By Claire Aitchison
In a world of spiralling credentialism where employers require ever higher qualifications, and institutions compete to recruit and keep doctoral candidates, its easy to see how students and supervisors can feel pressured to keep students enrolled. But what if you decide that doctoral study isn’t for you?
Recently I met up with a former student and in conversation she reminisced about her time as a doctoral student. Despite the many challenges she had experienced, she said how much she had enjoyed herself, especially the intellectual stimulation and sense of purpose she had as a doctoral scholar. She told me how she still loved her topic and wished she could have completed. I understood all of that – but then she went on to say she deeply regretted dropping out of her PhD.
This took me by surprise, because, all those years ago, when she contacted me about…
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Graduate schools need to equip their students with this knowledge and should be supporting CKF.
Kristen Ratan, known to many in the scholarly communications world, has been embarking on a new adventure of late. Together with Adam Hyde, she has launched the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation (CKF), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to evolve how scholarship is created, produced and reported. I recently had the chance to talk to Kristen about the Foundation – what it is, what problem(s) it aims to address, how it is funded, and more.
Please describe the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation and your role there
CKF, or Coko for friends, is a nonprofit open source technology organization offering alternatives to the ways that we currently produce and share knowledge. We’ve kept that directive deliberately broad so that we can focus on many different types of knowledge and processes. We’re starting with research communication because it is such a critical form of knowledge that is currently broken in ways that are…
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In France in, in June 2016, the government has stepped in to limit the time to degree, among other changes. La Confédération des Jeunes Chercheurs (CJC) or the association of young researchers complained about the legislation although it may have contributed to the legislation’s development. The CJC wanted the PhD recognized asa course in professional development in the legislation which seems to consider the degree more of an academic achievement.
Do we need legislation like this?
If grad studies departments had some performance measures to go by society, and grad students would be better served. Certainly time limits and less attrition would result in enormous savings for students and governments. Moreover such legislation would likely result in doctoral programs taking a more hands-on approach. Suddenly the program might have to confront the sloppiness in its pedagogy. Do we really need comprehensive exams? How can we get more students through faster? Do we send clear messages to help students understand our expectations? What are our expectations beyond producing a dissertation? Could we possibly allow students to collaborate on research to aid speed? What would our former students suggest?
What factors went into the decision to legislate time to degree in France? Saving money supporting students for longer than is necessary? Will ‘quality’ now suffer or improve in France because grad school administrators need to comply with the law? If a student of doctoral studies is reading this blog, that’s a good research topic. I wonder how much the directors of doctoral programs contributed to the legislation. What would Canadian deans and VP Academics say if legislation made them more accountable for times to completion?
How about attrition? Does the legislation touch on attrition? What would happen if doctoral programs had to produce doctorates in five years with 10% attrition rates?
We’d save so much time and money. Some of the pomposity of graduate studies would be punctured. Programs would improve. Students would feel supported and the pressure to perform would be greater. But first, major pushback from universities could be expected.
What would happen to that pool of cheap labor to teach those undergraduate courses? Maybe they’d just move into the adjunct underbelly in every university sooner.
Jason Richwine was no accident. He represents problems with doctoral education, even at Harvard.
In Three Magic Letters: Getting to PhD (2006) which was the largest survey of doctoral students ever conducted at the time of its publication, the authors note:
The dissertation-the culminating experience of a doctoral degree program- is the only research product for which there is stable and comprehensive documentation, and analysis of who completes the dissertation and the quality of it are missing from the public record. (Nettles & Millet, p. 105)
Just like juries sometimes get verdicts wrong, examining committees, even those made up of the esteemed professors who sat in Jason Richwine’s oral defense, get it wrong too.
No standard expectation of research productivity beyond the dissertation… has emerged in the disciplines or fields of study in the century and a half of doctoral education. Consequently whatever doctoral students produce by way of research appears to be by happenstance or through unofficial or informal networks in academic departments rather because of formal requirements or stated expectations in the curriculum. (Nettles & Millet, p. 105).
When the examiners fail, the quality of doctoral education suffers.
Harvard failed Richwine, in qualifying him for a PhD. Harvard, like all doctoral institutions, followed the standard steps of doctoral programs, the same steps that contain the fatal flaws; no back-up process to catch mistakes by the examining committee and no clear standards for oral exams. How is the examination of one document a representative sample? How is an exam without robust criteria for validity going to catch the work of a Jason Richwine, which one committee member considered careful?
