To skip the following treatise on reformatting graduate education and instead move directly to the amazing interview about which this piece is written, click here.
If graduate school were a sci-fi flick, how would the synopsis read? On my most cynical days, I like this one:
After being chosen as “Future Holders” because of their preeminant Life Aptitudes, the people of Cognetus are encouraged to undertake the life path of Phyloph and enroll in a decade-long training program purported to mold them into the elite minds of society. Phylophs enter the program eager for challenge and to learn how to work together, capitalizing on the strengths of each member, to create a peaceful and productive future for all. However, after living for years within the confines of their Phyloph training, they discover they inhabit a distorted reality where their communications with all non-Phylophs are altered and the talents that once defined them as Future Holders are fading. Now, absent their Life Aptitudes, the Phylophs risk everything to find their way back to the reality they once knew and the people they left behind.
Yes, on my most cynical days, I wonder where my pre-graduate school Life Aptitudes have gone. It is true that I have new Life Aptitudes of which I am very proud, and likely would not have attained without tackling the rigors of graduate school. But why do I feel as though many of my pre-grad school skills have hidden away in the meantime? Perhaps because graduate schools are still designed as one-size-fits-all, and that size no longer fits the student body; I have shed some of myself in order to fit into Academia.
Dean with a Cause
Back in January of this year, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a thought-provoking interview with Dean Anonymous (a dean who refused to give his name for reasons that become quite apparent in the interview) regarding how graduate education should change. Not if it should change but by how much it needs to change.
That graduate education fails to meet the training needs of most of its students is a familiar, now almost worn out, axiom for most students and postdocs I know, regardless of intention to pursue a traditional academic career. But not until the interview with Dean Anonymous had I heard this frustration offered up by an administrator, an administrator from Very Good University, no less.
Some snippets from Dean Anonymous include “doctoral curricula need to be changed to acknowledge…that most of our Ph.D. students do not end up in tenure-track (or even full-time faculty) positions” and “The changes…might include different kinds of coursework, exams, and even dissertation structures.”
So, Dean Anonymous, why no change yet?
“The biggest barrier is our own collective fears and self-imposed conservatism.”
Please, go on.
“Administrators are worried about looking too different from their peers or from the institutions with which they would like to compare themselves. As much as they might talk about innovation or disruption, they are worried that if they look too different, they won’t be playing the right game.”
This is something I had never considered. I have long taken the stance that graduate education is, unfortunately, vocational training that tends to narrow one’s view of his or her future rather than expand it. Don’t get me wrong, universities are rich with avenues for broadening one’s mind, network, and resume, but taking advantage of these alternative-turned-mainstream training options often requires immense initiative, an extra work load or two, and sometimes even sneaking around.
Will the Real Visionaries Please Stand Up
My peers and I have discussed why graduate programs and universities give lots of lip service, and career service seminars, to “alternative” career paths yet spectacularly fail at making structural changes to programs that will capitalize on the passions students are pursuing on the side. And of all the theories that I’ve heard, a school’s fear of looking bad wasn’t one until Dean Anonymous spoke up.
- Chart by Jordan Weissmann
In an environment where we are taught to be bold, think outside of the box, and to let data drive our next move, I have trouble accepting that universities won’t do the same. The data is clear—as of 2012, around 40% of graduating STEM PhDs immediately entered a postdoctoral position. We are flying away from the academic research nest, the place graduate school truly trains us to be. When will the Very Good Universities of America use these data to design a new educational experiment and stop performing the same one ad infinitum?
I like to think I’m not completely naïve on this point. Budgets are sewn up, and when money is scarce, typically so is everything else: time, space, energy, patience. And I know I likely fail to appreciate the difficulties faced by administrators. But I also know that we have a diversity issue in graduate education, a retention issue in graduate education, and disconnect between the training we receive and the jobs we do, and do not, land.
What’s a University to Do?
It is time for concrete steps in the evolution of graduate education. Dean Anonymous knows it, lifetime postdocs know it, graduate students know it, and I think most professors know it. So why is this discussion of foundational change still happening mostly under the table, during happy hour and on weekends, quietly in labs, hallways, and offices, and after every career service seminar? Because we, the Universities, are afraid of breaking molds, standing out in a crowd, being trailblazers? Say it ain’t so.
This fear is letting highly talented and motivated students slip away from graduate school still lacking what they actually need: relatable work experience, diverse references, and a resume—not a CV—competitive enough to bypass the post-PhD part-time work and internships. These students can bring their doctoral degrees to education, the arts, nonprofits, business, politics, the judicial system, the media, Hollywood, to museums and funding agencies—especially if we train them up on how to make the most inroads and do the most good.
I can hear critics, including the one in my head, countering that if an individual wants to pursue some of the careers listed above, why apply to graduate school in the first place? Perhaps that’s the problem, an excess of students misunderstanding the purpose of graduate school. The purpose is to become an expert in a discipline and make a measurable contribution to that particular field through research and publications. For students who want extracurriculars, there are summer internships and outreach programs they can do on their own time.
If we commit to such an attitude, then I assert that we forfeit the right to complain about the ignorant news reporters, the unqualified middle school teachers, and the politicians with an elementary understanding of science*. (Do you want a rigorous scientist in Congress? Maybe we can give her a PhD in Science and Government, a curriculum created from the melding of Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry, Communication, and Political Science. How about better teachers? What about Child Development, Cultural Studies, Education, and Mathematics?)
Most universities have all of the fixings to design incredible multidisciplinary graduate degree programs and tracks; we just need to freshen up our perspective. The current model of graduate education is worn out. It’s time to rinse it off, examine it, and reorganize and realign with reality. After all, you can only be on the cutting edge if you keep sharpening that blade.
*Although this comes from a highly biased source, it’s too apropos to pass up. Click here for the video.
The interview with Dean Anonymous and Leonard Cassuto from The Chronicle of Higher Education is no lengthier than this introduction to it, so keep going and read it here!
For those who want more
After going back and forth on the challenges graduate programs face, someone asked me, What can we do, right now, to push us in the right direction? I confess I do not have a revolutionary answer. But here are some jumping off points.
- At UC Davis, Dean Gibeling often hosts a quarterly “Dialogues with the Dean” during which he and attending students talk about a particular issue while dining on pizza. The schedule is not yet up, but I will post it when it is. Attend, dine, and speak up!
- UC Davis also has a Graduate Student Assistant to the Dean and Chancellor who “serves as a liaison between graduate students and the administration at UC Davis.” Amandeep Kaur served for the 2013-2014 academic year, and I’ll post the new assistant’s info once I find it. Talk with that person, pay attention to emails from that person, and hell, you know it: become that person! The position requires two things grad students typically run short on—time and energy—but passion can sometimes breed both. Look for the call when it comes out in the spring.
- Be a good citizen of the university—serve on committees, fill out surveys, participate in workshops, meet new people. There are a lot of smart and generous university citizens out there; perhaps together we can create (and implement!) a solution.