Exit Interviews for Ph.D. Students
(or how I came to write The Ph.D. Grind)
July 2014 (perspective of an assistant professor)
I propose having peers conduct exit interviews with Ph.D. students right when they graduate or leave school and then compiling the responses into a public handbook for new students. The main benefit would be to humanize the grad school experience.
As I was nearing the end of my Ph.D. in 2012, I thought about the idea of conducting exit interviews with fellow students who were either graduating or leaving early. HR representatives at most companies conduct these interviews with employees on their way out, and some university programs also simulate exit interviews via online surveys. However, these interviews aren't conducted by peers, so I think people often don't express their most candid thoughts. And the findings are usually seen by only HR or school administrators, respectively.
My version of exit interviews would be peer-led, not administration-led. And I wanted to anonymize and curate the responses with proper consent into a public online handbook that would help all new Ph.D. students in the same field. (Ph.D. experiences differ so much between fields that a single universal guide probably isn't feasible.)
Why do this? Throughout my years in the grind, I noticed that just about every Ph.D. student on their way out has some interesting “what I wish I had known” type of insights that they wanted to pass on to the next generation. But almost nobody bothered to write up their thoughts, both due to post-Ph.D. fatigue and to not being accustomed to writing publicly. By doing these exit interviews, I wanted to capture such collective wisdom in one place before people left campus. The two closest precedents at Stanford were:
Even though both were useful resources, their main shared limitation was the limited pool of students who contributed, leading to the ultimate in sampling bias. The contributors represented the extremes of tone – either super bitter, or super enthusiastic – and were always the most vocal ones in the department. Also, since they were currently in the grind, they were unable to provide a holistic view from having just finished.
In contrast, I wanted to conduct exit interviews with lots of students, especially the quieter ones, to reduce sampling bias. And I wanted to talk to them right as they are leaving so that they can reflect back on their entire Ph.D. experience while it's still fresh in their minds.
The main logistical question was: Who would conduct these interviews? Like The Redbook, this had to be a student-run project. There's no way that students would open up to professors interviewing them. Maybe they would open up to administrators, but then it would feel like a boring industry HR exit interview. So it had to be student-run. But which students? One idea that might scale is to have exiting students pair up to interview each other. A more traditional solution is to elect student officers to conduct interviews. Since they are (by definition) more junior, the benefit to doing interviews is that they can learn tips and tricks directly from exiting students.
The department could support this effort by providing a tiny amount of funding to buy coffee or lunch for exiting students who are being interviewed. Perhaps they could set up a tradition where, after a student's Ph.D. defense or decision to leave early, a fellow student invites them out to coffee or lunch and conducts the interview. Staff could also print out a paper copy of the handbook to give to each year's incoming students at orientation. But no matter what, keep those pesky professors out of the loop!
Another concern is privacy. I think tasteful anonymization and curation, along with opt-in, will take care of this concern. Plus, overly-specific gossip about Professor X or Student Y probably wouldn't make it into a handbook since it won't be broadly useful. Thus, I imagine aggregating a bunch of anecdotes together into more general statements like “if your advisor is starting a spin-off company from your group's research project, then watch out for the following potential issues ...”
To preview the potential of such a guide, read The N=1 guide to grad school by the inimitable Adam Marcus (and my response). Adam basically did an exit interview on himself. I wish that all exiting Ph.D. students would write up something similar, but they're probably exhausted from finishing their dissertation. However, I think they would still be up for chatting over coffee or lunch with a fellow student for an exit interview. After all, what grad student turns down free food?!?
I think that the biggest benefit of such a resource is to humanize the Ph.D. experience. Current students would see that they are not alone in the challenges they face, that even the all-stars struggled at times, and that their classmates ended up pursuing a diverse variety of internships and jobs outside of the traditional academic fold.
In the end, I never took the initiative to start this project. Instead, I attempted something more tractable: interviewing myself and writing it up as The Ph.D. Grind. In the preface, I described how I wanted to approximate the benefits of exit interviews, despite the obvious limitation of being only a single sample point:
So that was how I came to write The Ph.D. Grind!