Crushing hopes and dreams since 2013

I’ve been an academic advisor, teacher, and research mentor for three years now. I’ve done ok at figuring out the nuts and bolts of teaching and advising, and I’m doing better with understanding how to be there for students as an empathetic ear. As a teacher and research advisor I’ve gotten more flexible about my expectations given the fact that most of my students are non-traditional. Overall, I think I’ve made progress in learning how to be supportive and encouraging of students’ goals, while also realistic.

Each student comes into college with their unique set of abilities, resources, and drive to succeed.  They also come with a set of expectations – perhaps simply of achieving a degree, or of getting straight As in their chosen major, or of getting into a top graduate program.  Many students at my College are high achieving and could fit in at any top-tier university, and they achieve their goals. Others are relatively apathetic… ‘Cs (or Ds) get degrees’; they aren’t going to do that well, but they’ll pass the classes and get a bachelors, also achieving their goals.  Others realize for themselves that they are not reaching their own expectations in their chosen major, and transfer to another department of their own accord.

The students that I continue to struggle with teaching and advising are those that are not achieving their own college expectations but can’t make the hard decisions that entails. Even worse are those whose college expectations for themselves were mismatched with the expectations of the program or the career they have chosen.  How do you compassionately and effectively convince a student to reconsider their goals?  How do you present them with facts and figures in a way that they will understand, accept, and actually make a difference?

For example, many students come into college Pre-Med.  They may even graduate with a BS or BA in a relevant field and plan on applying to medical school, despite low GPAs and low MCAT scores. When should they have been advised to consider an alternate career path? By whom? I have heard complaints from students to the effect of “My advisor is discouraging me from applying to med school” or “My advisor doesn’t care what I want to do with my life.”  Students don’t want to be told what to do. But doesn’t it do them a disservice to allow them to pay for four years of tuition and not achieve their goals?

Most recently, I had a disheartening experience with a student in a sophomore level core class in my department. She is not able to grasp the material that is being presented in class or prepare adequate work despite special accommodations from the office of student disabilities and the availability of a tutor (and me). During a one-on-one meeting I informed her that she is currently not achieving a passing grade, nor the minimum grade required to continue on to upper-division courses. Her response: “I don’t believe in grades. What matters to me is if I understand the material.” It is apparent to me that she will not be able to succeed in the class or our program. When should I tell her? Now? At the end of the class? Never, and let her figure it out for herself?

I don’t want to crush the hopes and dreams of budding doctors, scientists, or lawyers. But at some point it must be the advisor and teacher’s responsibility to be honest about the likelihood of students achieving their near- and long-term goals given their current performance.  It seems like a thankless task, though.  I’ve been told that the best way to go about it is “You don’t seem to be doing as well in these classes.. but look at these other classes you did well in! Did you ever consider X as a major?”  It seems disingenuous when those high-grade classes are always freshman-level distribution classes not known for their rigor. I’m sure this is another thing that comes with experience, but I would like to know the best things to say and the best ways to say it.  What do you do?


20 thoughts on “Crushing hopes and dreams since 2013

  1. I agree that you should avoid needlessly crushing students’ dreams.

    But, on the other hand, I think another part of the job of educators is to prepare students to the real world.
    And in the real world, knowledge, as opposed to the the subjective feeling of knowing, matters. Grades typically reflect mastery of this knowledge. This cannot and mustn’t be ignored. Reality checks related to grades are definitely in order. You are justified in delivering them.

    To narrow the gap between you and your advisees, maybe it is worth talking about *why* they have set these goals. For example, why do they want to be doctors? Is it because they want to cure people? Maybe they can become nurses or physician assistants or work in some other (para-)medical field. Is it for the prestige? There are other prestigious jobs that might suit them better.

    Also, have they ever considered any alternatives? If by some act of God they were completely banned from becoming a doctor, what’s the next thing they would shoot for? It’s better if they come up with the ideas rather than you suggesting major X. I think you need to know a lot about a person, be very familiar their goals and values and talents, earn a lot of rapport with them, and know a great deal about the world of work to be able to suggest major X or career Y. That is the territory of occupational psychology and career counseling.