Doctoral education needs change to catch mistakes by examining committees and insure that oral examiners follow robust criteria for assessment in the oral exam.
This blog on supervision points to be black hole at the centre of graduation education and applies to countries outside of Australia.
Merilyn Childs offers a detailed and insightful critique of the recent review of Australia’s Research Training Scheme provided by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), pointing to what’s missing from the review regarding supervision. Although this is about Australia, we know many of the issues she raises will be relevant to readers in many different parts of the globe. We reblog her piece for our readers.
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Dig, if you will, a fathering, in the form of a folkloric, social psychological blindness, known as pluralistic ignorance. Read an argument for how a hidden curriculum of pluralistic ignorance, that is acquired in grad school, impedes future action to make graduate education better. In Leaving the Ivory Tower (2001) Barbara Lovitts uses the psychological defense called pluralistic ignorance to explain why some practices in graduate education, which don’t make sense to students, go unchallenged. When pluralistic ignorance gets sewn into the fabric of graduate school, it goes on to blind the eyes of those staffing graduate education or those representing graduate students.
The Emperor and his men watch the spinners make the invisible fabric for his clothes.
Pluralistic ignorance works like the social psychology in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes. Graduate students don’t want to appear stupid or ignorant. Students assume that everyone supports the status quo, save only them. Students zip their lips to gain acceptance in an educational culture which has failed to take an interest in its practices. While all the residents of the kingdom know that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, none of them can say anything, not even to each other. The entire kingdom has too much to loose by speaking out. The only one with nothing to lose, is a child, who finally bursts the bubble and announces, “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes”. The child rescues the kingdom from a dangerous, shared delusion.
Pluralistic ignorance reigns still. At the International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training in Oxford in March 2015, the keynote speaker, Dr. Debra Stewart, who is president emeritus of the Council of Graduate Schools, issued another ‘wake-up’ call. Wake-up calls, which go unheeded and unheard, are oft-repeated throughout the history of graduate education studies.
Pluralistic ignorance writ large over careers in graduate education can not hear a wake-up call. When a grad student acquires a pluralistic ignorance filter, that filter becomes part of the armamentarium going forward. When these students take their place as supervisors, department heads, and deans, the reality shut out by pluralistic ignorance in grad school becomes a blind spot. Graduate educators can not hear or heed wake-up calls because of the deafening and blinding that took root in grad school.
Whether pluralistic ignorance explains a lack of initiative on the academic front, ‘don’t ask’ offers a reasonable excuse. Graduate student leaders, like other graduate students, may assume the mantle of pluralistic ignorance even as their experience tells them otherwise. As such, graduate student advocacy bodies in Canada have achieved precious little in getting departments to change academic practices that do not serve their members. Even with legions of former union members, who add to the ranks of the high attrition statistic, pluralistic ignorance preempts action. Let’s not notice, forms a tacit agreement between grad ed leaders.
Any sound program that looses 50% of students bears some responsibility for high attrition, save in the censure of ‘don’t ask’. Pluralistic ignorance allows graduate students to leave their programs in shame, taking full responsibility. What if graduate students got proactive messages crafted by graduate student associations that in grad school students often assume more responsibility for academic struggles than is warranted? Why haven’t grad associations crafted such messages?
Graduate programs escape responsibility for their failure to pay attention to the wake-up calls in high attrition statistics via the clamp of pluralistic ignorance. Hence the ‘silent’ exit of grad students. Silence, induced by shattering shame and self blame, fails to ring the alarm bell for the grad department and the graduate students’ association. In exiting their program and blaming themselves, not their indifferent programs or unresponsive graduate students’ associations for failure, the drop-outs experience in grad school goes unaddressed.
A tacit trust between Canadian grad school leaders, from the dean to the graduate student leader, seems to exist that all is well with academic matters. Some Canadian graduate student associations lack and do not elect executives designated to represent the membership on academic matters.
Graduate student leadership awakened to academic issues briefly when a national graduate students association enjoyed brief support in the early years of the millennium. Unfortunately, Canadian GSAs withdrew their support, even though research undertaken by the organization specifically addressed graduate student concerns. The research undertaken by the national association spoke to not gaps but holes in the literature. Since then no cohesive efforts to address academic matters from a graduate student’s perspective have punctured the delirium of the shared delusion. The blind spot persists.
