How Can Anyone Hope to Be a Successful Grad Student?

Heather Cox Richardson

Dan’s post of earlier this week coincided nicely with a conversation I had recently about what makes a good graduate student. While there is no doubt that the academy is changing very rapidly right now, I would argue that it hasn’t been the “traditional” academy since at least 1980. The changes Dan identified have been underway for decades: the market for PhDs has been appalling, the role of adjuncts has been growing, the nature of college and its students have been changing. It’s just that we’re only now acknowledging these changes.

So how can anyone hope to be a successful graduate student?

A conversation I had last week with another academic might shed some light on that question. This scholar is in cognitive psychology while I am in history, but otherwise our experiences in the academy have been similar. My friend graduated from the same university I did back in the early 1990s (although we met only a decade ago when our daughters became friends). Like me, she had a fairly rocky start in the profession—we were both denied tenure at our first jobs—but worked her way back up to a position at a top-notch university, a more prominent place than the one that denied her tenure at the start of her career.

Our histories are significant because, although we are in very different disciplines, when we got talking about what we thought made a successful graduate student, we agreed completely. It seems likely that our agreement came in part from the fact that the “traditional” academy did not serve us terribly well, so our careers anticipated the crisis to which Dan has recently called our attention.

Neither one of us is much impressed by students who are what we called the “stars.” These are the students with stellar grades who can reel off all the established studies in the field, who usually write beautifully, and are enamored of Becoming Academics. (Most students know these people from how badly they intimidated the rest of the students in introductory courses.)

In our experience, those people rarely have a future in the modern academy for two simple reasons.

First, they are very good at figuring out what’s expected of them in school, and of performing it with excellence. The problem with that sort of successful experience is that such students rarely can think outside the box. They do brilliantly in classes that cover established material, but they cannot come up with big new ideas on their own. They’re rarely very interested in deep research, preferring to cover established studies and engaging in only cursory investigations of primary material. Their class work is impressive; their own scholarship is not.

The second problem with the “stars” is they’re used to being at the top of everything. When they inevitably get sent back to the drawing board over something—and about 90% of what we do involves reworking our material—they simply fold. They have no resources to figure out how to beaver away at a project until they actually succeed. They’ve never had to.

My friend and I agreed that what we look for in students is passion. She told the story of one of her best students of all time, who came to her from a mediocre school where his grades had been up and down. But she took him because he had sought her out at a conference on her fairly rarefied scientific field when he was an undergraduate, and in their discussion, she discovered that he had paid his own way to the conference although it was a hardship for him. He loved the material so much he couldn’t be kept away. She accepted him into her lab, and he became the most productive and innovative scholar she has had. (She later learned the up-and-down grades had come from a family crisis.)

Students with passion can’t be discouraged. They’re in the profession not to Become An Academic, but because they cannot imagine life without studying their chosen field. When you hand back a dissertation prospectus for the fifth time covered with comments and criticism, they dig back in, not to please an advisor but because they really care about getting it right. When they do emerge with a final product, it’s new and exciting, saying something no one has said before. Because they’ve worked so hard on it, it’s also well executed and well written. It moves the field forward.

In the past such students might have been lost. They do not necessarily fit naturally into traditional departments. But now, the changing academy and the opening of the world with the internet means that such students can build a community and find new opportunities outside traditional channels.

Academia seems to be becoming more entrepreneurial than it has been in the past. This certainly poses problems, but it also offers an enormously exciting opportunity to advance scholarship in new ways and to reintegrate scholarship into the world outside the academy.

For the right kind of graduate student, the glass is at least half full.