  2. In the case of the student you described, I think that perhaps framing it in a way that doesn’t make it seem like she doesn’t have the intellectual ability to meet her goals, but that the systems in place make it very hard for her to do it. I can take examples from my own life – I’m physically disabled and an ecologist. So much of what ecologists do is field work, which requires physically strenuous activity. Even more, almost every entry-level job requires you to be able to do this field work in order to gain experience to be competitive for graduate school or upper-level professional positions. I think we all realize the majority of ecology research is more about creative ideas, writing, and analyzing data. But if I had not had the extensive field work experience I had before becoming disabled, I am not sure I would have been able to get the PhD position I currently have. Now as a funded PhD I have been able to move away from field work and boost my quantitative skills, which will help me stay in the field I love even if I cannot do strenuous field work any longer.

    I think explaining that the system pays attention to grades more than understanding the material and while you also agree this system may be flawed, unless there is a huge change in the way our education system works, she may not be able to do what she wants. I think asserting that you believe in their worth while being realistic about the way our society works is a good way to balance the distress you are feeling. Perhaps even suggesting they take classes that would allow them more job opportunities if their primary goal becomes inaccessible.

  3. I completely understand your dilemma ; I have been a pre-med adviser for over 40 years. Aiv 87 has the right approach. I have very long conversations wit these students exploring their original reasons for choosing a health related career. Often there are parental pressures ,especially from immigrant parents who want the best for their children. A candid description of alternate health-related careers is sometimes useful, but the”white coat” urge is hard to dissipate. I have urged them to consider clinical lab. science, respiratory care, physical or occupational therapy or majors that might prepare them for administrative jobs in the health care industry.

  4. Having been on the receiving end of such “advice” I want to caution you to error on the side of speaking up later. My story: I had a (older, male) professor ask me if I should really be going to graduate school when I was getting his signature to drop his graduate class that I had been taking as a senior undergraduate. He said that if I was dropping his class I couldn’t succeed in graduate school. I later attended a top 3 engineering school, and graduated with several awards, so I’d like to think his judgement was wrong. However, during every inevitable struggle during my Ph.D. I had his voice ringing in my ears, adding to my own imposter concerns. In retrospect, I think that I wasn’t prepared to do the math his class required until after my first year in graduate school. Instead of him realizing that perhaps the prerequisites for his class were insufficient, he questioned my innate ability. I’m so thankful I didn’t listen to him!

    • I totally agree. I got passably good grades in my science major’s classes but straight A’s in everything else. If an advisor had asked me whether I should change from a science major to an English major because I did better in those classes, I would never have become the (highly successful) scientist I am today. Grades aren’t everything. But just having those only-decent grades on my transcript has been enough to fuel my impostor syndrome ever since college. So go easy on these students. You don’t know what future is best for them. You really don’t. Though I agree it is incredibly helpful for you to share your observations and get them thinking critically about their choices and how to make their goals happen (indeed, that’s the role of an advisor, in my book!).

  5. There is another way to support students as they make the best decisions for their life and choices.

    This reference (e.g. widely used in Quaker communities for many purposes) is more structured and religious than what you would use in an academic setting, but the basic principles still apply: it’s not your job as an advisor to tell a student what to do, but you can ask questions that encourage students to think about aspects of a problem they may not have considered (including if they have the ability to do the work) and make their own decisions. This means that you aren’t telling a student “you’re not smart enough” for this class or field, but you can encourage them to reflect on their own willingness and ability to continue in this field. By asking questions in an open and honest* manner rather than telling a student what to do, you not only avoid being the bad guy bearer of bad news, you also reinforce to the student that the right person to be making decisions about their life is them, not their advisors, parents, or other authorities.

    *What is an honest, open question? It is important to reflect on this, since we are so skilled at asking questions that are advice or analysis in disguise; e.g., “Have you ever thought that it might be your mother’s fault?” The best single mark of an honest, open question is that the questioner could not possibly anticipate the answer to it; e.g., “Did you ever feel like this before?” There are other guidelines for good questioning. Try not to get ahead of the focus person’s language; e.g., “What did you mean when you said ‘frustrated’?” is a good question, but “Didn’t you feel angry?” is not. Ask questions aimed at helping the focus person rather than at satisfying your curiosity. Ask questions that are brief and to the point rather than larding them with background considerations and rationale—which make the question into a speech. Ask questions that go to the person as well as the problem—for example, questions about feelings as well as about facts.

  6. Good post. This is always a difficult situation to deal with; I’ve been lucky as an adviser that I’ve only ever had to have one or two such awkward conversations. I think all the advice offered so far in the post and comments is good.

