Fixing Graduate Education in AmericaEducation

Fixing Graduate Education in America

Where to Start Fixing Graduate Education in America

By Leonard  Paul Jay

Fixing Graduate Education in America. When we were invited to appear together on the cable television show “Higher Education Today” to discuss the present and future of the dissertation, we anticipated a wide-ranging conversation about the nature of dissertations in different fields, how professors direct them, and how digital technology might change them.  

But the exchange ranged far wider than that.  It encompassed the conservatism of graduate education, the stricken job market, graduate student funding (and with it the deplorable use of contingent labor  in the American university), the increasing amount of time to degree, the role of collaboration in our individualistic graduate school culture—and what Wikipedia has to tell us about graduate school in the United States.  Who woulda thunk it?

In retrospect, the proliferation of topics should have been as obvious as the connection of the leg bone to the knee bone.  The problems facing graduate education are braided together so tightly that they really can’t be separated.  If you talk about one aspect of graduate education, you’ll wind up talking about all of them.  

The same rule applies if you try to change something.  Consider the initiative by the Mellon Foundation aimed at reducing the steadily-increasing time to degree in Ph.D. programs in the humanities: beginning in 1991, a small number of students were given generous external fellowship support designed to free them from teaching so that they might get their dissertation work done faster. 
The result?  This privileged group got their PhD.’s no more quickly than the rest of the graduate student population. Why? Because it turns out that time to degree is not an independent variable, but is in fact determined by a complex set of entrenched institutional practices. You can read an extended analysis of the Mellon initiative in Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities.

Our brief trip to television land reminded us there are essentially no independent variables in graduate education.  If we want to change the culture of graduate school in the United States—and there is much that needs changing–we must look at the whole system, not just fiddle around the edges. 

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