A professor considers how he should advise a conservative student applying to Ph.D. programs (essay)

I’m advising a politically conservative student who is applying to Ph.D. programs. Since he’s in a STEM field far removed from the social sciences, some might assume his political views to be irrelevant in graduate study. Sure, he might have to tread carefully in a few after-hours conversations with fellow students, but we should all learn to deftly and maturely handle differences of opinion in social situations.

Fortunately, my student seems mature and affable, so I’m none too worried about after-hours talk. Rather, my concern about what to tell the student pertains to the growing prevalence of work-related discussions with social justice angles. In such cases, while many people will judge him based on his academic achievements alone, rather than his political leanings, others might not. How should I make him aware of that possibility?

Let’s start with issues of diversity and inclusion. Scholars with conservative political views can, should and generally do act in an inclusive and sensitive manner when interacting with people. However, adherence to basic ethical prescriptions for individual action (be decent to everyone and be sensitive to their hardships) does not automatically translate to a liberal viewpoint on systemic issues. Consider affirmative action in hiring and admissions. Irrespective of what you personally think of it, is your opinion so self-evidently correct that disagreement constitutes a “microaggression” meriting intervention by supervisors? Some universities apparently maintain just that.

It is tempting to say that, to ensure harmony, we should simply avoid such issues. A reasonable supervisor would surely expect students to spend their time in the lab doing experiments, not debating the sorest open wounds in the body politic. But I don’t think that one can (or should) spend several years in graduate school without eventually encountering a discussion of systemic issues in one’s field. Whether in an informal chat with peers during a slow day in the lab, a diversity training session for teaching assistants, or some sort of departmental roundtable, these topics will eventually come up. And when they do come up, students with a liberal perspective that emphasizes the salience of identity and advantage/disadvantage will be safer airing their views (and maybe even enjoy praise for doing so) than students with a more conservative or individualist perspective.

For another example, are long work hours in the lab an inexorable reality of a competitive funding landscape, a systematic barrier for women (who tend to bear a disproportionate share of family responsibilities) or both? People of a more economically conservative mind-set may be more sympathetic to the first viewpoint and regard poor work-life balance as an inevitable consequence of competition. Conversely, liberals may be less deferential to competitive factors, seeing them as unjust, and emphasize the need for interventions or allowances to assist people. Who is right? That is (at least in part) a value judgment, one where people of good will might differ. Nonetheless, one would be well advised to not voice an unpopular position on that value judgment.

Some people may find it strange to focus on challenges facing conservative students when there are high-profile examples of liberal scholars — particularly scholars of color — facing fierce public attack for utterances on matters of race, gender and inequality. However, an off-campus entity’s ability to visit negative attention upon the occasional academic does not mitigate the situation facing a student with views divergent from the campus consensus. My student isn’t a Twitter mob, doesn’t have a popular talk show or syndicated column, and can’t count on the backing of organizations that promote speaking tours by certain colorful provocateurs. He just wants a career in science, and his interest in hot-button issues is limited to productive participation in local discussions of issues facing the profession. He’ll be sitting on the same low rung as all of the other graduate students.

Granted, one can study and teach without regularly being forced to offer explicit endorsements of the social justice consensus. The main obligation is not to agree but rather to not openly disagree. And within those parameters, one can find plenty of fine things to enjoy about academe, even (especially?) if one has an unorthodox perspective. So, what would I tell my student to do in graduate school?

First and foremost, don’t initiate discussions of diversity and underrepresentation in the field, and don’t argue loudly against the dominant narratives. Nothing good can come of vigorously debating those matters when you’re low in the hierarchy. Be polite, listen carefully and ask thoughtful questions when in small groups with people that you trust.

Second, be circumspect about certain personal interests and views with some people. For instance, while most law-abiding gun owners are quite scrupulous about safety and responsibility, if you own guns and enjoy practicing with them, be judicious about sharing that fact. If somebody were to declare that they feel uncomfortable around you and mention your gun ownership, even the most stringent adherence to all applicable laws would not suffice to ward off scrutiny. Likewise, if you adhere to a conservative religious faith, some people might make certain assumptions about your attitude toward them or their lifestyle. Don’t go against your conscience by lying about your faith, but do strive to avoid miscommunication.

Third (and this really applies to all students), besides your official thesis adviser, find an informal adviser, somebody who isn’t running the lab you work in but is willing to be a sounding board for frustrations. Seek out someone who is intellectually playful, willing to entertain unorthodox propositions for the sake of a good discussion and happy to help you think through personal dilemmas.

Most important, don’t let disagreements over hot-button issues get in the way of friendships. Even the most controversial issues are small in the big picture. Maybe your friends will show you another side of an issue, something that won’t wholly reverse your opinion but might nonetheless add some nuance. In turn, maybe you’ll also show them something that adds nuance to their views.

Finally, to my colleagues: we worry about how academe is perceived by the public, and for good reason. It’s easy to criticize conservative anti-intellectualism, and certainly there are abundant anti-intellectual elements on the right. At the same time, there are talented and thoughtful young people with well-thought-out reasons for adhering to ideas learned from conservative families. They aren’t all privileged white people (many people of color are religiously conservative), and they aren’t all economically advantaged (i.e., Trump’s working-class voters). What damage do we do to our profession if the message that we send to them and their families is that their upbringing is a liability in our fields?