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.



Jason Richwine Redux: Fatal Flaws to Fix in Doctoral Education

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.


What results do Canadian GSAs have to show on academic matters?

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?

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Support a student journal.  Did GSUs establish a student journal to impart experience with peer review and publication?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. Partnerships with private sector and non-academic employers:  Did the GSA work to orient programs toward non-academic sources of employment and entrepreneurship?
  9. Supervision policies and training:  Did GSAs work to set up supervision policies and training for supervisors to keep up with developments in graduate education?
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. 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.
  13. 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?
  14. Bona Fide Academic Requirements (BFARs): Did they push for bona fide academic requirement policies to ensure access and diversity?
  15. Collaboration:  Did the GSS collaborate with counterparts in other organizations to share and exchange ideas, wins, policies under development, resources and strategies?
  16. 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?
  17. 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?
  18.  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?
  19. Study of the effectiveness of graduate education within the university:  Did representatives find out how faculty form and track academic goals? 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 try to set up possible joint partnership projects or goals with administrators?
  20. 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 rigor from the onset?
  21. 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?
  22. 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.
  23. 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?
  24. 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.

2015 in Fabrication Nation: An alphabet

Doctoral education in 2015 appears as a diamond encrusted skull with brilliant new developments and a brainless interior.   Deans and program heads take little interest in it, preferring multi-media marketing material, ignorance and poorly designed initiatives. Meanwhile software devours academia and transforms communication beyond all semblance to exchanges that began 350 years ago with the first academic journal.

A is for affordances. Innovations in the technologies of scholarly communication afford changes that redefine every aspect of research. At an Innovations in Scholarly Communication conference, in June, in Geneva, the impact of these innovations on scholarly work framed the keynote address to enlarge the vision of learning to reach beyond open access.

B is for blog.  A  blog written by a doctoral learner, gets the student in a research practice and workflow associated to 21st century patterns in scholarly communication.  Blogs allow open access and are legitimate forms of academic writing and communication.

C is for copyright.  Doctoral students need to understand copyright, be armed to make publication decisions and follow practices associated to open access.

D is for data; open data that is.  Some research methods instructors, use open data to teach research methodologies with hands-on practice.  Early career researchers can now obtain open data and see if the results can be replicated or try something else with it.  Open data could speed up a doctoral journey.   Doctoral programs need to make sure students understand open data and adopt a practice of making data open.

E is for Early Career Researcher (#ecrchat).  ECR is a transitional identity, like a caterpillar bound in the chrysalis, about to break free.  Pat Thomson who co-wrote the best book about learning in doctoral programs; Helping Doctoral Students to Write: Pedagogies for Supervision, coined the term, early career researcher.  A former Aussie, the indefatigable and prodigious Pat Thomson, heads an education department at the University of Nottingham, UK.  Pat is among a handful in the world who really understands and provides for the needs of doctoral students. She incorporates social media into her work with her excellent blog, Patter and on Twitter, @thomsonpat.

F is for fabricate.  Take the literature, the data, and the methods and fabricate some new insight, instrument, understanding, vehicle, or contribution in a cross, trans or multidisciplinary context.  Collaborate with others in interactive media.

G is for Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production (#goskp).  No longer does print dominate, a scholar can draw, film, draw on film, illustrate and #remixthediss, or any combination thereof.  Some scholars share and collaborate via  iPython notebooks. iPython is an interactive computational environment, in which you can combine code execution, rich text, mathematics, plots and rich media.

H is for hit the Ivory Tower wall, with the intensity of it all, fall apart, and be made over anew through the crucible of doctoral study, which breaks many down.  Warning, going through doctoral training is associated with  mental health problems.  If doctoral programs taught and allowed collaborative research practices, would less students succumb to mental illness?  The overwhelming majority of researchers work together, save in doctoral programs.

I is for #ICDDET, the International Conference of Developments in  Doctoral Education and Training.  Mark your calendars for April 2017, somewhere in the UK, for the third ICDDET.  Only 150 doctoral educators attended the second conference in Oxford, England in March 2015. The conference papers will be published at the beginning of 2016.

J is for journals and new alternatives for same.  New formats, like PLOS and innovations in scholarly communication means that no grad education is complete unless students graduate knowing multiple ways of representing and sharing knowledge.  Academic workflows in some circles aim for new digital forms of publication that trend away from the journal article.

K is for knowledge translation.  Try the Dance Your PhD Contest, the 3MT Contest (three minute thesis contest) or PubhD (explain your PhD in 10 minutes in the pub).

L is for links. The 21st century scholar embeds digital links to references and citations, makes data available and computer code too.

M is for MOOC, a massive, open, online course.  Dr. Inger Mewburn, The Research Whisperer, offered How to Survive Your PhD to support doctoral students from all over the world between Sept.- Nov. in 2015.   This MOOC was free, well thought out, and experimental.  Will doctoral programs set out MOOCs to teach courses like research methods using open data or innovations in scholarly communication?

