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How-to Trump Self-Help in Grad School: Measure Practices

November 30, 2015

Doctorate self-help writers abhor a vacuum.  To address an abyss, well-meaning doctoral educators pen self-help books.  To meet a seemingly insatiable demand, publishers forever add yet another self-help title to their catalog. In August 2015, Haggerty and Doyle added to the genre with the lay it on the line title, 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School. The void of knowledge is so great that some of these non-academic books get cited in scholarly articles and bibliographies of the field.

Here are some self-help books in the catalog.


57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students (Chicago Guides to Academic Life)Product DetailsAuthoring a PhD Thesis: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral DissertationProduct DetailsProduct Details



Helping Doctoral Students to Write: Pedagogies for Supervision is in its second, newly revised edition, giving the impression that supervisors sop up this title. Supervisors don’t need help as they can write a smarmy book like 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School and maybe find themselves cited.  Even the publisher of Pedagogies for Supervision admits that the book’s primary audience is doctoral students.

The writers of books like 57 Ways expect that the supervisor’s role ends with the criticism that if you can’t write well, you will flunk out of graduate school. Don’t expect grad school to teach you how to write well, it’s not in the curriculum. For example, in an Amazon reader’s review of Pedagogies for Supervision, a reviewer recounts the crisis that prompted her to buy the book.  She learned that “My thesis lacks my voice and reads like an encyclopaedia and I agreed because they were right.” She did not drop out.   She did not hire a writing service.  She did not file a law suit against the program for stringing her along to the point of certain failure.   She googled.

Google found the book Helping Doctoral Student to Write: Pedagogies for Supervision for her. This book made all the difference.  This book, which in its second edition format, deserves even higher praise, is like one of the open secrets in which the self-help genre traffics. Insider open secrets keep the genre of doctoral how-to in business.  Pedagogies for Supervision could be a foundational text for doctoral programs save that it underlines the problem of supervisors passing on the job of teaching doctoral students to write to a book intended for them and thereby discredits the program.  That programs get away with merely supplying vague feedback to students, lack of ‘voice’ etc., only helps the self-help genre (and for-hire academic writers) to flourish.

A Remedy

Recently a university physics teacher and Nobel Laureate, Carl Wieman developed an instrument called the Teaching Practices Inventory (TPI).  The inventory equates teaching quality to the use of practices associated to more effective learning.   Effective teaching practices that are part of the inventory come from scholarly research of teaching undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses.  An ETP score, Extent of use of research-based Teaching Practices, is calculated from a simple, direct formula and stands as a proxy for teaching quality.  Wieman notes that the TPI can be adapted to other teaching and learning contexts and for the use of students.

Wieman writes in Change Magazine (2015):

(Teaching Practices) Inventory data are also useful to students, who currently have no meaningful information by which to select courses, departments, or institutions that will provide them with the highest-quality teaching. If inventory data were available to students, they could make better-informed educational decisions and reduce the chances that they will have the all-too-common experience of encountering very poorly taught courses that have career- and life-changing consequences.

Presently, doctoral students have no meaningful data by which to compare doctoral programs. The many how-to books portend of  an all-too-common experience of encountering poorly designed doctoral programs that have career-and life-changing consequences.  The attrition and time to completion statistics belie the memes of doctoral education as a quagmire of lost years.  Self-help books only reinforce the norms that doctoral programs swallow time, money and the student into the belly of a beast.

What teaching practices would make a teaching practices index for the assessment of doctoral programs?

As mentioned earlier the literature on doctoral programs cites homespun wisdom in self-help books, so that coming up with bona fide teaching practices is harder. The entire field suffers from the impression of teaching as the passing on of tacit knowledge, hence the wealth of self-help books.

Here are a few potential categories by which to measure the quality of a graduate program:

Teaching orientation of the program: This would measure the degree with which knowledge of graduate school teaching is expressed in the program. Do administrators in the graduate school attend conferences and contribute to literature in graduate school education? Is the school acting on knowledge and piloting new programs to test changes? Is some effort made to integrate a scholarship of graduate school teaching and learning into the teaching practices of the graduate school? Does the administration work collaboratively with the graduate student association? Does the administration bring graduate student association representatives into meetings and academic committees? For example, does the graduate school conduct focus groups of graduate students to learn of their experience? This would show an effort to apply a practice from the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) which found graduate students to be rich sources of information about change.

Graduate students go on to teach the way they were taught. To produce change to graduate education, the secret agent of change, the graduate student, must receive an experience in graduate school that disrupts the model now in place. For example, through the GRIP (Graduate Review Improvement Process) the University of Minnesota placed a meta-educational aspect into some graduate programs to change the experience in graduate school so. Via GRIP, instead of going on to publish books like 57 Ways which perpetuate a complacent attitude toward graduate  education, students critique the graduate school program. To what degree does the program solicit and act on student ideas and critiques? Does the program include an exit survey, an ongoing renewal process, focus groups etc., by which to engage students?

