“Everyone loves to identify things that have not been identified.
The rabbit hole, where ever I find it, symbolizes solitude.”
–Terrance Hayes, For Crying Out Loud
Recently I’ve been finding it much harder to blog because I’ve been homing in on certain aspects of my dissertation, which has taken up an ever-larger chunk of my focus and thinking time. This is a good thing of course, but it means I’ve also been more impressed than ever at how others are able to write excellent and timely article and blog posts on the latest issues, while I can barely keep up with the higher ed news.
Part of the problem right now is that I’m immersed in a couple of specific data-gathering tasks and it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about it when I’m “swimming” in so much information. For example, one of the tasks involves news articles, thousands of them. I’ve mastered the art of combing through the lists of articles generated by my searches, then skimming the articles themselves for search terms, to make judgement calls about their relevance based on how many times a word is mentioned and in what particular contexts, the topic of the article in relation to my study, or what the article tells me about the organization that is the focus of my project. At the same time I’m trying to piece together a bigger picture through combining these articles with what I’ve already collected from other sources. Initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this kind of news search for my project, because of the time it would take; but once I realized it was generating useful information, I knew it was the right move.
Each of these decisions about relevance is important, because it contributes to a research project that in turn makes claims about what is or can be “known” about my topic. If the goal of research is to expand knowledge, then we have to think carefully about what we use to build the scaffolding on which our claims rest.
In my own experience there hasn’t been nearly enough emphasis on the fact that this process is not (just) about “producing a dissertation” or “doing a PhD” but also about creating knowledge. Each decision we make about research is rooted in this. Epistemology isn’t just a branch of philosophy, it’s something we should know about in relation to the most mundane aspects of research tasks at every level: why choose a particular source for information? Why use more than one source? What assumptions inform your analysis of that source? How does it contribute to “knowing” something about the subject of your study?
My research materials have been somewhat overwhelming from the start; there was no clear path to a structure, even though I had built in boundaries. Since my project is partly about pulling together multiple versions of events to create a kind of multifaceted account of organizational change, it was hard to figure out where to begin. If there isn’t one “true” and essential story, what’s the first story or piece of information that you’re going to build on? I sometimes think about how this is like making a rope by twisting together fine shreds of fibre – you start with something thin and impractical, and gradually, you add more and more, using the initial thread as a guide, until there’s a recognizable form.
That’s one of the things that drives me to keep investigating – realizing I’m stringing together a lot of information that’s never been collected and organized in this way, and that there are probably implications that I can’t yet “see” (but eventually they’ll be visible). Of course, all I “see” right now is each individual tiny piece that must be brought into coherence with other pieces in a complex image that’s not yet clear to me. It often becomes more evident through immersion in the material, as I’ve discovered in the process of transcribing interviews.
I think part of what researchers, academics, and others doing intellectual work learn through working is to have a kind of split-focus. Each task requires a lot of focus, but there are many tasks to accomplish and you can’t allow them all to crowd into your mind at the same time. The distractions, even within the scope of a particular task, are plentiful and it’s pleasurable to indulge in a ramble through these curious little backwoods paths through data that keep emerging. I often think of tribbles, from the original Star Trek series: you have one, and then it just keeps multiplying. An article comes up with content that relates to half a dozen other articles, or to other issues that might be relevant so you think you should probably check them out – just in case. Sometimes I end up with 5 browser windows and who-knows-how-many tabs open, along with Word files full of notes, PDFs of journal articles, news items, institutional documents, and whatever else seems helpful for the tangent being followed in the moment. If I don’t at least set things aside when they spring to mind (as opposed to ignoring them completely), then I can’t focus enough to get any single task finished. This is why I have about 40 draft blog post “ideas” sitting in a folder, waiting for later. I’ve had to learn how to keep the scraps organized.
I’m not alone in this experience of going “down the research rabbit hole”, as fellow dissertators on Twitter remind me on a regular basis, thankfully. I expect (and hope) that over time this need for focus becomes easier to manage, as does the uncertainty about each decision along the research path. In the meantime, I have a lot of news articles to sift through.
