Monday, April 04, 2005

still another post about the sociology rankings

Word is that a few graduate students here are upset about the US News ranking Wisconsin Sociology #1. Or, at least, they are bothered by the upbeat comments that our chair made in response to a local media query about the rankings. Apparently, she was supposed to talk about how some of our recent faculty losses make the ranking undeserved and, moreover, what we actually practice here is a systematic reign of cruelty over our students. Or something like that. Maybe The Truly Discontented around here will get together and write a letter to US News about the horrors of the department at the top of their sociology list. That would make for some good academic theater for the months before I'm headed off to my exile to Harvard.

Truthfully, at least a couple of my colleagues have expressed surprise that Wisconsin has remained #1 despite some of the losses we've had. News of losses, of course, spreads slowly and incompletely, and, besides, at least one apparent departure happened after the survey was in. That said, at least from my recollection of scores in the last rankings, the change from the previous Wisconsin-Berkeley tie to the present Wisconsin #1 outright is not a matter of Wisconsin's score going up, but Berkeley's score going down. For which, a plausible suspect can be named in three words: Public Sociology backlash. As I discussed in my last post, the top of the rankings are determined more by avoiding dis-adoration than by culling especial reverence, and, whatever you think of the public sociology omelet, it wasn't made without breaking some eggs.

In any case, at least if you look at the Berkeley website, being the premier home of "public sociology" seems to be taking over the vision of that department, or at least its graduate program. Which is all well and good until you remember that Burawoy's formulation of "public" sociology sets it apart from "policy" and "professional" sociology (not to say that Berkeley doesn't offer opportunities for "policy" or "professional" sociology, of course; but, in my opinion, their website makes them look narrower than they are). I was talking to somebody recently who visited Berkeley's Visit Day this spring as a prospective student. I asked him if they did a lot of talking about "public sociology", and he said they did, but then he mentioned that it would have been more helpful if someone had explained what "public sociology" was. Wow: leave it to sociology to turn even its banner phrase for engaging the public sphere into a matter of insular jargon.

In any case, one of the things about this place that drives me to despair is when students complain about this department being "narrow." Not having more faculty members doing what you specifically would like does not make a department "narrow." Whatever you want to say about other vectors of "quality" of a graduate program, Wisconsin has been, over the last five years, the most intellectually diverse of the top departments. Don't believe me? Here's a test: go to Dissertation Abstracts and get the titles of the last 25 Ph.D.'s defended at each of the top departments. Make a list of titles for each department that removes their names ("Department A", "Department B"). Show them to a few people who are not sociologists and ask them to rank the lists in terms of which seems the most diverse. My guess: Wisconsin wins hands down.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're being a jerk, and using some inane argumentation along the way.

Apparently, she was supposed to talk about how some of our recent faculty losses make the ranking undeserved and, moreover, what we actually practice here is a systematic reign of cruelty over our students.

No, but what she said was 179 degrees from the truth, when 90 is about the palatable limit.

I don't understand why you link to The Truly Disadvantaged either. You know what would make some good academic theater? The wisc faculty acting like they care about the concerns of their grads. Heaven forbid this department do anything besides wield its now burnished reputation against all attempts of students to improve their lot.

Anonymous said...

Well, as a prospective student who has his eye on Madison, I have to say I'm really curious about the inner life of the department. After reading both this blog and the sconnie one, though, I'm kind of scarred about what awaits me if I get accepted. Moreover, I'm not from the US, so US News rankings are something I take into consideration when choosing schools. It was terrific to see that Madison was ranked first, but after learning that the student-professor relationships are a bit screwed, I guess I'm a little disappointed.

jeremy said...

Frankly, the first paragraph of my post reflects exactly my weariness with the sentiments expressed in the last two sentences of the first comment. The part of my chair's statement that deals with students says, "We treat each other and our students with civility, respect, and compassion." While I have my own problems with some ways that the graduate program is run, I certainly do not think that students here are treated with something "179 degrees" removed from "civility, respect, and compassion." Incidentally, I think our current chair is exemplary of the idea of approaching students with "civility, respect, and compassion."

