January seems to be that time of the year that I ponder this question often. After the grades have come out, I always get a few students with very low grades (D or lower) coming to talk to me, and wondering whether this grade will have an impact on their future ambitions of going to a top graduate school and becoming a professor.

Another related event that happens in January is that it's the interview season for tenure-track positions in my field. The market is getting increasingly tougher, and plenty of very strong postdocs that I know don't have any interviews.

Watching these things always makes me wonder if it's a bad thing to be discouraging to the students.

Sure, technically it's true that even with a couple of failing grades, you can still gain entrance to a top graduate school, given glowing recommendation letters. And sure, I'm sure that some researchers weren't phenomenal in graduate school but they flourish in their later career.

However, in today's tough market I think that these things are becoming rarer, and in general, unless you stay on top of the track you don't really succeed in becoming a professor/researcher. So I often wonder if it's better to tell the students a bit more of the honest truth. That their ambitions are possible to realize, but that the competition is tougher than they could ever imagine. That they should definitely have a plan B in place. That even if they succeed in becoming a professor, their life might be very different from how they imagined it to be (struggling with a two-body problem, working for a university that you never dreamed of, and so on). I, for one, might have appreciated an honest answer, and maybe that would have changed my career trajectory. And I think enough people with doctorates work for jobs that they could have gotten before going to graduate schools.

So, as an educator, it is bad form to be discouraging. But I wonder if it's actually in their interests to really know what's in store. Do you do this? That is, do you tell your weak students with unrealistic goals that their goals are unachievable?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 0:37
  • 2
    While not an answer, I think this is very closely related to the "idea" that many in academia have, that "Your worthless if your not sporting a 4.0" I have seen may people fall into the trap of "You must do X at a university or you can't do Y." Enough so that brilliant inventors stop inventing because they can't get a perfect grade in the engineering class. So I think what ever you decide to do that you keep in mind the balance between telling the truth (important) and letting them explore their goals.
    – coteyr
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 9:17
  • This is more important when talking about "teaching only" professions. So their goal is to be a professor, and it's true that they should be aware of the difficulties involved, but part of going to school that a lot of people foret is self discovery. And I see a lot of students stop that process because of 1 or 2 poor test scores.
    – coteyr
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 9:21
  • One bit of bright news... if the goal is research or professorship, the amount of research done in the world is increasing, even if it's not as often within academia. Therefore, from a goals perspective, the difference between a top graduate school and a middling graduate school is shrinking for this purpose. Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 19:03

13 Answers 13


I am a student so this is coming from a student's perspective.

I think you should be honest with them regarding what going into graduate school entails. For my case, none of the professors I initially talked to encouraged me to go to graduate school, and for good reason. Each of them stated what the cons were to going to graduate school and how the academic job market is now much more competitive than when they were a fresh Ph.D. graduate. Was this discouraging at first? Yes. However, it also helped me in cognitively organizing why I wanted to go to graduate school and I was able to set a firm goal and stick with it.

Those professors often told me that the reason why they would encourage students to take a gap year and think long and hard about the next step is precisely because students often make the assumption that Ph.D. is the obvious 'next step' when it very well might be the exact opposite of what they wanted.

Coming from a student's perspective, I appreciate honesty from professors because it helps me to realize the reality of going into graduate school and potentially what kind of sacrifices I need to make (e.g. a good chunk of my youth, vacation time, etc.). However, I never found it appealing when a professor, who I aspire to be like, tells me that I'm not good enough to ever do what they do without additional feedback.

In my case, when I first approached those professors about my plans to go into Ph.D. to become a professor, my main advisor looked at my records and told me what to expect, where I currently stand, and what I can do to improve should I wish to stay on that path. I think the last bit is the most important piece of feedback I received. The first two parts can help me in deciding if this is the correct next step for me, but the third part is what will help me achieve that step despite the challenges.