    Sometimes it’s possible to prevent such difficult situations from arising by talking to students and advisees about what it takes to achieve goal X before they go too far down the road of trying to achieve goal X. Or maybe before they even set X as a goal. For instance, I ask prospective grad students interested in joining my lab about their long-term career goals before they even decide whether to join my lab. I want to make sure that, if they have academia as a goal, that they’re going in with their eyes open about what it will take to achieve that goal, and about their odds of success. When having those conversations, I don’t ever try to dissuade students from pursuing academia–I emphasize to them that they have to choose their own path and that I’ll support them as best I can no matter what path they choose. I just try to make sure they’re not under any illusions.

  7. “it’s not your job as an advisor to tell a student what to do, but you can ask questions that encourage students to think about aspects of a problem they may not have considered (including if they have the ability to do the work) and make their own decisions.”

    I think Chris’ advice is best. There are many reasons that a student may not be succeeding in a particular class — see Julia’s comment above. Unless you know the student exceptionally well, you are really not in a position to be able to predict whether they will or won’t be successful in achieving a particular goal. I am a happy scientist (and pretty successful, actually) today because I ignored this type of well-meaning advice.

  8. As a high school teacher and a coach of teachers and a doctoral candidate, I have some ideas.

    From my coaching experience, I would agree with starting with a conversation in which, rather than giving advice, you encourage the student’s thinking through questions. Some examples might be: What are your measures of success in this course / what are you hoping for? Fast forward one year, where would you like to be with your studies? What strategies might you consider to get there? When have you been successful in the past, and what factors led to that success? What support could help you along the way? What do you think you need to be mindful of within yourself?

    It may be useful to have your markbook, their work, or a list of grades for this kind of conversation as it can act as hard data for reflection.

    However, if a student is going to fail, and can’t see it, I’d agree that it is an obligation of the advisor or teacher to be clear with them about it early on (not harsh, but transparent). But I’d use coaching first to try and access their internal capacity to understand where they’re at and how they might move forward.


  9. Today, many professors are ill prepared to give students professional advice.

    Many have reached their positions without industrial experience, so they are often unable to give students advice about the realities of the labor market outside academia. Most full professors reached their positions before the dot com bust, and certainly before the financial crisis. Not only do most full professors not understand the labor market outside academia, they also do not understand the funding and publishing challenges that junior professors face within academia today.

    The criteria needed to surmount the ladder to a PhD, post doc and tenure can be very different from that required to do well in the private sector. For instance, I have a number of friends who entered the private sector labor market with just an undergraduate degree and became program managers, marketing managers and sales people. Their marks were mostly very average. For instance, I have a lab partner who I dragged kicking and screaming through second year electronics lab. I think he got a C-. He’s now a senior executive at Apple. (He got his start before the dot com bust as a sales guy.)

    Many professors and academic advisors fail to look at labor statistics, and therefore are ill equipped to give students professional advice, regardless of their grade point average.

    Also, I would ask myself why so many students are now crowding into premed. Is it because it is now one of the only stable, well paying areas of the economy. There is something quite Machiavellian about professors that continue to adhere to the idea, “well, if only their grade point average was higher, things would be OK”. I know many PhDs who graduated with top marks in STEM who are now only marginally employed. In many cases, regardless of your marks, a PhD makes you *less* employable in the private sector. And there are only so many academic positions available. So telling students who have excellent marks that they will necessarily succeed in academia is a bit disingenuous.

    For students with poor marks, this is sometimes not because they do not have the ability, but because their high school preparation is poor. Sadly, in many high schools, certainly now in San Francisco, it is not uncommon for students to be told that “marks don’t matter.” This leaves many students completely mismatched to the very structured, very specific requirements of undergraduate STEM classes.

    I know some people who are doing well for themselves outside academia. They are: make up artist specialists, photographer/graphic artists, chefs, hair stylists, dental assistants, auto mechanics, Starbucks/Peets managers, mountain guides, musicians, bistro/deli owners, program managers, sales persons, preschool teachers, plant nursery owners, teachers, master carpenters, etc. In many cases, these people have far more job autonomy and job satisfaction than many people in academia.

    In my opinion, given the research funding shortfalls of the last twenty years, I think it’s time we stopped over selling academic careers to young people (regardless of their marks).

