education issues

Hazards of Graduate School Success

Today I want to pass on some personal insight and advice for students who will be entering graduate school in the future, or who are already there.

This isn’t advice on how to succeed in graduate school. You can ignore this advice and still develop a successful career. But if you take it to heart and keep it in mind in the future, it could have tremendously beneficial consequences for the kinds of relationships you have with peers and colleagues.

I was fortunate to receive the same advice when I was in graduate school, many years ago. It came as a rather cryptic comment from my masters supervisor. At first I did not fully understand what he was trying to convey, but it became clear as time went by. I’ve thought about his words many times over the past 30 years, as I’ve witnessed the relevance of his advice playing out time after time.

Before I tell you what he said, a bit of context is necessary…  It was a few days before I would be moving to a different city and university to pursue a PhD in a different laboratory, and of course that meant with a different supervisor. I had enjoyed my time as a masters student and got along very well with my supervisor. He knew my main reason for moving was because I was interested in a different area of research than what I had been doing for my masters thesis. Moreover, instead of being the only graduate student in a small lab, like I had been during my masters, I would now be part of a larger research group, with several other graduate students working and training together under the supervision of a well-funded and somewhat well-known principal investigator (of course, this person would be my supervisor for the PhD). Within the same facility there were also a few other high-powered labs headed by prominent researchers. Frankly, my new destination was a more exciting research environment than the setting for my masters degree. My long-term goal was a career in research, so my masters supervisor knew the move would probably be good for me.

Coincidentally, my masters supervisor had recently visited the place and met my soon-to-be PhD supervisor. I think this encounter may have compelled him to give me the following advice. I’ll explain why later, after I tell you what he said.

We were having lunch together. Following a lull in our conversation, during which he gazed into the distance, looking especially thoughtful – he turned to me and said:

“Dave, don’t become an asshole.”

That’s all he said. Then he gazed ahead again, silent…

Now, he didn’t say, “don’t be an asshole”, which would have implied that he thought I was already one. That would have been devastating. He was clearly trying to convey a deeper message.

I must have looked puzzled, so he went on to say something about there being a lot of successful researchers who are assholes. He tried to clarify with some examples of professors in our department who were widely renowned for their research and whom he did not think were assholes. (You see, he was a classy guy, so he didn’t name anyone he thought was an asshole; but there was no doubt he could name a few if he had to). The professors he identified as good regular folks had been among his colleagues for many years, so he had come to know them fairly well. Of course, he had also learned which of his colleagues were despicable in one way or another, but he was respectful enough to avoid identifying them while making his point. It wasn’t necessary. And he wasn’t an asshole.

I don’t recall exactly how the conversation ended, but I know I didn’t ask him at any point just why he was telling me this. I was in my mid-twenties, so it was not news to me that some people are wonderful, while others are more or less contemptible. The real puzzle was just why he felt the need to bring it up. I assumed it had something to do with my upcoming move. But I didn’t understand how, exactly.

With time comes clarity

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but I never totally forgot about the weird advice: Don’t become an asshole. What was my previous graduate supervisor really trying to tell me? At some point – it was probably a couple of years into my PhD – it all started to make sense.

I recalled that my previous supervisor had met my current supervisor not long before our lunchtime conversation. These two men had very different personalities. Luckily for me, both were very supportive and dedicated to their students, and both of them positively influenced my development as an academic researcher and scholar. But they were altogether different characters.

My masters supervisor did not have a big-name reputation for his research, but he was an excellent scientist and a productive researcher. He was highly respected and well liked by people who knew him. He was friendly, but a serious and somewhat quiet man, free from vanity and pretentiousness. My PhD supervisor, on the other hand, was a jovial man with a tendency to be braggadocious, and the latter trait definitely annoyed some people. I personally got used to it, as I saw past that shortcoming and noticed his many good qualities. I liked him anyway, but other people would sort of roll their eyes when his name came up. He wanted very much to be respected and admired by his peers and colleagues, and he had many accomplishments to be proud of, but his ceaseless boasting about them was what most people would notice and remember about him. It wasn’t a good impression.