Recently, the American Historical Association (AHA) posted a policy statement that caused some controversy among academics, because of its recommendation that universities should allow junior scholars the option of a 6-year embargo on electronic publication of their dissertations.
The argument goes that younger or early career researchers (ECRs) need the option of an embargo because widely-available dissertations might not be acceptable to publishers in book form. Some universities make it mandatory for students to submit their dissertations to an open online database, so the embargo would ensure that ECRs have the option of keeping their research private until it’s ready for publication.
While this policy is only about ensuring that grad students can have their dissertation embargoed if they want, rather than telling them they have to, what’s revealing is not only the argument that’s been provided but also that there’s been such a strong reaction and an intense debate generated by the issues involved.
Some commentators have viewed the AHA’s strategy as “empowering”, but others question the idea that only or primarily a book can gain you entry into the profession, and that publishers won’t deal with a book that has previously been available online in dissertation form. Critics argue that there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that pre-published dissertations are off-putting for academic publishers. The debate also seems to beg the question of what exactly the difference is between a book and a dissertation; they’re very different forms, with radically different audiences in mind. Not only that, but the main customers for academic books have been neither academics nor the broader public, but libraries, as pointed out here. Barbara Fister notes that “[l]ibraries have been buying fewer books no matter whether they are based on dissertations or not; they won’t buy more books because dissertations go offline.”
The key issue here isn’t the difference between dissertations and books. It’s the academic career, and what “counts” towards building it – and additionally, what “proves” quality in a candidate for tenure. The AHA post states that “although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees” (emphasis added). This is not just about who gets to publish what, and when. It’s about entry into the academic profession, and what kind of scholarship is seen as valid when assessing who should be on the tenure-track or tenured, and who should not.
This is why the AHA’s stance is being framed by some as “protective” of ECRs who, if forced to make their dissertations widely accessible, will put themselves (or their careers) at risk by jeopardising their chances of having books published. As the statement reads, “History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular” (emphasis added). At a time when competition for academic jobs is fiercer than ever, their argument has a lot of weight.
All this is wrapped up in the shift away from physical copies of dissertations filed on library shelves, and toward the digital databases that allow access to anyone who can get online and run the right search – a scenario involves a different set of assumptions about who can access the work, from where, and with what results for the scholarship (and scholars) involved.
I think an important issue here is the purpose of scholarship, which shapes the work that happens and what “knowledge” is created through it. As others have discussed, historical research is a public good as well as an academic one; what use is there in assuming a few narrow forms of dissemination are the most appropriate, and will continue to be so? A particular understanding of purpose is driving the assessment of scholarly worth. If the purpose of scholarship is to get you a book contract and ultimately, a tenure-track job, then the exclusivity that is so cherished in this process needs to be maintained. If the purpose of publishing is to “launch” one’s career in an appropriate fashion, then there isn’t much room for serendipity or risk in that process.
In terms of purpose, a related example is that of the REF in the UK, which is designed to assess the “quality” of research produced by UK universities. Many critics have already pointed out the systemic effects of this process, which is also tied to funding. There is a connection between academic systems of assessment and professional advancement, and the way scholars go about their work (and make career-related decisions). Because tenure is hard to obtain, the fear factor is an important one for many junior scholars and the AHA’s initial announcement reflects this.
It’s the system in which we already operate that engenders risks from “openness”, risks that are more obvious and present for some than for others. We already have a system wherein keeping one’s work sequestered is still more of a failsafe way of building an academic career. This is why it’s so difficult to use moral arguments about the openness of knowledge: this openness hasn’t yet been institutionally validated to enough of an extent that ECRs are willing to stake their careers on it. That the AHA can argue it has also “supported” alternate forms of publishing and recognition, tells us that there may be an ongoing disconnect between what scholarly societies and funding agencies advocate, and what actually happens in a departmental hiring process.
