I wish I could quote Marry Poppins

Jan 14, 2014

Duck-Face-BR11011When you do not know what to say, “summon up this word and then you’ve got a lot to say! Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” says Marry Poppins.  I wish I could quote her when I do not know what to say to an MA student who wants to get a Ph.D. but perhaps should not. I think I am not alone. Engaging a student who may be better served by a non-academic career must be difficult for anyone. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that it may be harder for junior faculty.

A new leaf has been turned, graduation is around the corner. Students begin to request letters of recommendation right around this time. True only a handful of MA students are interested in the academic life, but those who are seem determined. Almost having a masters degree under their belt probably contributes to their tenacity. Supporting those with potential is very rewarding.  Engaging others, however, could be stressful.

Imagine the AP directs the student to the facts candidly covered in writings on the Duck and elsewhere. But the student bounces back. While applauding the student’s resilience, the AP questions her/his calibration. Still, the student’s letter of recommendation request awaits a response. What should the AP do? Here are a few observations extracted from conversations with friends and colleagues.

Being cruel to be kind … Honesty may be the best policy, but a veto is a negative judgment on the student’s abilities no matter how kindly it is pitched.  It will upset the student. Students talk among themselves. The word will spread horizontally. It may also spread vertically. The AP is a dream-crusher. Not a good reputation.

Being busy… Playing the busy card also seems suspect. Perpetually failing to respond to the student’s emails or carve out a time to meet will eventually be interpreted as lack of commitment to students and possibly to the department. The AP is apathetic.

Being vague…  A polite unequivocal no is at least graceful. Promising to get back to the student but not following through, telling the student to ask later or otherwise leaving the student in limbo only prolongs the student’s anxiety. And ambiguity is unfair if the final answer is going to be no. The AP is not student-friendly. Also not good.

Let’s look at a few alternatives.

Let others speak… The AP could to consult with senior colleagues, raise her/his concerns, and ask for guidance. Colleagues will provide words of wisdom. They will also enlighten the AP about what is appropriate in the department’s academic culture. Some might even offer to meet with the student. The AP is humble. A good reputation.

Let the data speak…The AP could construct a rating scheme and provide an estimate of how the student will be ranked relative to others in the comparison sample. If categorized as average, the student will most likely withdraw her/his request. Systematization also reduces the likelihood of partiality. The AP is analytical.

Let psychology speak…This is my personal favorite. The AP could help the student to reevaluate the Ph.D. option by addressing a few decision-making pathologies such as wishful thinking, risk denial, and overconfidence. For instance, the facts about academia may not be terribly depressing to the student because statistics and risk are construed subjectively. It is the “but, this won’t be me” effect that smokers fall when they think they are less  likely than non-smokers to develop smoking-related conditions. The AP could share stories of actual people to alleviate risk denial or optimism bias. Experiential learning will also contribute to better self-awareness. The AP could encourage the student to transform a class paper into a rigorous research paper that produces new knowledge and supply honest feedback. The AP is empathetic. Also good.

I may be over-thinking this, but I believe I am not the only person who wants to quote Marry Poppins. There are too many moving parts… professional standards, personal principles, regard for the student, structural constraints etc. And, of course, the AP could also be wrong. This seems like  a tough one.




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Bayram is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and a former research fellow at the Center for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany (in residence Summer 2016&18). She received her PhD from The Ohio State University in 2011 with specializations in International Relations, Political Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Survey Research.