So, was this where my masters supervisor’s strange advice had come from. Had he been warning me not to turn into the type of a-hole he believed my PhD supervisor typified? I can’t say for sure, but I decided a long time ago that this is probably what was going through his mind. Whatever the truth may be, this assumption has helped me to notice certain prevalent features of a typical graduate school environment can negatively influence a person’s character and demeanour.

Hazards of success?

The way we interact with other people largely determines whether they will have a positive impression of us, a negative one, or a neutral one. We tend to like people who treat us fairly and with mutual respect. A few other traits help, too, like friendliness and benevolence, for example.

But all of us know people who we do not consider likeable or admirable – such as, people who treat others unfairly or disrespectfully. We do not like those who demean us, who are arrogant or haughty. By most people’s standards, those who frequently and persistently display these traits are contemptible assholes. We perceive it as being part of their character.

Contemptible individuals can be found in all sectors of society, so should we expect the academic research world to be any different? I don’t think so. But the issue isn’t that people like this can be found in the halls of academia. The real point I want to make – and maybe this is what my masters supervisor was thinking – is that success in an academic research environment can change some people, and when this occurs, the change is often for the worse.

Success brings confidence, but in some people, confidence turns into arrogance.

One thing that frustrates us about people who think too highly of themselves is their relative disrespect for others who they consider inferior (which is most of us). We hate their obvious disdain for our averageness, especially because we know they are really no better than us, and their personal successes are usually at least as much due to circumstances as to intrinsic individual greatness. Even when we recognize that someone really does possess great ability within some domain, we all know this is just a part of who they really are. Discovering that this person is also pompous ass tends to eliminate any respect we might have had for them based on their accomplishments.

I suspect that most readers perceive, like I do, that there is a correlation between how much fame and success people achieve and how self-important and condescending they tend to behave. Of course, it’s not a perfect correlation, and many good men and women retain their best virtues despite an ascent to fame and recognition. Not everyone becomes an asshole, and no one changes that way on purpose. And yes, some are assholes long before they achieve success and notoriety. But there are also some who only become so after operating in an enabling environment or context for a while. I believe graduate school can be like this for many students, especially at the doctoral level. I’ve seen evidence of it many times.

Don’t let success go to your head

One typical pattern involves early-career notoriety, resulting from some important finding that comes out of their graduate or postdoctoral research and which generated a notable buzz within the community of researchers who study the same subject. For at least a short time, their work becomes widely known and followed by others. They might speak at important conferences, participate in symposia, or receive invitations to give lectures at universities or research institutes. They may become known, at least within their field of expertise, as a ‘rising star’. All the attention is very rewarding (for most people), and therefore readily accepted. Most people who experience this type of early-career notoriety will want to keep it going, but doing so can become the main motivational driving force for the remainder of many people’s academic or professional careers.

Inevitably, most of the so-called rising stars (albeit not all of them) begin to believe their own hype. I’ve seen this pattern of events play out numerous times with bright young men and women during my long career. It also describes how the early stages of my own research career unfolded. So you could say, I’ve been there and done that.

Having confidence because of your previous achievements is good, but letting the attention generated by those achievements go to your head is not.

I’ve tried to follow my masters supervisor’ sage advice throughout my career. I’m not the one to say how well I’ve done at it, but I can honestly say that I’ve tried. But today the advice isn’t for me. It’s for you, dear reader.

In the long run, most people will ignore your professional achievements and base opinions of you on your personal demeanour and character. I hope you have success in graduate school and accomplish your career objectives. Along the way, remember where you came from, and don’t let praise and achievements spoil your character.

——-

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Thinking of Moving From the U.S. to Canada for Graduate School? This is What You Need to Know

Posted on February 14, 2017.  Canada has always been a good place to pursue a university education. Not only a baccalaureate, but also for graduate studies at the master’s or doctoral level. Now, more than ever, students across the U.S. are thinking about it, talking about it, and there will no doubt be a surge in the number actually doing it over the next few years.

Canada is home to around 100 universities, and while some are primarily undergraduate universities that offer only a few graduate programs, there are several dozen more comprehensive universities that offer a wide range of doctoral and professional degree programs.