So all in all, if I were one of your students, I would appreciate honest commentary on my goals as well as the additional feedback on what I can do to improve so that the choice of pursuing a Ph.D. is still ultimately my decision. This also helps students to develop and mature, I think.

  • 18
    Your first paragraph oddly reminded me of Starship Troopers, where the recruiter was a sergeant (one arm, no legs) whose job was discouraging recruits to become soldiers/citizens, but if they willingly joined and truly believed they could cut it, he'd be glad of having done his job properly, almost as if it was an accomplishment.
    – CPHPython
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 15:41

While I don't have a definite and complete answer, there are a few points I would like to make.

  • I consider part of my duty to help students get the right information to choose their path, and in France, it is actually listed in our official duties (this is relatively recent, was added less than a decade ago). So honesty is in order, really.

  • Before speaking the brutal truth, one should look into oneself for possible prejudice. One might overrate the importance of one's lecture because one feels it is the most important thing in the universe, while excellent grades in other lectures might make the student's record not so bad. One usually is influenced by common prejudice in our societies, and should be careful not to discourage female, working class or visible minorities students more strongly than wealthy white men. In some rare occasions, one might even find relevant to actually encourage some students who feel they can't do it while they are extremely bright and doing great (our students are usually subject to the same prejudice as we are, and it might be directed against themselves).

  • That said, given the toughness of the market to get a permanent position in academia, I now give the following advice to all but the very very brightest students, even if they do stand a chance: assume you enter graduate school, do a very good PhD, and then don't get a permanent position. Would you be ok with that, or would you regret spending these years in academia? If you can accept to move on after PhD, you may try it. If you'll regret it in case you don't land a job, I strongly advise you search another path. I give the same advice after PhD to young people deciding whether they should take post-docs (and how long they try): only take the post-doc you will be happy to have worked for itself.

  • It is also part of our responsibility, when we sit on admission committees or when asked to supervise a PhD (note that the system is different in France than in the US), to decline applications we do not believe firmly in. In France, there is relatively little recognition of the PhD in the private sector, and because of this I actually think we currently train too many PhDs.

  • 6
    +1 mainly for the excellent advice in the penultimate paragraph. Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 12:17
  • Um I don't agree with withholding the advice from the very very brightest students that you give to all the other students. They too should not be going into a PhD without really wanting to do the research mostly for its own sake, even if you're certain that they would 'do well'.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 6:15
  • @user21820: there are some (rare) people to whom I could not give any other advice than "if you feel like entering PhD, just do it" given how obviously they should do great. Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 17:22
  • @BenoîtKloeckner: Well, as I said, it's okay if they want to do research, but it's usually not so okay if they think that PhD research is merely a stepping stone to something else. Rare or not, they deserve the same advice that you give others, since there is always a nonzero likelihood of not getting a permanent position after PhD.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 2:37

I think you need to balance brutal honesty with treating students with respect.

If I find a student who will have a difficult time in getting into grad school, I would tell them that I believe they will have a challenging time finding a graduate school to accept them based on their current credentials. I would also attempt to explain what I think would make her case stronger, without being too harsh in describing the situation. You can also describe your own situation and the realities in the academic community as a whole in a similar manner.

Ultimately, it boils down more to how you say it, not so much what you say.

  • 20
    "I think you need to balance brutal honesty with treating students with respect." I agree, but I also think it is possible to convey one's full opinion of the chances of success in a respectful way. It takes some forethought to choose one's words appropriately and some guts to say them, but it is certainly achievable with effort. Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 6:22
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    To echo @PeteL.Clark in different words... I don't think there is anything to balance; brutal honesty and respect are not opposites.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 18:19
  • 1
    Did you mean to imply that brutal honesty and respect are antithetical to one another? Isn't being honest also being respectful? It might depend on what you mean by "brutal", but to me that part of it is more on a spectrum with "polite" than "respectful". Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 12:37
  • 2
    No. You do not need to balance honesty with respect. You need to balance honesty and your experience and knowledge with the fact that you can't predict the future accurately. When I was teaching high school, I used to say things like "well, imagine an admissions officer. She has 40 applications to read in the next hour. After glancing at your transcript and SATs, is she going to read the rest of your application? Maybe, but you can see you'll need a Plan B."
    – Jeffiekins
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 17:47

So, as an educator, it is bad form to be discouraging. But I wonder if it's actually in their interests to really know what's in store. Do you do this? That is, do you tell your weak students with unrealistic goals that their goals are unachievable?

