Thursday, September 3, 2015

"The Grad School Mess": A Diatribe in Search of a Problem

I was intrigued to read this article in this morning's Inside Higher Ed. I am familiar with the issues and challenges of graduate education - this is my day job, after all - but I hadn't realized that graduate school was "broken" or that this had become somebody's idea of conventional wisdom. Naturally, I read the article eager to learn more.

It turns out that by "graduate school" the author of the diatribe book in question (and the author of the news article about the diatribe book) means "PhD programs in the humanities". The author points to the dismal statistics about graduates of these programs and the low rate at which they land tenure-line faculty positions, and he criticizes (quite rightly) the tendency for faculty to support a status hierarchy where anything less than a tenure-track job at a major university is considered a "failure". I'm not sure why we needed a book from Harvard University Press to point that out, but I'll grant the argument that such value systems are silly and outdated.

The second book mentioned in the article, which is trying to be more helpful and less diatribe-ish, nevertheless still focuses exclusively on doctoral (PhD) education. While it's great that it didn't mischaracterize things as a "mess", it still steals a term ("graduate education") and applies it only to a very narrow slice of the world.

Back out here in reality, working with and supporting graduate students is very different. That's because the vast majority of graduate students aren't seeking PhDs at all - they're master's students. This is particularly true at my institution (maybe 10% of our grad student population are in doctoral programs), but it's also true a nearly all major research universities. Just down the road, the majority of Ohio State's graduates are also at the master's level, and they probably have the highest proportion of doctoral-to-master's students in the state.

This is the hidden reality - not that we're failing our humanities PhD students by not counseling them correctly but that we're failing our master's students by ignoring their existence. Until three years ago (when the Council of Graduate Schools commissioned a pilot study, which I was a part of) there was no systematic research about master's students and their success or failure. There have been tons of articles, going back decades, about doctoral students - as is reflected in the article above and the books it mentions.

Why does this matter? Because, as my friend Dan Drezner pointed out, what we say about higher education in public shapes everyone else's perception of it. By only talking about how "broken" doctoral education is (when we really only mean, some doctoral fields) and by ignoring the existence of most graduate students entirely, we create a false sense of crisis and give people "out in the real world" a false impression about what's going on at universities. That's a great way to sell books, but a lousy way to actually help things get better.

A good part of my job (and one of my favorite parts) is going out into the community around my university and talking about the virtues and benefits of graduate education. I talk about how a master's degree, or even a graduate certificate, can raise the level of a company's employees, how it can bring real cutting-edge expertise into the workplace, how it can open new worlds of possibility for individuals stuck in a rut.

This is the reality we see every day. The Mayor of Dayton, a proud WSU grad with an MPA degree, is reshaping a city at the heart of a million-person metro region. A VP for Purchasing for our local power utility (and a grad of our MS in Logistics program) saved his company over $1 million a year by reorganizing their supply chain - savings that I get in my power bill every month. When we talk about leadership and positive change in our community, it rarely comes from people with doctorates - because there aren't nearly enough of them, and most of them are working hard on very specific issues. But for sheer impact, master's degrees are what drive most communities towards a better future.

So I hope that people outside the academic arena can understand that these arguments inside the ivory tower about "graduate education" are really just arguments about a small slice of the pie. And it would be nice (though not likely) if folks on the inside could gain a little perspective before they start firing broadsides at things they don't fully understand.

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