Anyway, as far as I can tell, it's only a relatively small minority of students who truly believe that the faculty do not care at all about the students and revel in thwarting "all attempts of students to improve their lot." I do not know if the proportion of students with this attitude is higher at Wisconsin than anywhere else.

Honestly, my sympathy for people with a My Graduate Department As Relentless Cruel Oppressor Whose Faculty Delight In Keeping Me Down attitude started to be depleted about two years into my own graduate students and now, a decade later, is utterly gone.

Anonymous said...

Come'th to Madison, Anonymous dear
thou shalt find'th lovely verse here
but have'th ye no fear
the Dept. sell'th no ASA gear and all is naught as t'would appear
though some Grads doth sneer
woe! even jeer
would'st thou have me as thy peer
the JFW Poet seer?
verily I proffer the Ladies donuts with a leer
-LDM

Anonymous said...

Public Sociology? I am reminded of that hamburger commercial a few years back where the little old lady demands to know where's the beef? What an exclusionary phrase! Where's the Public?? They seem otherwise engaged, probably in mundane work, paying taxes and high gas prices. If I could work my will, M.B. would be tarred and feathered. If anything, his call to action has polarized the profession and given the Public nothing but moral platitudes and cheap political posturing. They can get that via their remote control and mainstream media. I fling a dead, rotted fish at Berkley!

Anonymous said...

Public Sociology? I am reminded of that hamburger commercial a few years back where the little old lady demands to know where's the beef? What an exclusionary phrase! Where's the Public?? They seem otherwise engaged, probably in mundane work, paying taxes and high gas prices. If I could work my will, M.B. would be tarred and feathered. If anything, his call to action has polarized the profession and given the Public nothing but moral platitudes and cheap political posturing. They can get that via their remote control and mainstream media. I fling a dead, rotted fish at Berkley!

shakha said...

What did you expect Pam to say in the press release? That really, our department sucks, that we mistreat our graduate students and that our losses are sending us way way down in quality? Come on. aFirst of all, our department is not 179 degrees from civility, respect and compassion. Talk to some grad students in other departments - you'll find (1) that our faculty get along reasonably well, (2) that this has beneficial effects for us, (3) that being a grad student almost universally sucks, and (4) that the level of suckiness here is a hell of a lot less than it is at other places.

Two more points. First, jeremy is someone who has proved himself to be open to debate with grad students. That's a sign of respect. So don't call him a jerk in an anonymous commment. Tell him you think he's wrong and explain why. He'll hear you out a hell of a lot better. I agree that the use of "The Truly Disadvantaged" is lame and doesn't make any sense(especially since the book isn't about a group of people who are complaining about their lot).

Finally, I think we should recognize what we've got in the chair right now and take advantage of it. In my experience Pam has been one of the strongest advocates for graduate students. Remember the funding letter debacle? Remember that meeting with Adam, Gay, and Pam where Pam stood up for us and said, "Of course the grad students are upset. They have reasons to be worried about what's going on." Yeah. She stepped up for us in that meeting, and from what I gather, in other faculty meetings on the topic. She's probably one of the few people who would listen to you and do something about concerns of respect, civility, and compassion. So rather than giving her shit about some empty press release she had to make, maybe you could send her a note and say, "Listen, if Wisconsin Sociology is all about respect, civility, and compassion (like Berkeley is all about Public Sociology), then we need to work a bit on grad student life. Here are some suggestions..." I'm guessing we'd get pretty far with her.

jeremy said...

(Explainer: The only thing I meant by my reference to the truly disadvantaged was that while the truly disadvantaged was about people who were persistently disadvantaged beyond mere disadvantage, we have people who seem to be persistently discontented beyond mere discontent. I linked to the book because not everybody who reads my blog is a sociologist and I thought I would explain the allusion.)

