Is There a Solution for the PhD Problem?

by Sara Rodrigues

9 November 2015


When Achievement Is Valued Over Potential

The result, of course, is that professionalization creates more labor on top of an already overwhelming workload, and the majority of this labor is unpaid. All of the activities that might set me apart from other candidates in the review of applications are all endeavors I have undertaken without immediate financial remuneration. Our workers’ union, for all its complaints of the ongoing exploitation of contract faculty and graduate students, even has a fund dedicated to reimbursing us for travel costs associated with professional development activities. Certainly, I and my colleagues are immensely grateful for this fund; I could not travel to conferences without it. We undertake them in part out of excitement for the work, but also with the hope that they will result in future remuneration in the form of tenure and salary.

Cassuto admonishes academia’s adherence to a structure that rewards accomplishments that can only be ascertained by students who stay in the PhD program for a really long time.

As a result of professionalization, today’s graduate students are earning our degrees in a milieu marked by what Cassuto calls “credentials inflation”. I was indoctrinated early on, during my undergraduate degree, and learned that publications and journal articles are a mandatory requirement for success on the job market (at least the one geared toward a position in a research-intensive university). Cassuto notes that people going in the job market for the first time have not only their PhD in-hand, but also a strong record of relevant and refereed presentations and publications, and other forms of scholarly and creative activity. Cassuto is highly and rightfully critical of this model, which makes research “the supreme exemplar of professionalism”.

He admonishes academia’s adherence to a structure that rewards those with the kinds of accomplishments that can only be ascertained by students who stay in the PhD for a really long time. This, he says, generates a preference for achievement over potential, meaning that newly minted PhDs are entering the job market as fully formed entities rather than as new researchers whose aptitude and output will develop and strengthen over time. At present, new and potential hires have considerably greater and more notable accomplishments than did those on the market just a few decades ago.

It also means that they are increasingly older and more accomplished, yet still relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder when they begin academic employment. This system increases the already immense pressure put on graduate students and early career researchers. Cassuto raises the crucial insight that, despite our firm belief that the academy is a radical and non-conformist space, our professors and administrations continually capitulate to the achievement hierarchy and leave it unchecked, which encourages graduate students to have little choice but to conform along with them.

If this extracurricular workload—supplementary to the PhD but imperative for the job market—weren’t enough, we must also add the growing importance of and pressure to engage in public outreach. Increasingly, our research must have a tangible impact for and relevance to the general public who, in Canada at least, are indirectly supporting our education with their tax contributions. Increasingly, graduate students (and faculty) are to become not only part of the cadre of knowledge producers, but also knowledge mobilizers. This is the latest buzzword-turned-workload-increaser at my institution, and much administrative energy and money is spent on curating workshops and resources that educate professors and graduate students in the practice of knowledge mobilization. Cassuto stresses the importance of communicating humanities research to the general public and making that research relevant to the public, which is not entirely a bad thing. However, he neglects to acknowledge that this work is currently being done in addition to the dissertation, and is not being taken up as a replacement for traditional degree requirements.

The greatest value in The Graduate School Mess is that it’s not simply an indictment of graduate education. While he does examine how graduate education came to be in its current state of crisis, Cassuto doesn’t believe that would-be PhDs should avoid advanced study and abandon intellectual pursuits and theoretical research. Instead of simply outlining the major shortcomings of the design and likely outcome of graduate study, Cassuto offers realistic recommendations for reforming the meaning, usefulness, and experience of the PhD from the admissions process through to the dissertation.

Ultimately, Cassuto suggest that graduate faculty and administration, at the departmental and administrative levels of the university, must aim for the production of a “general ethic” for graduate education. The reforms and recommendations that Cassuto proposes in The Graduate School Mess are well-supported by reference to the extant, albeit limited, research on graduate education at present. He discusses the success rates of “alternative” graduate programs such as the Professional Science Master’s (PSM), which focus on enhancing students’ knowledge but also helping them develop non-academic professional skills. Cassuto recommends that faculty members and departments to actively talk to and about graduate students, which is, but should not be, a novel suggestion.