Dig, if you will, a mothering, calling for graduate education leaders to say, “oh but the emperor is wearing no clothes. Let’s put some real clothes on him. Ah, when first we practice to self-deceive, we doom the future for qui vive”.
See Wikipedia for the definition of pluralistic ignorance.
How would an ordinary graduate student answer the question, “What exactly has my GSA* done to better the quality of my graduate education since forever?” Would the ordinary Canadian graduate student be able to name one issue that the GSU made headway with or made better? Would graduate students even be aware of the following two dozen issues?
- Ongoing Renewal Policies: Did elected executives work with the student council to craft and adopt policies to flesh out an agenda of ongoing renewal of graduate programs?
- Academic workshops: Did the GSA develop professional and academic workshops to stimulate awareness of new developments in graduate education. Graduate students would be interested in learning about new kinds of dissertations, new genres of scholarly knowledge production and managing a supervisory relationship that goes beyond the PhD comic?
- 21st Century Research Protocols: Did the association work to embed new practices related to citations, data sharing, digital forms of academic writing, social media, publication, poster making and copyright within graduate programs? All of these topics could be workshops offered by l’assocation.
- Partnerships with Graduate Programs: Did they work with the faculty to partner on experiments or new approaches within programs? For example, collaborative dissertations or networked research could be tried out. Getting rid of all course work for a research degree as in the UK would be worth a pilot project for certain programs.
- Support a student journal. Did GSUs establish a student journal to impart experience with peer review and publication?
- Graduate skills training & the three-minute thesis contest: Did the GSU support melding of professional graduate skills with learning in graduate school and not tacked on to it? Did they try to test a mandatory requirement of the ‘writing short’ skill which would require a three-minute thesis or some variation thereof like an RSA to complete a research degree?
- Student-centered Programs: Did they promote partnerships between graduate students and faculty aimed to capture student insights for program renewal? The CID concluded that graduate programs best develop a vibrant, healthy, intellectual culture that revolves around student growth and learning. The insights of doctoral students were also found to be rich with potent remedies for program problems and pitfalls. A student-centered learning culture goes a long way to combatting the mental health vulnerabilities latent in some of the isolationist, unhealthy cultures in graduate programs in the past. Did the GSS promote the development of a graduate review and improvement process (GRIP), a value-added measure that benefits graduate students at the University of Minnesota? To ensure timely renewal of graduate education, graduate students need to examine their programs while in the program. Did the GSU promote exit interviews of graduate students aimed at feedback to strengthen programs?
- Partnerships with private sector and non-academic employers: Did the GSA work to orient programs toward non-academic sources of employment and entrepreneurship?
- Supervision policies and training: Did GSAs work to set up supervision policies and training for supervisors to keep up with developments in graduate education?
- Knowledge of Graduate Education: How have graduate student executives over the decades heard and heeded the many heart felt cries for action from graduate education experts? How do student executives gain an understanding of pressing issues within graduate education?
- GSA Data and Research Functions and Transparency: How has the GSU set-up long-term research and data keeping functions of their membership? Did the work of l’association result in the university keeping and publishing time to completion and attrition statistics? Did they try mining the association’s data base to derive these or other stats in the face of a reluctant administration? Did they track and urge administrators to track graduate student career trajectories after degree and feed that data back to university administrators?
- Program Integrity and Differentiation: Did they work on issues related to the integrity of the oral defense? (Oral defense exams lack both validity and reliability and leave students open for abuse by examiners). Did they ask how a fail is determined for an oral exam? Did they work with administration to resolve and clarify meaningful differences between masters and doctoral degrees that require original research? Did they work with administrators to pre-empt poor standards of original research from qualification, as in the racist creed that Harvard University accepted from Jason Richwine? If Harvard can accredit substandard research, then all research training institutions know the system of research training needs more checks.
- All but Dissertation or No Dissertation: For the roughly 50 % of doctoral students who languish and leave doctoral programs, an official All But Dissertation (AbD) designation would help. Did my Canadian GSU lobby for recognition of all but dissertation students? Did they urge graduate faculty administrators to also develop a doctoral degree by publication pathway?
- Bona Fide Academic Requirements (BFARs): Did they push for bona fide academic requirement policies to ensure access and diversity?