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll step back from my first comment. I do, however, defend posting anonomously, since it's the only think the allows me to express these opinions without fear of retaliation, but it's not like I'm monopolizing hyperbole here either: My Graduate Department As Relentless Cruel Oppressor Whose Faculty Delight In Keeping Me Down attitude

I don't think Jeremy was being a jerk, I think he was being callous. I don't expect any chair in this position to do anything but promote the department. That said, in the years I've been in this program, I've felt academically marginalized, had my concerns ignored by faculty in department administration, and personally blamed for not yet being successful in the Wisconsin way. It's hard to square my experience (and obviosuly others that feel the same way) with her comments.

I also don't think anyone's delighting in not helping grads that need it. I do think (and I'm hurt by Jeremy's mocking/embodiment of my point) that a lot of faculty don't see grad student problems as worthy of their attention, or anything but the grumblings of a few malcontents. I think most professors act in their own interests and in the interest of the department; if there's not a way to help students within these constraints, oh well.

Grad school probably is universally hard, but I think it's harder at a place with particular interest in retaining the organizational structure that makes it "the best." Why don't we publish attrition rates? Why doesn't the dept make the TA application process more transparent? It's questions like these that, when asked, label the students as the problem and the faculty as uncompassionate.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy wrote:

"Anyway, as far as I can tell, it's only a relatively small minority of students who truly believe that the faculty do not care at all about the students and revel in thwarting "all attempts of students to improve their lot." I do not know if the proportion of students with this attitude is higher at Wisconsin than anywhere else."

Sadly, this is an extremely vocal minority who taint the rest of us by association. I think for the most part what Pam said is correct. I also think shakha's comment, that Pam is possibly our greatest ally on the faculty, is correct. Instead of bitching and moaning about the many ways the department tries to ruin our lives by consigning us to perennial indentured servitude, maybe that vocal minority's efforts would be better spent lobbying Pam for reasonable improvements in our working conditions.

nlc said...

Perhaps the level of discontent is directly correlated with high levels of apprehension about the job market and has less to do with inherently flawed relations between faculty and students? And if not, rather than using a blog to randomly state diffuse grievances (this to Anon.1), shouldn't the students take a proactive step and suggest some workshops or discussions about the quality of life of a WI grad student? We're doing something like that at the Law School. In fact, this coming Friday, a student committee is presenting to the faculty a carefully thought out list of proposed ideas for change. We suffer a terrible drop in enthusiasm for the Law School experience among roughly 50% of the 1L's after the first semester (when the grades are published).

If there are tangible grievances, it seems that they ought to be sensibly considered, along with the costs and benefits of providing solutions.

I'm not sure I agree with shakha's statement that the life of grad students is uniformly and universally miserable. But it does seem that it is a period when a person, for the first time perhaps, has to demonstrate initiative, make some pretty significant decisions as to directions to follow and in general, take control of his or her life and work habits. Blaming others for the malaise that follows is a natural outgrowth of that transition, it would seem. I've met some pretty happy soc grad students and others who are less chipper. Obviously some handle the stress of uncertainty better than others. Anon 1: do you really believe that grad students, upon becoming faculty, unilaterally cease to be concerned about the life of the grad student and suddenly become solely focused on keeping the department's visibility/rankings high? Do you really think that? If so, I honestly don't think you have a clue about what being a faculty member is all about, in which case I question your career choice.

Not that I know anything about sociology, grad school, or grad student malaise…

Anonymous said...

I for one like to see Grads lean and hungry and I don't mind a bit of groveling now and then either. Some grousing and sass is to be expected, but never taken too seriously.

Anonymous said...

It's FEZ again...I just want to say that it’s really interesting to read your posts, them being much more informative about the grad life than one can read about elsewhere. I am mostly worried about the "universal" crappines of being a graduate student, and would appreciate if someone would tell me a bit more about it. I would really like to know. I am well aware that there's not a lot of money, that it is mainly a solitary endeavor, and that the future is quite uncertain, but aren't there positive stuff (doing what you like, where you want do it, which still leaves you some time to enjoy life, and meet interesting colleagues...) than negative?

Anonymous said...

