Apr. 18th, 2010

eirias: (Default)
I know a fair number of people who found graduate school, shall we say, not that satisfying. This may not surprise you if you've ever known any graduate students, but it probably should. Grad programs filter their entry pool pretty heavily on traits like academic achievement and interest; among the set that makes it in, you'd think hating school should be a fairly rare occurrence. What's going on here?

The canonical answer is that the unhappy ones are doing something wrong. The culture of higher education places the burden for success squarely on students, especially at the graduate level: no one can do the work of learning, or of career planning, for you. And there's some truth to that, for sure. However: graduate stipends are small, compared to the salaries of entry-level jobs that students would likely qualify for, and the justification is that tuition is part of compensation. When mentorship is weak or lacking, when professors' failure to read and comment on submitted work renders its completion meaningless, when standards for success are so ill-formed that decisions seem arbitrary -- those things, in a sense, constitute a reduction in pay.

So I started wondering the other day: why do we treat graduate school as school in the first place? Instead of pretending that learning to be a scholar is anything like learning to be a lawyer or a surgeon, why not move to a model more like other jobs -- where people are paid entry-level salaries for a few years while they learn enough to be hired later as independent workers (aka postdocs, instructors) and managers (professors)? I am not sure that it would have to cost more; compensation that currently goes back into the Graduate School could go instead toward salary for TAs and RAs, which, given professors' frank acknowledgement that graduate coursework is a waste of time, seems entirely appropriate to me.

My hunch is that this model would take some pressure off the mentor-mentee relationship, which is often fraught with expectations that go unmet. Rather than trying to turn everyone into Supermentor, it seems more sensible to adopt a structure that acknowledges reality -- your professor is just another boss -- and encourages scientists to take responsibility for their careers by paying them and treating them as young professionals instead of as students.

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