>Before I get to the advice request, on a somewhat related topic I just want to say that Greg Semenza, who is a very cool guy, sent me a signed copy of the second edition of A Guide to Graduate Study in the 21st Century. And he quoted and cited this blog in the introduction as well as thanking me in the acknowledgments. (He quoted this post, which I really should put on a “Best of Virago” list in the sidebar or something. He quoted a farming metaphor that apparently I made in that post, but which seemed so hilariously out of character for me, a city/suburban girl, that I had to go back and see if I actually wrote it or if one of the commenters did. It seems I did!) So you must now all buy his book for *your* graduate students, because he is clearly a genius with good taste. And also because I said so. 🙂
Anyway, the advice I need is related to talking to students about grad school. Greg’s book is *awesome* for students already in or accepted to Ph.D. programs, or, slightly adapted, for students in MA programs (which is how I use it). But it doesn’t deal with the whole process *before* — the making yourself competitive for grad programs, choosing them, applying to the, etc. (Let’s skip, for the moment, whether anyone should be applying to Ph.D. programs in the humanities at all. I know how to have that talk.)
But here’s what I don’t know how to do. I don’t know how to tell a student “There’s no way you’re going to get into ______.” Or “I really can’t recommend you to ____ program.” Or, worst of all, “I really can’t recommend you for Ph.D. programs.” Many of our students, the BAs and the MAs, are often really naive about the competition out there and about the selectiveness of even the state school Ph.D. programs. The best of them, who have all the same natural gifts as the students who will get into the most competitive programs, have never had to compete for admission to anything (we’re an open admission school at the undergrad level, and though our MA program is slightly selective–we do turn down some people–it’s not terribly difficult to get into). And they don’t have a lot of friends (or any others) who are also applying to graduate programs, so they grossly underestimate the numbers of people doing so. They’ve been big fish in little ponds all their lives and haven’t really been pushed, either by their professors or their cohort. (We try, but really, you need a critical mass of ambitious peers to really show you what you can accomplish. And once you’re at the top of a group, it’s hard to see that there are higher things to aim for.) But they can’t possibly see this from their vantage point. And we can tell them, but they don’t always get the message. (There are obviously exceptions. But if they were all like the exceptions, I wouldn’t be writing this post.) We even have a few faculty members who share the naivety (for various different reasons), and they are often wowed by these students and encourage them to apply to schools they’re never going to get into (and only those schools), so we have to work against bad advice they’ve been given.
For example, about a year or so ago, a former student, whose work in our MA program fell about in the average range for our students, wrote to me to tell me she was going to apply to a particular Ivy League school for the Ph.D. And just that school. But she was going to visit it first to make sure it was right for her. *Headdesk* So I wrote back and gave her the statistics for the previous year’s admissions (because I happen to know people at said Ivy and they could give me the cold, hard facts). To my utter shock, this did not deter her! Her response was something along the lines of “Oh, I know it’s competitive, but I think I’ve got what it takes!” *double headdesk* And others to whom I give the bad news talk think I’m just trying to keep them down, that I’m holding them back. (What would motivate me to do that is beyond me — our students’ success is our success.)
For many, I can say a nicer version of “Fine, don’t believe me. Go ahead and try.” And sometimes I get them to add less glorious programs to their list (or simply more programs), and they *do* get in and go on to good things. (I basically suggest they apply to one or two “dream” schools — it’s good to dream! — but then to a range of other, more realistic schools. Then I have to help them figure out what those are, because they have no idea.) So sometimes I can work with them and get them to where they want to be, which is in a Ph.D. program on the way to being a college professor. Ooh, and one of the first RBU students I wrote a letter for is now a tenure-track assistant professor! Hooray! So I’m not saying our students should just give it up. I’m saying they need to be more realistic. I’m *pretty* good at getting them to that point (Ms. Ivy League being the weird exception).
But where it gets tricky (and this is really where I need the advice) is with the ones who want me to write letters of recommendation. I don’t think students realize we have professional reputations, that we know people at these schools they’re applying to, and that our word won’t mean anything (for them or for other students) if we write glowing letters for students whose work just doesn’t stack up. And writing a truthful, damning letter seems passive-aggressively cruel; I think it would also make me look like an asshole to the people reading it. So the only alternative is to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.” But I am such a wuss when it comes to such confrontations, especially when I like the student personally and have been working with them for some time, which is often the case (and this is really where I need your help). I make the lamest excuses just to avoid saying, “I really can’t recommend you.” For example, once I told a student that since the paper she’d written for me in class was a critical history and not an original argument, my recommendation wouldn’t be worth much (which may be true but wasn’t the real reason I was turning her down). Help me “woman up” and deliver the bad news. How would you do it?
Let’s put this into a few more specific (but totally fictional) situations. How would you deal with each of them? Updated to add: How would you deal specifically with being asked to write a letter of recommendation in each of these cases? That’s the key issue for me. Assume that we’ve already had all the “should you go to graduate school?”/”what’s graduate school like?”/”what’s on the other side of the Ph.D.?” type talks.
1) An MA student has mostly A- and B+ grades in hir chosen area of specialization and doesn’t realize those are damning grades for an MA student applying to Ph.D. programs, and wants you to write a letter of recommendation. You gave hir an A, but in a less relevant class where earning an A might have been easier (say, a methods class or an undergrad/grad survey). [Hm, in this case, I might just go ahead and write the letter, describing the level and expectations of the class as well as hir work in it. And now that I’m not Grad Director, I might not look stupidly naive myself for recommending hir. What do you think?]
2) A student (BA or MA) is applying exclusively either to unrealistically competitive schools or to schools that rejected hir in the first round the last time ze applied and won’t add less selective schools to hir list or drop the ones that didn’t accept hir the first time.
3) Your department has a 0.000 batting average with getting any of your students, BA or MA, into the nationally ranked flagship school program up the road, and you know everyone in the department in your field (and in a number of other fields), and the student asking you for the letter is not even close to best of the students they’ve turned down.
4) The student asking you for a letter has barely survived hir Honors thesis or MA experience, kicking, screaming, procrastinating, and delaying all the way, and hir work isn’t that outstanding. You know a Ph.D. program isn’t right for hir *personally* as well as professionally. How do you convince hir of that when ze’s got the classic combination of unrealistic goals and terrible working habits?