Why Doesn’t Getting Better Grate On Graduate Schools?

This New Yorker article by James Surowiecki points to a big need in graduate education: performance enhancement. Surowiecki recounts the story of rapid gains in performance in the arts and in sports in the last 40 years with the new knowledge of ‘getting better at getting better.’  Virtuosity amongst pianists is now common thanks to this knowledge of getting better which pushes performance out of those who in the pre-performance enhancement era would have languished unrecognized. A  ballerina can pirouette atop the head of her fellow dancer thanks to the big leaps in performance training in the last 40 years.

Systems get better too.  The philosophy of Kaizen, a Japanese word meaning continuous improvement, permitted Japanese car makers to take over a dominant share of the North American car market.

Kaizen leads to an examination, isolation and careful study of the details of performance.  Kaizen leads to feedback, to testing, to innovation, to measurement, to multiple iterations and to learning.  What if Kaizen caught on in graduate schools?  How would graduate school change?

Eighty doctoral programs in six disciplines participated with the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) for a five year period ending in 2006.  Proactive assessments, tracking, data collection, attention to the culture in the department made for real upgrades to doctoral programs across the different disciplines until the CID ended.

The changes instituted by the CID have failed to spread quickly in the classic early adopter pattern that diffuses innovations across a sector.  The 3 minute thesis contest (3MT) which spread across the globe from its start at Queensland University in Australia, show that graduate programs can tack on a little diddle like the 3MT readily, but the kind of deep changes brought about by the CID aren’t so catchy.  The still lengthy time to degree completion and high drop-out rates of doctoral programs broadcast continuing indifference, ignorance and ignominy.

So far less than 2.5 % of graduate programs have cottoned on to the necessity of ongoing renewal.
So far less than 2.5 % of graduate programs have cottoned on to the necessity of ongoing renewal.

The indifference within doctoral programs to examine methods of doctoral training abides in the system.  Historically, doctoral educators feared that letting too many graduate too readily devalued the degree.  So for all the thousands of doctoral programs throughout the globe, only one measly scholarly journal exists to learn about doctoral education.  While the rest of the world has developed the performance-enhancing learning power to perform a pirouette a la tete or take over a car market, doctoral education languishes with the rituals of the medieval world, replete with a grilling by a grand inquisition at the end of a needlessly long, opaque ordeal in which 50% of starters stop.

Come on graduate schools, get your performance on, learn something, get better.

2 Replies to “Why Doesn’t Getting Better Grate On Graduate Schools?”

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