It's FEZ again...I just want to say that it’s really interesting to read your posts, them being much more informative about the grad life than one can read about elsewhere. I am mostly worried about the "universal" crappines of being a graduate student, and would appreciate if someone would tell me a bit more about it. I would really like to know. I am well aware that there's not a lot of money, that it is mainly a solitary endeavor, and that the future is quite uncertain, but aren't there positive stuff (doing what you like, where you want do it, which still leaves you some time to enjoy life, and meet interesting colleagues...) than negative?

Brayden said...

As an outside observer who doesn't know much about the Wisconsin graduate program, I'm probably a little confused as to the internal dynamics of the department. So let me ask a really basic question that might relieve some of the confusion we non-Wisconsinites might be having.

I don't think that keeping grad students happy and maintaining departmental reputation are mutually exclusive faculty concerns. Don't they overlap quite a lot? For a department to maintain a high ranking they have to demonstrate they can place their grad students in good jobs, and because the primary objective of grad student life is to get a good job, students should be happier when their department consistently places the students well. My impression of Wisconsin sociology is that quite a few students get good jobs. (I don't know what proportion of students get good jobs, but I'd assume it isn't any worse than any other top department in the country.)

Perhaps the problem with the Sconnie students is that there are so many students that it becomes readily apparent that not all students are going to get those few good jobs out there, which creates inequality that, in turn, leads to marginalization and dissatisfaction. Those who feel like they're increasingly marginalized and less likely to get that good job are those same students who begin seeing a dissociation between the grad student happiness and faculty efforts. My question to the dissatisfied students is, what exactly would you rather faculty do to make students happy? What is it about the current system that sucks so badly?

Anonymous said...

I was curious about that too. What exactly are the issues? It's been so long since I was in Grad school, all I remember is constantly studying. I attended a small college and the dept. was very small so we had full and easy access to the profs. I liked the small classes and intense discussions, and despite the hard work, it was one of the better times of my life. Esther

Anonymous said...

want to know what makes us so cranky?

1. working 20+ hours a week (teaching 4 to 5 sections a week, listening to students' problems and excuses, stressing about their end-of-semester evaluations, and grading their crappy papers).

2. getting paid 10K a year before taxes and facing having to pay a growing portion of that for health insurance.

3. not having time to work full-time to make up the difference between the 10K and the rising cost of living in madison.

4. not knowing if we'll have a job at all from one semester to the next. most of us are not guaranteed funding.

5. being told by professors who never had to do this (they got through on scholarships or had a much lighter teaching load) that we're being selfish ninnies who complain about everything. (No, i don't mean Jeremy here, I have no idea how he got through grad school). I mean really, did they teach 5 sections, have 100 students and graded essay exams while trying to write their goddamed masters' thesis?

'nuf said?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that these are complaints about institutional characteristics that have very little to do with support or respect from or access to professors in your department. Unless you believe individual faculty members should limit the enrollment of their undegraduate courses or only give multiple choice exams out of respect for their TAs. As I understand it, in order to guarantee funding to all their students departments must severely restrict the number of graduate students they admit. Is this a more favorable solution?

Anonymous said...

who do you think we do all this work for? professors don't teach nearly as much as we do. and yes, they could limit enrollment and give exams that were less time-intensive. as a sociologist, i know that the institutional structures are made up of academics as well. most if not all were professors once - they can and should work for change. and yes, i do like the idea of a limit on admissions. let's be realistic here folks. why can't you see exploitation when it stares you in the face?

Anonymous said...

By God! you've got legitimate gripes. (Non-Madison observor)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure these concerns put to paper and signed by a number of Grads and given to Pam would bring about some favorable resolution. Since you appear to be unwilling and unable to trash some offices in protest, it's either a petitioin or continue the whining here. Burn the mother down, baby!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Pam would change everything, if only we would ask in writing...

Come on.

1) I don't expect that grads have the power to ask the faculty to only admit the number of students they can guarantee to fund. I'm not even sure I'd agree with that suggestion. I think the faculty would be taken aback if presented with a petition (easily seen as a list of demands.) We're here for training remember? They're in charge.