N is for nada, negative, nein, not.  Nein to the initiatives to renew and innovate doctoral education without consulting doctoral students.  While the successful demonstration that showed how to reform doctoral programs by  Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, placed interactions between faculty and students at the very heart of a doctoral program renewal, recent initiatives eschew the student.  The White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities, which influenced the report of the MLA task force on the PhD and  The Public Scholars Initiative at University of British Columbia sound hollow.  Still the same old careless, unexamined doctoral education, with different formats for student work.  No advice to gather statistics, learn from doctoral students, understand the effects of the changes, formulate new designs for renewal and contribute to scholarship about research training in any of these initiatives.  The Rethinking The PhD: Repenser le Doctorat conference in November 2015 in Calgary, Canada disappointed being so far off the comparison it drew to Rethinking Doctoral Education: The Formation of Scholars.

O is for open.  Some researchers smash the old paywall publication practices to open their research practice.  Publish only in open access venues.  Refuse to peer review for a closed journal.  Publish in blogs and with pre-prints.  We’re getting past the ‘paper of record’ model into a publication landscape that is rapidly advancing with the affordances of new media.

P is for Ph.D. by publication pathway.  The throw ’em into the deep end pedagogy of doctoral programs drowns too many.  The 50% of doctoral students who depart doctoral studies before commencement often blame themselves and take on a life long burden of regret and recrimination.  the ignorance and indifference doctoral programs show toward students aligns to the blind eye universities turn toward sexual assault on campus.  Meanwhile, programs accept no responsibility for their casualties, continuing to admit students and doing nothing different to alter the departure rate.  A program with a Ph. D. by publication pathway would at least admit that some demonstrate they can swim in deep end without a doctoral program to show them how, which aligns to doctoral ‘throw ’em in the deep end’ pedagogy any way.

Q is for quester.  The elusive and seductive plum that keeps many a graduate student in school for a decade, speaks to some larger urge, verging with desire.  So many seek knowledge but so few know how to train a knowledge seeker, beyond throw ’em in the deep end.  Graduate school rarely tells the quester how to find a problem, form a question, do a literature review, write an abstract, make a conference poster etc.  The quester figures it all out, or not, but in any case will take the blame for failure.  No data tells the quester upon application the drop-out rate, the time to completion, the career trajectories.  Doctoral programs aren’t interested in such details.

R is for rhizome.  2015 was the 350th anniversary of the publication of the first scholarly journal, Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society.  Knowledge galloped a pace to the point that as of 2010, 50 million articles were estimated to have been published since March of 1665.  So many new papers, new fields of scholarship, and new technologies of scholarship oozed out of the first scholarly practices and fields as to suggest a pattern of rhizome-like growth.

S is for software. Software is eating the world of academia. The entire academic enterprise depends on software. New software tools accelerate the pace and variety in knowledge production and its easy fall into obsolescence.  Here is an info-graphic that divides scholarly work flow into six phases (discovery, analysis, writing, publication, outreach, assessment) and then further associates tools that facilitate each phase.

101 Innovations by Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer Utrecht  University

T is for Twitter. The sophisticated and vulgar, Shit Academics Say, is a Twitter handle with more followers than Harvard.  Here is a December 2015 tweet..The definition of irony: not knowing the difference between a definition and an example.  Write your PhD in 100 tweets should be a new knowledge translation contest.  Great twitter hashtags #acwri #altac #phdchat

U is for unspent, unheard, and unheeded.  If doctoral program administrators ever get around to examining doctoral programs to make them better, the first and best source of information is, as of now, largely unspent.  Forming a partnership with graduate students as in GRIP, (Graduate Review and Improvement Program) at the University of Minnesota or as in the CID harnesses this unspent force.

V is for void.  The void of knowledge in doctoral education is reflected in vacancies in the journals of the scholarship of teaching and learning about doctoral education. New experiments in research training that drive new models, foster collaboration, embrace co-creation, incite innovation and accelerate development would fill this void.

W is for wake-up call.  Wake-up calls came from the three expert speakers from different countries at the International Developments in Doctoral Education Conference at Oxford in March. Their messages; wake-up doctoral educators and pay attention to the design of your doctoral programs.  Apparently changes to doctoral education in the humanities before ICDDET from McGill University and the Modern Language Association failed to stop the call.  Nor did the knowledge translation contests or professional skills development initiatives change the cry to wake-up.  At the next conference, scheduled for 2017, will another wake-up call go out?

X is for information languishing away on old software, floppy disks, losing  retrievability, getting x’ed out.

Y is for young and young enough still; older students are signing up for graduate degrees.

Z is for zenith.  The affordances of technology which redefine and remake academia now usher in a new peak outside of disciplines, Ivory Towers, and individual effort alone.

Will doctoral programs ever get around to consulting and collaborating with doctoral students as a common practice?  Will doctoral programs mirror the practices coming out of innovations in scholarly communication?  Stay reading.. The issues herein addressed in Fabrication Nation will continue to unfold and develop in 2016.  The times, they are a changin’




%d bloggers like this: