Thursday, April 4, 2013

Formality, Grad Students, and the Atlantic Ocean

An "Expat Grad Student" writes with the following question:

I realize that this is not really in your wheelhouse, but I am going to be staring a my PhD in the US/Canada in the autumn and was hoping your readers would  clear something up that I have been wondering about. I am American, but I did my bachelors and terminal MA in a small, but well regarded department in the UK where, by the time of my MA I was on a first name basis with all of the academic staff in the department - in fact, all of the grad students were. Furthermore, most of the lecturers were happy to discuss anything relating to philosophy whenever they were not in the middle of anything else. It was also not uncommon for profs, grad students and even some undergrads to go to the pub and socialize or drink a fair amount at department events (Holiday party, etc.)

I realize that there is a great variation in departments even in the same area, but I am under the impression that things are a bit more formal this side of the pond. Am I correct in this assumption? Either way I would be grateful for any guidance as to what to expect with regard to  departmental culture.

I can speak with genuine authority about only a few departments, but it seems to me that this is occasionally but not generally true. The master's degree program I was involved with was somewhat formal--professors wanted to be called “doctor”; office doors were generally kept closed; etc--but the faculty was generally approachable and were more than happy to discuss philosophy (and other stuff) with us. There wasn't much in the way of going out to bars with faculty, but there was plenty of going out to bars without them. And philosophy was almost always a principal topic of discussion at these outings. (Not that I think that the fact that I was discussing philosophy with MA students instead of my program's faculty didn't matter. It mattered. But the fact that I was always sober whenever I would discuss philosophy my professors also mattered, I think.)

The atmosphere at my Ph.D.-granting department was much more informal. Everyone used first names; office doors were almost always open; faculty were much more open to meeting off-campus and outside the department. Faculty didn't tend to accompany us to the bars, but in a lot of cases, I chalk that up to differences in lifestyle than any kind of formality or desire to create or maintain distance between the grad students and the faculty. When you get old and/or have a family and stuff, you generally don't go out to bars as much. I don't, anyways. But the faculty at my Ph.D. school were much more approachable and less interested in maintaining an air of formality than the faculty at my MA school were. I was more comfortable with them as a result. I saw them more often, and they were easier to talk to. That probably made them easier to learn from.

My Ph.D. school still sort of seems like it was more formal than Expat's school in the UK. However, I'm not at all sure it's generally true that North American departments are more “formal” or uptight than their UK counterparts. Maybe Americans are generally more uptight in some ways and less so in others. I don't know. But I strongly suspect that informality, in the sense of faculty getting drunk at your parties, is only loosely connected to the quality of the education you'll get from them. I suspect that informality in the sense of faculty being approachable and generous with their time, thoughts, and criticism is much more important. And I suspect that North American philosophers are no less approachable than their UK counterparts.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Only offering an anecdote but here goes:
I did my undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in Oregon (a pretty laid back place) and am doing my MA in the UK. I too noticed a difference in formality (at my undergraduate just the though of calling my professors by their first name makes me want to run and hide), but I see that as coming down to the fact that approaching faculty as an undergraduate is different that as an MA and different still as a PhD student.

As for going to pubs/bars I think that often comes down to a general cultural difference in perception of alcohol consumption. People often go to pubs to meet up and hang out like one might go to coffee shops for the same thing in the US.

Even members of the faculty here that have children (most of them do) often go out with us to pubs.

Anonymous said...

I also did an MA before pursuing the doctorate, and my experiences have been similar to Zero's. It really depends on the department, and sometimes within one department some people will differ about how formal they are in their interactions with students. Sometimes older folks will be more formal. On the other hand, I wouldn't at all be surprised by younger folks who want to keep things more formal.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing you can expect. These issues are almost entirely dependent on the culture of the individual institution and department.

In fact, I wouldn't even start thinking about these issues until I had an admissions offer in hand and were comparing specific departments. No need to worry about this now.

