Remember the theory of mind when communicating officially with graduate students

Yesterday I got the following letter from the associate dean of our graduate program, here copied in its entirety:

According to our records, Sewall Wright (or someone else) will begin his 7th year of graduate studies on July 1. Length of time to degree is of great concern to us in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. There is a seven-year limit placed on the time to degree by the Graduate School. this letter is to serve as notification to the time limit rule.


Associate Dean of Graduate Education

This letter was sent to me, but Sewall Wright got a copy, so in a sense it was really to him. What is wrong with this short factual letter? After all, this is the official rule, so why not let people know as their seventh year approaches? The problem is that this is not a supportive letter. It does not think about why a student might be approaching their seventh year. It is as if the writer forgot that what sets us humans apart from other animals is embodied in the theory of mind. With our big brains, we can think about what the recipient of our messages thinks. And the recipient can think about what we thought when the sender sent such a message, and so on.


Budding scientists


Graduate students

So wouldn’t a thoughtful administrator also address the reason behind taking a longer time to Ph.D.? Might not an administrator not want to indicate care about the student, perhaps offering additional advice services, or discussion with the mentor as to exactly where things stand? The deadline sounds rigid and without exceptions, but of course there are always exceptions. What kind of student will realize that? The more confident and experienced students from elite backgrounds will assume they can get an extension for a good reason. The more uncertain students, perhaps first generation college, might just decide that no matter what, they have to meet the deadline, even if it is not in their interest to finish prematurely.

Most graduate students in our program take six years to get their Ph.D. anyway, so seven years is not very exceptional. It might not be what the graduate school wants, but it is current reality. Changing it should be a more general thing and involve faculty, not stern letters to grad students. I have written elsewhere what I think about short Ph.D. programs and also what I think about long Ph.D. programs. Another truth is that students take a long time for many different reasons.

It can be very hard to be a graduate student. There are so many things to balance. There are exams and courses, prelims and candidacy, teaching and mentoring. But most of all you have to figure out a research question that will absorb you for years. Such a question is both important and feasible. It can take years to really get a great question and organism. When you find one you want to spend all your time doing research. But there are always new techniques to be learned, articles to read, and seminars to attend. It might feel like this time could go on forever. But it should end. It should end at a point where your Ph.D. work is written up and submitted because a clock starts ticking when you get your degree. You should be ready to get a job within five years.

A longer Ph.D. might be the result of a difficult project. It might be the result of health problems. It might be the result of taking on too many projects. It is unlikely but always possible that a student may not be working hard enough. It could also be a result of boredom, an indication that maybe this project or life is not for you.

But back to the letter. Why doesn’t it sound kind? Why are there no options in it, or offers of support? Why not look like you care about the student? After all, with a human theory of mind, not only should the letter writer think about the thoughts of the receiving student, but that student will know that the letter writer did that and then think about his thoughts. So the smart student would realize the letter writer understood that the letter would be troubling and was fine with that. Not a good situation for a promising student who has issues that we should help with, not attack.

I’m guessing that the real answer for this particular letter is that the writer just forgot about the student reading it and how he might feel, forgot that we humans have complex minds. I hope in future he and everyone can be more careful and thoughtful because these things may have worse impacts on just the students we most want to see succeed.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Managing an academic career and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.