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[personal profile] eirias
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.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-18 10:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marphod.livejournal.com
There are a decent number of schools where the graduate students have unionized to some extent or another. (I, personally, find it very amusing when politically-liberal schools try to object to their students organizing.)

It isn't quite the same, as they still get stuck with ass-low salaries, but they can push for better treatment.


I'm not convinced graduate school for scholarship is that different than, say, earning a JD. THis may only be true for the first years -- at least in the sciences and engineering fields, there is a lot or relevant coursework left, before one can reasonably begin research. Were I to go back, beyond any refreshers, I'd need a whole lot of exposure to new concepts (mathematical basis of CS practices, field theory, more advanced statistics, network theory, etc.) before I'd be ready to work on a thesis.

If I were to go mathematics, rather than CS, I'd need a huge number of classes to cover what is considered basic to a PhD level candidate.

For [livejournal.com profile] eponis, while I don't think she strictly needs many of her subject courses, she certainly needs her language courses before she's ready for her thesis.


The big break, as I see it, isn't that graduate students are professionals and should be treated as such (which is, btb, quite possibly true), but that the class structure and format at the graduate student level is not only completely unlike that of undergraduate education, but the variance from one school to another is also out of synchronization.

At UI, my undergraduate level classes were all of a instructor-student format. While some things were addressed by the class (solved together on the board, or whatever), there was always a divide that the instructor was in charge, and the students were there to learn. This remained true of both the large/lecture classes and the small/discussion classes I was in.

In the graduate level classes, the classes were almost all collective. While the instructor was considered an expert (and except for my compiler class, which no one grokked), even lectures were presented to equals, feedback, challenges, and critiques were encouraged, and there were no sacred cows. This was even more prominent in the upper level graduate classes I took[1], compared to the lower level ones.

As for [livejournal.com profile] eponis's classes, there seems to be a huge difference in style between her masters (at Y___) and her PhD (at B_______) classes. There was a lot more mentoring/positive feedback in her masters. There is also a huge difference in program (Y and B also have very different focuses in their education -- Y was more research and academics straight out of the gate, whereas B is philological and requires a huge investment in that before comps).

Being prepared for graduate work at the first did not necessarily leave her in a position to correctly anticipate the nature of the latter.

[1] Including the one I took my freshman year. Oops. The class had no prerequisites listed and I liked graph theory so, I took it.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-18 10:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eirias.livejournal.com
1. If the goal is an increased sense of a young scientist as a professional, I suspect graduate student unions are actually exactly the wrong model. Which is not to say I oppose them -- given the existing power structure, they have an important role to play in preventing abuses. But I'm wondering about a model where young scholars perceive enough control over their career arcs that unions are superfluous. I'm looking for a different power structure, not just a tool to use against the existing one.

2. Graduate school in the sciences is definitely, without question, nothing like earning a JD or MD. For both of the latter degrees, there's an agreed-upon body of information that you should have mastered by the time you graduate, and how well you did this can be measured by a standardized exam. For the typical Ph.D. program, with the possible exception of clinical psych, which has boards, there are no such standards, certainly not across schools but often not even within a department. As you note, Ph.D. students are constructing knowledge, not merely mastering it; what they ought to know depends entirely on what they wish to build.

3. Your experience of grad classes was a lot like mine, it seems. My point is that I am not sure that this dynamic is a good fit for a credit hour system. The work is generally not assigned meaningful grades; there is no useful way to tell whether the professor has taught anything or the student has learned anything. And when you call academics' attention to this odd fact, they invariably think you have missed the point. I don't think I have; I think the point is that "weekly meeting discussing current problems with superiors and colleagues" is a fine description of a lot of educational work experiences that aren't school.

4. I should emphasize, I am not at all sure how this setup would work in the humanities, since they operate so differently. I suspect that the changes in financing would mean fewer openings for humanists-in-training; frankly, I'd rather see that selection happen before people turn forty, so I'm not sure it's the worst thing in the world.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-18 10:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ukelele.livejournal.com
I think it's in what you say: that we treat it like it's school, but really it isn't. I mean, some of it is, but it's also all this doing-things-independently stuff that you may not have really had to do through school -- less of jumping through hoops, more of identifying them youself. And it's research, which isn't like classes. And it's relationships. And it's your life, with all of these identity issues around profession and family that undergrad doesn't stir up for most people. So filtering on people who are good at school may be at best orthogonal to filtering on people who are good at The Grad School Experience (at best, because people who were great at doing what they were told & jumping through hoops may flounder utterly in the less-structured grad school environment). But still, everyone calls it school (it's in the name!)>

I think the bad-mentor-as-reduction-in-pay idea is interesting.

