Networking 101 and why you never badmouth your own PhD program

When I met with students at UC Berkeley and Harvard back in 1999 at various conferences I attended that year, I was looking at PhD programs. The message they sent to me was “are you good enough to be here? Are you as good as we are?” Snobby, of course, but it sent a strong message about how the students in that program thought of themselves. I didn’t go to those programs, but it wasn’t because I was worried about the quality of the people there. When the Berkeley students complained about the faculty, it was clear that the complaints were from young lions looking to shove the old farts off the pedestal. That’s ambition, and it’s hard to fault it when you, too, are young and ambitious and looking to knock some old farts off their old-farty pedestals.

I went to UCLA because their students’ message was “We’re just as good as Berkeley but we’re not as snobby about it.” And they were right. It was exactly the right program for me, and I’m very grateful for my time there.

Conversely, when students complain to outsiders about 1) the faculty; 2) the facilities or lack thereof; or 3) anything, really, they send the following message to the listener:

a) the person complaining is either a whiner or loser or
b) this is a bad PhD program.

If the listener concludes that (a) is true, then you have just given them the impression than in 3 or however many years, you won’t be worth hiring. If (b) is true, then (a) is true by inference. Who but a loser would stay at a bad PhD program?

When you complain to new students, you are complaining to people who, if they don’t come to your program, will take away the message “Person X is a loser” and “University X has a bad PhD program” back to wherever they go, which YOU DO NOT WANT because you are going to be applying to jobs there.

When you complain to review committees, you are complaining in front of some of the most senior faculty in your field, giving them a reason to 1) not hire YOU because, while all of us know that graduate student complain (a corollary that all faculty complain; and all people complain), but some are smarter about it than others and 2) not hire any of your peers in case the program is, actually, bad.

The world of PhD employment is viciously, viciously competitive, and it will remain so. You want to be perceived as a top graduate from a top program. Students are as important as faculty are in reinforcing that image.

If you are not happy in your PhD program, I suggest you see a counselor. Really! And I don’t generally suggest this idea. A counselor can help you pinpoint what is baby versus what is bathwater about what is making you unhappy: some things may be your own lack of assertiveness, some things may be creative blocks that are driving you crazy**, and other things may be real problems in the match between you and your program or you and your advisor. Not everybody is a good fit everywhere.

Then you have a choice. You can work to fix what you think is broken, or you can find a program that suits you better. Both are perfectly reasonable options.

You have a choice about the message you send about yourself to the world. You can try “I’m really special and my advisor has it together so I’m wonderful, but the rest of these people are complete morons.” That’s a possibility. You can try “My university and my program suck, but I am still brilliant.” I’m no marketer, but I’m pretty sure those messages are less effective than “I’m hellz to the yeah the smartest and most innovative thinker in one of the world’s elite programs.”

Note that I am not saying that your concerns/complaints aren’t valid or not important. I am saying that there is a strategy for trying to fix what you see as broken without creating blowback for yourself. You don’t want people leaving a meeting with you saying “Thank God I’m not going to wind up that like that poor idiot.” You want them wringing their hands and fretting about whether they make the right decision by not coming to join you, just like you want everybody to regret not being able to hire you.

** This was a huge problem for me in my own PhD program. It’s STILL a problem. The work comes harder than I want it to (because I am impatient) and it HAS to be SOMEBODY’S fault. (Though not mine. Definitely not mine. Ahem.)

3 thoughts on “Networking 101 and why you never badmouth your own PhD program

  1. all excellent points that are themselves corollaries of the fact that there’s no point in complaining about anything unless you clearly can do something about. and the things you clearly can do something about are only a small subset of those you can plausibly complain about. the practical takeaway: most of the time you shouldn’t complain. if nothing else, it’s unseemly. not that i haven’t done all these things myself. but i’m trying to cut down on them

  2. However, Lisa, I think that we need to distinguish wining from being critical. If you pinpoint the weaknesses and the strengths of your program, the top recruiters in your field will realize that you are a balanced person, with a positive attitude and critical thinking, not just a young fart that aims at replacing old farts.

  3. Maybe. I still think PhD students should be careful because the line between “critical comment” and “whining” is thinner than many students realize. In some respects, criticizing your own program takes the same grace that answering the question “What is your worst flaw” during a job interview. Tread carefully. You don’t want to blow smoke, but you don’t want to dwell on the negative, either. Grace in the answer is most of what recruiters are looking for–not the content, per se.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to say “The department needs a class in X.” That’s critical and constructive. Fine dandy. But there’s a difference between being critical and also being capable of solving problems for yourself. So when a student says to me “We need a class on X; I’m dissatisfied we don’t have a class in X”, there’s part of me that thinks “Oh, sure, I understand you want that class. But why are you saying this to me instead of your program director, and if X is so damn important to you, why aren’t you finding that class or the resources you need yourself?” Because once you are out of school, it’s a whole different ball game in terms of resourcing your OWN learning.

    In our case, for example, Marlon and Gary are very, very, very nice guys. It’s hard for me to believe that a student couldn’t raise their programatic concerns with them rather than with outside recruiters.

    And don’t be too suspicious or dismissive of ambition and young farts. When I get a student that wants to replace me, they are usually irritating and wonderful. In some respects, you should want to replace me.

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