Skip to main content

Report from the Council of Graduate Schools: The devil is in the details


A short article in the Chronicle yesterday alerted me to this recently released report (note: it's a pdf file) from the Council of Graduate Schools. It's entitled "Graduate Education: The Backbone of American Competitiveness and Innovation: A report from the Council of Graduate Schools Advisory Committee on Graduate Education and American Competitiveness."

Because of my experience working with graduate students both as a coach, and along with Jayne London, running our Writing Clubs, I became excited reading this report. The Advisory Committee suggested many items in their "Action Agenda" that I endorse.

Of course, the devil is in the details. And the funding.

The report offers recommendations to those in higher education, business and policy. Here are a few selected tidbits that I liked, with my comments.

Interdisciplinary research preparation and education are central to future competitiveness, because knowledge creation and innovation frequently occur at the interface of disciplines.
I don't think anyone would argue with the importance of interdisciplinary studies. When I started my in my Ph.D. program in neuropsychology, there was no graduate degree in that field -- you were either in clinical psychology or physiological. Today it is a well-accepted discipline, with many programs offering a neuropsychology degree.

The problem is the universities haven't always ironed out the details that make it difficult to achieve a Ph.D. that bridges two disciplines. The student may have a committee made up of people who don't know much about the "other" discipline, or who even mistrust or dislike it. There may be no advisor who is conversant enough if both fields. The student may end up feeling like he or she must write the equivalent of two dissertations, if the committee cannot agree on the balance that must be struck in this kind of research. In addition, the student may feel not truly a part of either department, due to the time that most be spent in the other's department.

Instead of this kind of situation, universities should bend over backwards to accomodate such interdisciplinary students. There needs to be training for the professors who advise such students, and guidelines for departments and committees, in order to avoid inadvertently discouraging those who courageously attempt to bridge two fields.
Universities need to expand innovative collaborations the private sector, building on best practices illustrated above. Such collaboration must be integral to disciplinary and interdisciplinary research activity. University policies and practices should be reviewed to ensure that any barriers to creative partnerships are based upon principle and not bureaucratic traditions.
I love this one, because this is what I'm trying to promote with my business! Academic Ladder uses innovative techniques that are effective for helping graduate students be more creative, productive researchers. And of course, it is difficult to find academic leaders who are innovative enough to provide the funding for programs like ours, even though our services will make a huge difference in the success of the graduate student.

The quality of U.S. graduate education also depends on indicators that are less tangible than measurements of hard quantitative metrics. True quality hinges on the extent to which programs cultivate graduates with traits that are more difficult to measure, such as creativity and risk-taking. These qualities are key to advancing innovative basic research and must be integral parts of a national competitiveness strategy.

How do you promote creativity and risk-taking? Universities need to start applying well-known psychological principles (let's start with positive reinforcement) within their departments, in order to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to creativity and risk-taking. As seen through the lens of someone who is not affiliated with a university, but who works with graduate students, this kind of atmosphere is extremely rare. Instead, graduate students find their self-esteem, self-efficacy, and just-budding creative ideas tamped down by a well-meaning, but often unwelcoming advisor, committee or department. It doesn't take too many humiliating exchanges with an acerbic professor to inhibit a graduate student from airing nascent ideas.

All well and good, you say; but how do you motivate departments to institute this kind of training? Aye, there's the rub. The individual professors, and maybe even the department chairs, don't have the motivation or incentive to consider such changes. As Barbara Lovitts point out in Leaving the Ivory Tower, her excellent study of the relational factors that contribute to the high attrition rate in graduate education, there is often an attitude of "survival of the fittest" among advisors. If put into words, it might sound like this:
If you've got it, you'll make it. You are either born with it or you're not. I don't want to spend a lot of time nurturing your creativity or helping you with the production of this dissertation. If you don't show me you're good enough, you aren't cut out for this. Why should I put a lot of time into someone who might not be here next year?"
I believe that some of the most brilliant and creative students (with a disproportionate number being minorities, women, and other under-represented groups) are discouraged by such attitudes. And the sad fact is that there is no evidence that you can't teach someone who was good enough to get into graduate school how to be a creative, productive, academic.
Identify “best practices” in reducing attrition and shortening time required to receive a degree; this information should be promulgated throughout the graduate education community.
I couldn't agree more! And doing so may require that the education community think outside the box. A few orientation lectures to new grad students, and checking in with them a few years later to see whether they've graduated or not, is no longer enough.

Comments

  1. Such a worthwhile blog... This really gets at some of the deep structural problems in graduate education. It's really time to rethink the way things are done, not just to create a more humane process, but to ensure that the best truly get jobs (not simply those who survive the brutality).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, dylanfly. And I agree; when you have an institution with a "survival of the fittest" strategy, you have to be careful how you define "fit."

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"ABD" -- what does it really mean?

I thought I knew what the definition of ABD was. It was exactly the same as defined here in Carnegie Mellon's University Doctoral Candidate Policies for All But Dissertation (ABD) : After the completion of all formal degree requirements other than the completion of and approval of the doctoral dissertation and the public final examination, doctoral candidates shall be regarded as All But Dissertation(ABD). I have, though, occasionally run into the term ABD being used as a somewhat disparaging designation for one who fulfills the formal degree requirements of the Ph.D. but never finishes the dissertation, and then quits the program. Most recently, I saw it in What They Didn' t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career , by Paul Gray and David E. Drew. Number 9 of their helpful hints is one that I strongly agree with: "Remember that a Ph.D. is primarily an indication of survivorship." They go on to say, "You stuck w

The Second Holiday Writing Challenge for Academics

Here's a little boost for those who need a little kickstart to write over the holidays.  I first offered a Holiday Writing Challenge  back in 2005, so I'd say it's about time to do it again. Here's what you do: Post in the comment section: what you'd like to work on (if anything) over the holidays, and the maximum amount of time you'd like to spend on it daily . Please keep this time limit reasonable and low unless you're under huge deadline pressure -- in which case you don't need this challenge in order to get something done! Whether you're a professor or a grad student, make sure you get a copy of the Dissertation Toolkit.  These tools will give you more information and tips for productive and creative writing.  For those of you who have had trouble making yourself write, you may want to start with VERY short writing goals . Even 5 or 10 minutes will be enough to get you jumpstarted.  Don't go more than 25 or 30 minutes withou

Academic Exhaustion Syndrome: Four Recovery Strategies

The semester’s over. If you’re anything like the academics I coach, you feel like death warmed over.  Those last stacks of grading got done on sheer will, determination and fumes. And this is before considering your writing deadlines, committee responsibilities, and other demands.  You are suffering from Academic Exhaustion Syndrome.  Academic Exhaustion Syndrome (an advanced, more scholarly state of burn out) is a state of emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, ending with grading, over the course of the semester and academic year. As the stress continues, you begin to lose interest and motivation to work, you have fantasies of standing up and screaming in the middle of a meeting, and you wonder what temporary loss of reality testing made you decide to become an academic.  This dreaded Syndrome can: Reduce your productivity and saps your energy Make you irritable and have thoughts of strangling an undergraduate Make you feel like you have nothing more to g