On the one hand, I want to warn students not to come to my program. On the other hand, I don't want to be "that one," and I also don't want to tarnish the reputation of the specific people I worked with (who I mostly like).

More specifically:

I want to warn students about lack of funding, administration being uncaring towards students, certain PhD requirements being a lot more onerous than they say they are, general departmental atmosphere and culture among the grad students, general culture of the school, poor location, etc etc.

Also my school is the only top school in my field that has a "rotation system" for picking advisors, and that is generally framed as a benefit, and a reason to choose the school. But I don't think students really realize how much rotations suck until after they've come here.

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    The fact that it did not work for you (which we all sympathize here) does not mean it will not work for them too. Thing like "shittiness of location", "culture among grad students" are very subjective and other grads might disagree with you. – Alexandros Feb 10 '15 at 9:19
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    @Alexandros: That's true, but nevertheless the OP is entitled to his opinion and to give it to those who ask. As long as his goal is to make sure the prospectives who ask get his honest opinion rather than to make their decision for them, I see no problem commenting on subjective things. – Pete L. Clark Feb 10 '15 at 14:26
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    Whether a location is "shitty" is entirely subjective. My PhD was in an isolated campus in the forest, with 10 PhD students, 30 Master students, and 0 undergraduates. My postdoc is at a downtown university campus in one of the largest cities in North America. To me, the former is much preferable over the latter, but I can imagine many people would (strongly) disagree. – gerrit Feb 10 '15 at 16:30
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    @user3326185 "not telling them" isn't doing them a favor. They should want to hear as many different opinions as possible. – o0'. Feb 11 '15 at 9:30
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    Why are you still there?? – JeffE Feb 11 '15 at 11:53

11 Answers 11

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Imagine, as a thought experiment, making your points in an argumentative text—a paper*— that should pass peer review by your department (assuming intellectual honesty on their part) — so that you have to be careful that what you write is objective. You have to separate facts, beliefs, anecdotical evidence, etc. Then you have something you can pitch to people (in an informal context) while being professional and objective when describing facts, so it subsumes lots of other advice. (EDIT: lots of other things would be relevant to getting a paper accepted, but I only care about being careful with your opinion).

Moreover, framing things this way might help you expose them to anybody else — from people on this forum, to your advisor, to people who might change things at your school. Many of them will be excellent at arguing their point this way, you have to be better than them to win.

While this is a top school, it has several disadvantages in comparison to other top schools:

  • funding is inferior to other schools.
  • in my experience, dealing with the administration was frustrating [evidence]
  • while other schools allow you to pick your advisor, here you get it assigned through a rotation system. While it has the advantage of ..., it prevents you from picking the advisor with which you'd work best (something that you probably want to read about if you didn't already).
  • ...

The above isn't very convincing or accurate. Also, I don't have citations appropriate for your field. But hopefully you get the drift.

Also, as others said, if you can, give your opinion in an informal context (as recommended by others). The event should include moments for honest opinions.

*I suspect some would debate to which extent a paper is an argumentative text, because this depends somewhat on the scientific community — at the very least, the importance of some results is not just a fact, but something that (in this information overload era) you need to argue for, if you want to get attention of your readers. In case you haven't been taught this already, somebody might be failing you more than you think.

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    Unless he wants to write a paper in sociology, "should pass peer review by your department" is a strange piece of advice. A personal opinion has a value, and the prospective student knows that it is a one-person datapoint, rather that a conclusive research-level report. Otherwise I no one could write even a movie review/opinion. – Piotr Migdal Feb 15 '15 at 18:44
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    @PiotrMigdal: certainly a personal opinion has a value, also in a paper. "We believe that our technique is more elegant than technique X" is an undeniable fact about the author's opinion, which can be useful in a paper. On the other hand, stating the same opinion as a fact (as in, "Our technique is more elegant than technique X") would be a questionable idea (unless there's clear enough evidence). – Blaisorblade Feb 16 '15 at 3:02
  • Focus on facts, rather than your emotional impressions.
  • Don't try to overgeneralize. Say what didn't work for you, rather than imply that it does not work for everyone (unless everyone agrees) or it won't work for the prospective student (who knows...).
  • You could say "I would have chosen differently" (ideally, adding the other possible options) or "overall, I dislike this program" rather than "this program sucks" or going into long rants.
  • +1 for framing it as "this is why it didn't work for me" -- as you say, "Focus on facts" and let the potential newbies make up their own mind. – kwah Feb 11 '15 at 16:45
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    @kwah This is one thing. But also but overgeneralizing one becomes less convincing (for a newcomer it's impossible to distinguish if the problem is with the place, or - this student). – Piotr Migdal Feb 11 '15 at 21:05

lack of funding,

Here I think you can be straightforward. Probably the faculty are just as disappointed as you are.

administration being uncaring towards students,

I don't know exactly what this means; as a grad student I never tried to attract the attention of any administrator. If you have any specific problems you might bring them up.

general departmental atmosphere and culture among the grad students, general culture of the school,

If you're talking with an old friend privately, sure, bring it up. If you're meeting students at some big admit weekend, then you would piss people off by saying anything, and indeed there's not much reason for you to: prospectives will get a chance to observe the atmosphere for themselves.

poor location, etc etc.

Griping about this is pretty common. (Among faculty too!) I don't think it's especially frowned upon to complain about this, at least if your point of view is widely shared or if you are speaking to prospectives in private.

Indeed, I remember one student at one school telling me: "The only positive thing I have to say about the campus or the location is that there is adequate parking."

Also my school is the only top school in my field that has a "rotation system" for picking advisors, and that is generally framed as a benefit, and a reason to choose the school.

Tread a little bit more carefully here. "In retrospect, I believe that I would have fared better without this system; my experience was blah-blah-blah. But this is a system that our school touts, so you might talk to other people too, to get a sense of what would be best for you."

That said, if this were some kind of admit weekend, I'd consider inventing an excuse to be elsewhere for the day. If not many current grad students are willing to show up and talk to prospectives, that will itself serve as the warning you want to offer.

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    Your second point is strange. I have to come to the administration to do various thing, and if they call me "the little impotent boy", it's not nice. I don't know if this is the exact thing the OP meets, but it's the thing I would summarize as "administration being <negative adjective> towards PhD students". Again, it would use a clear example. In some schools, the administration fills all your journey papers and buys you tickets if you want etc. even when you're a PhD student, in some, they do not. So there can be "administration is careless". – yo' Feb 10 '15 at 17:48
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    @yo', I can see why you don't like being called "the little impotent boy". Here in the UK that would be considered workplace bullying / sexual harassment. I don't know the norms in Prague, but here it would be an industrial tribunal waiting to happen. – A E Feb 10 '15 at 18:03
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    prospectives will get a chance to observe the atmosphere for themselves. — Not, not really, especially if it's a visit weekend, when everyone is wearing their bright and happy faces. – JeffE Feb 11 '15 at 11:58
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    Not showing up will not help either. Prospective students don't know how many are there, and even if they knew, there are many reasons why they wouldn't show up (from administration limiting slots to they went all on a happy fun excursion). – Davidmh Feb 11 '15 at 12:06
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    To echo @D.W., please take all extended discussion to Academia Chat. – eykanal Feb 12 '15 at 14:18

I personally do not think you can warn perspective students without ruining your reputation at a departmentally sponsored event. If your department asks you, or even just provides an opportunity, to meet with perspective students, the expectation is that you will represent the department in the best possible way, while being honest. That means you should not volunteer things that you do not like. if you are asked a question about something you do not like, you should of course answer it honestly. Using such an event to express your views about the short comings of the department, is unprofessional and I would think less of a student who behaved that way. If a potential student contacts you unofficially, then it is less inappropriate to, but still inappropriate in my opinion, to disparage your department.

