple) so that students could identify who matched their interests the most. More organizations need to do sessions like these, and in a moment you’ll see why.
Even though I had volunteered to serve as an “expert”, I was unsure. How much advice could I have to offer? I’m only in my fourth-year as a tenure-track faculty after all. I thought so many things I have to say would be . . . obvious. Turns out, I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a graduate student at a research university. My most interesting exchange was with a graduate student who sat down at my table and started her introduction with something along the lines of “I know you’re at a small liberal arts college, and I don’t want to teach at one, but I still wanted to talk to you . . .” She went on to tell me how much she absolutely loves teaching (which is the reason she decided to get a PhD) but also wants to do research, so the only option for her would be an R1 institution.
Whoa. Here was a passionate and enthusiastic student, one who considers teaching to be close to her heart and she will only consider an R1? What made her think that an R1 was her only option? Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course there are amazing teachers at R1s (I had some of them!), but they don’t normally go there because they love to teach and feel like it is their calling in life. So I asked her: If you love teaching so much, how come you don’t want to consider a small college? Turns out that somewhere along the way, she had picked up the idea that small liberal arts colleges, for instance, just make you teach and teach and never leave any time for research. Not only that, she was led to believe that research isn’t rewarded or expected at small liberal arts colleges.
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Why have I been working so hard at my scholarship then?
Once I cleared up these misconceptions and told her about what life is like at a small liberal arts college like mine, she seemed thrilled. Maybe even relieved. She then told me how a liberal arts option is never really discussed and how people treat her love of teaching as a naïve preoccupation, one that she’ll outgrow once she’s in the real world.
The devaluing of a small liberal arts career is connected to the devaluing of teaching, of course, but it’s also connected to the exaltation of research institutions over any other kind of institution. Why are we trained in graduate school to think of R1s as our top choice? Why do we want our “brightest” students to land at R1s? Having been to a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree, then to an R1 for my graduate degree, and now back to a small liberal arts college as faculty, I can tell you that I wouldn’t trade my experience at a liberal arts college for anything, not even for an R1 job.
This is not a denigration of R1 institutions by any means. It is simply a plea to graduate programs to acknowledge that not every one of their students will be happy in a large research institution. If we want graduate students to succeed (that is, be happy in their choices and careers), we need to consider their interests, passions and strengths and advise them accordingly. But before we can do that, we have to let go of the idea of the research university as the best job in academia.
* I realize that Carnegie has officially dropped this classification. But I use this term in this post, because 1) it is still commonly used, and 2) because it does symbolize the high ranking we give to research universities.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.