Is There a Solution for the PhD Problem?

by Sara Rodrigues

9 November 2015


Publish or Perish: Who Cares?

According to Cassuto, the comprehensive exam emerged in the late ‘30s and was designed to eliminate those who were not strong enough for the researching and writing of the dissertation. Although this is the stated intent, Cassuto argues that the comprehensive exam does not actually do the work of “identifying good would-be dissertators”. An exam that covers everything one has learned in a field or subfield doesn’t actually demonstrate whether one can design, manage, and develop a research project and, in the end, produce a book-length manuscript.

The dissertation, whether it becomes a book or not, has limited appeal and usefulness beyond the academic community.

Cassuto argues that the comprehensive exam fails to adequately prepare students for the writing of a major research project like the dissertation. The reason for this, he says, is that preparation for the comprehensives requires students to first memorize and then regurgitate content, which, he argues, does not train us to apply that content or retain it over time. The comprehensives, then, do not meet the “retention and transfer” principle that Cassuto suggests underline the objectives of graduate education.

Moreover, because the comprehensive exam is, for so many people, such a lengthy and phenomenal task, it actually exhausts students and thus makes it harder for us to remain energized for the dissertation. Many students, myself included, are given neither a time limit nor guidelines for reading and preparation; instead, we are told that the exam is scheduled when we are “done with the reading”. What some faculty see as giving us the freedom to work on our own schedules and guide our own learning might likely be seen by Cassuto as desertion. Without adequate oversight, guidance, mentorship, and structure, many of us disappear into the overwhelm of comps, taking more time for the exam than we likely need. This then impedes on the time—and energy—that we have for the dissertation. Cassuto calls for student-centered instruction of the comps and a design that is not only collaborative but also meets the varying intellectual, academic, and professional objectives of each student.

For Cassuto, a serious source of concern is how PhD students are advised throughout their degree. In the social sciences and humanities, PhD students are lucky: we can choose our dissertation supervisor. We get excited by this search. Which eminent faculty member will be our academic parent, championing us on our way to intellectual greatness? The supervisor is supposed to be an active and ongoing mentor who facilitates a student’s intellectual development and timely completion, yet students continue to feel alienated and isolated. Indeed, this relationship is a long and often intense one. If there is conflict or disagreement between students and supervisors—be it personal, political, or intellectual—it can have negative and possibly detrimental effects on a student’s ability to complete their dissertation in a timely manner, if at all.

Because it is by supervisory approval that PhD students advance and graduate, the relationship can have a “make or break” effect on our progress and wellbeing. Anecdotally, I know of more than one case where supervisor-student conflict has led to an impasse that hindered a student’s completion. Although we put supervisory committees together with the hope that they will support us and help us make progress, the relationship often fails to deliver as promised. Many of us feel like we are toiling away in authorial isolation. Cassuto agrees with this impression of dissertation writing, and recommends that advisors supervise in a way that helps students feel less alienated.   

A strong and, importantly, up-to-date advisor, he says, is an active part of their students’ dissertation work and career preparation. He understands realistic and timely career preparation to be a form of teaching. Most advisors, he says, see their students as younger versions of themselves, and thus exclusively prepare those students for the academic job market; in turn, they admonish us if we mention a desire to quit and/or to seek non-academic employment. Many advisors dismiss “alt-ac” choices as failure, a lack of commitment to our education, or a lack of appreciation of their investment in us. Certainly, the latter form of disapproval resonates with my experience.

Quitting PhD or seeking post-PhD employment outside academia should be recognized, Cassuto says, as a sensible and legitimate choice, rather than as a failure. He writes, “the sheer numbers alone [a tenured-faculty population of just 25 percent] force us to acknowledge that not every graduate student will become a professor at a research university, yet we design graduate study as through they were all headed down that path.”

But supervisory ignorance and unrealistic expectations are not the only reasons that students struggle to complete the dissertation and defend their PhDs. Any number of life circumstances can shrink our writing time and impact our completion of the degree. PhD students are, more often than not, mature adults juggling multiple responsibilities. Our health might be or become compromised, our family might require more of our time, our funding might run out and we might seek outside employment, or our professional goals might change but we still want to complete the dissertation project that we enjoy and earn the credential that has been a significant financial, emotional and temporal investment.

For his part, Cassuto finds that outmoded degree requirements are a central contributor to the high rates of attrition and long completion times. The dissertation is one such requirement, he says. In the humanities and social sciences, the dissertation or thesis requires students to conceive of, develop, and complete an original research project; over time, though, the expectation has become one in which we are also writing a book that, somehow, simultaneously demonstrates both an innovation to and a mastery of a field. This dissertation, which is the final product required to attain a PhD, has in fact a very limited readership. For a significant number of newly minted PhDs, the dissertation is really only read by a handful of people: the student’s three- to four-person committee, and two additional readers. Along the way, we are told that our goal must be to revise and publish the dissertation as an academic book, for this is integral to being hired and/or get tenure.