While this is imperative, such a suggestion for collaboration might be challenging insofar as collaboration is actually antithetical to the way that graduate education is currently carried out: at the dissertation level, we work primarily with a single advisor and rarely with our supervisory committees as a whole; in the seminar, there is one faculty member per group. It’s actually very rare, at least not in my or my friends’ experiences, that professors collaborate or work together on determining how to teach and offer guidance to students. The entire basis of graduate education would have to change, which might make for a welcome shift in the assumptions that reproduce the archaic systems that support the academy writ large.

However, implementing reforms undoubtedly requires collaboration not only among faculty, but also between graduate faculty, support staff, and the administration who control the purse strings. It also requires that faculty and administration make time for and listen to the needs, concerns, and expectations of graduate students. In my and my colleagues’ experiences, not much time is made for this, in that there’s no forum or roundtable where graduate students can come together with a group of faculty to communicate our needs and how they can be met. Every year, my program asks students what kinds of workshops and or support programs would be beneficial, and every year I dutifully answer this question to no avail. 

Much of what Cassuto is suggesting will mean that the work of reform would fall to faculty members and Program Directors, most of whom are also caught in the same cycle of overwork. An additional issue, at my university at least, is that the administration of graduate departments and programs presents real barriers to reforming graduate education. The “administrationization” and growing corporatization of the university has resulted in a push toward the standardization and systematization of regulations and requirements that in turn make it very difficult to implement any reforms to degree requirements.

My own PhD program, for example, is managed by one Graduate Program Director and one Program Assistant. Together, they support to about 80 full- and part-time MA and PhD students. Our faculty members “belong” not to our program but to other programs across the university and teach in our program on appointment. The program in which I completed my MA was structured in the exact same way. Programs like these are short on resources—unaffiliated faculty are sometimes without a strong sense of responsibility or commitment to these programs, making it very difficult to get to know them and to get them to collaborate on student support.

What this means in practice is that students have limited opportunities to make contact with faculty, and thus few places to turn if we are having supervisory challenges. The day-to-day workload of student administration is so overwhelming that major reform seems, to me at least, to be an impossibility. In my program, our website has had a student profile page “coming soon”, since well before I started in 2011. The overwhelm of the administration of a graduate program also means that it is but a faraway dream to do things like track completion rates and times and to follow up with alumni to create a record of recent placements. 

Funnily, though, for all its talk about listening to and taking into account the interests, goals, and needs of graduate students, the voices of graduate students are relatively quiet in Cassuto’s book. In The Graduate School Mess, PhD students’ stories and insights are few compared to the pithy statements from expert faculty members or administrators; the consequence of this is that this book also assumes to know what graduate students need. Faculty members and departments cannot simply assume to know what kinds of reforms we desire or want to see. They need to ask us what those reforms might be, and they need to actively involve us in developing them.

Certainly, we need more help to determine what we can do with our degrees and how to get ourselves there, but we also need changes that make the PhD survivable and quittable. We need things like, but not limited to, higher wages, teacher training and classroom support, mentors who are not our supervisors, health care, child care, financial support (but not more wage labor), networking support and introductions to scholars in our fields, invitations for professional collaboration from faculty, and ongoing encouragement and support on a human level. 

The most significant thing that I learned from this text was that it was a shame that I did not have a resource like it when I started graduate school. Although it’s not meant as a guide for graduate students, it echoes many of the frustrations that graduate students experience but feel we cannot publicly express. For this reason, I encourage current and would-be graduate students to engage with this book, which offers a vital and important analysis of the problems of and possible reforms for graduate education. This is exactly the kind of analysis that, had it been available to me four years ago, would have forced me to evaluate what I want to do with my life, to engage in professional development activities that would make non-academic employment options more achievable, to seek out the appropriate career development resources and professional support networks, and to know how to advocate for myself so as to tailor my education, my extra-curricular endeavors, and my research program toward a more assured future.

The Graduate School Mess is at once an indictment, a call to action, and a resource for initiating meaningful reform. If our professors and advisors truly believe in “taking academia back” from the increasingly alienating and profit-driven university system, then reforming graduate education and the future prospects of graduate students has to be central to this movement. As educators ourselves, graduate students do an increasing share of general level undergraduate teaching, and as students, we are the lynchpin in whether we overturn or uphold decades of stultifying educational procedures and processes. Faculty members and administrators who have even the remotest political, practical, and ethical objections to the way that academia has transformed in the recent decades now have both the power and the responsibility to make this system better for those of us who still hope to inherit it.

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