What aspirations drive the graduate school to rethink its programs for the 21st century beyond mere increases to enrollment? What problems is the graduate school addressing to stamp in a brand that shows a concern for  quality? How far beyond the singular requirement of a dissertation/thesis will the program go? Would the program require students to learn academic poster-making or info-graphics or participate in a three minute thesis contest to both triangulate assessment and better equip learners? Does the program avoid the tack-on-professional-skills scenario of adding extra courses without integration or even an expectation of completion of same?

Intellectual Climate: A positive, healthy intellectual culture supports student and faculty success. What efforts are made to avoid a ‘dysfunctional, apathetic, and antisocial’ culture that is common to many programs as described by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate? How diverse is the student and faculty body? Healthy intellectual community may stave off the mental illness that takes a toll on graduate students and faculty alike. Intellectual climate may be measured by surveys of belonging, inclusion, hostility, defensiveness, suspicion, synergy, stimulation and student voice.

Teaching Writing: Do faculty criticize and reject student writing without providing assistance? A practice here would be ongoing supervisor training to teach writing, for writing partners, writing groups, mandatory peer-editing requirements, and group supervision of writing. Every supervisor ought to be considered a teacher of writing. Do supervisors get support, guidance, or expectations from administration and or graduate student associations to enact/critique their role? Are doctoral supervisors required to upgrade their knowledge of new approaches to research training?

Assessment must address quality and align with assessment criteria for validity and reliability. The Jason Richwine scenario tells a story of a Harvard doctoral education unworthy of Harvard or any doctoral program. Does the graduate school conduct a quality audit of the dissertations produced or some like check? Does the graduate school have a policy with regards to use of academic writers and editors for hire? What efforts has the graduate school taken to replace the oral defense with alternative assessment instruments that are triangulated for greater validity and reliability?  Does the program teach problem finding?

Checks on cheating: Right now students in doctoral programs use commercial writing services with impunity. In fact some faculty use writing services. Graduate school administrators that take pains to audit degrees, increase the value of the degrees. A quality program will have a practice of an audit or a check on the degree and policies about the use of academic writing services.

21st century research practices: New genres of scholarly knowledge production (#goskp) and communication have emerged. #Remisthediss and #goskp and the myriad of new ICT tools and ways of learning (MOOCS) ought to be part of graduate school. The translation of research into info-graphic or academic poster or three minute thesis speech or dance ought to find a way into graduate school curriculum.

Collaborative dissertations and networked research represent new frontiers for research training. Collaboration in research allows for tackling of multi-pronged problems with many disciplinary overlaps. Research now reaches past the walls of the department, scholarly discipline, university and country. Researchers may find others in and out of academia who actively advance research. Researchers and scholars must take on the task of relating their work to the lay public via engagement in the broader social fabric and through entrepreneurial endeavors.

Social media will continue to disrupt traditional academic workflows and publishing. The forward thinking graduate school program needs to include wherewithal with social media in the graduate school mix and in scholarship.

Advising, career advising: To what degree does the program assist students with developing career pathways?

Transitions between course work to research or to the post-doctoral level are hard. How does the program ease transitions?

Transparency Index: Statistics as to time to completion and attrition may indicate the programs’ competence and respect for student time. Does the graduate school have policies regarding time to completion? Is the graduate school tracking students? Tracking of graduate students post-graduation shows concern for the long-term trajectory of education so that educators can build on the career stories of their graduates.

Libraries: In the past, the graduate school program consisted of letting a graduate student go in a well-equipped library and 5-10 years later presto, a dissertation emerged. Libraries beat at the heart of graduate school programs.

Graduate Student Association Leadership: To what extent has the graduate student association lobbied for some of the aforementioned features of renewed academic programming in graduate school? Graduate student associations represent the learner and can influence decision makers to step up to the challenges of providing a 21st century graduate program that provides greater transparency to potential applicants and more accountability to graduate students. Does the graduate students’ association lobby administrators to develop state of the program reports that disclose progress towards goals to renew programming? What policies does the gsa promote in regards to teaching practices, to assessment, to 21st century communication, to transparency, to the use of academic writing services, to skill development, to collaboration, etc. Does the gsa offer a student research conference? Does the gsa publish a journal of student research? Does the gsa promote supervisors teach writing? Does the gsa actively engage with other associations? The more effective the graduate student association lobby over time, the less the need for a self-help book to get through graduate school.

A TPI-like index for doctoral programs undermines the tacit knowledge in which the self-help genre traffics. The mere presence of certain teaching practices as a proxy for program quality shifts the onus to programs to renew. A teaching practices index is still a rough idea but offers sticky matter to stimulate greater responsiveness in graduate school programs. Writers like Haggerty and Doyle, for whom graduate school is more an exercise in negotiating tacit expectations, forget that admitting students to doctoral programs confers a responsibility to the student and an obligation that comes with an exchange of money for a graduate school education. Of course some may take issue with a TPI-like instrument, but only if they are prepared to fill the void with something better than  self-help books, testimonials, and ads.

From → Fabrications

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