Either way, the dissertation, whether it becomes a book or not, has very limited appeal and usefulness beyond the academic community. The dissertation-turned-book is based on years and years of research in highly specialized fields that, by virtue of their specialization, usually will not appeal to the public, and thus cannot inform the public. The continued commitment to bloated book-length dissertations perpetuates what Cassuto calls a “two-tier system” where research accomplishments are positioned as superior to any other kind of experience or aptitude.

Further, the fact that, as I discuss in more detail later on, PhD students are expected to generate a body of work with such a limited reach contradicts the push for us to engage in public outreach. The general incompatibility between academic intellectual work and public outreach projects generally leads to a situation where public outreach projects become not an acceptable form of alternative labour that can count towards one’s PhD and/or career development but rather work done in addition to traditional academic labour.   

Certainly, students are led to believe that a dissertation-turned-book is the ticket we need to get on the tenure-track. In 2014, for example, I attended a workshop led by a prominent academic, and she told us that if we wanted the tenure-track to be within our reach we need not just a book contract, but a book contract with a “leading academic publisher”. Because the requirements of hiring committees are not transparent, we would-be professor-job applicants have a limited understanding of what makes someone truly competitive. Many students believe what we are told by those on the “inside”, even if this information comes in the form of unsubstantiated anecdotes. Any insight is better than no insight.

In turn, we internalize this inflated need to come out of the PhD gate as established leaders in our respective fields. Some awards and postdoctoral fellowships are explicitly based on this principle, and put leadership in research above all other criteria, even though it’s a completely nonsensical expectation for newly minted PhDs and early career researchers. Not only does this emphasis on being “established” create unrealistic expectations, it has tangible effects in that it compels students to spend years and years on their PhDs, doing everything but the dissertation in the quest to become “established”.

The consequence, Cassuto notes, is that many students become stuck on the dissertation. Some are abandoned by their committees who certainly see the increased time to completion as a problem but are unwilling to assess and reform dissertation requirements to allow struggling students to finish but still “earn” their PhD.

Cassuto suggests that rather than demean quitting or dismiss non-academic labor, advisors need to work alongside departments, students, and career services, so as to help us gain non-academic experience, and hone skills applicable to the non-academic market. Students also need to learn how the non-academic world works so that we can more convincingly fit into it. We need to have access to meaningful placements outside the academy, as a substitute for and not supplementary to teaching appointments, so that we will have practical experience that will develop us into competitive job candidates.

While some commentators argue that a PhD should lead to a tenure-track appointment, Cassuto maintains that the reality is that most of us, even the exceptional ones, won’t end up in one simply because there are too many PhDs for the number of available appointments. As Cassuto points out, and as I have been told by long-time faculty, the vast retirement of baby boomers is not happening as predicted.

Further, where faculty are retiring, their positions are not being replaced by tenure-track appointments. Most teaching is now done by contract instructors and graduate students. More PhDs end up working outside of academia. Therefore, the more that PhD students are exclusively defined by our academic network, knowledge, and experience, the more challenging it will be for us to secure relevant work outside of academia, which is where most of us will find ourselves, whether we want to or not.

On this note, Cassuto implores prospective PhD students to look closely at department completion, attrition, and placement rates before making the decision to apply to and/or join a particular PhD program. The problem, however, is that many departments and programs do not actually keep or publish such records. Incoming graduate students with no prior connection to their new program are unlikely to have a strong sense of post-PhD realities like time to completion and placements. Further, because departments rarely follow up with graduates to learn what they do with themselves and their degrees, this makes it difficult to reform program design, degree requirements, and advising structures to meet the professional, developmental and experiential realities of both current and future students. 

Consequently, graduate students are in circumstances in which we must be “all things to all people”. What this means is that, in addition to coursework, comprehensives, teaching, and the research and writing of the years-long dissertation, we are faced with the growing pressure to professionalize, and to do so early. As noted above, professional scholarly accomplishments enable us to position ourselves as “leaders” in our fields so as to distinguish ourselves from “the competition”.

Cassuto points out that, in the early 20th century, which were the germinal years of graduate education, professors would select promising students to proceed to advanced study, and that study was focused on learning and improving competence in the field in which they would eventually teach and conduct research. Over time, Cassuto says, teaching was sequestered from research and graduate education became focused purely on an individual’s capacity for research. Today, we find ourselves in circumstances where we must do more and be more if we wish to be even remotely “competitive” on the increasingly small and specialized market for positions at research universities. This increase in the expectations of students to be established professionals, Cassuto says, fall under the umbrella of “professionalization”. More casually, we know it as “publish or perish”.

Professionalization, in the academic context, refers to the process by which activities that are routine for the professoriate are increasingly taken up by graduate students: publishing in peer-reviewed journals, presenting at and organizing conferences, sitting on one or more committees, working in student governance, convening panels at conferences, international exchanges, organizing seminars and workshops, and giving guest lectures within or outside of our home institutions. Some supervisors who, as Cassuto says, are ignorant or in denial of the reality of the job market, discourage students’ participation in such activities and tell students to “focus on your dissertation”. Other supervisors and departments know the realities, and actively encourage our participation in these kinds of activities, indicating their benefit to our “professional development”, even if this comes at the expense of dissertation writing time.

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