If you are an American student who is trying to decide whether going to grad school in Canada is a good idea, there are some key things you need to know. Here are some of them:

1. You will not have to make compromises in the quality of your graduate education by choosing a Canadian university over one in the U.S. There are no significant differences between Canadian and American universities in the range of graduate programs available, and no differences in quality of education and training. This is so important to understand that I will repeat it: There are no significant differences between the U.S. and Canada in terms of the quality of graduate training available. This is true for all STEM disciplines and social sciences.

2. Graduate schools in Canada are also equivalent to American schools in terms of preparing people for gainful employment and successful careers – including opportunities in Canada, back in the U.S., or in countries abroad. This reality arises from the previous point – the quality standards of training at the master’s or doctoral levels are the same in the U.S. and Canada. Program accreditation is governed by different organizations in the two countries, but they apply similar criteria.

3. Graduate schools in Canada and the U.S. evaluate applicants to their programs the same way, using the same criteria, and with similar standards. This means that the keys to applying successfully to the right programs are also the same. Aside from having to arrange for a student visa to study in Canada, the rest of the application process is the same as for universities in the U.S.

4. Applicants to programs in either Canada or the U.S. must do the same things to prepare, and to apply successfully. Luckily, if you are reading this, you have arrived at the best place to get comprehensive, insightful, and actionable advice on how to manage all aspects of your preparation for and application to graduate school. This is what I aim to provide through this blog, and I encourage you to browse the archives of my previous posts. You will find numerous articles on topics related to letters of recommendation, the personal statement, myths and misconceptions about the role of grades and GPA, writing cover letters, choosing schools and programs, communicating with potential graduate supervisors, and more.

5. Tuition fees are generally lower in Canada than in the U.S., but as a foreign student, an American studying in Canada will have probably have to pay international tuition fees. Overall, this may bring the direct costs in U.S. dollar terms into line with what those costs would be for most in-state students at universities of similar size in the U.S. International fee remissions are available to a limited number of foreign applicants to most Canadian universities, but there is a lot of variation across schools and programs in this respect. Talk to prospective supervisors or program directors about this — don’t just rely on what you can find on the university websites.

6. You don’t need to speak French! Not even in primarily French-speaking Quebec. While there are a handful of French-language universities in the province of Quebec, there are also large English-language universities, including McGill and Concordia, and the much smaller Bishops University. Outside of Quebec, the remaining nine Canadian provinces host major universities that are all English.

7. To most Americans, Canada is only a foreign country in the technical sense. A long border separates us geographically, and we have different governments, but living in a Canadian city is just like living in a city in the U.S. – but with significantly less crime, fewer deeply impoverished and homeless people, and overall better treatment of minority groups and vulnerable members of society.

8. You will be feel welcome in Canada, no matter your country of birth or citizenship, your religion, or your political views. If one reason you’re thinking of grad school in Canada is because you would like to get some distance from the new political landscape and brewing turmoil in United States, your reasoning is sound. Canada is safe, Canada is free, and Canada is stable. Canada is also rich in cultural and geographical diversity. These qualities are part of our national identity, and they are ever present on our university campuses.

How to find the right Canadian graduate programs

Let’s suppose you’re serious about moving to Canada for graduate school. Now that you know it wouldn’t require any compromises in the quality of education and training, you can move directly to the serious business of figuring out which schools and programs to apply to. What’s the best approach?

It’s easy to find out what you need to know about any graduate or professional programs, its faculty members and their research interests, the city in which you would live. But there are many Canadian cities with one or more universities to choose from. All the choices can be a bit overwhelming.

The location of the university may be an important factor and one that can be used to help you narrow down your search. You need to be willing to live in a particular city or town for the next several years. It’s easy enough to learn all there is to know about a place through diligent Internet research. As you learn about different places, remove from your list of potential programs any that are in undesirable locations.

Being in a comfortable and supportive environment is essential for success in graduate school. Interpersonal compatibility with your graduate supervisor is also important. Few things are more miserable than working with someone you dislike, so you want to have some idea of whether you will get along with your potential supervisor, and you want to figure this out before you apply to any program. This is one reason you should directly contact potential supervisors at least a few weeks before the application deadline. There are other important reasons to have this pre-application communication with potential supervisors, but those are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Finding the right program and a compatible graduate supervisor can be a daunting task, but if you do your research, and contact potential supervisors before you apply, you can avoid wasting a lot of time and money on unsuccessful applications, or on successful applications to the wrong places.

