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Canadian Grad Student Leaders’ Blind Spot: Ongoing, Proactive Grad Ed Advocacy

Since the inception of grad student organizations, the practices of graduate education have escaped attention for ongoing advocacy.  For decades grad student union members suffered under imperious, indifferent grad programs who kept them too long and lost too many, too late in the course.  Yet, years of wasted time, opportunity costs and unnecessary lifelong recrimination failed to raise concern.

Unbeknownst to grad student orgs, grad schools started whipping students through programs to meet their times to completion goals and hired clerks to manage the paperwork.  Then the duty of grad student unions ought to have been to stick up for students now pressured to complete the same old indifferent programs which were not designed for quick completion, but rather for high attrition.  Without a grad ed advocacy agenda, the slipping in of times to completion pressure in Canadian grad programs went off without a mention.  Grad student leaders failed to advocate for program re-design, just like they earlier failed to advocate for their members flailing away for years on end.

When Stanford introduced a five year to completion humanities doctoral initiative, it  redesigned programs to meet the goal with the guidance of a doctoral education specialist.  Without graduate student advocacy or any mechanism for ongoing renewal in Canadian grad programs, Canadian doctoral programs now suffer from a serious decades long lag to upgrading.

Without attention to anything more than times to completion, many programs are stuck in a moment in the last century.  So students experience a program akin to an infrastructure deficit; a program ill-equipped to train them for a new research world. It’s like the joke, ‘The food at this restaurant is bad.   Yeah and the menu hasn’t changed in twenty years  too..’ but at least we get through faster.

Thus far, grad student unions have advocated for everything but the quality of the main course.  News flash: grad student union members want the best education, more than anything else.  It’s never been about the education in graduate student advocacy.

An ‘It’s the education, stupid,’ mantra might really engage the elusive, apathetic graduate student union member much more so than all the tax exemptions for principle vehicles and similar campaigns ever won by grad student leaders.

What if a Vice-President Academic of a grad student union advocated for quality grad ed?  What if the VPA demanded ongoing renewal of grad programs to guarantee an education relevant for the future?

Here are some discussions grad student VPAs don’t seem to know are needed but are needed to protect graduate student interests.

‘What changes to the program encourage students to complete in a timely manner?’  Please don’t answer we hired clerks to manage the new forms to monitor students because that does nothing to improve the program.   Providing students with time to discuss exemplars from the get go would help them to get through faster.

‘Who here writes about, gives talks on and studies grad ed programs?’  We would like to see a scholar of teaching and learning in research training on staff who is engaged in program renewal and redesign efforts.

‘What kind of initiatives have you undertaken to provide students with 21st century research acumen?’

‘How is your research training success measured beyond a stat like 72% of students graduate in 9 years?’  We can’t accept the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s (HEQCO) graduate student satisfaction survey, which is much too vague an instrument.

‘How many CAGS recommendations and best practices have you implemented?’

‘We’d like to see the grad school actively renewing doctoral programs with our members’ input, experimenting with new forms of the dissertation, encouraging multi-disciplinary collaborations, soliciting feedback from students, providing better understanding of the expectations and assessment in grad school, requiring ongoing training for doctoral supervisors, attending and giving papers at conferences like the ICDDET.’

Why aren’t grad ed discussions initiated by VPAs?

With no tradition of ongoing, proactive grad ed advocacy, it’s not part of the job.  Ongoing, proactive grad ed advocacy has yet to make the agenda of any grad student union.  For example, the UBCGSS just formed a new strategic plan without ongoing, proactive grad ed advocacy.  Naively, the plan gives the impression that save for supervision, no further long-term grad ed advocacy will be needed.   Likewise, McMaster’s graduate student association failed to highlight ongoing, proactive, grad ed advocacy when it formulated a five year plan in 2013.  Starting new practices is really hard.

VPAs fear disrupting harmonious relationships with administrators within their own universities through uncomfortable discussions.  Many novice student leaders just back existing initiatives, instead of making demands and asking questions.

VPAs would need to make room for their grad ed agenda within the existing committee structures.  For grad student unions to take on a substantive ongoing negotiation for ongoing grad ed renewal, they’d need to create space on agendas, define goals, set the tone, twist arms and lobby decision makers.

VPAs need ongoing support to move forward with confidence in working a proactive grad ed agenda within their universities.   Grad students have yet to form a stable, advocacy group with which to support grad ed leadership.

