[GradFUTURES Podcast] Season 1, Episode 2: "21st Century Graduate Education: A Conversation with Sarah-Jane Leslie *07"

June 27, 2022

In the second episode, Hellen Wainaina talks with Sarah-Jane Leslie *07, Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy. Sarah-Jane has previously served as Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Dean for Faculty Development in the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. (n.b. This interview was recorded prior to Rodney D. Priestley’s appointment as the current Dean of the Graduate School.) Leslie is an affiliated faculty in the Department of Psychology and various other centers and programs across Princeton.

The conversation opens up with the founding vision behind GradFUTURES, with Sarah-Jane addressing the misconception that doctoral training is only about preparing students for academic positions in universities.It is essential for both faculty and members of the administration to, she says, “recognize the imperative to prepare Ph.D. students to feel equipped and empowered to explore the entire range of career possibilities available to them.” She elaborates: “Too often doctorate education is seen as a value only in training the next generation of professors. Actually, it is valuable in so many more ways. Opening up that full horizon to graduate students is something that has been a great passion of mine.”

Rather than view going into fields beyond the academy as a failure or a “lesser” pursuit, Sarah-Jane emphasizes the need for diverse career paths that fit all types of backgrounds, personalities, and working styles. “Many people may simply decide that academia is fundamentally not for them,” she says. “Academic life is a very particular kind of life. Frankly, there is a whole world out there. Someone with the skills to acquire a Ph.D. is going to be able to make wonderful contributions across a broad range. We need students to feel empowered and happy to do this.”

Sarah-Jane, who has done extensive research on academic gender gaps and found that they are most pronounced in disciplines that emphasize the need for “raw brilliance,” goes on to suggest that implicit, hidden biases in academia must be explicitly addressed in graduate school. 

“As you open up access to higher education to groups that have been underrepresented, there can be soft skills—unspoken norms, if you like—amongst people whose backgrounds are more closely connected to higher education, but that won’t be known and won’t be shared by people who have been historically underrepresented,” says Sarah-Jane. “We can level the playing field by teaching these things explicitly.”

Following each conversation, be sure to listen to Dean Eva Kubu's reflections and advice. This episode's reflection includes a conversation with Dean Renita Miller about the integral connection between Princeton's institutional commitments to access, diversity, and inclusion – and creating equitable pathways to opportunity via professional development.

Currently, the podcast is available on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyAudible, and Pocket Casts.

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Transcript: GradFUTURES Podcast Episode 2

Hellen: From the office of the Dean of the Graduate School, this is GradFUTURES: Conversations exploring graduate student futures and, all things, professional development. I'm your host, Hellen Wainaina, a New Media Fellow at the Graduate School and a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at Princeton.

Today I'll be speaking with Sarah-Jane Leslie, who is a graduate of Princeton (Ph.D. in Philosophy, 2007) and now the Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy. She has previously served as the Dean of the Graduate School, Vice Dean for Faculty Development, Director of the program in Linguistics, and Founding Director of the program in Cognitive Science at Princeton. Much of her work is focused on gender gaps in educational and career choices. Her finding that academic gender gaps are the most pronounced in disciplines that emphasize the need for raw brilliance was named one of 2015’s most interesting scientific findings by Edge. She is affiliated faculty in the Department of Psychology and various other centers and programs. Sarah-Jane, welcome to the podcast.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me as a guest, Hellen. I'm delighted to be here.

Hellen: I am so curious and interested well, not only by your research, but also by your experience in the Graduate School and the life that you have lived in this university. As a champion of graduate student futures and professional development, I was wondering if you could introduce us to that time in your academic career.

Sarah: Absolutely, so my history at Princeton starts twenty years ago, when I came here as a graduate student myself. After receiving my Ph.D. from the Philosophy Department, I was asked to join the faculty as an Assistant Professor, and I've been a faculty member in the Philosophy Department ever since. As you correctly noted, I became the dean of the Graduate School--I was appointed in 2017---and I was honored to serve in that role for several years. I've recently step down and rejoined the faculty following the birth of my daughter, Olivia. So, I'm delighted to have some more flexible time now to spend with her.

One of my passions as dean, and indeed as a faculty member, has always been professional development for graduate students, particularly recognizing the imperative to prepare particularly Ph.D. students to feel equipped and empowered to explore the entire range of career possibilities available to them. I think that too often doctoral education is seen as only of value in terms of training the next generation of professors. Actually, it can be valuable in so many more ways than that and opening up that full horizon to graduate students is something that has been a great passion of mine.

Hellen: How did that begin for you? As a faculty member, when did you start to notice that graduate students needed as more of a variety of means to explore their professional futures?

Sarah: I suppose the journey started way back when I was in graduate school myself. I would say that the atmosphere amongst the graduate students in my time was really that success equals an academic job and anything else was an unfortunate plan b. I don't think I was especially critical of that when I was a graduate student myself.