Sorry… can I help?

As you may have guessed by now, I am a Canadian. I am familiar with many of our universities, and I have lived in a few different cities and in different regions of the country. I can answer any question about what to expect if you come to Canada for graduate studies.

Plus, regardless of whether you’re applying to schools in Canada or the U.S., I have the insider’s advice that will help you get in. As a psychology professor for the past 23 years, I have supervised numerous graduate students, served on graduate-admissions and scholarship-ranking committees, and advised countless undergraduate students on educational and career planning. Aside from my research expertise in behavioral neuroscience, my main specialization is helping students understand what they need to know — and what they need to do — in order to prepare for graduate school, to put together a winning application to the right programs, and to succeed in grad school once there. I wrote a book on the topic, which has been published in two editions (1997 and 2012), and I have given guest lectures on the topic at several universities across Canada. For individuals, I offer 30 – 60 minute personalized consultation sessions by phone or Skype. Give me a chance to help, and you won’t be disappointed. For more information on this service, visit my Frequently Asked Questions.

How Joining a Students Association Can Help You Get the Most Out of Your Bachelor’s Degree (Part 2)

My last post appraised some of the benefits that come from being in a students association. It included the perspective of someone who has actually been there, done that — Samantha Briand has been president of her undergraduate psychology students association for the past two years. She shared with us some reasons why she was willing to devote hundreds of hours to volunteer for the benefit of complete strangers, and she described a few benefits that have come out of her experience, including pride in knowing that her personal sacrifices made a positive contribution to the student experience for so many people. She ended with a challenge to others to get involved with their students association, because the gains in terms of personal growth and satisfaction that come from the experience justify the costs in terms of time and effort.

I believe her. I believe most people would feel positively about the experience. It’s one of those things you may find it hard to imagine doing, which is why most people never do. But once you take that first step and things start rolling, you are so glad you took a chance and stepped outside your comfort zone.

Still, I know that very few people who read this, or who read Samantha’s message in my previous post, will consider for more than a few moments getting involved with their students association. Only a handful of the 5000-6000 people who will view this post over the next week or so, will ever be involved in their students association. That handful will reap the benefits Samantha mentioned, and the rest of them will miss out.

It Gets Better Yet for the Handful

Some of those people who are actively involved in their students association will reap benefits that go far beyond those we already discussed. Possibly very far, in some cases.

We all know that when it comes to applying to graduate school, or to professional school, or for a job within the workforce, the fate of an application will depend to a great extent on the quality and impact of the letters of recommendation. As I have discussed at length in previous posts, in order to have really effective letters of recommendation when the need arises, students must put themselves in situations that allow the right people to discover their relevant talents and important character attributes. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to volunteer to help professors with their research (which, by the way, is only effective if it’s done properly). But, there are other ways to put your abilities and character on display, too.

Any context that allows you stand apart from the crowd of students in such a way that makes your activities visible and your strengths apparent to professors can provide the basis for an effective letter of recommendation. Joining your students association provides a context in which you can show who you are and what you have to offer a prospective employer or graduate supervisor, as long as you and your group are doing the right kinds of things; such as, organizing seminars or workshops on career paths, or on study skills, or preparing for graduate school, or applying to graduate school, or any other serious and worthwhile topic.

The most effective letters will provide anecdotal evidence of important general abilities and character traits. The following is just a brief list of some important abilities and personal qualities that might be noticed about students who are actively involved with their students association:

1. They are likely to be perceived as having excellent organizational and management skills. For example, I believe this is true about Samantha Briand. I suspect she must have these assets because she was able to organize and coordinate a few workshops and other events that were widely attended and generally effective in accomplishing what she and her colleagues set out to accomplish. Professors want their graduate students to have strong organizational skills, and many potential employers look for evidence of it in job applicants. There are a lot of jobs in management, in general. Many professors need their graduate students to be good at management, too.

