Is There a Solution for the PhD Problem?

by Sara Rodrigues

9 November 2015

 
cover art

The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It

Leonard Cassuto

(Harvard University Press)
US: Sep 2015

I’m a graduate student, so I couldn’t possibly know what it means to be overworked and stressed out. As my aunt once told me, all I do “is go to a class here or there”. If only any job were so leisurely.

It’s sometimes difficult for non-academics to understand and take seriously the issues that currently face graduate students, specifically because the daily goings-on of academic labor are rather poorly understood in the non-academic world. Many people are ill-informed of what graduate students (and faculty) do, besides knowing that our work has something to do with taking classes and teaching classes and making no money.

Public opinion about graduate students and graduate education can in fact be very negative. For example, in March 2015, graduate student teaching assistants and contract faculty members at my university went on strike to protest, among other things, inflated tuition fees for all students (but particularly international students) and the lack of job security for contract faculty (who do the better part of undergraduate teaching). Commenters on mainstream media news items thought us strikers to be privileged and overpaid, to put it nicely. They complained about teaching assistants’ hourly rate of pay, which seems outrageous to those who are unaware that working hours are capped at ten hours per week. Such misinformation leads many in the public to believe that graduate students are grossly overpaid complainers and that our strike action was compromising the education of undergraduates, who are the ones actually gouged by unreasonable tuition fees. 



However, anyone who has spent time in graduate school or maintained close ties with a graduate student will know that there are very real challenges and shortcomings in the system as it is currently organized. If I manage to complete my PhD, this credential will be supplemented by a CV full of exciting accomplishments and experiences, but it will have come at a significant price: scary debt, total exhaustion, musculoskeletal disorders, diminishing prospects on the academic job market, and limited options on the non-academic market due to a narrow range of work experience.

My circumstances are in no way unique. The general situation is one in which lengthy time-to-completion is increasingly unavoidable but also increasingly unlikely to result in a tenure-track faculty appointment. The diminishing returns of a graduate education is among the central issues that Dr. Leonard Cassuto identifies in his appropriately titled new book, The Graduate School Mess.

Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University and regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, finds that graduate students in the humanities and social sciences are spending far too long on degrees that do not lead us to the tenure-track faculty positions that are dangled in front of us as the eventual reward for our multi-year commitment. Cassuto focuses on the humanities because this is where time to completion is longest and where employment prospects are the dimmest, but the situation is comparable in my discipline, the social sciences. He laments that graduate education, as we currently know it and perform it, is miserably failing students not only practically and professionally but also “on a human level”.

Rather than encouraging us to avoid graduate school like a fungal infection, like some ex-academics
have, Cassuto believes that we can save graduate education from itself, and save ourselves from graduate education. Cassuto does more than just map the problems facing graduate students and graduate departments today. He examines the assumptions that perpetuate these problems, and he makes recommendations for extensive reforms to graduate education.

The underlying principle that guides Cassuto’s study is that the organization and administration of graduate education no longer aligns with the kinds of jobs graduates find; as a result, the preparatory work of graduate education is out of sync with the preparation that we need for the job market. Such change, he says, requires that we identify, examine, and upend the assumptions that currently determine the way that graduate students are educated, trained, and mentored. Scrutinizing the assumptions that keep faculty and administrators beholden to increasingly problematic and positively outmoded models of educating and examining is Cassuto’s primary objective in The Graduate School Mess.

The reforms outlined in The Graduate School Mess are primarily directed at faculty (and their departments), for they are in a position to implement changes that can better the education and professional preparation of graduate students. At times, Cassuto acknowledges graduate students as part of his readership, but this book is directed at us not as readers, but as the beneficiaries of its potential impact. Unsurprisingly, however, I encountered most of my own graduate student experience in his writing; many of the challenges that I and my colleagues face are, we know, merely reflective of broader problems in graduate education today. These troubles contribute to the challenges that students face not only within graduate school, but also in finding relevant employment if/when we attain a PhD.

For Cassuto, these problems include outdated and incongruous curricula, unnecessarily long times to degree, unrealistic professionalization requirements, high rates of attrition (an astounding 50 percent), poverty wages, deception about the reality of the academic job market, an overall failure to prepare students for employment outside academia, and outdated dissertation requirements that increase time to completion (now an average of 9 years), but do not actually prepare students for the job market. So many of the shortcomings that Cassuto recognizes as running rampant throughout graduate education are things that I have directly experienced and continue to deal in the struggle to complete my PhD in a timely manner. What I want to do here, then, is demonstrate how some of what Cassuto discusses is borne out in the everyday reality of graduate student life.

