I just sent my final email* as my department’s Director of Graduate Studies. If I had the energy, I’d throw a party to celebrate the end of my term, but I don’t think I have it in me. Instead, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what I learned, in hopes that others who want to be an advocate for graduate students (whether in an official position or not) might find some use for what worked and what didn’t over the last three years:
First, being DGS (or faculty member) in an aspirational school is a much different job than in a highly-ranked program. The first thing most of my peers say when we start swapping stories about our experiences as DGS is, “I had no clue who the DGS even was as a graduate student.” That was the case in my own grad program (Arizona). I knew the DGS on my way in (because he taught Proseminar) and on the way out (because she led a job market workshop), but I haven’t the slightest who was DGS in the intervening years. At a school like Arizona , most of the professionalization came from the department culture. We had a weekly brown-bag where we learned what a good (or bad) research talk looked like. We looked to job candidates – from our own department or who were interviewing – to see who was publishing and where, along with where they landed. When it was time to write a syllabus, submit a grant proposal, or apply for jobs, other students were happy to share their materials to show us successful models. Students realized what they needed to do without anyone telling them. In my current “aspirational” department there was a lot of discontent from students who didn’t feel like they knew what it took to be successful. Along with the graduate school, we implemented a number of workshops and seminars to give students in-depth training on writing grant and dissertation proposals, publishing, the job market, productivity, etc. and ensured that the Proseminar covered the nuts and bolts for both programmatic and professional goals in graduate school. Students appreciate the resources and have benefited tremendously. Everyone knows that faculty think the best way is the way they were trained, but it is worth stepping back to consider how we can meet students where they are.
Second, an involved DGS cannot make up for the wrong advisor. Note that I didn’t say “bad” advisor. I believe that like on the dating market, there is someone for nearly everyone. There are very few objectively bad advisors and many more poor advisor-advisee fits. I have seen some students flourish under a hands-off advisor and other students suffocate under an advisor who takes a keen interest in helping them succeed. But over the last three years I have watched some students make terrible choices for advisors. There are many things in graduate school that students can’t control, but their choice of advisor (or a mentor) isn’t one of them and students should 1) make the decision carefully, 2) do what they can to foster a positive relationship, and 3) be willing to get up and walk away from an unhealthy or unproductive relationship. I was heartened to see the benefits students reaped when they found the courage to walk away from some of those bad relationships.
Third, and related to #1 and #2, a DGS – and a department – can’t save people who self-sabotage. I took my work home with me. I felt personally responsible when students weren’t writing, when they weren’t submitting to journals, when they lingered over incompletes or took too long to write an MA thesis, when they hid from their advisors, took the wrong exams or ineffectively studied for them, submitted crappy grant proposals, or didn’t know how to give a job talk. It took me too long to learn that the “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” expression was likely coined with graduate students in mind, but I’m grateful I finally did before it was too late. I work hard to remind students about resources available to them, but realize that they need to be proactive in seeking what they need.
Fourth, there’s something to be said for making people feel at home. Some of the best changes that happened under my regime were truly little things. We changed the beginning of the year gathering from a stuffy luncheon in a dining hall annex to an evening gathering at a faculty member’s house. This spread, and soon colleagues opened their homes up too, hosting holiday parties and end-of-the-year barbecues. I wrote thank you notes for things that students did around the department, especially when it came to recruitment. I met with students one-on-one or in small groups over coffee to talk about how things were going. I had some Notre Dame onesies lying around that I gave to students when they had a baby. None of these things was expected – and I certainly wasn’t great about always doing them – but students took notice when they happened and they signaled something important. I think these were particularly comforting during a time when our university was reducing years of guaranteed funding, a move many graduate students perceived as threatening.
Finally, it is much easier to be in administration if you can do so authentically rather than by trying to be someone you aren’t. I spent too much of my early tenure as DGS trying to be someone that I wasn’t, trying to fit myself into some mold I had of what an administrator is like. It was exhausting. I thought the position wore on me because I wasn’t cut out for the job. Later, when I stopped “performing,” I found all kinds of energy to sustain me. This was most clear to me during a leadership training session earlier this year. As homework, we were required to take the Values in Action (VIA) inventory to discover our key character strengths. For that same session, we were required to write about an interaction that we felt “reflected leadership at its best.” Because these two assignments were bundled with other tasks, I didn’t think about the relationship between them. However, during a morning activity, the leader asked us to read our top 7 character strengths to our small groups and then to read our best leadership narratives to them. It sounds like hyperbole, but it was a life-changing moment. When I read my narrative alongside my seven character strengths, the presence and deployment of these values in that situation – and the profound effect they had on why I thought it was me at my best – hit me like a ton of bricks. I not only realized in that moment that I could be an effective DGS without needing to change my personality – which is good, because that’s a nearly impossible feat – but that I had been most effective when I was being myself.
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* an annual letter for a graduate student that reflected on their progress and performance this past year and laid out next steps to take over the summer and the year ahead to stay on track.