However, over the years, with the perspective of a faculty member, I saw that some graduate students view the academic path as the only lit path in front of them and everything else is this sort of uncharted darkness. I realized that it really doesn't have to be that way.

There is often a lot of conversation around the issue that students may be unable to get an academic job. We ask: How can we mitigate this, this disaster that has befallen them? What a terribly ridiculous framing. Many people just may decide that academia is not fundamentally for them. It's not what they want to do. An academic life is a very particular kind of life and, frankly, there's a whole world out there and someone with the skills to actually acquire a Ph.D. is just going to be able to make wonderful contributions across an incredibly broad range and we need students to feel empowered and happy to do this.

Hellen: What did students need when you were stepping into the role of Dean of the Graduate School? What were the gaps that were missing that you observed when you were walking into that role?

Sarah: I think probably the number one thing is giving students the opportunity to explore, but also to acquire the sorts of professional skills needed to make them employable in a broader market. Depending on the discipline, the academic work that one does may not be that immediately translatable to a practical field. So, giving students the opportunity to pursue internships, particularly in nonprofits, where there may not be funding available to them, but they also can't be on their academic funding because they're not, for that period of time, acting as students. That was a gap that was prohibiting a lot of students, especially in the Humanities, from pursuing all sorts of opportunities. That's just one very particular example but it is indicative, I think, of a broader culture in which students didn't know how to bridge the gap from their academic world to that broader universe.

Creating a centralized resource for graduate students to aid them in their professional development was one of the things that I most wanted to do coming in as dean. My predecessor, Sanjeev Kulkarni, had invested in this already and Amy Pszczolkowski on the Graduate School staff was doing tremendous work already. But my vision was to create something that was larger in scale, that had a broad range of offerings, and that also served as a hub that would connect graduate students with other sorts of offerings around campus that would benefit them. So really, the vision of GradFUTURES is for there to be a place, an entry point, for graduate students who want to develop their professional skills, whether that be with an eye to seeking a broad range of career possibilities or just even developing the sorts of skills that will make one a better academic.

The drive behind the vision for GradFUTURES was to move away from the dichotomy between thinking of academic work as one thing and the professional, non-academic realm as another, and to recognize that actually the two go hand-in-hand. One can be a better academic for developing professional skills, while at the same time recognizing that having well developed professional skills is going to set one up to be able to be competitive in the broadest range of career possibilities that one wants to pursue.

I think it's very important that this be a centralized resource and I know there's sometimes disagreement over this. Realistically, individual academic departments, of which there are forty-two on campus, are not going to be able to individually replicate that sort of resource, just even efficiency of scale aside. Faculty are typically some of the least well-placed people to advise students on a broader range of career possibilities. Many faculty members, like myself, have spent their whole careers in academia and we don't have that kind of skill set. But there are people who specialize in exactly this, with Eva Kubu and her team being paradigmatic examples of this.

So, the vision was to create a centralized resource that graduate students could go to, not because they are thinking: "Okay, I have now decided that I'm not going to pursue an academic career, but what else am I going to do?” Rather, it is about seeing professional development as something that goes hand-in-hand with academic development from day one. It is necessary to recognize that there are skills that one can acquire that are going to be helpful in an academic career, but also helpful in other areas too if that's what one decides to do. So, it is about really integrating the two and having it be available centrally to all students in the Graduate School, regardless of department.

Hellen: This may be a profoundly complicated question, but it’s one that I’m very interested in. It has to do with the work that you have done on the idea of raw brilliance, and its relationship to academic disciplines and the gender gap. I'm wondering if that's something that has connected to how you see or how you think about professional development for graduate students, or even how you advise graduate students now in your department.

Sarah: Let me back up and say that what my collaborators and I have found across a variety of contexts is that, first of all, individual departments differ in the extent to which the practitioners believe that a certain kind of raw, unteachable, innate brilliance is required to succeed. This is juxtaposed with thinking that success is largely a matter of hard work, skill development, and really putting in the time.

Furthermore, there are ambient stereotypes out there. We've actually found, sadly, that little girls as young as six absorb these stereotypes that link that kind of a raw brilliance to men more so than to women. So, the combination of this messaging in certain disciplines and the widely available social stereotypes lead to certain academic disciplines, the ones that prize that kind of raw brilliance on average, seeing greater gender gaps.

I'm a philosopher. If there’s one discipline that--even more so than Computer Science, Physics, and Mathematics--places the greatest emphasis in our study on the need for raw brilliance, it’s Philosophy. This is part of what inspired the project in the first place.

