Friday, July 01, 2005

Interesting and true article

by Gabriela Montell at the Chronicle, about why having a famous and well-connected dissertation advisor is valuable:

Graduate students want to believe that success in academe is achieved purely on merit. But you don't have to be a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows to realize that while what you know matters most, it's often whom you know that gets your foot in the door.

Doctoral students assume that 'if they just do their work, the cream will rise to the top,' says Gene C. Fant, Jr., chairman of the English department at Union University, in Tennessee. 'And, yes, that does happen, but it's also helpful to have the dairymen come in and scoop the cream off the top and make sure it goes where it needs to go. Almost no one is completely self-made.'

That's where influential advisers or dissertation chairs can help. They not only direct your dissertation, they grant you access to their network of colleagues, Mr. Fant says. And, often, the bigger the name, the bigger, and better, the network.

Your place within the academic hierarchy, says a former graduate student who asked to remain anonymous, 'is conditioned by who is above you, who you're working with, and what institution you're at.'

Other interesting stuff there too; I think a subscription may be required, though.

This will sound either pious or just plain weird, but the main reason I would like to become a really well-known academic (other than that it means more people listening to what you say, of course; always nice) is so that I could help grad students get jobs and book contracts and other stuff like that. It really makes me crazy how such good people have such a hard time finding jobs. For a couple years I was officially rather than just unofficially on the job placement thing in my department, and I remember there being 3-4 people in particular who it killed me weren't getting hired. Now I really will sound like a maniac (I'm vaguely thinking of a Roald Dahl story about people cutting off their fingers, and also a great story by Stephen King about quitting smoking--is it called "Smoking, Inc." or something like that?--and also the great Antony and the Johnsons line about cutting off a finger)--it's the insane mindset you get into when you're overworked during the school year--but I remember sort of fantasizing that I wished someone would make me an offer that for every finger I cut off I would get a good tenure-track job for a student of my choice. Obviously you would hope to get a sort of three-for-two deal, because the little fingers are more disposable than the others, and it's not an infinitely renewable resource, but that's how much it pained me not to be able to get jobs for these people.


  1. Fingers, ouch. Thanks for that, Jenny! I'm looking at mine and wincing.

    I used to find the patronage system in universities deeply depressing. Because so often it would smooth the way of the golden boys, who were usually the least deserving and had had their way smoothed their entire lives. I've since learned about a range of other professions and have yet to come across one that didn't run on patronage.

    The only thing to do, it seems, is what you're trying to do: get good people into positions where they get to wield the patronage.

    And yet, it still feels somehow corrupt. But I have no idea how a pure meritocracy would work.

  2. Yeah, patronage is here to stay. All we can do is make it (as it were) equal-opportunity patronage, and make sure it doesn't end up helping only a few people who are already very privileged as opposed to anyone who's willing to work. Of course, there are some understandable or even legitimate aspects to it as well. There's cronyism, and then there's having great respect for the work of your friends and trusting their judgment about people; also there are lines of intellectual affinity that mean that if I say "I'm a student of David Bromwich" it really does speak to something important about the intellectual choices I've made, my temperament and my affinities. Or whatever. Enough of this serious stuff, I have broken my "light reading" rule of not talking about work!