There Outta Be A Law Against All the Waste in Doctoral Programs: France legislates 6 year maximum for doctorat

In France in, in June 2016, the government has stepped in to limit the time to degree, among other changes.  La Confédération des Jeunes Chercheurs (CJC) or the association of young researchers complained about the legislation although it may have contributed to the legislation’s development.  The CJC wanted the PhD recognized as a course in professional development in the legislation which seems to consider the degree more of an academic achievement.

Do we need legislation like this?

If grad studies departments had some performance measures to go by society and grad students would be better served.  Certainly time limits and less attrition would result in enormous savings for students and governments.  Moreover such legislation would likely result in doctoral programs taking a more hands-on approach.  Suddenly the program might have to confront the sloppiness in its pedagogy.  Do we really need comprehensive exams?  How can we get more students through faster?  Do we send clear messages to help students understand our expectations?  What are our expectations beyond producing a dissertation?  Could we possibly allow students to collaborate on research to aid speed?  What would our former students suggest?

What factors went into the decision to legislate time to degree in France?  Saving money supporting students for longer than is necessary?  Will ‘quality’ now suffer or improve in France because grad school administrators need to comply with the law?  If a student of doctoral studies is reading this blog, that’s a good research topic.  I wonder how much the directors of doctoral programs contributed to the legislation.  What would Canadian deans and VP Academics say if legislation made them more accountable for times to completion?

How about attrition?  Does the legislation touch on attrition?  What would happen if doctoral programs had to produce doctorates in five years with 10% attrition rates?

We’d save so much time and money.  Some of the pomposity of graduate studies would be punctured.  Programs would improve.  Students would feel supported and the pressure to perform would be greater.  But first, major pushback from universities could be expected.

What would happen to that pool of cheap labor to teach those undergraduate courses?  Maybe they’d just move into the adjunct underbelly in every university sooner.


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.

Needed: Graduate Student Leaders to Champion the Ongoing Renewal Platform

Shortly, graduate students across Canada will elect new graduate student representatives.   Graduate students’ unions work on teacher assistant contracts, taxes, grants, mental health initiatives, social functions, tuition, student conferences etc., but rarely address program renewal and assessment. A now long disbanded organization, The Graduate Students’ Association of Canada commissioned valuable research on behalf of graduate students in its short life.  Since the organization disbanded, no replacement has come to the fore and the issues it started to address languish still.

What is the ongoing renewal agenda that graduate student leaders need to champion and work on long-term?

Lack of consultation with graduate students:  A major initiative to retool doctoral education for the 21st Century, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) placed the experience of doctoral students at the center of meaningful reformation.  Despite this The White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities and a recent UBC initiative (Reimagining PhD paths at UBC) failed to consult with graduate student reps.  The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies which hosts conferences like ‘Reimagining the PhD’ does not have meaningful graduate student representation, nor has it shown leadership in working with graduate students’ groups to get meaningful representative feedback and input.

Better data collection by programs, faculties and student union groups: Planners need data. Renewal initiatives ought to spring from knowledge of student experiences, of new approaches and of effects of changes.  Career trajectories of graduates would be especially valuable data.  A systematic collection, analysis, sharing and publication of data shows integrity, responsibility and engagement.  The larger question the lack of data asks concerns the indifference of graduate programs to responsive planning and performance metrics.  The pattern to admit students and then loose interest in tracking them or learning from their experience needs address.

Data collection function by graduate students’ groups: A unionized graduate students’ group should mine its database for use in discussions with administrators.  A students’ association could conduct learner satisfaction surveys and study career trajectories.  With  long-term data on career trajectories, program planning and student decisions could be better informed.  With its own data collection arm, a students’ association could also verify scant official data.

Transparency and change in the oral defense:  The oral defense lacks robustness as an assessment instrument in terms of validity and reliability.  The oral defense sanctions abuse in the form of contempt and derision from examiners and therefore invites less than forthcoming answers.  A graduate students’ group needs to address this faulty assessment instrument.  The ignorance of programs toward underpinning assessment to robust marks speaks to the very issues at the heart of program renewal.

Ongoing doctoral-teacher training:  The research world has changed.  New genres of scholarly knowledge production (#goskp) disrupt academia and produce differences for the dissertation.  Experiments in doctoral training that allow for collaborative dissertations beg for study, uptake and variations of supervision.  Ongoing teacher-training makes for greater respect toward teaching responsibilities.

Question Administrative Solutions:  Recently, even without good data and even with high student attrition, some doctoral educators have suggested that reductions in admission numbers would solve employment issues.  Student reps should question administrative solutions.  (Incidentally, a graduate students’ group should demand greater transparency about admission procedures and administrative address of high attrition).

Practices in Programs: Toward an Examined and Renewed Doctoral Education

What are the policies to put in the storefront window to show graduate students that their representatives are working on program renewal and assessment?

Scholarship in graduate education: A graduate students’ lobby ought to insist that the graduate studies faculty be contributing to knowledge of graduate education by at least attending conferences and at best publishing research.

Partnerships with graduate students’ groups for ongoing renewal: A graduate students’ lobby ought to insist that programs solicit feedback from learners and act on same to improve the program.  Student advocates ought to look into GRIP at the University of Minnesota and demand the same kind of value-added educational advantage.

Monitor developments in doctoral education: UBC and McGill are experimenting with new approaches to doctoral education.  The corresponding study of these new approaches leaves much to be desired in terms of contributions to a literature.  Participation with doctoral educators  at conferences like #ICDDET leave open the exciting proposition that program changes go beyond tinkering with the format for doctoral education, to studying and learning about the changes.

Mess with the core: Graduate studies faculties tout three minute thesis contests and graduate skills training.  None of this counts towards the degree.  Instead of featuring these skills as extraneous, a doctoral program that incorporates new practices into its core shows a better commitment to renewal.  Ditto for incorporating learning about doctoral education as part of the curriculum of doctoral education as in GRIP at the University of Minnesota or the program renewal meetings that put student together with teachers at the CID.

PhD by publication route: One mark of a good doctoral school is that the school confers PhDs by publication.   The wherewithal to grant a PhD by virtue of publication shows a greater grasp of doctoral education.

Academic Entrepreneurship Component: Applications of new knowledge to businesses outside the Ivory Tower reaps impact, employment and social benefits.

Audit: A graduate students’ group ought to develop an audit-like procedure of doctoral education practices associated to ongoing program assessment, examination and renewal.

Doctoral programs have expanded in Canada by more that 400% since the 1980s.   This unfettered growth has allowed programs to tap into market demand, unrestrained by pesky questions about assessment, quality and renewal.  Consumers also lack metrics by which to judge the performance of union representation.  Graduate students simply trust  institutions and unions to keep up with program renewal.  Graduate students’ representatives need to take on a role with a long-term agenda of quality checks and ongoing renewal. Such an agenda should be immune from the shaky alliances between student unions which so very often fail or get short shrift.

Graduate students’ representatives in Canada, need to add value to their members’ academic experience.  At this time of graduate student elections, let’s hope some candidates put program renewal policies in the heretofore bare shop window.







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’




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