As university teachers, we have the luxurity of working with adults who can and should make their own decisions. As such, it inherently feels "wrong" to me to present a student with a more rosy view of their situation to keep them on a track that you suspect they would have already left if they had all the information. It's also important to note that the short-term "encouragement" the student may currently feel if you tell her/him that (s)he may still get into MIT will turn into bitter disappointment and discouragement once (s)he finds out that (s)he won't get in. Even though as a teacher you should be encouraging, you don't necessarily need to choose a path that's maximally encouraging right now, without any considerations of future prospects.

Edit: Regarding being honest with students about the realities of life in academia I would say you should definitely do that. However, don't just focus on the negatives - also explain why you like doing what you do, and why you think it is right for you. I think there is currently a trend in academia to be overly negative with everything, and I don't think that helps anybody. I feel the best course of action for me was always to be very honest with my students on what I am currently working on, applying for, and struggling with. That way my students get a good, direct view on what life looks like for a junior PI, and can themselves decide if that is something that they want for themselves or not.

So I think that ultimately, we do have an obligation to be honest to students about how we we see their prospects.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You should not just tell students that their current dream is unachievable, but offer them useful alternatives to think about (and offer some good, plausible encouragement why the alternative is also very worthy). A student may not realistically go to MIT, but maybe a less excellent school is still within reach? A recent graduate may currently not be competitive for a tenure track position at an R1 university, but would they also be interested in a postdoc or a temporary staff scientist position? These things may seem obvious, but sometimes people get so hung up on their "dream" first choice priority that they forget that alternatives exist that maybe would not be too bad for the student.
  • You should always critically examine if you really have the student's best interest in mind, or your own. It's not important whether you consider teaching at a community college as a step down from graduating from your institution - if you can see the student be happy in a pure teaching position, you should encourage her/him to explore it even if it would not be the right choice for you. Similarly, you should not think about your tenure or promotion case while deciding about what to tell your student about his future prospects.
  • Choice of words as well as timing is of tremendous import if you want to be encouraging. Make very sure that the idea that you transport is that the student should be persuing the second-best option, and not that the student failed and should now be scrapping for some sort of semi-viably backup plan. Whatever choice a student makes, frame it positively and don't focus on what (s)he has not achieved to do. For instance, if a recent graduate will leave academia entirely for industry, your conversation should circle around what the student has learned and achieved, and not on that "he could have gotten this job also without a PhD". A good part of being encouraging is simply to be a "glass is half full" person.
  • Re: "You should always critically examine if you really have the student's best interest in mind, or your own": This makes it sound like professors have a conflict of interest (that they might benefit in some way from having the student receive this advice); but judging from the rest of that paragraph, I guess what you mean is something like "You should always make sure you're correctly putting yourself in the student's shoes -- every person is different, and the student's wants and needs may not be the same ones that you had at that age." Do I have that right?
    – ruakh
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 0:22
  • @ruakh any person offering you an advice has a conflict of interest at some level, no?
    – user67255
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 17:28
  • One thing that is present in this that I always believe in: encourage students to think of the goal not the role. Being in an R1 is a role. Being able to change the world in <x> way is a goal. Money is seldom a real goal. Having enough money to <y> is a goal. I've interviewed a lot of people, and you would be shocked about how few can answer the question "If you could change one thing about the world with you work, what would it be?" So busy trying to get there, not sure what to do if/when they make it.
    – Namey
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 6:20

Totally. We're talking about years of someone's life, here.

By way of elaboration, let me tell you a story. I applied to postgraduate research positions at three universities after I graduated. One was rejected. One, the one I wanted most because it aligned most closely with my research interests, I didn't hear back from. The one I wanted least I was invited for interview and got the position.

Several days after accepting I got a letter from the institution I most wanted to attend offering me a place. The professor apologized for the late reply and offered some excuse (I forget what). But he said he knew one of my tutors and was happy to accept me on the basis of personal recommendation. Because I already had a position and it was literally days before the start of a new academic year, I felt honour bound to stay with what I had already accepted.

During my first few months of postgraduate life I discovered that my tutor was seen as a liability by the rest of the faculty. He was ill-tempered, physically threatened his students and had almost zero concept of how modern research was conducted. He spent most of his supervision time with me telling me off about minor errors of grammar and spelling in my lab reports. When challenged or asked to provide scientific guidance he would grow increasingly angry to the verge of violence.

I asked various people who'd been part of my interview process why they hadn't warned me when they had ample opportunity. They all apologised and said they were all too scared of the professor in question to risk telling me the truth.

I flunked the course after two and half years of misery with almost no material for a dissertation.

Truth be told, I might have flunked any PhD course. It may be I just wasn't dedicated enough or good enough at benchwork (my theory was fine!) to make the grade. But I wasn't given the opportunity to find out whether that was true because I was lied to about the quality of course I'd enlisted on. Those lies cost me two and half years of depression and the chance of a doctorate.

Even if I'd had a better tutor, they could have done me a huge favour by warning me upfront that academic life is hard. That it requires lots of out of hours work and enormous dedication. That it requires skills you've likely only touched on briefly as an undergraduate and that it's totally different to undergraduate life. That even an good to average student might not cut it in this world. That postgraduate life is structured and administered differently from undergraduate and that there are far more personality clashes and far fewer quality checks.

I might not have listened had a nicer tutor told me these things. But at least I would then be certain I only had myself to blame. Failing to be upfront about the academic life and, specifically about the academic life at your institution can cost people years of their lives. You own to them to be totally, unequivocally, honest.


One thing I don't see mentioned yet is that you might be able to provide some hard data for the student. Statements like "academia is very competitive" are vague, because people have different ideas of what competition means.

Suppose a student really wants to be a research professor at a top-10 or top-20 school. In their past they have been in the top 10% of their class in high school and the top 10% of their class in college. They think they should be able to pull off being a top 10% grad student as well. This person has been very competitive and academically successful their entire life, so telling them that the job market is competitive doesn't really convey useful information. They might not realize that the position they're shooting for will have them competing against the top 1% in the nation (and consequently, they might not realize that academic scores don't mean a lot up at that high level).

In my field, Computer Science, we have a publication called the Taulbee Survey which gives very good data on all of this. According to them, the field produced 1,780 PhD's last year. Of those, just 140 got a tenure-track position in a PhD granting department in North America. That's enough of a baseline to say that only 10% of PhDs end up as research professors in my field. If a student wants to be a really high-power research faculty then they're going to be competing for something like 20 possible slots in the US.

  • And I should point out that CS education is booming right now. I would definitely inform your students fully if they want to go into one of those fields with just a handful of openings every year.
    – David
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:37
  • If you sum up all academic employment, you get 473 (or so), which is about 1/3 of people for who they have data (1406).
    – Alexey B.
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 22:41
  • 1
    The 10% figure is a low-end estimate. If not all the 1780 new PhDs sought tenure track prof positions, the percentage is higher.
    – Justas
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 1:13

I'm also a student.

Be very honest. You have information that they don't have that will be useful for them. I would rather tell them what you know and have them make the decision for themselves, rather than let them keep doing what they're doing and seeing them fail.

A quick personal story: I was an undergraduate student about two years ago, getting top awards in the math department that I graduated from, was well-respected in the department, and told my advisor at the time that I was thinking of pursuing graduate school full-time after a gap year of working in actuarial science, to eventually become a professor of statistics.

My advisor was involved in the hiring committee at the time for the math department, and she had a lot to say about this. To paraphrase what she said to me: the market is extremely competitive (and I understood what this meant, considering that I previously was considering to be a musician full-time), she was disturbed at how professors seem to always suggest that their top students go to graduate school, and she strongly suggested that I spend some time exploring my options in the job market.

This was the best advice that I'd ever had in my four years as an undergraduate. I did what she said, and yes, I did have my struggles. But I am very happy with my life only two years later, including the fact that I'm working full-time in a job I love while working on a graduate degree part-time. I hear from my peers who are in Ph.D. programs full-time who are considering dropping out, most of whom I consider to be very intelligent people. I hear about the things that they are doing in their programs and their morale, and I prefer my life of being able to pay for my graduate-school expenses and developing professional experience over the life of being a Ph.D. while TAing courses of students that do not care for the material.

Dreams need to balanced with reality. In my college career, I wanted to be a full-time musician and a full-time professor. It is easy to be lost in what you're doing if that's all you're doing for 40+ hours a week, especially if you're a student. Students who are spending many hours on their studies and other obligations often don't have time to be doing their own research on the job market itself. In most cases (judging by my peers' experiences), they often don't know where to start.


I would be honest that low grades will make it difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to get into their dream grad school. And in fact getting into such a school and not being up to the challenge wouldn't be good for the student.

If the student insists on wanting to go straight into a doctoral program, I would suggest that they apply to some 'back ups' as well as their top choices.

But I would also advise them to consider doing a master's degree program that is rigorous enough to prepare them for a Ph.D. program later.


While being (reasonably) honest is certainly important (offering a hopelessly pessimistic view may be honest, but not reasonably so), I would like to emphasize an aspect that does not seem to be covered in the answers. The OP is an advisor to students, so, obviously, one of his/her main functions is to advise them:-) An advisor does not have to give a yes or no answer even if the question seems to require that. There seems to be a problem with students that they often do not know much about careers outside of academia, and this is often a (bad) reason to have an ambition to become a professor. What is worse, their academic advisors often don't know much about non-academic careers either, as they often spend their entire life in academia. It so happened that I did not find a position in academia after my post-graduate studies and started to work in industry, and it was quite interesting, view-broadening, and requiring much of the skills I acquired gaining my PhD. After I worked there for 6 years, I was invited to work at my alma mater (based in part on what I was able to do in the industry) and worked there for another 6 years. Some people here complain that they lost years working for their PhD, and I am not sure that they just wasted their time. PhD is a step in our studies, and the skills you acquire while studying are typically applicable in many areas. So maybe advisors should also tell their students that the latter study to prepare for life, not just for academia, and they should try to gain a broader view of their future careers. People mentioned Ramanujan here. I would like to mention Tsiolkovsky (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky) and Grassmann (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Grassmann), who worked as school teachers.


Having thought about this issue greatly for both mentoring and as a research question, I believe the solution is: quantify it. Answer in terms of time, effort, and personal sacrifices. Those are really the trade-offs.

It's relatively straightforward to have a student review some CV's of recently accepted grad students, or whatever other goal position that a student has. It can then be quantified a bit: how many publications are they behind? How many awards? How many skills/fundamental courses are they behind their competition? How much studying would it take to get their standardized test scores at or above average? How good are their writing skills compared to the average? Unless a student can demonstrate themselves to be certifiably brilliant even in brief conversations or through some singular achievement, they're going to need a good body of work. This is not a great measure for excellence or slam dunks, but it is definitely a good measure of being able to have a fighting chance.

At that point, it is possible to estimate the amount of time that would be needed to reach the average level of the competition who is being accepted. Are they already around the average? Three years behind the average? At the point where they are behind the curve, it is reasonable to ask if they are willing and able to do a regular pace of 80h+ weeks over some period to reach an average benchmark (if sufficient time even still exists for their CV to make weight even with unwavering effort). If they have already been pulling 85h weeks and they're still behind, I would say to go for it (they're obviously determined to) but to have a good fallback plan. If they're not yet maxed out, it's a good time to have them re-evaluate their effort and grit.

The kind of effort needed to play catch-up in academia is fairly brutal, which should also be communicated in terms of personal sacrifice. Social outings can be scarce, family commitments limited, relationships stunted or sacrificed. Work-life balance will become a Globetrotters-Generals match. Perhaps worse, if they do catch up and can keep pace (but at that effort level) they will then be hired on the expectation of results and corresponding effort level. Or, put simply, they could be working 80h+ weeks for the rest of their life. I have to imagine that divorce rates go up at least 1% for each hour/week over 80h, as well. At any rate, if they're going to reach, they're going to need to love it- because there may be little time for other things that they love.

So I think there is no need to discourage them. Be honest. Ask them to be honest with themselves. Let them set their goals and track their goals. When confronted with a barrier, some may strive to overcome it and others may change course. Both options are acceptable: that is their choice. But they should be shown the hurdle before they crash into it. A few of them might surprise you (a Rudy). Most won't surprise you, except perhaps in how quickly they lose pace on their new regime of extra effort.

Note: One exception to this rule is if your field is so overfilled that PhD students do not receive fellowships and go into debt to complete them. In that case, tell them to run (don't walk) away from graduate work in your field. If there's one great rule, it's that if people can't afford to pay a grad student a modest stipend to do research, there's almost certainly not any decent jobs on the other side either. The one exception to this one exception rule is if they're independently filthy rich.

  • Also, requisite watching for students trying to really reach might also be the film Gattaca. At a certain point, you're talking about using everything you have to get somewhere.
    – Namey
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 6:13
  • "Or, put simply, they could be working 80h+ weeks for the rest of their life." No, only till tenure. Assuming they can get tenure, of course. And another, not uncommon thing that helps people achieve success in academia, is favoritism/nepotism, and preferential treatment. But those are relatively fringe phenomena. Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 19:44
  • "At any If they're going to reach, they're going to need to love it". This sentence probably has a missing word. And that "If" shouldn't be capitalized. Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 20:00
  • Fixed that. Was a shift from a straight "If" to an uncompleted "At any rate, if..."
    – Namey
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 23:11
  • Also, from what I have seen, at the point where you have worked 80h/week for over 10 years (i.e., graduate school through tenure), it's a lifestyle. Some might ease off, but most of the ones that I know just as many who keep their foot on the gas. On the other hand, one wouldn't run into the others as much anyway, I suppose...
    – Namey
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 23:15

Very simply, tell the students the truth.

When people enquire with me about doing PhD, I always tell them that it is "blood, sweat and tears", using exactly these words. This is not entirely true for the PhD in general, but it is true if one wants to excel in its field.

Excelling during PhD is necessary condition for them to be even marginally employable in academia (as you are noticing, the academic market is increasingly tightening), so this may be relevant to your question.

I also sometimes tell people that the PhD is like they have been cruising casually until now, but with PhD they will ride a rocket into an asteroid belt, with me helping to avoid the asteroids, but with them actually steering the rocket.

You may find those two analogies helpful :) It may weed out the people whos PhD would be a waste of time.


Yeah Its Coming from a student's perspective, I never found it appealing when a professor, who I aspire to be like, tells me that I'm not good enough to ever do what they do.

  • 4
    Trust me, professors don't find it appealing to say discouraging things to students, either. However, academia really is very competitive, and if there is a reasonable chance (say 99.9%) that a student will fail, despite the non-appeal, perhaps there is some value in discouraging (but not forbidding!) the student anyway.
    – Sana
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 7:52
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    It's not about you. Today in most fields, if you're an excellent postdoctoral you still have 1% chance or so of getting a professor job. You may resent it, but the only brutal part of the story is that several current professors would not stand a chance to become professors under nowadays competition.
    – famargar
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 10:29
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    Is that what they say? Or is that what you hear? Personally, I would find a remark such as, "You're not good enough to ever do what I'm doing" to be in poor taste. However, something like, "You're going to have to develop better work habits to make it in this career field" might be a fair warning to a student who consistently turns in shoddy work.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 16:19
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    This is a great way to send an ultimately unsuccessful prospective medical student on a two-year scenic route. What I needed back then was the truth, not sweet talk. Things are great now, but I shudder to think about what my life would be like had I actually made it in only to flunk out later.
    – Compass
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 16:30
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    @famargar: "Today in most fields, if you're an excellent postdoctoral you still have 1% chance or so of getting a professor job." Come now. The job market is very tight, but let's not make up statistics. I'll show you statistics for my field and country; see here: ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/…. We graduate (numbers are rounded a bit) 2,000 PhDs per year, and about 650 of these do postdocs. We fill 750 tenure-track positions per year: ams.org/journals/notices/201609/rnoti-p1057.pdf. One in 100 is clearly wrong. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 2:09

I suspect that this question hasn't been asked by a professor in social science. I say this because I think the OP has little regard for the various factors and complexity which may influence a student's track record.

A student may not perform as well currently, in a certain university and country, doing a certain study, in his current socio-economic and medical situation; but may perform staggeringly differently in another time and place.

Further more, what "top graduate schools" are, is a matter of debate and continuously changing.

Therefore, if you want real intellectual honesty, one should admit to your badly-performing student that you can not predict his future academic track with exact certitude, simply because there are so many chances. Keeping this in mind, there are more diplomatic and intelligent ways to encourage learning in your student's mindset, e.g. telling him that the better he wants to be, the better he will become. His studious attitude may even be rewarded 20 years later when he starts to study Y instead of X. The student might even re-start the same study X 30 years later: you simply cannot know.

Treating your students as if you are 99.9% sure of what they will become seems like treating your students as if they were inanimate objects, of which you can calculate the trajectory using equations from an exact science. I think this way of thinking about students show that professors who teach, should actually get to know something about pedagogy. Because one can know an awful lot and be an expert in his/her subject, but have no clue about good ways of teaching (on a pedagogical and motivational level).

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    "the better he wants to be, the better he will become" oh $deity, how I am happy that my mentors and advisors usually gave me something a little bit more tangible than that.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 16:55
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    the better he wants to be, the better he will become — This is absolutely horrible advice. The better he works at becoming, the better he will become.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 18:23
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    This kind of answer reminds me of physicians who are unwilling to speak in probabilistic terms under any circumstances. It is really unhelpful, and the necessity of it is clearly falsified by other (better?) physicians who will happily speak in those terms. Do you really feel that there are no circumstances in which your own past experience gives you more insight into the student's likelihood of attaining a future academic career than the student presently has? I find that rather frightening. Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 18:50
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    Sure @PeteL.Clark one who is an expert in the probabilistic theories of academic success might, to some degree and with some error, be able to predict chances in some general populations and so on ... This may be based on population studies. I think we both agree on that. High income of parents might be such an influencing factor? Perhaps. But I feel like my answer is a necessary antidote to the OP. See e.g. what he/she says below: a reasonable chance (say 99.9%) that a student will fail. I am saddened by this claim of 99.9% predictability on an individual.
    – O0123
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 22:44
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    @Vincent: 99.9% is indeed a high chance, higher than I would report for most things. I will be honest and say that I have never had a student approach me about an academic career for whom I thought they had only a .1% chance of academic success. But I don't see this justifying assertions like "Therefore, it is always imperative to explain to your student that you can not predict his future chances, simply because there are so many chances." If I may: I suggest that the antidote of exaggerated claims is not exaggerated claims in the other direction, but rather accurate claims. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 2:17

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