In advising graduate students it is important to be aware of how these messages may not be in any way intended to have a kind of gendered influence, but will nonetheless absolutely impact the extent to which a person feels a sense of belonging, self-efficacy etcetera, etcetera, in a field.

Hellen: I suppose another connection to me, at least in this conversation, has to do with access, diversity and inclusion, or equity, diversity, and inclusion. In the description that you gave for raw brilliance you're describing how this framing creates a serious gender gap in Ph.D. programs and academic fields. Your findings also suggest that this happens when we consider race, and so in the work that we're doing to make graduate education more accessible for under-represented groups, there seems to be a need to also create equitable pathways for diverse career expressions for under-represented groups. So, I'm really interested in the intersection between graduate futures and the initiatives of something like access, diversity, and inclusion.

Sarah: Absolutely. I think that there are really two things that I did as Dean that I'm especially proud of on that front. The first was hiring Eva Kubu to lead the GradFUTURES initiative and the second was hiring Renita Miller to lead the Access, Diversity, and Inclusion team. Both have made absolutely spectacular progress, and I'm so excited to see where the future will take them.

I think that you're pointing to something absolutely critical. I think that, as you open up access to higher education to people who have historically been under-represented, one of the things that you have to recognize is there can be soft skills, if you like--unspoken norms that may be known amongst people whose backgrounds are more closely connected with the norms of higher education--that won't be known and won't be shared by people who have been historically underrepresented. These include subtleties, things to navigate, what's expected of one in a particular situation, etcetera. These are things which, if left unsaid, can create and perpetuate inequalities. So, I think the sort of thing that both GradFUTURES and also the Access, Diversity and Inclusion initiative can achieve is leveling the playing field by teaching these sorts of things explicitly. We should recognize that this is a body of professional knowledge that a person, regardless of background, can easily learn, but it must be made available to them. I actually do think that connects, interestingly, back to the notion of raw brilliance, which is inherently a notion that says you don't really need to be taught and you don't really need to develop those skills. A more realistic view is that any kind of academic success involves learning a whole host of skills, putting in time, effort, dedication, building up those skills and, critically, that these are skills that can be taught, but we have to give people the opportunity to learn them.

Hellen: I like the emphasis and emphatic conviction of that statement. Actually, can you say more about that? Why and how can we more forcefully bring that to the forefront and not let it be something that happens later on as you get further and further into your graduate education?

Sarah: That's a great question. There’s a fair amount of onus on graduate students. There's a lot, obviously, that I try to do and the others are continuing to do as administrators, but I think the number one thing is for graduate students to listen to this, to hear that these opportunities are available, and to embrace those opportunities. I think that there is sometimes a feeling amongst graduate students--totally understandably-- that they should only do what their faculty advisers tell them to do or what other students who are more advanced than them in their program tell them to do. The entire purpose of GradFUTURES is to make this resource available to any students at any point in their graduate careers who want to avail themselves of it. And the doors are wide-open to any graduate student from day one. The more that graduate students, particularly in a given department, start to do that, the more that the next wave of graduate students will also feel inspired and empowered to embrace these opportunities. Graduate students should feel and recognize that they have the power to shape the culture.

Hellen: What do you say to, I suppose, the graduate student who has an advisor who won't take them seriously if they are exploring other ways to share their research or other ways to engage with the world with the skills that they're gaining as a graduate student?

Sarah: I think that if a graduate student really has an advisor who is actively hostile to that, it is necessary to have a conversation with a Dean in the Graduate School. In my experience, that is actually a very rare situation. What is much more common is the following kind of communicative chasm. You have on the one side a graduate student who assumes that the faculty member will not support them in broadening their professional development skills, and you have a faculty member who would absolutely be supportive, but who is anxious that if they suggest that to the graduate student, the graduate student will hear that as a vote of no confidence in their academic work. So, you have this kind of standoff.

I would speak to grad students. I would speak to faculty time and again. I heard that this sort of chasm was not being bridged. I’m not saying that it never happens, but I think that it's much rarer than a certain sort of mythology suggests that a faculty member is actually openly hostile to that. I would suggest that the faculty member take the first step in broaching the topic, since it's often easier that way. But, the graduate student can absolutely raise the topic too. I would also add again that this is why the GradFUTURES initiative was really crafted: to help students develop skills that are going to be helpful to them also in their academic development. Presentation skills, public speaking, writing skills - those sorts of things are all absolutely essential to one's academic development just as much as anything else. I would push back against the idea that engaging with GradFUTURES is jumping from the “academic camp” to the “non-academic camp.” I think we just need to get rid of that kind of dichotomy in our thinking.

Hellen: It's interesting how you describe the standoff. Something that I have encountered, something that perplexes me, is the creation of these two camps. As if being a teacher or professor is not a professional endeavor! Teaching is, in fact, a profession. Being a scholar is, in fact, a profession. There's a way to have a conversation around developing your persona not only as a teacher in the classroom but also as an employee of an institution, or a university.