Please, if you are a grad student leader or grad student reading this, move forward to fill this most important gap in advocacy.  Grad students can start new traditions, not as threats to the status quo, but as agents doing their job in a system designed around their input.  The time for a grad ed lobby is now.

Ten tips for better research

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on October 12, 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit …

Source: Ten tips for better research

Where for art thou Doctoral Program Renewal in Canada?

Where for art thou ongoing doctoral program renewal and even wholesale revision of doctoral programs  in Canada?  Suites of optional professional development skills courses, more clerks to handle the paperwork in graduate programs, and the three-minute thesis contest swirl around too much inertia at the core.  Doctoral programs lack real ongoing renewal to switch over to new conceptualizations of problems, of learning, and of scholarship.

Funders, politicians, and graduate students in Canada can find little evidence of effort to track, measure and change program designs, to ask and answer the question how’d we do and to contribute to graduate education conversations.  Doctoral programs can not advertise their engagement with communities of practice in doctoral education, as almost none exists.

Teaching and learning exist in a dynamic yin yang relationship.

While doctoral learners can turn to shelves of self-help books, doctoral teachers have almost none.   Where is the impetus for ongoing professional training for supervisors? How does a supervisor suddenly encourage students to tackle ‘wicked’ problems without participating in, following and contributing to a community of doctoral educators ?  Where is the responsibility to keep abreast of the times?

Why don’t Canadian doctoral students and teachers know times to completion and attrition numbers for each program?  Where are the bold initiatives to reduce times to completion and attrition in Canada? Where are the initiatives at gender parity and diversification? Where is the implementation of CAGS recommendations?

Where is the publication of program goals beyond the stock and evident goal to get students to fulfill the requirements of the program?  When will doctoral program websites advertise new approaches to nudge doctoral training into the 21st century?  When will programs say something like, “We are tracking and learning from an interdisciplinary cohort set to study a wicked problem using a networked and collaborative research program?”

Where is engagement with graduate students?  High attrition tells a tale of indifferent, even impervious teachers.  Tapping the experience, suggestions and observations of graduate students toward program renewal feeds forward improvements and sends a message to question unquestioned doctoral education practices.

When will Canadian universities hire doctoral studies specialists?  One doctoral studies specialist can save not only student time, funder money, and wasteful drag in a program but can also go a long way to program renewal.  One person in a university whose sole job is to move research training forward could create graduate student critiques , supervision training and renewal, program audits for (CAGS) recommendations, periodic revision schedules of programs, careful experiments or pilots to try out new formats in research training, track and adjust to  graduate career paths, research methodology training via IdeaPuzzle or using extant data sets, attend conferences and publish articles and so on…

Graduate education specialists– could figure out reading assignments and advice for students.  In Canada students read extensively, then the students write in completing the doctorate.  Sometimes reading too much can mire down a novice researcher so they don’t know what they think.

Doctoral students need only read enough to make a contribution to the literature.   If a doctoral student produces research intended as a critique of some part of the literature, of a caveat, contradiction or elaboration of it, they’ve succeeded.  Students need to be encouraged to develop their own ideas and thinking.   Reading too much may indoctrinate a student to turn away from their best instincts.

Graduate education needs to see and be able to change its own design

Instead of graduate education clerks, why are graduate schools hiring an education specialist to study and apply new ideas to teaching, learning, assessment and renewal to research training.  Where for art thou program renewal?  In graduate students who have a wealth of experience with the program and good ideas for changes, in graduate education specialists who are aware of dynamic new approaches, and in the will of program providers to step up.



A Strategy to Revitalize the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies: Add Graduate Students

If you've got your mojo working

When you get your mojo back, you’ll know because then you’ll get influence.

Look through the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) website with a few questions in mind about leadership in graduate education in Canada.  A public relations emphasis emerges more than a graduate education leadership focus.  If I was a CAGS member or graduate student executive looking for best practice guidance on a basic, long-lasting problem in graduate education in Canada, namely attrition and times to completion, the best practices part of the CAGS website wouldn’t help at all.  The CAGS website offers not a word of advice in this area.   The three-minute thesis contest however, which is not a mandatory requirement of Canadian graduate program, gets a side panel box and is flashed through the rotating banner feature.  Even so, the three-minute contest does not warrant a mention as a best practice.