Anonymous said...

Mr Zero has it right. Some places have a profs-at-bars culture; some places have formal profs-out-with-grad set-ups (reading groups, weekly talk-series, etc.); many don't. Mine doesn't, and it is a strike against us I think.

What you ultimately want, though, is approachability. How quick do profs give comments on papers (quality matters too, of course)? Are their office doors open? Are they seen, and are they chatty after colloquia, seminars, etc.? Do they listen to you, or is their opinion of you impossibly low (or are they indifferent) from the get go? Do they care about your project, and is their advice at all aimed to help you, or is it just a canned speech they've been giving on topic x for the past 15 years?

At my place it's mixed. But we have plenty of profs who, every time you even insinuate you might need help or want to talk about x or y, are lightning fast to remind you how 'busy' they are. Too many of these profs really hurts the grads.

Anonymous said...

My two cents here. I'm from Europe, but attended MA and PhD philosophy programs in the US. Yes, it is quite a bit more formal in the US, from my experience. The appearances in the US are "we are so informal here, call me Bob," but the reality is more complicated. Sure I had coffee with faculty, but this never felt informal and spontaneous. I attended a bunch of conferences in the UK and Ireland and always found post-conference discussions in the pub, with faculty or whoever, just great fun. Totally informal, spontaneous, and friendly. I never had this experience at conferences in the US.

Anonymous said...

this is not a worthwhile line of inquiry. For one thing no one has a large enough data set to make any well-founded characterizations. Second, even if you got one response from every department in North America, this is anonymous blog and the information would of little practical help. Thirdly, the social is not even likely to be uniform across individual programs: I have been fortunate to have close social ties with many of my professors, I've been invited to their homes, I've met them in pubs, I've socialized with at official functions, while peers in my program are terrified to even be in the same room with a professor alone for more than 5 minutes. Obviously much depends on your own level of social comfort. Finally. fourth, as someone else mentioned you should even be thinking about this at this point. When you have competing offers in hand, then take the opportunity of your campus visits or just emails, to make discrete inquiries into the specific departmental atmosphere that interests you. Before you have firm offers it is all just chin-music.

Anonymous said...

I have only studied in North America, but I have been at three different institutions, and my experiences have varied widely; some of that at least is the different relationships undergrads have to faculty in relation to grad students, and some is that older professors tend to be more formal, younger ones less so. First-name basis as a grad student with many (but not all) profs would be common, and so is openness to discussing philosophy (but keep in mind some of this may be personality, not department culture--I have one professor, for instance, who spends every morning writing; being strict about that is how he's productive, but he's also very open at other times). However, it would not be common at any program I've been at for more than a prof or two to join students at the on-campus pub on Friday night, and while drinking certainly happens at department parties, getting drunk at the party itself would (I think) be frowned upon at many departments.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:25 is pretty much right on: there won't be enough data from this site to be able to say either way across the board.

There are UK/USA cultural differences that MIGHT manifest themselves in certain departments but it depends on the department.

I would advise you to email students if you can at places you want to go to and ask them about their experiences.

Anonymous said...

Not only does it differ from program to program, but many people experience the same programs differently. I was amazed to learn that many of my classmates found our MA program to be a friendly, welcoming environment where faculty and students socialize regularly and there was a collegial exchange of ideas. I never saw any of that (nor did some of my other classmates), and to this day I have no idea why we were not part of the "in crowd"

Anonymous said...

It is true that there is wide variation between programs, and it is true that the comments on this thread will always provide too small of a sample to be reliably representative.

Still, there is one thing I think that can be said with great confidence, which will hold good at any department that you wind up at:

If you are an American who studied in the UK and comes back saying things like "across the pond," then you *will* be viewed as a pompous ass. Or should I say "arse".

Anonymous said...

I agree with 5:41. No matter what department you end up at in the States, some of your colleagues will be morons.