Advising Grad Students in Good Faith (and What Every Grad Student Should be able to Get)

If you have integrity, nothing else matters.
If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.
Alan Simpson

I recently read a short article by Robert B. Cialdini about his plans to retire early from his university department position. That was in 2009, I don’t know what happened in the meantime, but the reason he states is impressive.


He first shows that his discipline — social psychology — has changed over time: There is 1) a strong focus on cognitive variables (i.e., what people think, for which you present them with questionnaires etc.), 2) publications in flagship journals almost always require papers with multiple studies, and 3) secondary measures are used to do mediational analyses (you collect other data and take a closer look at what mediates an effect).

However, these requirements — while understandable and actually beneficial for social psychology in many aspects — make it impossible for him to do what he is best at: field studies (= studies in applied settings). Field studies 1) focus on actual behavior, 2) are incredible time-consuming to do (takes years to do multiple studies), and 3) the participants are normal workers who do their job and (understandably) do not have the time to provide the data necessary for mediational analyses. So field studies become rare in social psychology.

He points out that lack of field studies make it difficult for the public to understand the need for social psychology. And his main point is that it puts social psychology in danger of losing funding (politicians tend to cut funding for things the public does not deem valuable).

Advising Grad Students in Good Faith

But what really gets me is the following paragraph:

Although the effects of the misalignment of my strengths with the changes in my home discipline have not been especially harsh on me as regards vita-building, they have been devastating in another respect: I am no longer able to accept graduate students. At least, I am no longer able to do so in good faith because most apply hoping (a) to be trained by me in field research methods for investigating behavior in naturally occurring settings and (b) to be competitive for the best jobs in academic social psychology at the end of that training. For the foreseeable future, I know that I can reasonably help them attain only the first of those goals. Therefore, I also know that, even though academic social psychology offers a vital, burgeoning, intellectually engaging research arena, it is time for me to leave.
Cialdini, 2009 [my emphasis]

There is some discussion online by PhD students dissatisfied with Academia, who are tired of being used as research or teaching slaves. There is also the comparison of Academia being like a drug gang (many badly paid foot-soldiers, few at the top; although there is also strong opposition to this idea, some think it’s actually a drug cartel — just kidding, some agree, some disagree).

And here is someone (well, in 2009), who has the integrity to say that this and this is what grad students expect, and he can’t give it anymore, so he leaves.


What Every PhD Student Should be able to Get

I can only agree with Cialdini and the two expectations grad students (should) have on what they will be able to get (if they are interested in an academic career … and work hard):

  1. training in the area of expertise where you are doing your thesis
  2. becoming competitive for an academic career

If either one is missing/unattainable, that’s a bad place to be.

Working in a department where you cannot learn anything, is a really bad career move. No matter whether it’s because it is not good in what it does (“bush league”, more lobbyist than scientists), or whether you are expected to work it out on your own (sometimes in the name of “academic freedom”, which is interesting giving that it’s an apprenticeship). It’s also bad if no-one can tell you what it takes to be competitive — or how to get there (beyond a “just publish”). Sure, nobody can guarantee success and the field is in constant change, but still, there should be some good ideas.

Even worse is if is one or both are missing and you are “used” to do project work or teaching duties. And yes, unfortunately, there are professors who have no qualms using the labor of PhD students to “cover” topics they have no expertise in (but are currently hot and likely to get funding), or to delegate unwanted teaching duties. For these people, the issue is not that the grad student gains expertise or becomes competitive, but that the work promised in a project proposal gets done. And that publications are written with the supervisor as gift-author. Sure, university is not a school and the focus should not be the PhD student only, but profs should have the integrity not to misuse students as cheap self-exploiting labor who are later left in a tough spot. Many do have this integrity (Cialdini as an example), but unfortunately many do not.

And even if you — as a PhD student in a bad place — work it out on your own, I think it is likely that you have difficulties becoming competitive. Learning to do science on your own will in all likelihood take too long, you likely make too many mistakes that limit the quality of what you can achieve in the available time. A few might succeed but they are the exception, not the norm. In any case it’s a waste of potential.


Personally, I think the best criteria to evaluate a department is to have a look at the people who graduated there before you. Where are they now? Did they get tenure? Do they cooperate with the department? How many left Academia? Why? And how many quit before finishing? And can you find out why? Some departments have an alumnae page, combined with social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and the like, it might be a good place to start. The second best is probably humor. Not gallows humor, not sarcasm (careful with irony), definitely not cynicism, but good-natured humor combined with performance (not instead of it). A place where people cannot and do not make jokes, and cannot laugh about themselves without being self-deprecating or depressed … uh-oh.

Because even if doing a PhD thesis is “only” one piece in your life, it’s taking up a lot of time and energy. Make sure you do it somewhere where people have the integrity to talk openly about the things that are or are not possible, and check whether it’s only words or whether they actually do what they are talking about.

I can only wish you the best of luck.

(And kudos to Prof. Cialdini for his integrity — although it’s always a shame when people with integrity leave academia. And check out his Wikipedia page, his work is impressive, esp. how he came to his principles of influence.)


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). We Have to Break Up. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(1), 5–6. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01091.x

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