2) Lots of the concerns are not 'policy' concerns. You can't put: "faculty should be more compassionate to grads" on a petition. I don't even know what that means.

3) There's no ready-made group here. People are unhappy for different reasons. Some are similar, some probably aren't. Trying to get people that feel marginalized to organize around a diffuse set of goals doesn't seem likely.

4) Pardon me (us?) for not being as fulfilled the previous commenter. I think we're just trying to get some concerns into the open. This isn't supposed to be a whine-fest. If I thought I could get anything changed, I'd try. Oh wait, I have tried. Could we get a little sociological perspective on this issue? I think we have an interesting type of hierarchy being expressed in this thread.

Anonymous said...

Brayden-

I don't think high rates of placement or number of prestigous placements necessarily means having a style of grad program that makes students unhappy. UW's rep for running a "factory" though, indicates there might be that relationship present here. There's probably a way to maintain high quality and increase happiness, but I'm not sure it's the organizational strategy of this department.

I also don't think unhappiness only comes after students figure out they're not all getting jobs. I think it comes when they're not selected into the graces of a faculty member who might invest something in their success or when they realize their interests and the structure of the departments specializations don't aid them like they might other students or when the advising they're getting is unsatisfactory. Those things in turn aggrivate fears of not getting (good) jobs post-PhD.

I don't know what proportion of students get good jobs I don't either, and you're not likely to find out if you ask. Attrition is either not counted or not publicly available. If this were an ideal market with perfect information, I think applicants might make their "purchasing" decisions somewhat differently - and I think the department knows this.

brady said...

Here's a crazy idea. . .

As much as the money thing is an issue - and as an 'attrited' (?) student I can testify that, hell yes, it is...er, was - what if they only admitted the number of students to whom they could guarantee a non-overloaded-by-a-gazillion-advisees advisor who agrees to act strongly in a mentor-ish capacity?

Anonymous said...

I am in the midst of my own graduate education, and my own sympathy for the plights of my fellow graduate students gripes are almost completely gone. At UIowa, we recieve no tuition waver, and no health care, and we have the same universal gripes, but slightly higher wages (I expect, though I haven't done the exact math, that our payscale is lower than madison after tuition wavers and benefits). However, I universally see graduate students taking little charge for their own education. Instead it is mostly our own lot being afraid to take charge of their own projects, look for their own funding, and get their damn work done. I whole heartedly agree that graduate school has been mostly thankless, time-consuming, difficult, and provides a abstemious life style, and I would love those things to be changed. But I see a lot of those gripes many graduate students have coming from their own workings (or failings).

Anonymous said...

It seems it really comes down to institutional problems (although you can't separate them from the people). But it shouldn't prevent you to communicate your grievances to the faculty. Aren't you supposed to have more intimate relationships with your professors as grad students, to such an extent that you can at least feel free to tell them what you think sucks about your department, so you can work something out together? I would think that the best way to change something would be to tell it like it is, but aiming at support of your profs not aiming at conflict. Hell, why wouldn't Jeremy be your liaison for doing that? He seems like a nice guy... "the prospective student" (getting second thoughts ...)

jeremy said...

I haven't been able to participate in this thread as much as I would like. In terms of wanting to Change Things, a frustrating thing about Madison is the extent to which assistant professors have no power in anything consequential that goes on. For many matters, we're not even supposed to have information on consequential stuff that goes on. As far as me being any kind of liaison, I'm going away for a couple of years. If things work out and I end up coming back here, I look forward to getting to be involved in how the graduate program is run.

For what it's worth, I personally believe that it would be good if the department tried moving toward a system of only admitted students it could fund. That said, there are institutional reasons, outside the department's control, why making such a change would be far more difficult to pull off than it might appear.

A different kind of tradeoff involved is the whole issue where, if such a system had been enacted in the past, quite a few of the students who are here now wouldn't have been admitted. As a point of information, I once tried to work out roughly how many of the students here now would have been admitted if we had had guaranteed funding. My conclusion was that students who had been offered fellows would have been admitted under the alternative system; students who were fellowship nominees (but did not win) would have been admitted; for everybody else, maybe 25% would have been admitted. Nothing personal.