2. In order for any student association to work effectively, members  must be able to work together. It certainly helps if everyone gets along, too. Same thing is true in many workplace settings. Being an active member of a students association provides an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to work with others, and to work co-operatively. Again, these are things that will appeal to almost any potential employer, because their employees are likely to work together in offices, or on team projects. Likewise, graduate supervisors need their students to be able to work together and share space and resources. Efficiency and general morale are high when people get along, so all professors strive to avoid taking on a graduate student who are unable to work harmoniously with others.

3. Having superior communication skills. Effective communication, both in writing and orally, are abilities that most employers value highly in their employees. Being able to write and speak effectively is absolutely essential to success in graduate school.

4. Students who choose to become actively involved with their students association tend to demonstrate strong leadership abilities. Anyone looking to hire someone into a management position will be looking for leadership abilities.

5. Most observers will assume that active members of a students association are highly motivated toward having a successful and productive career, as long as they are organizing the right kinds of activities and events. For example, the fact that Samantha and the other executive members of the students association in our department focused so much on career-related activities over the past two years says a lot about the priorities for this particular cohort. A high priority seems to be choosing and navigating career paths. That looks good on them. But why might this matter to a potential graduate supervisor? Because no one wants to take on a student who is anything less than 100% committed to following through to the completion of the degree program. It can be highly disruptive to a professor’s research program when a graduate student suddenly decides to quit the program partway through. Similarly, saavy employers hire people who are motivated to do well and make progress, because that so often translates into excellent work habits.

If I spent more time thinking about it, I could come up with other examples of important abilities and aptitudes that students are able to display through active participation in their students association. The most important point, however, is that whether applying to graduate school, or for some type of scholarship or award, or applying for a job either within or outside of academic circles, students need eventually the endorsement of others who have discovered such things about them. Being a college or university undergrad provides ample opportunities to set oneself apart from the crowd in positive ways. Noticing these opportunities requires going beyond the lectures and textbooks, beyond earning academic credits and completing degree requirements.

Consider this. When you apply to graduate school in almost any STEM discipline or within the social sciences, nearly everyone else with whom you are competing will have letters from professors who supervised their undergraduate research. Most likely, you will to, so in this sense you all have a similar kind of relevant letters. Students who also make strong positive impressions on one or more professors in an alternative but still relevant context will stand to have somewhat unique and therefore more likely to be effective, letters of recommendation; that is, if the students take advantage of the likelihood that at least some professors are probably watching and noticing. In order to stand out and be noticed as a grad school applicant, it helps to have something that the majority of other applicants don’t have.

If you’re doubtful about whether the five observations I listed above are actually important when it comes to determining the effectiveness of a recommendation letter or the fate of an application to graduate school, I strongly recommend you read my previous post on the student evaluation form that invariably accompanies any letter of recommendation for graduate or professional school. You will see that the five specific abilities and aptitudes I listed above are among the ones graduate and professional schools explicitly ask people providing letters to include in their evaluation of an applicant.

Before ending my commentary for today, I want to emphasize that it will be up to Samantha to ensure that at least one of the people furnishing letters on her behalf actually benefits her cause by referring to the evidence of ability and character that came from her involvement with the students association. Should she talk about the experience and what it shows about her abilities in her personal statement? No, probably not. It would be too awkward, and it’s likely to come across as pretentious to try doing this in a personal statement, where it is not good to sound boastful. She really needs someone else to point all this out on her behalf. Even though her c.v. will list extracurricular activities including her work for the students association, it is unlikely to get noticed or have any impact as a line item in her c.v..

Benefiting in the ways in which I’ve been discussing will depend on whom she asks for letters, in at least two ways: First, there are good letter-writers and there are bad letter-writers, and it’s not always easy to know which professors write truly impactful recommendations and which ones put in little effort and end up creating flat, generic recommendation letters. Second, whether it’s a good, bad, or mediocre letter writer, she has to request a recommendation from a professor who has actually thought about her extracurricular activities in the way I have discussed them here. Even the best letter-writers will overlook this revealing evidence of her underlying personal qualities if its relevance has not occurred to them.