Comparing graduate programs? Look beyond the graduate program reviews for the telling details of who opts out of the faculty photo and which cats are most likely to appear with graduate students.
There is a natural impulse to scan a department’s website for academic stars and names you recognize from your overpriced textbooks. Of course, you should search out professors with a shared interest in your super niche specialty of the Microbiome of Parking Lot Mosses. But look at the overall presentation of the department online to get a better picture of the place that you will become indentured to.
Some Red Flags To Watch Out For In Graduate Program Web Pages:
Graduate Student Invisibility:
Progressive graduate programs in the humanities that are rich enough to have a good webmaster assigned to them and small enough to list their graduate students now include their bios on the department page.
When graduate students are not included, or you can only see their photos, you should know this reflects the lack of personhood you will start to feel as you provide low-cost teaching labor to the university and slowly become invisible even to yourself.
This is not to say that graduate student inclusion means you will be treated fairly. Not at all. It is just that Fred’s University has done the bare minimum of appearing to care about graduate students.
Academia used to be a haven for eccentrics and oddballs. Not so much anymore.
If you look back over old yearbooks you will see out-of-focus photos of philosophy professors in tattered homemade t-shirts eating giant pretzels in their backyard. You will see friendly weirdos who can’t sit still for the camera and appear as a crazy blur. You will see little eye contact and a whole lot of freak flags flying. The few women you will find might be…gasp! without makeup! There was a place for too-wide collars and unintentionally geeky shirts. Dorkiness could be a badge of honor. The raw pain of outsiderness radiates from mismatched pictures in the Uncanny Valley of old.
Compare and contrast the polished presentations on university web pages today where seemingly sun-kissed neurotypicals show their shiny happy smiles to a studio light. Now every pixel is calculated right along with every grant dollar.
The faculty lounge used to be a safe place for people on the spectrum, but slowly allistics (non-autistics) have taken over. If you are neurospicy and hoping for a warm welcome from your autie tribe, be especially careful to check photos to see if there are any obviously odd ducks in the department.
Note: British universities still have some of the old wonky vibe. If you scroll through online pages of English professors you will see the woman whose gray hair totally obscures her face, the man with the manic glint in his eye who seems to be in the act of thinking, the childish savant who is actually glowering at the lens, the unkempt keepers of hairy moles and brows like brooms.
It is much like the difference between a BBC production of a TV series with its warty character actors versus the airbrushed bottle blond Los Angeles version.
But there are many other warning signs of a bad department you can find even in a Weird Is Welcome world.
Does the graduate student photo page flash and flicker as you attempt to click and scroll? This is a red flag that you will spend your graduate years in a maze of rejected passwords and closed accounts unable to upload your papers or download your benefits forms. Like the notorious trope of flickering lights in a horror movie, these glitches symbolize the death of the university. If the only place you were admitted was the program with the pulsing website, please start working on your side hustle making Edgar Allen Poe onesies.
Too Many White Men
A quick scan of the graduate department’s website page can show you if their rosy DEI claims reflect a PR fantasy or not. Right below the claim of diversity, you can often see an army of old white men in bowties.
If you think because you are a white male searching for graduate programs those demographics are not a problem — think again. In a male-dominated department, men are likely to get caught up in an overdue gender war. They will also suffer from the outdated punitive patriarchal culture that male departments foster. Some experts suggest that workplaces where men dominate and a deference culture is enforced can be worse for men than for women.
While you don’t want an old-school department where you have to fawn and scrape for the elderly alpha males, some traditional elements of university life are worth preserving including intellectual independence.
If the staff pics all look like they have been run through a beauty filter at the Factory of Conformity and Lies, be very afraid.
You can spot corporate takeover by the amount of adminspeak used on the faculty pages and the promotion of the self-promoting Gilderoy Lockharts. Don’t believe the synergy of academic profiteering is aligned with your mission. The corporatization of academia benefits only the better-paid administrators, EdTech execs, and industry partners.
Too Many Graduate Students
There are two related bad reasons why there would be 50 graduate students listed in the tiny Department of Crying in Closets.
The first bad reason there might be too many graduate students is that they are there to do the work of teaching undergraduates for poverty wages. There is zero hope that even a few of these graduate students will ever get tenure-track jobs in their field. When you see a dying discipline with a large graduate-level enrollment that is a red flag for university fraud. Those 30 young students of Napoleon’s socks will never be able to use their useless degrees.
The second bad reason for over-enrolment is that the graduate students are not graduating. That is usually partly because they are exhausted from doing all the undergraduate teaching for nothing, but also because they are overwhelmed with existential despair when they realize there are no jobs for them.
In some cases, students are listed by year so you can get a better sense of what the population is. You can see if the Department of Drying Paint only admits a few students a year but has a backlog of All But Dissertation depressives. Maybe there are tons of enthusiastic hard-working first years grinning up from the webpage of the Department of Falling Leaves, but you can see that no students stick around for more than a few rounds of abuse.
There can be a good but sad reason for the overpopulation of PhD candidates and retention of ABDs. It may be that these students are refugees from universities that have eliminated their programs in Dog Linguistics and are seeking shelter in richer schools that have retained their Little Departments. These lost souls might even be refugees from other dead departments in the same university. If you end up in a department full of displaced students of Canine Syntax with nowhere else to go, be kind to them. One day that could be you.