Sarah: Absolutely. I think there are more professional aspects, as you're correctly pointing out, to academic work than is necessarily always recognized or talked about. I was listening to a lecture on YouTube the other day by a professor by the name of Richard McElreath at the Max Planck Institute and he was making the case for the need, particularly in the sciences, for much more structure and thought around data stewardship. Actually, the scientific community could learn a lot from the software development community in terms of best practices. I thought it was an absolutely fascinating talk. There's absolutely not this dichotomy, there's a spectrum.

Hellen: Sarah-Jane, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.

Eva:  Thank you so much, Hellen, for that incredible conversation with former Dean of the Graduate School, Sarah-Jane Leslie. I'm Eva Kubu and I'm here with my colleague, Associate Dean Renita Miller, whom I have invited to join me today to further reflect on the role of professional development in ensuring equitable access to opportunity for all graduate students. Welcome to the GradFutures podcast, Dean Miller!

Renita: Thank you, Eva Kubu! I am so excited to be here. It is my pleasure to be able to talk with you about our efforts and the ways in which we collaborate for your audience.

Eva: Well, thank you again for joining us. Can you give our audience a little bit of the framing around the priorities for access, diversity, and inclusion, and all of the efforts that you and your team are leading?

Renita: Absolutely. For us, it really is important to what I like to call "create a community of belonging.” We really take a "to and through" approach to diversity and inclusion in that we've created a cadre of signature programs that really support students from the prospective student stage through their start of term and tenure as graduate students. We also even support postdocs from time to time around various topics and various initiatives, because they also can benefit from a lot of the work that we're doing.

We also like to think that we are supporting the broader pipeline to graduate school through a lot of our programs, like the P3 program, which is a visiting student’s program. We have the Grad Scholars program, we have the pre-doctoral fellowship program, we have our Diversity Fellows program and, most recently, we have the Inclusive academy symposium and the Best of Access, Diversity, and Inclusion Awards. We have a significant number of programs that support students as they are deciding on the graduate admissions process all the way through their tenure as graduate students.

Eva: Wonderful. So, it's really like the full lifecycle and really thinking about ways that you can demystify the graduate application process, encourage students to apply and to see themselves at Princeton, and at other graduate institutions around the country.

Renita: That right, absolutely, absolutely. I think you could join the team, Eva! I think you captured it beautifully. We’re really thinking holistically about graduate admissions. It's really amazing to see students move through some of our programs. We have some students that participated in P3 that are now Diversity Fellows. It’s just a wonderful opportunity and pipeline that we've created through all of the programs that we administer, focus on, and support.

Eva: The Inclusive Academy symposium really, I think, opened up a world of possibilities, of new ways of thinking, and of celebrating our graduate student community. Can you share a little bit more about that event?

Renita: Absolutely. Thank you for that. I would say the Inclusive Academy Symposium was something quite special, and it was special because it was an opportunity for us to bring our graduate students and postdoctoral community together to discuss critical topics that centered around thriving, joy, and success. As we think about joy and we think about the other conversations that are centered around under-represented groups, it is from this deficit model, from an area of lack, from an area of drama. This is not to dismiss those things in any way and not to dismiss the inequality that exists in the challenges that people from underrepresented backgrounds face. However, we want to take a different approach in our symposium, to focus on the joy and to focus on the genius and the brilliance. The symposium really embodied that in such a special way.

When we talk about unearthing it means to uncover, to show something that is hidden. We brought all of that together, to celebrate, to unearth, to unhide genius and joy, and so we are all very proud of what we were able to accomplish as part of the symposium. We hope that people will join us next year! We've already set the dates: May 18th and 19th, 2023. Come join us. We don't have a theme yet, but we are working on it, and I am hopeful that the celebration of these two themes will continue to pervade the work that we do and continue to support and allow our community to fee seem to feel value, to feel heard. That was the purpose of it, and I really do feel like we were all able to accomplish that.

Eva: I think we've touched on the future of graduate education, and we've touched on the future of work in this broad ranging conversation. Again, Dean Miller, thank you so much for joining me and for all of the collaborations that we have embarked on together and those yet to come. I thank you and thank you again to our executive producer, Hellen Wainaina and former dean of the Graduate School, Sarah-Jane Leslie, for this interview and this opportunity to join us at the GradFUTURES podcast.

Episode three will be announced soon and I will leave it to Hellen to take it from here! Thank you again.

Renita: Thank You!

Hellen: The GradFUTURES podcast is hosted, and executive produced by me, Hellen Wainaina. Editing and audio engineering by Francine Henry. For more about GradFUTURES and the podcast, visit gradfutures.princeton.edu. Thank you for listening. Till next time.