The Ontario Chapter of the National Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Students’ Federation put times to completion on a list as an issue in 2010.  By 2010, CAGS had been around for decades.  In November 2015, at a CAGS convention, a graduate student executive brought up times to completion.  A little homework on the CAGS website before hand might have saved the questioner the trouble: CAGS, as represented by its website, is mute on a policy for times to completion and attrition.  A better question for the graduate student executive to have asked is, “Why doesn’t CAGS address times to completion and attrition in graduate programs?”

The previous Fabrication Nation post concerned lack of action on times to completion and attrition by Canadian graduate student associations.  CAGS interests and those of graduate students diverge here, with CAGS inaction and silence according to its membership interests and graduate student inaction out of line with their memberships’ interests.   The case of the omitted onus around times to completion and attrition from CAGS becomes more curious as graduate students assume CAGS shares their concerns.  What sort of leadership and guidance in graduate education can Canadian graduate students expect from CAGS then?

There is one thing after another on the CAGS site without addressing fundamental aspects of graduate education practice.  One conference on the Future of the PhD does not an influential leadership organization make.

According to Tamburri (2013), very few CAGS recommendations got implemented by CAGS members over a ten year period.  So now perhaps, instead of recommendations, CAGS promotes contests and its convention, like a PR firm might.

Still CAGS identifies its self as a leader in graduate education in Canada.   Membership in CAGS feels and looks good but evidence shows that CAGS’ membership supports the bottom line and status quo.  Why is there no advice for best practices around times to completion and attrition on the CAGS website?  Maybe CAGS recommended transparency practices thirteen years ago to no avail.   CAGS members don’t take to recommendations very well.  So the solution for this industry association is to sexy up graduate education with the challenging but non-essential three-minute thesis contest and other contests.  Surely CAGS will soon promote The Dance Your PhD contest.

No CAGS isn’t setting out times to completion and attrition statistics publication as a best practice likely because its membership doesn’t want to hear of it and wouldn’t do it anyway.   Almost no good public data is available on times to completion and attrition in Canada.  DeClou (2014) studied attrition and times to completion in her dissertation.   Aside from the work of DeClou, the trouble Mazur took to try to find the answer to How Long Does a PhD take at UBC, and an unpublished, inaccessible and unobtainable leaked study by the U15 group of universities data on times to completion and attrition appears like an elephant in the room, stuffed into the dark closet.

Why, with all the great rhetoric coming out of CAGS officials over the years, have none to these luminaries ever of their own accord and conviction, started a project to publish times to completion and attrition within their own universities?  Where is the walk to match the talk.  How would CAGS respond to a campaign by graduate students to track and publish times to completion and attrition for every doctoral program?  Why, did graduate students and not CAGS commission a much cited, influential and seminal article in Canadian graduate education, Elgar‘s 2003 paper on PhD Completion rates in Canada?

The 3MT contest originated in Australia at Queensland University.  Australia punches above its weight in influence of graduate education in North America.   Australia’s culture toward graduate training features a robust graduate education community and robust time to completion tracking too.  As the history of CAGS and its website shows, Canada has yet to develop a keen community for learning about the practice of graduate education.

Ergo, leadership rests with the people with actual skin in the game in Canada; graduate students.  Canadian graduate students, with all their problems in forming a stable, long-lasting national interest group, show the most promise in providing leadership, as a result of commissioning the Elgar study.

The one short-lived, national interest group Canadian graduate students formed, produced arguably one of the most influential papers in Canadian graduate education.   The ones with time and money at stake, graduate students, asked the questions, that still stymies CAGS.

CAGS should partner with and seek graduate student representation in order to better influence graduate school leadership.  CAGS has yet to reach out to graduate students to work with them in an ongoing fashion, even though CAGS ought to know that graduate student input to program change proved invaluable during the five-year Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate and of course, here at home, the Graduate Students Association of Canada commissioned Elgar paper lives on.  CAGS should seek graduate student representation and actively seek to strengthen and support graduate student associations.  CAGS could reach out to graduate student executives to choose some number of graduate student representatives to provide student input and set up partnership programs with CAGS.

At the 2016 CAGS conference, CAGS should set out to actively organize graduate student representation within CAGS.  Graduate students should lobby CAGS to join forces for projects and representation.

CAGS should drop the marketing aspect in its award criteria for new programs.  Such appeals to marketing show a truer purpose of CAGS; to help its members promote graduate education rather than develop intelligence about it, study it, solve chronic problems within it and move graduate education practice.

