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How grad school could be changed

By Leonard Cassuto "I talk a lot in this column about how graduate programs might be run differently. The graduate enterprise faces a lot of problems, so there's plenty to talk about. But I don't run a graduate program, and we don't hear enough from the people who do. 'There's a reason for that. Administrators can't dissociate themselves from their institutions when they speak. As any administrator will tell you, even the most casual remark can become the object of Kremlinological scrutiny and speculation. With that concern in mind, I recently conducted an email interview with a dean who works with graduate education in the arts and sciences at a well-endowed private institution—let's call it Very Good University. He's a full professor who came up through the faculty ranks and was named a dean less than a decade ago. Because I've shielded his identity here, he was able to offer some bracing observations and sound prescriptions. Here is our exchange. What sorts of changes would you like to see in American graduate study? "The biggest one is that our doctoral curricula need to be changed to acknowledge what has been true for a long time, which is that most of our Ph.D. students do not end up in tenure-track (or even full-time faculty) positions—and that many of those who do will be at institutions that are very, very different from the places where these Ph.D.'s are trained. The changes will differ from program to program but might include different kinds of coursework, exams, and even dissertation structures. Right now we train students for the professoriate, and if something else works out, that's fine. We can serve our students and our society better by realizing their diverse futures and changing the training we offer accordingly. The other necessary change: We need to think seriously about the cost of graduate education. There is a perception that graduate students are simply a cheap labor force for the university, and that universities are interested in graduate students only because they perform work as teachers and laboratory assistants cheaper than any one else. At elite universities—or at least at elite private ones—that is simply not true, and I am glad that it is not. It is absolutely true that graduate students perform labor necessary for the university in a number of ways, but it is not cheap labor, nor should it be.

“The cost of graduate education has repercussions for the humanities and social sciences, which is one reason you are seeing smaller admissions numbers and some program closings. It also has repercussions for the laboratory sciences, where I am seeing too many faculty members shift from taking on graduate students to hiring postdocs. Unfortunately, they regard postdocs as a less expensive and more stable alternative to graduate students, and postdocs come without the same burdens of education or job placement that otherwise fall on the faculty member who hires doctoral students. I want to underline that I don’t think that graduate programs should be cheaper, but we can’t have an honest conversation about their future unless we acknowledge their cost.

‘What might those changes look like at your medium-size private university? I am not sure. If I were, I’d be writing a white paper for the dean of our graduate school rather than talking with you. They would probably include coursework designed to prepare doctoral students for nonacademic careers, internship options, and even multiple dissertation options.I have a sense of what this could look like in my own discipline, but this needs to be a collective conversation. Anyone can chart out a “vision” and write it up for The Chronicle. It’s another thing altogether to make it work, starting from the ground up, at one’s own university with the enthusiastic support of everyone involved. For that to happen, there needs to be sustained, open dialogue about the real challenges. And most administrators and faculty are unwilling to engage in that work in a serious way until they see examples of similar changes in the very top programs in their fields. Why does this kind of change have to start from the top?

“Both faculty and administrators are extremely sensitive to the hierarchies of prestige that drive the academy. In most fields, the majority of faculty members who populate research universities have graduated from a handful of top programs—and they spend the rest of their careers trying to replicate those programs, get back to them, or both. They are worried about doing anything that diverges from what those top programs do, and will argue strongly that divergences place them at a competitive disadvantage in both recruiting and placing graduate students.Administrators are just as much to blame as faculty for that state of collective anxiety. No matter what deans, provosts, and presidents say, we all rely too heavily on rankings and other comparative metrics that play directly into these conservative dynamics.”

“Is this a version of the “mini-me syndrome,” in which advisers try to mold their graduate students in their own image, writ large? That is certainly part of it. The desire to see your own scholarly passions continue through students you have trained is truly powerful,and administrators underestimate that desire at their peril. Of course we all want our faculty members to be passionate about their research, and graduate training is one way that faculty research makes an impact on the profession. But there are moments when the desire for scholarly replication can be troubling. The training of graduate students should fill a greater need than our personal desire for a legacy.”


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