Incidentally, I personally also believe--along the lines, although not quite so dramatic, of what Brady suggests--that the department should do more to limit admissions in areas where we have a high ratio of students to advising faculty.

Anonymous said...

To the prospective graduate students out there, I think there are two main lessons of this thread. First, there is so little real differentiation among the top ranked departments in terms of quality that you in fact don't need to go to the USNWR #1 school in order to get a top-notch graduate education and a good job afterward. Remember, USNWR rankings are heavily influenced by name recognition, which contributes both to the stickiness of the rankings over time and the well-known bias in favor of large departments that have produced enormous numbers of PhDs over the years.

Second, in making your choice of graduate schools, don't assign a low weight to the departmental and University funding structure of the institution. If you like large cohorts and don't mind -- or even enjoy -- an atmosphere in which students compete for very limited pools of resources, then go to Wisconsin, Berkeley, etc. If you prefer to be in a small cohort in which all members are guaranteed funding at relatively generous and roughly equivalent levels, go to Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Cornell, etc.

I think there is a natural tendency to overweight prestige of the department in making matriculation decisions. This tendency is probably exacerbated by the low prestige of sociology as a discipline, but that's another post.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy,
Any chance you'd be willing to reproduce the rankings for the other specialty areas? I know you already put up the culture and sex/gender ones. But, could you put up the others? You know, after all, can't we just mooch off your having paid the $15.

It is interesting how slippery these specialty rankings are. After all, Indiana's presence in the top ten of gender is odd. They have a couple of faculty in this area, but when I was there, most of the students doing dissertations on gender were forced to rely on non-gender specialists to chair their dissertations.

jeremy said...

To the prospective graduate students out there, if you make your decision about where to go to graduate school on the basis of comments you read on somebody's blog, much less anonymous comments you read on somebody's blog, God help you. You should also keep in mind, excepting perhaps truly pathological programs, the amount of variation in contentment within any graduate program has got to be massively larger than the variation between programs. In any case, I've talked to enough suicidally unhappy students in small programs to think it's kind of ridiculous to imagine it's a magic route to greater graduate student contentment.

In any case, the tendency for size of the department to be favorably correlated with rankings is a bias. Many small departments (including some that are highly ranked) would like to be larger but have had trouble getting the respect from their college to expand. Is that great?

It's also not at all the case that funding guarantees eliminate student competitiveness. You still have competition for different kinds of funding, awards, advisorly attention, and whatever. While there were all kinds of great things about Indiana, where I went to graduate school, and the guaranteed funding system was one of them, I wouldn't say that the reason the guaranteed funding was good was that it eliminated or massively reduced competitiveness among students.

In any case, a main downside to smaller programs is that the range of things that you can do in a smaller program is circumscribed. Many students have large changes in their interests in graduate school. If your interests change, you are more likely not to have somebody in your department that you can work with. (I would hypothesize there are fewer Official Interest Changes in smaller programs, as a result of students feeling they don't have that choice.) Also, if your advisor moves, you are more likely to feel doomed if you don't follow her/him (although your advisor is probably less likely to move).

Anonymous said...

fish meet bicycle.... zooooooom ride on.

Aster said...

Coming in late to the discussion, I'd like to throw in my two cents as a former sociology grad student. I'm familiar (though not extensively so) with several of the departments being mentioned here, and the issues being discussed are really very complex. My thoughts are still rather inchoate, but on the graduate student experience in general:

Shortly after I left my program, I read Barbara Lovitt's book Leaving The Ivory Tower, which argues that the problem of graduate student attrition is not always merely personal - it's systemic, structural, and cultural. Her argument rang true to my experience. It's a bit dry, but worth the read.

Every department has its politics. Every department has its factions. Every department has students who thrive and students who struggle, and the reasons for each are not always what you'd expect. Some departments are more anomic than others. It's not always apparent what type of department you're getting yourself into when you sign the letter of intent.