After all this time, CAGS has evolved into the kind of organization its members want.  Marketing puts those graduate student bums in seats.  Graduate education is Canada has grown apace.  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, don’t study it, don’t keep stats on it, and don’t show any enduring empathy or connection to those bums in seats.  CAGS get your mojo working.

Why Canadian GSAs have yet to speak up on times to completion and attrition: Blind spots in CFS and CASA’s agendas


Graduate students in research training need advocacy different from undergraduate students, otherwise why distinguish the two?

Graduate students attend cash cow programs in Canadian universities.  Prestigious MBA programs can cost a $100 grand in Canada, not that they are any better than a cheaper program.  Students pay for the prestige and the opportunity to network with others who have the means to pay the exorbitant tuition.    These cash cow MBA students would be at odds with CFS campaigns designed to bring down the cost of education.  Do they want their student union fighting for lower tuition?  Do they want their student union fighting for higher, more exclusive tuition?

At a national level, Canadian graduate student associations and undergraduate associations can join the CFS or CASA.  Neither focuses on graduate student concerns, although the CFS does have a graduate student caucus.

Graduate students have real needs.  Needs that go unaddressed.  Advocacy around times to completion and attrition have yet to make the agenda of a national advocacy organization for Canadian students.  If GSAs get action on undergraduate student issues from national industry groups and no representation on graduate student issues, then why even join CFS or CASA or the provincial industry group in Quebec, the UEQ?  Canadian graduate students could save money.  CFS is costly to miss the mark for so many years on graduate student needs.

Graduate students, who lack importance in the agendas of  CFS or CASA to take up their issues, might be better served as a part of a larger student association consisting of graduate and undergraduate students. FACEUM combines reps for graduate students as part of the overall student union.  Would this be a better model than the grad and undergrad division that presently exists?  Unless agendas specific to graduate education come from graduate student associations, what is the point of a separation between grad and undergrad representation?

Graduate student associations in Canada notoriously defederate from CFS and tear down their own national or provincial industry groups, so as at 2016 no stable, long-lasting national or provincial group manages continuity and stability of campaigns across the yearly changes in graduate  student union leadership.

Why hasn’t CFS or CASA campaigned for grad students on times to completion and attrition in all these years?  The campaigns and issues addressed center on the undergrad, fees, minority groups and tuition.  While CFS urges Justin Trudeau to keep his promises to Indigenous students, CFS needs to find the problems in grad schools buried under pluralistic ignorance and silent exits.  CFS campaigns need to better address issues unique to grad students or grad students need to find better industry group representation.  Without industry group coordination and continuity, GSAs have little hope of mounting a campaign to bring down times to completion and attrition statistics.

What makes writing ‘academic’? Part I

Academic Emergence

Threshold Concepts

A post about giving academic writing proper disciplinary status

Since writing thisin Patter and thisin The Guardian, and since thisseries of posts was published, I still don’t understand why Academic Writing does not have disciplinary status.

Bar a few exceptions, it is rare (in the UK, where I am based) to find job adverts for Lecturers in Academic Writing; when you do, they tend to be posts created to help people become ‘better writers’ (e.g. in Writing or Graduate Centres, or Libraries) rather than to educate in matters of writing by foregrounding the nature and the disciplinarystatus of Academic Writing.

Academic Writing continues to lack disciplinary status despite: a) the recent publication of Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s edited book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, which features contributions from US writing experts including CharlesBazerman and David Russell

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Supporting graduate student writers: Research, curriculum and program design (2016).

DoctoralWriting SIG

This book review is written by guest Susan Mowbray, Western Sydney University. The book seems highly pertinent to our community, so we thank Susan for alerting us to it with her detailed critique.

Supporting graduate student writers. Research, curriculum and program design. (2016). Edited by Steve Simpson, Nigel. A. Caplan, Michelle Cox & Talinn Phillips. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press.

Supporting graduate student writers captured my attention as I have recently taken on a literacy support role with our Graduate Research School. The idea for the book was conceived at an invited colloquium on graduate writing support in 2014 and the result of the editors’ labours arrived via the University of Michigan Press in March this year. The book is organised in three parts. Part 1: What do we know/need to know? broadly covers supporting graduate research. Curriculum is dealt with in Part 2: Issues in graduate…

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