That said...I'm not sure "your professor is just a boss" helps things. I mean, maybe the mentor thing comes with personal entanglement that the boss thing doesn't, but people who aren't good mentors will not suddenly be good managers. And people who work for bad managers are generally miserable, regardless of sector. I don't think the need for management, hence managerial ability, necessarily decreases.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-18 11:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eirias.livejournal.com
Ohhhh, I'm not expecting bad mentors to suddenly become good managers -- I think that's unrealistic in the extreme, especially when there's really no way to bring incentives to bear. That's why I think reframing the relationship might be helpful: when your expectations and reality don't meet, if you can't shape reality, you need to work on the expectations.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-19 12:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ukelele.livejournal.com
I didn't think you were expecting that, when it's phrased that way, because clearly that's ludicrous ;). But it looks to me like you are expecting that implicitly, both because you refer to professors as managers in your analogy, and because someone is still going to have to be doing the managing in your system and it's not clear to me who else that might be. (Your hypothetical entry-level grad-not-students, whatever we call them, still need to be managed, the same way entry-level workers in any other industry need to be managed.) Perhaps I am missing something in your system, but it looks as if it still requires the same minimum level of managing, and does not create any more likelihood it will be there.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-19 01:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eirias.livejournal.com
The current system takes as given that young scholars ought to be able to get by with very little guidance. I think that would be a principled stand to take, were they not students -- I think that being a student implies a certain right to mentorship and support that employees do not have. If you want to give me on-paper tuition dollars and call that compensation, I'd better be getting some work out of you, is what I'm saying.

I'm not arguing that my system would lead to better management. (Terrible management is still management; Dilbert's boss is a manager, even if he's lousy.) I'm merely wondering what would happen if we dropped the pretense of close mentoring and replaced it with salary befitting someone with a bachelor's degree. It might not make science trainees any happier -- though I do think it could be salutary for some to hear explicitly, "Nobody cares whether you make it, so go buy some self-help books" -- but it might remediate the sense of unfairness that permeates the soured mentor relationship. It would at least make it truer that failure is the fault of the trainee -- which is something academics will tend to believe, whether or not it is true.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-19 01:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cynic51.livejournal.com
Full disclosure: I never went to grad school as it's an utter waste of time in my field (so, arguably, is a bachelor's), so I may be talking out of my ass.

It sounds sort of similar to those horrible classes at our beloved alma mater where the professor clearly had no interest in teaching a bunch of undergraduates at all. This was obviously because the professor wasn't being paid to teach, he was being paid to do research (or more accurately to secure grant money) so for the most part could give a flying fuck about teaching anyone other than their own grad students (if them). Since reviews were file 13ed (or at least not given any weight) they never taught. Of course, this overlooks that having unhappy undergrads undermines the department in a host of other ways, but it's the way it happened. It was the rare professor indeed who actually taught - why do you think the undergrads continually nominated the same person in each department for various teaching awards? That person was the only one who tried, so won by default.

So let's look at the mentor/mentee relationship. My understanding is that the mentor more or less had to agree to having a mentee or they wouldn't get one. Is that correct, or are professors 'urged' to have at least one mentee each year or does this vary by school? I think pretty clearly that if they are forced to have one, the same scenario holds.

To return to the original question though, we use that as our model because we always have for whatever reason, and it works well enough that nobody has sought to change it. After all, who cares if a certain percentage of the grad students in a given field fail to achieve a degree? It just reduces the competition for a finite amount of positions and grant money. And if the professor is a terrible mentor, so what? The school doesn't care too much, and if the professor happens to be tenured then they can't do a lot about it anyway.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-19 09:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tiurin.livejournal.com
The thing is, there's effectively no incentive for the structure to change- certainly, the people in charge(i.e. professors) have tons of economic incentives to keep the current dysfunctional system.

Professors appear to have a steady stream of highly skilled workers willing to put in long hours at subsistence wage, and should any of them dislike it...well, there are plenty more applicants willing to fill the slot. It's not even like there's an expectation of having to be Supermentor, it's more like an expectation of having indentured servants. Why would a professor want to encourage the treatment of grad students as young professionals? It'd just make them uppity and less willing to put up with the crap.


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