I wish Leaders of Canadian Graduate Students created…

Where is Canadian graduate  student leadership on issues of graduate education quality and renewal?  So many issues in graduate school education failed to register on the agenda for the National Graduate Student Caucus (#ngc16) in Saskatoon this week-end.  The National Graduate Caucus is a lobby group of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) which only represents some graduate schools in Canada and leaves many graduate students, not part of the CFS, with no national representation.

The  effectiveness of the NGC in graduate student affairs may be taken from its lack of an internet presence, even within the CFS website, lack of publications, lack of response to a lengthy letter sent to 2014-2015 NGC president, lack of response to the cfs ngc email address etc.  NGC student leaders need better support, direction, and continuity.

Some graduate education practices need to stop (oral defense, high drop-out rates, long times to completion) and some graduate education practices need to start (data collection, partnerships, renewal meetings).  Graduate student leaders across Canada need to join forces to take action on issues in graduate education.  While the issues below have existed in the literature since the graduate  caucus formed, they have failed to make headway.

I wish student leaders of Canadian graduate students created:

  •  A bundle of long-term policies to further renewal of graduate programs and assessment measures by which to judge their payback.
  • Partnerships between the graduate students’ group and the university to trial new practices with a view toward adoption, adaptation and scholarship.
  •  An effective, stable and long-lasting counterpart to the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) to keep track of progress, provide training, promote successes, commission/conduct research and support new student leaders.   A comprehensive national graduate student lobby and advocacy group deserves permanent staff to maintain continuity of long-term action agendas.  The abysmal record since such an organization disbanded in the early years of the millennium and of the NGC, shows that these issues get lost otherwise.
  • Lobby points and advocacy to request data collection on time to completion, on drop-out rates, on long-term career outcomes.  The lack of data collection by graduate programs speaks to a practice that front loads attention on program admission and then stops tracking students.
  • Lobby points to require publication on program  web sites and in university literature of data regarding admissions, time to completion, and drop-out rates.
  • Lobby points for more data sharing related to student tenure for the purpose of transparency, verification of marketing claims, and partnership projects.
  • Better data mining of graduate student databases in the possession of graduate student groups.
  •  Experiments in the structure of graduate school assignments perhaps featuring collaborative dissertations, networked research, the use of different genres of scholarly knowledge production, MOOCs for research methods.
  •  Exit interviews with non-completers about program quality for the purpose of improvement or insight.
  • A Ph.D by publication pathway proposal and advocacy points.
  • Academic entrepreneurship pathway possibilities in programs which would direct student efforts to entrepreneurial applications of the new ideas that graduate students generate.
  • Annual program renewal meetings between students and faculty.
  • Research on the oral defense and more robust assessments of learning in graduate school.
  • Proposals to straighten out significant overlaps and duplication between masters and doctoral programs.
  • Lobby points to confer all-but-dissertation (AbD) designations for students who depart doctoral study  before completing research.

Overall such policies would raise the quality of graduate programs by starting conversations between students and faculty in regards to academic matters,  by  graduate student engagement with program improvement and by joint partnerships to trial new practices.                                                                                                                                                                         What is the payoff for students of such policies?  At the admissions-end, student assessments of the program accompanied by data publication on times to completion/drop-out rates answer questions for potential applicants.  This may result in lower drop-out rates which prevents not only the often life-long anguish many leave takers feel for leaving a program before completion but also takes this issue out of a blind spot.  In the past, students bore the full weight of failure to complete where the indifference of the program to students contributed to anguish and failure.

Fixing issues in programs associated to student stress and anguish is better than spending money on mental health providers.  Completing research degrees in less time with greater quality assurance, completing  more multi-faceted, responsive research degrees, and completing research degrees in collaboration with other early career researchers payoff for Canadian graduate students who will graduate with lower debt, better mental health and better prospects.

Graduate students need not be sacrificed as human fodder for graduate programs which  show notorious indifference toward examining and correcting their education practices. Some graduate student faculty may even see long times to completion and high drop-out rates as a perverse badge of honour for the program and a Darwinian thinning of the herd.  More responsive graduate student leadership promises to put such perverse thinking in the rear view mirror and move forward with joint faculty/student responsibility to make graduate students thrive instead of languish.