Friday, July 3, 2015

Why I Quit my PhD Program: Suggestions for Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 2)

by Conditionally Accepted:

This anonymous guest post is the second of a two-part essay in which the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, and offers suggestions to improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the first part of their essay here!
Source: PHD Comics
Image source: PHD Comics
Stuck In The Past (Part II)

Welcome back! In the first part of this essay, I examined three fundamental aspects of graduate education that seem flawed or lacking in my experience (comprehensive exams, funding, and teaching assistantships).

However, there is another side of academic life that begins in graduate school, and if the student is not firmly grounded in these practices, their career and well-being as professionals will suffer. Professional academic work in the university is focused on research and writing, carrying equal or more weight than teaching (in too many cases) with tenure committees or administrators.

While graduate seminars hone critical reading, writing, and research skills, neither of the graduate programs I attended provided adequate guidance on other aspects of being a scholar, such as writing conference proposals and papers, and writing and submitting articles to journals for publication.

In this second post, I provide some thoughts on another three issues: preparation for being a “scholar” or professional academic, interdisciplinary research, and post-PhD employment.

Scholarly Preparation

I imagine there are many ways to address the broad notion of “scholarly preparation,” and I understand that it varies by academic discipline, as well as the size and resources of a given department.

First, departments could encourage (or require) graduate students to participate in an academic writing group. Students would bring anything from course writing assignments to pieces of a dissertation for critique. Faculty would participate on a rotating basis, participating either for a semester at a time, or on a rotating basis of one faculty member present at each meeting of the group.

A third option is to have a series of workshops over the course of a couple of months. The workshop series would be held at least once per academic year, but preferably once per semester. In addition to training students how to prepare their written work for publication, students would also have the opportunity to learn how to interact in a critical-yet-respectful way with their peers.

Another approach would be to offer this topic as a course once a year and require all graduate students to take it before starting work on their dissertation. This should be a practical, hands-on course following a weekly plan similar to what Wendy Belcher suggests.

The outcome should be a paper revised for submission to a journal, or a paper prepared for a conference presentation. And, in case I need to say it, this should be a course that counts towards the student’s degree, covered by tuition credits/funding, and should be taken seriously by faculty and students alike.

Faculty who are reading this may be thinking, “but I barely have enough time to eat/sleep/do research/spend time with my family as it is - I don’t need even more tasks!” I sympathize with your plight; unfortunately without addressing larger, systemic issues regarding demands on faculty time, I don’t have a recommendation that helps both grad students and faculty.


It is probably fair to say that the (non)availability of true interdisciplinary study on the doctoral level is a significant limitation that keeps me from pursuing another PhD program, even if I were inclined to put up with comprehensive exams, language study, limited funding, and grueling schedules. I firmly believe that methodologies and approaches beyond my “home” discipline have much to offer, especially when contemplating a project the size and length of a dissertation.

Moreover, interdisciplinary study can open new avenues of research and broaden scholars’ thinking. This will also help to alleviate the hyper-specialization that has taken over many academic fields. One of the reasons I have never felt completely at home in academia is the pressure to specialize, and to identify just one (often tiny) research area (with that simple paragraph I worry I have given myself away, as I have rarely encountered other academics with the same feelings of being constrained).

The “easiest” fix for this is to have established accommodations for students interested in cross-disciplinary research. This could be along the lines of allowing credits from coursework in another discipline to count towards the total number of credit hours a student needs to complete, or adjusting degree requirements on a case-by-case basis to tailor degree requirements to the student’s research needs.

Encouraging students to increasingly narrow their focus of research is interesting in the short term. But, has anyone wondered about how that affects the student’s ability to teach and craft new research projects in the long term?

The Elephant in the Room: Post-PhD Employment Opportunities

Finally, I can’t ignore the depressing statistics regarding the chances of academic employment once a student has successfully obtained a PhD. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this is a major reason why I am disinclined to consider another doctoral program.

The financial burden of additional graduate study, and a severe lack of programs that fit my criteria are certainly primary concerns. But, the knowledge that I am unlikely to find a tenure track job on the other end makes everything else seem insignificant in comparison. Why take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a degree that won’t give you a reasonable chance of getting an academic job?

PhD program veterans like Jennifer Polk are advocating for PhDs to consider non-academic jobs as a viable career path, which has potential for disillusioned or under-employed academics. It also highlights that academics, with or without a PhD, have skills that can be applied beyond academia.

This mentality should be incorporated into all graduate programs and career counseling: here’s what your degree will do for you if you stay in higher education, and here are some career paths that make use of critical thinking, researching, writing, and instruction skills.

Programs are currently in the awkward spot of needing students to justify their existence, while knowing that only a small percentage of PhDs will be able to find tenured jobs. I can’t say that knowing my chances of getting hired would be 1 in 100 (to pick a number) would have discouraged me from applying to graduate school. However, I think the departments must take more responsibility for making students aware of the realities of their academic career opportunities.
The problems that I have identified in these two posts are but a few of the challenges facing higher education right now. Large-scale solutions are required, and the suggestions I’ve offered above are patches to the existing system rather than substantial fixes to the overall problem.

I’ve often wondered what my ideal PhD program would look like if I could design a model that doesn’t conform to the standard coursework-exams-dissertation template.

How would you change the PhD process if you could? What’s your ideal?

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