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December 8, 2021+Samantha Hedges
+Academic Careers

Selecting and Surviving Your Graduate Program: Tips Based on a Recent Heterodox Academy Survey

Just like undergraduates, graduate students feel pressure to suppress their views if they run counter to the conventional wisdom of those in their department or program. However, unlike undergrads, they also feel pressure to craft a research agenda that will receive minimal pushback and bear the most fruit in the form of journal publications, research grants, and job prospects. This narrowed research agenda often conforms to the dominant views of their program or department, thereby restricting what graduate students can learn and produce.

Consider the case of Jordan, one that will be familiar to some graduate students. Jordan, a Ph.D. student in educational policy, started his career as a museum educator, where he developed a love for project-based learning. After spending a few years as a public school teacher, he decided to start a charter school using the project-based design. Many parents in Jordan’s rural community embraced the school, but he quickly learned that several of his graduate school colleagues and instructors viewed charter schools as the enemy of public schools. To avoid the stigma associated with his perspective on school choice, he decided to stop speaking about his charter school and focus on research topics related to project-based learning and rural education. In other words, Jordan self-censored.

Barriers to Knowledge Production Graduate Students Face

The barriers to knowledge production that graduate students face can be unwritten norms, as Jordan experienced, or institutional policies. Certain barriers emerge even before graduate school begins. For instance, institutional policies, such as requesting or requiring an equity statement in graduate school applications, pose barriers by placing limits on who gets to study what at any given institution. Consequently, research that might produce meaningful results and contribute to the solution to a problem is halted before it can even begin.

Once admitted, graduate students may suppress their views on a given topic if they anticipate those views will deviate from the norm, be poorly received, or face penalization. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has documented cases of Scholars Under Fire, in which graduate students, along with faculty and other scholars, reported being punished or receiving a threat of punishment for sharing their views or objecting to the views of others.

Although some graduate students report punishment or threats of punishment, Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics, has shown that graduate students can also be the source of discrimination against other scholars due to their views. In one survey of 397 North American (U.S. and Canada) Ph.D. students, “24% of all PhD students say they would rate a right-leaning paper lower, 30% would mark a right-leaning promotion application lower, and 33% would rank a right-leaning grant application down.” Kaufmann’s data also revealed that politically right-leaning graduate students in more left-leaning departments like the humanities and social sciences might avoid academic careers due to their perception of how their perspective will be received. These findings indicate that, in addition to established policies, the culture and unwritten norms of an academic environment can dictate which views are acceptable and which are not, including what lines of inquiry can be (comfortably) pursued.

While this and related data are telling, research on graduate students and the barriers they face to knowledge production remains sparse and needs future research. As a step forward, Heterodox Academy conducted a qualitative survey of 142 higher education faculty, staff, and current and former graduate students affiliated with HxA. Respondents were asked whether they faced, or are currently facing, barriers as heterodox thinkers (those who hold a nonorthodox view) in graduate school and were prompted to share advice for prospective and current graduate students who hold heterodox perspectives or wish to study heterodox topics. (Due to the qualitative nature of the survey, to protect the identities of respondents, the survey data is not available to the public.)

Many of the respondents shared accounts of the unwritten rules described above. As such, by sharing the results from HxA’s small-scale survey, I aim to call attention to the problem while providing solutions or, at minimum, ways to work around the problem, shared by the respondents.

Overview of Survey Results

Survey respondents described environments where certain ideas and theories are presumed correct, with an implicit understanding that some research questions and findings are acceptable, while others are not. And respondents were keenly aware that a loss of important connections and opportunities may follow from deviating from these norms. One graduate student summed up the unwritten norms and barriers to pursuing heterodox research topics encountered in more orthodox programs:

[T]he barriers are qualifiable but not quantifiable elements of institutional culture: that is, inherent hostility toward heterodox viewpoints through the general tone and tenor of discussions, and emphasis on institutional orthodoxy (by administrators, professors, and some fellow students) to a degree that implicitly assumes any deviation from that orthodoxy must be prima facie ridiculous.