Under such circumstances, why do people continue to pursue the PhD? Most graduate students, I and my colleagues among them, got excited about a PhD because it was likely the only way to continue to do the research that we found exciting, interesting, useful, and productive. I asked some PhD colleagues, most of whom said they applied because they genuinely enjoy the research and thinking work that they do. Certainly, this was the case for me. I also felt less-than-confident about my ability to secure relevant and stable employment with little non-academic experience and a hyper-specialized Master’s degree in critical theory. So, people remain eager to do PhDs despite the conditions and/or because of current economic conditions. Many of us have a genuine passion for ideas, and so the PhD is the sensible next step in our personal and professional development; many also truly want to be professors because we really enjoy and excel at its joint responsibilities of teaching and research. 

And so, if people remain eager to attain PhD, Cassuto says we must change how the degree is structured and the terms upon which it is conferred. Reforms are imperative to reduce attrition, to help us complete our PhDs in a timely and not totally destructive manner, and to prepare us for the jobs we are “actually going to get”. 

Cassuto maintains that the problems with graduate education begin in the graduate seminar where, every week, students gather with a professor to “discuss the readings”. Although graduate-level teaching is considered to be the highest level of teaching a professor can do, Cassuto criticizes the graduate seminar as a space in which not much “teaching” actually happens. Certainly, students know that, within the seminar model, “learning” happens through dialogue and the collective exchange of ideas and responses. This means that professors do not do much “teaching”, because students are expected to facilitate the conversation (sometimes as part of the grade). Cassuto points out that the limited collaboration between faculty members about course offerings leads to imprecision about what it actually means to “educate” graduate students.

The result is a disconnected curriculum wherein courses are usually based on professors’ current and highly specialized research interests, and ultimately, the result is a disjointed and impractical knowledge base. Cassuto suggests that because faculty lack a clear understanding of the intellectual and professional needs of students, teaching and learning in the graduate seminar often fails to connect to and teach the skills needed for the kind of jobs we will end up doing.

My own experience in the graduate school classroom substantiates many of Cassuto’s observations. I’m still not sure what I was supposed to learn in the graduate classroom: the amount of weekly reading is usually unmanageable, and the degree of attention given in class to each reading is superficial at best. I had a very difficult time finding courses that both suited my intellectual interests and enhanced my knowledge of my fields. I was compelled to remain enrolled: other offerings were a far worse intellectual fit, and waiting on better courses next term was not an option, given the limited funding.

Cassuto is absolutely correct when he suggests that professors neither understand nor meet students’ learning needs, particularly because those needs are unclear and under-defined. Graduate students receive either little or sorely misguided advice about coursework. When I started my PhD, I was told by my then-Program Director that graduate school is a time to “explore” and take classes in new areas of inquiry, even though my scholarly interests were quite developed and I knew the general focus of my dissertation project. Neither of those things had anything to do with Kant or Hegel, but there I found myself! Many Program Directors think they are encouraging students’ intellectual freedom, and perhaps they are, but they are doing so whilst remaining ignorant of the potential consequences for entering unfamiliar intellectual territory at such an advanced level. In my case, I barely passed a course that was too far removed from my interests; this in turn had a negative impact on my competitiveness for some awards and scholarships. What’s more, I have forgotten all of the content, because it’s inapplicable to what I research and in the classes for which I am a Teaching Assistant. 

What Cassuto recommends, when it comes to coursework, is that faculty talk about what they are teaching and collaborate with one another on the development of curricula. Students need course selections that make sense together, that teach us the skills that will facilitate our preparation for the qualifying examination and dissertation, and that teach us the general skills and knowledge that we will need and use in our eventual careers (whether or not those careers are academic). Ultimately, he says, faculty and departments need to connect graduate education to what students will do with our degrees, and to do so early on. Such teaching and training requires a certain degree of foresight about what students will end up doing, which in turn requires departments and programs to improve their typically abysmal records that track what students do after they finish or quit the PhD.

Cassuto also has strong reservations about the “middle phase” of PhD-dom, known as the comprehensive or qualifying exam. The shape of the comprehensive exam largely depends on the respective student’s field and department: typically, we are asked to read a large volume of works in a relevant field—either pre-determined or chosen by the student in collaboration with their committee—and then write about and/or orally defend our knowledge of these fields, as based on our reading. Regardless of the shape that the comprehensives take, students and professors generally understand that the point of the comprehensive is to prepare students for the dissertation.

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