D is for Doctorate
The University Affairs style manual (ok, it's not a manual, it's more like a Post-it, mostly advising contributors not to use words like "aspect", "scenario", or "ivory tower grunt monkeys") recommends that if you don't know whether a professor has a doctorate or not, call her "Professor"; if you learn she does, call her "Dr." I find this odd, because "Professor" strikes me as more of an honorific than "Dr." nowadays, and one not to be lost for possessing a doctorate. The rule may have made sense when many professors didn't have the PhD, but today it seems that everybody and their dog have one.
I'll admit, my demographics may be skewed. Everybody and their dog are somewhat left-of-centre middle-agers who appreciate Shiraz and organic produce, right?
Reading Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett's Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins, 2006) has gotten me thinking about the doctorate and its value. The authors surveyed more than 9,000 doctoral students from 21 American graduate schools over five years - the largest such survey ever conducted. Students were asked as they made their way through their programs about enrolment, financing, "socialization", interactions with faculty and other students, future plans, and much more. As might be expected, the authors' conclusions from all this data are many and varied, differentiated by discipline, gender and ethnicity, and always cautious. Among their findings, some surprising and some not:
- Research productivity (measured by such things as publications and conference presentations) proved to be a good predictor of degree completion, and did not correspond to a longer time to completion.
- Student financing, on the other hand, proved to be a weak predictor of time to completion.
- Teaching assistantships did not seem to slow students' rate of progress or completion.
- Students are less enchanted with faculty the longer they are enrolled.
The book is impressive for not merely telling you what doctoral students are thinking (45 percent think they're in the top 25 percent of their class) but in relating what they are thinking to how they are doing - mentally, financially, socially and professionally.
I was struck by one finding in particular. Students were asked whether they had a mentor, a faculty member to whom they "turn for advice, to review a paper, or for general support and encouragement." The question did not preclude a mentor also being the doctoral supervisor. Yet only 69 percent of the students said they had found a mentor; the number is especially troubling because the investigators found that having one was highly predictive of research productivity, itself predictive of doctoral success.
That almost one-third of students polled could not name a mentor is a disgrace.
As in the United States, in Canada the number of PhDs enrolled is rapidly on the rise: from 24,890 in 2001-02 to 30,393 in 2003-04, according to the CAUT Almanac. I see this increase in my own field of history, and even in my own department. The pressures are from everywhere: provinces want universities to do more research; administrators want graduate program growth (particularly when each doctoral student is "worth" much more in funding than each undergraduate); departments and professors want to show their relative vigor and popularity; and there are simply more students wanting in.
Yet - and I can't believe I'm about to make such a young fogey comment - some PhD candidates we see do not arrive as well-trained as they once were. I am not blaming high school teachers, the Internet or fluoride. Universities are trying to get graduate students in and out faster, and one result is that many master's programs have moved from two years to one. My MA was a 190-page thesis (and I walked 10 miles to school); most Canadian graduate programs in history today have dropped the MA thesis, in favour of an essay of 50 pages or so. For some doctoral students, that is insufficient preparation.
So we have more doctoral students, many with even more need of our mentoring. Regardless of our busy lives, regardless of pressures to "grow" programs, regardless of how much we think PhD students gain by being thrown into the deep end to work things out for themselves, doctoral supervisors need to see mentoring every one of their students as a principal responsibility. These students invest a half-dozen years or so in us, and they deserve to know that there is at least one person they can rely on through what can be a very isolating time of life. The result will be better students, a more valuable doctorate and, since future universities will themselves be staffed by these graduates, a stronger Canadian postsecondary system.
Otherwise, we're creating a scenario one aspect of which is the rise of ivory tower grunt monkeys.