Some respondents went so far as to advise up-and-coming graduate students to avoid running afoul of these unwritten rules by not taking up a controversial or unorthodox research topic. They believe the risks outweigh the rewards. Respondents described negative outcomes of pursuing a heterodox perspective, including being disliked by those in their field, not receiving support from their department or funding bodies, and being blackballed or unable to secure a job for publishing on certain topics. One respondent noted:

If you want to go into academia, be aware that you’re setting yourself up for failure if you’re [sic] thesis/dissertation work is on a heterodox topic. First, you’re not going to endear yourself to your department, even if your major professor is supportive. Second, you’re going to face massive challenges getting through the peer review process for publications, which is going to make getting tenure stressful.

Other respondents did not have such a gloomy outlook. In their experience, taking up an unorthodox perspective or area of research does not necessarily lead to insurmountable barriers. Many respondents shared encouraging advice, advocating for graduate students to pursue their research interests, even if they deviate from the dominant narrative or school of thought. One respondent expressed the following sentiment:

“If a topic calls to you and pulls at your heart, then it’s worth the risk. True insights are only fostered when individuals are willing to ask pertinent questions.”

But their advice came with one stipulation: “Your work has to be better than average.” In other words, more so than those who choose widely accepted lines of inquiry, graduate students tackling heterodox topics must examine their arguments rigorously from many points of view and be armed with evidence and the confidence to defend their position.

Students facing this challenge, according to respondents, must also understand their audience. Graduate students studying a more contentious topic must learn the underlying assumptions of faculty, academic journals, and professional associations in their field so they can anticipate how to best communicate their perspective. And when presenting to an audience, budding academics must avoid becoming defensive; they need to listen and try to understand all perspectives in their area of research and connect their reasoning to the beliefs of the audience.

The upside of this additional work, according to one respondent, is that students will graduate as better academics because of it.

The bottom line is that prospective and current graduate students can take concrete steps to minimize barriers to knowledge production even if they wish to pursue a more heterodox perspective in their field. The survey suggests two primary recommendations: (1) Prospective graduate students should find a program that welcomes diverse perspectives, and (2) prospective and current graduate students should find faculty supportive of viewpoint diversity. These are explored in greater detail below, and this tip sheet offers additional ideas from the survey results.

Find a Program That Welcomes Diverse Perspectives

Ask questions and observe the environment

Ask challenging questions during the application process, speak with faculty you might want to work with, get in touch with graduate students and ask them about their experiences, and visit universities of interest to gauge the atmosphere.

Research program requirements and outputs

Read diversity statements for mention of viewpoint or intellectual diversity, research which courses are offered and request course syllabi, investigate what type of orientation or training is required, check university and program websites for political statements, and research how the institution handles protests.

Find Supportive Faculty

Check out faculty CVs

Read the biographies and CVs of all faculty in your program of interest, search for faculty who show academic rigor and provide a balanced view on topics that are controversial in their field, read their publications carefully, and pay attention to patterns that would indicate ideologically or politically motivated research and how they assess the works of others.

Peruse social media and websites

Read faculty’s public-facing scholarly work and scan their social media interactions for uncharitable posts about individuals or groups.

Talk to faculty

Invest time in building relationships with faculty and talk to them about principles of scholarship.

Pay attention to the actions of faculty

Don’t judge faculty by how they directly answer your questions on the subject; judge them by how you see them act and hear them speak when controversial topics are raised. Pay attention to whether faculty passionately react to students who become excited about a political position or make moral claims during classroom discussion and, when applicable, notice which letters and petitions faculty are willing to sign their name to.

Choose supportive mentors

Find an adviser who will support your desire for viewpoint diversity and other mentors across academia who study your topic from a range of viewpoints.

In conclusion, graduate students exploring heterodox topics may need to make research concessions, but doing an ample investigation for signs of intellectual diversity in graduate programs and learning how to navigate more orthodox programs will prepare them to stick to their convictions while in graduate school and in their academic careers. Although the path of heterodoxy may be challenging, as one survey respondent noted, “If you allow yourself to be silenced, you are making it harder for those who come after you, and perpetuating groupthink doesn’t help any of us.”


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