If I had it to do all over again, I would have ignored the rankings and focused on finding the department with the "best fit" for me. The department I ended up choosing was quite good, but it wasn't ideal for what I wanted to do. Only a couple of people had research interests similar to mine, and one of those people retired and moved away as I was about to start my second year. My department was one of those that has been described (by people other than me) as "anomic", and for someone who was already beginning to feel intellectually disconnected from the particular brand and subdiscplines of sociology the department championed ... well, it wasn't easy.

This is not to say that my department was horrendous. It wasn't, and isn't. There are very caring, supportive people there. There are many students who are satisfied with the program. It just wasn't right for me. I don't know which was the right program for me, though sometimes I do wonder what might have happened had I gone with my other choice and become ... a Sconnie. Would I still be a sociologist? Maybe, maybe not. I'm pretty happy in my new discipline. Also, as noted above, Wisconsin has its problems too, some of which are the same and many of which are different.

While the prestige of the department does matter to an extent, the rankings are largely meaningless. The methodology is suspect, and a number on a page is not going to tell you any of the qualitative details you need to know to make your decision. Funding, while important, also shouldn't be the major factor in a prospective's decision. Think about what you want to do while you're in grad school. Think about what makes you tick. What is it that makes your eyes light up and gets the gears in your head turning? Does the school you're considering have people who get excited about the same things? Do they have advice on where you would go to hook up with other like-minded researchers? Does the department seem to promote a particular theory or approach to your topic, and is it a theory that you agree with? If you're a quant, how do they handle statistical training? If you're more of a qualitative person, how do they instruct students in qualitative methodologies? What do the halls look like when they're not decked out to bedazzle the prospectives on Visit Day? All grad students are busy, and all grad students go through at least one period of graduate school malaise, but do they seem generally happy with their lot? Do they socialize with each other? Does the faculty interact with the students outside the office or classroom door? What have the most recent dissertations been on? How helpful are people there when it comes to identifying opportunities for outside funding and career enrichment/advancement?

In the end, you've got to go with your gut. I knew someone who was debating between the department I went to and another well-respected but not as "highly ranked" (whatever that means) department, and after a lot of thought decided to go with the latter. Knowing a bit about my co-prospective's research interests and theoretical leanings, he made the right choice. He would have been frustrated in the other department, and as far as I know he's quite happy at his current school. That's what's important.

As for public sociology ... nice idea, but the practice leaves something to be desired. "Public sociology ... [is] sociology that serves to promote and inform the public debate." They seem to have that "promoting" bit down; now, how about some of that "informing", eh?

Anonymous said...

From a former graduate student and current faculty member some things I have learned:

1. Negativity of graduate students culture at the departmental level is completely orthogonal to:
a. future career prospects
b. degree of consideration taken by faculty in student outcomes

2. Graduate student cultures are largely a self-propelling process that reaches a stable equilibrium because
a. It takes 4-5 years for a student to reach an independent assessment of how the field in general works
b. By that time most students are no longer active contributors to grad. school culture.
c. Hence new recruits are socialized into the grad school cultures by 2nd-3rd year students who have not had time to figure things out for themselves.

3. The most important things regarding what an institution like a department actually does for you are hardest to find out about because
a. the important things are really confidential
b. the people who violate confidentiality have something wrong with them--they have their own weird agenda and are unlikely to be good sources
c. most of the important constraints are so far upstream that even the actors responsible for local decisions dont understand why they are doing what they are doing.

I am not saying this because I want it to be true because I care whether UW is ranked #1 or #100. But I have studied in one department, worked in a couple, and visited and talked to students in lots--most of the top 20. And I have repeatedly seen two completely comparable departments, at one of which the students decide they are getting fucked, convince themselves that they are internally divided and what not, spend 8 years feeling sorry for themselves and then do mediocre work, while at the other, the same sorts of students spend the same amount of effort doing great work and go on to have the great careers (of course not all, but comparatively) that they went to graduate school for. ANYONE WHO CONVINCES YOU TO MAKE THE FIRST KIND OF LIFE FOR YOURSELF IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.