• September 2, 2014

How Should Graduate School Change?

A dean discusses the future of doctoral-education reform

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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.

Graduate school is where we all become socialized into the academic profession. It sets the template for our expectations of what it means to be an academic. No matter how many years go by, most of us hold certain ideals in our mind and think graduate training should be based on those experiences.

And we build and run our programs accordingly?

Right. Faculty members often try to either recreate a graduate program that they attended or carve out their own institutional training ground by creating a new center. Even as the number of academic positions has receded over the past five years, the administration here has been bombarded with requests for new graduate programs.

Administrators, again, are not blameless in that dynamic. We overvalue new programs, centers, and so on, as a way of being able to tell a progressive story of institutional growth. Every research university trumpets "the new" loudly. No press release ever comes out and says, "We're doing things the same way as last year, because it is all working so well!"

The focus on vaguely defined "excellence" contributes to that behavior, because there is nothing to define "excellence" beyond the hierarchies that are already in place.

Administrators are worried about lookingtoo different from their peers or from the institutions with which they would like to compare themselves. As much as they might talk about innovation or disruption, they are worried that if they look too different, they won't be playing the right game. Of course, that also means that they will never actually leapfrog into the top, because we are all trying to do the same thing. 

That makes you more conservative in your own job?

Let's just say I wish I were more creative and ambitious. On the other hand, I share my faculty's skepticism of wide-eyed visionaries who don't appreciate the real complexities and challenges that we are facing.

You say that professors are too defensive and afraid of innovation. What do you mean? Can you give an example or two?

Faculty members are too quick to experience any proposed change as a loss. That is especially true in humanities fields, where the "crisis of the humanities" has made faculty nervous and defensive. This temperament has made it difficult to take seriously proposals that could actually help sustain the programs they care about.

For instance, as cohorts get smaller in certain doctoral programs, it makes sense to think about combining them—to create both a broader intellectual community and better administrative support. But most faculty fear that kind of move—even if it could result in a newly defined and exciting intellectual community. They think it would erode the particular discipline to which they have devoted themselves.

Two other examples: First, nearly every private-university administrator I talk with says that the current state of language instruction is not sustainable. Most campuses think that they cannot continue to teach the languages they are teaching at their current levels while meeting expanding student demands in new fields (including languages that are more recently arrived in the curriculum). This is going to require some innovative and integrative solutions if we are going to provide graduate training in many fields, but the same administrators will tell you that it is hard to work with professors to resolve those problems, because they are so afraid of losing what they have now.

Second, we all know that we should change our graduate curricula across the board—from the laboratory sciences to the humanities—to reflect the fact that a diminishing number of our Ph.D.'s will work in tenure-track jobs. But how many departments have changed their requirements, introduced new classes, or rethought the structure of their dissertations?

Everyone is afraid that they will lose something by doing so, either because it will mean less time for their students in the lab or library, or because it will make their students less competitive, or because it will be interpreted by prospective recruits as an admission of weakness.

The long and short of what you say is that the conservatism of tenured faculty—which they learn from their tenured advisers before them—is hurting graduate students badly. It locks them into curricula and expectations that ill suit their prospects in today's world. How can we break out of this cycle?

It's not a cycle that we can break, but a structure that has limitations. We certainly can serve both our graduate students and our society better. Experimentation and innovation could have a significant effect, and small groups of tenured faculty members and administrators have the power to make these changes. The biggest barrier is our own collective fears and self-imposed conservatism.

But I see reasons for optimism. For example, the discussion of tracking Ph.D. placement in The Chronicle (and elsewhere) will have very healthy effects, and I think it is possible that we can, and should, create a future with a greater diversity of graduate programs, even if there are slightly fewer of them.

I also believe that the majority of faculty members who received their Ph.D.'s in the past 10 years are likely to take for granted that these changes are inevitable, and even desirable. For all of the challenges we've discussed, graduate education will be a necessary and vital component of the research university for at least, say, the next half-century. And I'm stopping there only because to go farther out than that is science fiction.

As we focus on the challenges, let's not forget that our current model of graduate training has been the source of tremendous creativity and innovation. For all the pessimism running through our conversation, the research university is still the most interesting, productive institution in American contemporary life—and what we have built in the American academy is truly remarkable. There's no other place I'd rather be.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com.

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