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    StrongBad has a good point. Presumably the goal of the event is to 'sell' potential students on the programme. @bitterstudent, you seem to be asking how you can undermine that goal without the rest of the department noticing. It seems to me that you have nothing to gain and quite a lot to lose from this behaviour. It might be better for you (and it would certainly be better for the department) if you avoid the event entirely. Be sick on the day if necessary. If you have a grudge against the department then I suggest you find a different way to express it which is less likely to backfire. – A E Feb 10 '15 at 17:58
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    @AE yes, it it perfectly fine to have a grudge about a department and one can express those views in a professional manner (e.g., a blog post, a letter to the student newspaper, or some departmental events). A recruiting event is not one of those places. – StrongBad Feb 10 '15 at 18:21
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    We clearly live in different worlds. Every PhD recruiting event I've ever heard of makes sure to leave the prospective students alone with the current grad students for some time precisely because it gives the current students a chance to speak openly about the department. A culture of "thou shalt not say bad things about us" seems repressive, to say the least. – user4512 Feb 10 '15 at 20:41
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    I would have to agree with Chris here, at least to some extent. While I do agree that saying "This school sucks. Don't come here." would be extremely unprofessional, mentioning specific things that you think, shall we say, could use improvement isn't necessarily unprofessional. Giving a laundry list of everything you don't like and coming off as whiney is unprofessional, but honestly talking about the pros and cons of your institution/department isn't necessarily so. As Piotr said, though, focus on facts and let students form their own opinions based on them. – reirab Feb 10 '15 at 21:03
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    Sadly, I have visited departments where "giving the student perspective" meant either "giving students a place to vent" or "lying". The former is far more professional than the latter, in my opinion. – JeffE Feb 11 '15 at 11:50

You'll probably end up in conversations with the prospectives about the other schools they're considering. Then you can highlight differences between your school and the other school without making (too) overt judgements on which you consider to be better.

For instance, with the rotating advisor feature, you could say, “Here advisors are assigned to students on a rotating basis, whereas at Other University you would have the option to choose an advisor that best meets your needs as a young scholar.”

If you don't have information about Other University, you can suggest they research it. “You should look into how graduate students are supported at Other University. I know that here it's harder than it would seem.”

Or if you want to contrast the locations, say, “I imagine the weather's a lot better near Other University.”

In short, be subtle, and grown-up.

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    I have to disagree with "be subtle", on the grounds that when I was a prospective grad student, I would not have picked up on subtleties! – Anonymous Feb 10 '15 at 13:13
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    I would have to agree with "be subtle". The task inherently calls for subtle advice rather than overt recommendation. Students who are less perceptive / less socially adept are not going to get as many clues as other students: okay, that's life. – Pete L. Clark Feb 10 '15 at 14:44
  • I agree with Anonymous that prospective grad students can be naïve. I was, too. I also agree with Pete. OP does seem to be seeking a way to be subtle. – Matthew Leingang Feb 10 '15 at 18:32
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    Subtle comments can be interpreted the opposite way you intended. Take Oppenheimer's advice to Dyson: "Well, Birmingham has much the best theoretical physicist to work with, Peierls; Bristol has much the best experimental physicist, Powell; Cam- bridge has some excellent architecture. You can make your choice." It doesn't picture Cambridge in a very good light, but it looks very similar to your comment on the weather. – Davidmh Feb 11 '15 at 12:12
  • @Davidmh: You seem to be making my point. I would call Oppenheimer's advice subtle. And I chose weather as a measure of quality of life since all the OP said was that the location was undesirable (to him). – Matthew Leingang Feb 12 '15 at 19:10

Try to ask the opposite question: what characteristics does someone need to have not to hate this program?

Different people value different things. So to be happy there someone must put a lot of value on the positive points and put little value on the negative points.

You can tell them something along the lines: this place is awesome in X, Y and Z but doesn't work well in R, S, T. If you're gonna like it or not, depends on how much value you put in each of these factors.