  10. Thank you for the post, I too often feel I am “crushing dreams”. I agree with many of the above posts that say it’s not our job to redirect students to fields and careers based on our perceptions of their abilities and academic performance.

    I often don’t know if a student is struggling academically because s/he isn’t studying enough (many of my students have kids and full-time jobs), doesn’t have adequate academic preparation, has family or medical problems, an undiagnosed learning disability, or doesn’t have the skills to succeed in college. A low grade may be a wake-up call for a student to address the issues above and we can help the student find resources. Sometimes I can help the student identify problems and solutions; sometimes students don’t want to talk. Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think my students have the ability to succeed if matched with the proper support.

    We can’t know the expectations for every career. But we can help students explore career paths early- guest lectures, internships, career days, conversations with other professionals, … We can encourage students to research the requirements for a career, talk to people in the field, do an internship, join a club to visit grad schools, … Then we can support students to bridge the gap between their goals and the needed qualifications and preparation or find a new path. I like to support a student to think through the options- For example, when a premed student realizes Cs won’t get him/her into med school, there is an opportunity to evaluate options- improve academic performance or research other fields and careers according to the student’s interest.

  11. I appreciate the approach of asking open-ended, simple questions to let the student come to their own answers. Reading the original post, I have lots of questions of my own.

    This is a sophomore-level core class. It might be legitimate to assume we know the student’s longterm goals, but I don’t see them explicitly stated in the OP — and I do see them explicitly stated by the student. If all the student wants is knowledge and understanding, then maybe grades aren’t important after all.

    In that case, it would make excellent sense to point out that, for example, if the student fails this course they won’t be allowed to sign up for the next one — so maybe it would be worth doing the work to bring their grades up to a D or even a C. But if the student doesn’t have designs on a place in a highly competitive program, maybe it’s okay that all they want is the knowledge, without the public acclaim.

  12. @Cristy B.

    You’re clearly going out of your way for your students. I think it is very difficult to assess why students don’t excel. There’s definitely a need for graduate departments to have persons in the role of student advisor who are compassionate and also well informed on labor statistics, and able to advise on different career possibilities for students. This takes the load off the marking professor to some degree. The person giving career advise is probably better able to give that when they are not also in the role of marking.

    Separately, there’s definitely a place for something like a career counseling center to provide formal assessment of potential learning disabilities. Another service that can help students in their career decisions are interest inventory tests. I don’t know how common this is now. When I was in undergrad, it was a free service in my university.

    I agree that internships (as long as they are paid) are one way for students to get practical experience and make some contacts outside of school. Some schools do better than others in developing the structures that allow students to participate in internships.

    One other thing I would add here is that for many STEM disciplines, the competition is pretty tough these days. For example, when I was auditing a class in EE at Berkeley a few years ago, most of the students were terrified of getting a C . . . so much so that they avoided taking some of the tougher classes. One young woman told me that it was now widely felt among her classmates that getting a GPA of less than 4.0 meant it was pretty much game over for graduate school. I think this is very unhealthy, but also reflective of how tough the job market has become in certain areas. Again, this is why I think it is so important to give these young people some alternatives, and also some perspective of the fact that there is life beyond the halls of academia.

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  16. While not a university academic, I’ve been a high school teacher, administrator, and I’m a licensed social worker. I see a role like yours as providing information. For example, certain professions one can achieve with certain degrees; maybe some information about some of the less known ones. For me, I never heard of a social worker until I was teaching for several years. A good friend happened to possess the degree. The social work background gave me access to professional experiences I never considered within the realm of education. However, when I was in college I was convinced I was destined to be a professor. No one told me either way, but when I failed to find a PhD program, I had my answer. It took some time for me to find my path, as is the case with everyone learning to stand on their own. It isn’t your role to get students to accept or do particularly anything; it is their path and their decisions to make as adults. If you provide neutral information and honesty when asked, I think you are fulfilling your responsibilities quite well.

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  18. That kind of situation is really uncomfortable for the advisor. In most undergrad and grad schools in Brazil it’s worse, because the students don’t pay tuition. On the contrary, they receive generous scholarships to study. All public money above minimum wage, in a country where many people starve or support their families with less them the minimum wage. Therefore, the social responsibility of students and advisors needs to be considered seriously. A student who consistently fails to get good grades or, worse, fails to write a final paper with minimum quality after receiving a lot of guidance and help, needs to be told the hard truth.

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