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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.


  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).

  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."


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