You can even factor in your opinion saying: I, for example, put a lot of value in R and the fact that it doesn't work well here really bothers me.

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    If a school receives more applications than it can accept, it will often be in everybody's interest to have those who would be happier elsewhere, go elsewhere. Simply saying the school is bad would be unprofessional, but helping those for whom the school would not be a good fit recognize that fact would allow the school to admit more people for whom it would be a good fit. – supercat Feb 13 '15 at 0:20
  • I really like this answer. I think you should lay low, keep your comments to a minimum, and generally only answer the questions people ask you--but if someone does ask for a broad-based response, say, "You'd be happy here if... [you like quiet old towns/you have money/you really, really don't want the hassle of picking an advisor/you're OK with fulfilling challenging requirements in order to meet a high standard in your field, etc.]" – SAH Feb 16 '15 at 8:05

I may be going against the grain of other faculty, but I want incoming students to have informed consent about our program. Like every other place, we have areas that we are proud about and we have areas that we could do better. Students should weigh the pros and the cons of coming here and make a good choice.

A student who believes they were fooled or conned into a program is not going to be a happy student.

That being said, saying bad things about the program in front of your advisors is bad form. The appropriate venue is for all of the students (current and prospective) to go out for beers/coffee after the department event and for the current students to tell the prospies the real perspective there.

We actively encourage our grad students to host incoming and prospective students in their homes precisely because we want them to have ample opportunity to get a good sense of what our department is like before they make the commitment.

Finally, many places do want the current students to vent their frustrations about the program to us in appropriate and constructive ways. You should look into having ways that you can have more student feedback into department operations. Talk to your chair or your director of graduate studies about creating a student feedback committee or its equivalent.

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    "I may be going against the grain of other faculty, but I want incoming students to have informed consent about our program." I agree completely. I am a little concerned by answers which indicate that the role of a current student when talking to a prospective student is to sell the program even to the point of lack of honesty. That can't be right, and can it really be what faculty want? (Is it really faculty who have expressed this opinion? I'm not convinced.) – Pete L. Clark Feb 12 '15 at 13:42
  • "The appropriate venue is for all of the students (current and prospective) to go out for beers..." Consider if there should be some non-liquor-dependent environment for making a connection with other people. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 20 '16 at 15:24
  • Point taken. Edited. – RoboKaren Aug 20 '16 at 16:42

It would be best to keep your bitterness and negativity to yourself. You won't succeed in convincing anyone, and the only person who will end up looking bad is you.

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    [citation needed] OP is just as entitled to express his opinions as anyone else. Life is not all rainbows and chocolate; pretending otherwise is dishonest and, in the long run, worse for both the prospective students and the department. – JeffE Feb 11 '15 at 11:48
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    I disagree with "You won't succeed in convincing anyone" — unless you come off as whiney. Also, I don't know, but if you're able to sell your research professionally, you should be able to describe the truth. (At least in my field, few results speak for themselves, so a paper is an argumentative text). – Blaisorblade Feb 11 '15 at 19:48

Just like with anything else in life, you need to represent your employer/department/whoever in a positive light while also being honest.

When I am in a similar situation as this, I turn "this sucks" into "this is challenging." It is all in the wording. Graduate school is not easy, that is no secret. What challenges did you have? What was frustrating? If you stick through it, what is the benefit?

I would not fault anyone for saying "X, Y, and Z are challenging, but in the end I will have a doctorate."

  • The formulation in your last sentence is absolutely perfect, IMO. – SAH Feb 16 '15 at 8:02

Try to make discover to students by themselves that program is not a good program. you can make this by asking them questions that transfer to them some signals which could guide them to another program. By the way, are you sure that program in which you are actually is not a good program ? Maybe this negative point of view can be your own perspective and not reflect the reality ? I think, most appropriate way to evaluate if the program is not well established is to think about fundamental questions.

1) How about the impact factor of the research made in your program (especially the papers written by professors) ?

