Fail Your Graduate Students

As the AHA conference gets closer, it becomes less likely that I’ll receive invitations to interview for the job applications still floating out there.  This isn’t too surprising, but it sure does depress the hell out of me.  It probably shouldn’t.  I think of my neighbor, who returned to school to get a degree in engineering and has been unemployed since graduating…four years ago.  He’s sent out countless applications, and he’s basically gotten used to rejection.  Me: not so much.  And I’d wager the same is true for other ABDs and newly-minted PhDs, most of whom don’t get the real taste of rejection until they go on the market.  Graduate school, in my experience, was a series of affirmations — not always enthusiastic and often loaded with qualifications, but affirmations the same.  Seminars, graduate student conferences, department research grants: success didn’t necessarily come easy, but it usually did arrive.  And certainly at higher percentages than getting interviews on the job market (I’m batting a measly .125 right now!).  And so I wonder if graduate programs ought to give their students more opportunities to fail.  And I mean really fail: getting an “A-” instead of an “A” in seminar is a rebuke, but it’s not devastating. Graduate students need to find themselves in the situation where they must question whether this is the right path for them.  “Am I really cut out for this?” — by which I mean, do you really have the stomach for a life of rejection and failure?  I wonder if this approach would  (a) help prepare PhDs for the frustrations of the job market and (b) help reduce the ridiculous over-supply of PhDs.


2 thoughts on “Fail Your Graduate Students

  1. I dunno man, to be really really honest with you, I think you need to take all of this stuff less personally. You seem particularly prone to thinking that if you get good grades, or papers accepted, or job interviews, etc. etc. it means you’re Good and if you don’t get those things it means you’re Bad. Well, sometimes it means that, but other times it’s just $&#*ing arbitrary.

    It’s not just you. Academia trains us to think this way. But you buy into it to a high degree, at least going by what you right… and when you do that you’re being unfair to yourself, but also to other people around you.

    I mean, think about it: should the people who DID get job interviews be congratulating themselves for being awesomer than you? I don’t think so. Maybe they were, but the stronger explanation is that it’s also a numbers game and not all the awesome people are going to get interviews.

    • You’re absolutely right on both counts: yes, I take rejection way too personally and often see it as a judgement of my character/quality; and yes, jobs/fellowships/articles are very much a numbers game (I think that’s particularly true of jobs, like the ones that elicit 500+ applications). But that’s kind of my point! Graduate students need to learn early and often that rejection/failure is not always a reflection of the quality of one’s work, because it very often is “just $&#*ing arbitrary.” We need to get used to rejection and to learn not to take it so personally, but graduate school doesn’t offer all that many opportunities to fail, either from our own doing or, more often, because of shitty luck. That said, looking back at this (and other) post, it does seem that I’m a little too quick to blame merit instead of luck… thanks for pointing that out.

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