- Collaboration: Did the GSS collaborate with counterparts in other organizations to share and exchange ideas, wins, policies under development, resources and strategies?
- Communication: Did l’association plan for changing of the student administrations so that greater continuity occurs? Did incoming executive get briefing notes from outgoing counterparts to maximize transfer? Did they set goals or direction for their terms in office with associated evidence of work or results?
- Student Council Training: Did the GSS institute training for the student council to develop expectations, practices and priorities by which to maximize the council’s effectiveness and the executive’s effectiveness? How does the council compensate for the short terms in office which can result in little traction with the harder issues?
- Faculty Goals: Did l’association provide answers to the question, “How does my faculty of graduate studies keep abreast and contribute to new developments in graduate education?” Can the GSU answer questions about the genuineness of the faculty’s review process if one is in place? Is it aimed mostly at marketing and recruitment? Has the GSA earned a voice to contribute to university reviews or renewal initiatives of graduate programs?
- Study of the effectiveness of graduate education within the university: Did representatives find out how faculty academic goals will be tracked? Did they urge study of graduate programs with input from students as suggested by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID, which was a five-year project for rethinking research training? Did they ask for data around time to completion, around attrition, around admission and around assessment or tried to set up possible joint partnership projects or goals with administrators?
- Program changes and new programs: Did the GSA gain graduate student consultation on proposed program changes to insist on also tracking the effects of changes to stop the ‘new shiny button’ promotion of change without study? How did my GSS represent graduate students in proposed new programs in terms of instilling greater transparency and assessment rigour from the onset?
- Network infrastructure development: Did the GSS develop an organizational network to address issues in graduate education by supporting a robust infrastructure of not for profit organizations to support continuity? By now graduate students ought to be able to name some national not-for-profit groups that assist GSAs year after year with primarily academic advocacy. Did graduate student reps develop graduate student academic advocacy into a pro-active and positive force akin to the effectiveness developed by student leaders in the UK or the output of the recently formed Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance (OUSA) on academic matters?
- Support study of student unions to ensure dialogue: Did the GSA support the study of Canadian graduate student unions? Very little is known about them. The HE system in Canada values, needs and wants student representation as a check and balance. Recently, at #transitioned a High Education Quality Council of Ontario conference, an upper level HE administrator said student leaders drive discussions of quality. A more reliable model for student representation on academic issues needs to be developed to make sure that these discussions take place.
- International and national graduate student and graduate education organizations: Did the GSA try to secure a seat for a national graduate student representative in the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies? This would mean bringing together all graduate students’ organizations in the country into an effective pan-Canadian counterpart to CAGS. Did the GSU put together a delegation from their university to attend the bi-annual ICDDET conference in the UK? Did the GSA bring new graduate departments into the fold?
- Canadian brand: Graduate student associations play a vital role in Canadian graduate education and ought to impart an exciting, dynamic, value-added aspect to Canadian graduate education on the world stage. Did your graduate student leaders play up the important role they take in shaping the reputation of Canadian graduate education?
Since the turn of the millennium, graduate students are wont to name significant gains on the academic front from student union representation. Indeed some GSAs as yet, do not have designated reps for an academic portfolio. How can this new crop of 2016-2017 graduate student representatives establish an agenda for successful advocacy, student-faculty partnerships, and movement on academic issues?
The graduate student movement in Canada needs to build an enduring social infrastructure that outlasts and captures incremental gains from the brief yearlong terms. The one year terms for elected executives give a reason to form strong bonds that organize, focus and aim energy year over year at substantive issues that will make an enduring difference to graduate students. A graduate students’ association needs to perform its role in the system of Canadian graduate education. GSAs need to aim for their work to add up year over year to add up to a legacy of value-added changes. The day that the everyday graduate student can name major gains brought on by their graduate student association will be the day that affirms that graduate representatives fulfilled their mandate within Canadian graduate education.
Graduate student unions must promote their value to their membership and to a wider audience. One way to start would be in taking on an ambitious agenda contained in the two dozen points above which, if enacted, would bring a smile to the lips of every graduate student in Canada.
*GSA, means graduate students’ association and is used interchangeably with GSS, graduate students’ society, and GSU, graduate students’ union et aussi des étudiant(e)s des cycles superiéurs de la francophonie au Canada sont inclus ici.