2) Which kind of academic events (seminars, workshops etc.) are organized and how often ?

3) Are professors open to interact with PhD students ?

the list can be extended.

  • The OP wrote that it's a top school and compared it to other top schools, so the answer to your questions are likely to be positive. Yet, the point he raises can also be relevant. – Blaisorblade Feb 11 '15 at 19:51

If you have the opportunity to socialize with a few of them in a more private fashion, for instance by going out at night with a small group, then maybe you have a chance to do it inconspicuously.

If you want to do it during the day then you might give an honest opinion about something you particularly dislike but without forcing it too much, otherwise they may start talking with each other and this will eventually reach the ears of colleagues of yours. Try doing it objectively and put in a few things you like as well, in other words mix it in.

There are good and bad things. I feel the administrative staff could be a bit more helpful and the culture isn't what I expect it to be. I think the main thing I dislike is the rotation system to pick your adviser they use here because if you're unlucky you might end up with something which is not a good fit for you. On the other hand I'm lucky in that I'm doing something I enjoy and working with colleagues I like.

Notice on how the paragraph finishes with the good stuff at the end, i.e. you like your work and some of your work colleagues. The part about the rotation system is in the middle of the sentence but I assure that's unlikely to leave their head; the prospect of being forced to work with people you don't like is not a good one. You can also add that sure the university is quite isolated but whether someone likes it or not is a subjective matter.

Now what I feel would be the better option is if you have access to a mailing list with all of them. Create an email account using Tor and send everyone a balanced email with your opinion (e.g. list format). Do not be rude or they'll discard your opinion right away. Be factual and let them draw their own conclusions.

Culture and location are subjective, I wouldn't mind doing a degree in the middle of a forest, in fact sounds like a fun experience (as long as there's proper accommodation, food, work infrastructure and Internet... so basically what I need to get work done).

Finally, I leave you with a question. If it's that bad why are you still there?


Update: Although the anonymous email option leaves no digital trail if done properly, people that know you may still suspect that it was you, for instance because of your writing style. Such suspicion may negatively impact your reputation.

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    I decided to downvote this. (1) Do not do anonymous reviews when you're not asked for them. This will back you up, the department will likely come to conclusion who it was and it'll be a hell on earth. (2) The last paragraph is IMHO rude. Quitting is not an option for many because of PhD contracts, bonds, money, administration, housing, ongoing projects, whatever. I'm quite sure that the OP has considered this. Moreover, this question is not about that at all, so it's significantly off-topic here. – yo' Feb 12 '15 at 1:01
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    @yo': "Quitting is not an option for many because of PhD contracts, bonds, money, administration, housing, ongoing projects, whatever." -- There is always an option and leaving is one of them. The OP seems unhappy with his/her current predicament to the point of wanting to drive prospective students away from the institution. As a prospective student/employee, if someone told me X is terrible don't come here, my first question would be then why are you at X? – Daniel Feb 12 '15 at 1:30
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    @yo': "Do not do anonymous reviews when you're not asked for them. This will back you up, the department will likely come to conclusion who it was and it'll be a hell on earth." -- If the institution (or program) is so bad as the OP seems to imply then surely there will be other bitter students around. If bitter student is the only one unhappy then I'd take that as a sign the program is not the problem. – Daniel Feb 12 '15 at 1:40
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    I support the "don't leave anonymous reviews" comment. Unless you are extremely cognizant of the quirks of your writing style, and are excellent at stripping out details of your particular complaints (to the point where they're virtually worthless), someone will be able to identify you. They'll recognize your style, or realize that you have the same complaints as Anonymous, or they'll realize that Anonymous had the exact same lousy advisors that you had, or something. Not proof that you did it, but they'll suspect strongly enough that your reputation will suffer. – Bob Gilmore Feb 12 '15 at 5:59
  • Added a note about the possible reputation hit in connection to sending an anonymous email. – Daniel Feb 12 '15 at 14:30

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