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.
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.
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.
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.
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.