The academic profession is in a period of flux in terms of what kind of work is valued, what forms it should take, and how it should be shared with others. In many ways academe is still in reactive mode regarding changes that have been happening for some time; technology has already helped to move scholarly activity beyond the limits of what academic career tracks have “traditionally” encompassed. Those hoping to become academics are now receiving very mixed messages about the limits of what is acceptable or desirable for professional credibility. This makes things difficult not only for prospective scholars but also for graduate supervisors and mentors who hope to support their students in developing academic careers.
If it’s less risky to fall back on an established understanding of what counts, if our decisions are governed by fear and anecdotal evidence, then the issue of giving junior scholars a “choice” seems almost beside the point. Choices tend to be governed by context. Maybe it’s time to work on changing that context, instead of trying to work within what are being treated as permanent boundaries.
The Times Higher Ed in the UK had a hit this past week, regarding the issue of doctoral supervision, with an article by Tara Brabazon titled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you”. Worth noting alongside that one is a recent article by Leonard Cassuto that appeared in the USA’s Chronicle of Higher Education, regarding doctoral attrition, which has long been notoriously high (at least in the United States – an average of around 40-50 percent). Attrition rates in Canada are, as far as I know, not generally available though some numbers from eight of the “U-15″ were published in this article from Margin Notes blog (and a longer discussion of completion rates and times to completion is here).
I mention these two issues together because for my dissertation I’ve been going over the research on PhD supervision and attrition, including the work of Barbara Lovitts (who’s cited by Cassuto as well), Chris Golde, and Susan Gardner among others. This research shows clear connections between supervision styles, departmental “climates”, professionalization opportunities, “student satisfaction”, and the outcomes of PhD study – including attrition.
What necessitates this research is that there are long-held misconceptions about the causes of non-completion. A key finding is that often faculty attributions of student non-completion have looked very different from either the students’ understanding of their experiences (or of what other students experience), or from the reality of their reasons for leaving. Since those who leave don’t generally get to tell their stories, assumptions can be made that they simply “didn’t have what it takes” or that the admissions committee didn’t “select” the right candidates for the program. Not only does this download the blame onto the individuals who leave, but it also masks other entrenched problems that can then continue without serious examination. Additionally, it doesn’t mesh with research that’s shown the non-completers tend to look just as “prepared” for academic work as the students who finish.
While there is no single reason why students tend to leave (in fact it’s usually a combination of reasons), a major take-away from the scholarship on this topic is that the supervisory relationship is of crucial importance – not only in whether students graduate, but also in their subsequent (academic) careers. For example, Lovitt’s book Leaving the Ivory Tower confirms that supervisors who have already helped PhD students to complete are the ones most likely to continue doing so. However, the reasons are complex. These supervisors tended to have a give-and-take relationship with students rather than expecting the students to do everything on their own. They “scaffolded” and supported their supervisees, and cared about students’ intellectual development and overall well-being; they facilitated the students’ professionalization and their academic and social “integration” into the department and the discipline, through a variety of practices.
If there are no exit interviews with those who leave their programs, then it’s much easier to continue making erroneous assumptions about why they left in the first place. This is important because there are significant policy implications for the reasons we assign for attrition. For example, even Cassuto’s article places emphasis on selection of the “right” types of students, and on certain types of student responsibility such as seeking out the department’s attrition rate before applying – though this is not information that programs tend to provide to potential students. His taxonomy of students doesn’t include those who simply don’t know what support they will need, and don’t end up receiving it; it doesn’t include those who had the capacity to complete but were abandoned by their supervisors, sabotaged by departmental politics, or derailed by personal life circumstances. All these factors are discussed in the literature on PhD attrition.
Like most other issues in education there are many causes for problems with completion. Any relationship is a two-way street, as pointed out in this post by Raul Pacheco-Vega. There are plenty of faculty who are already engaging in the helpful practices described by Lovitts and other researchers, as well as PhD students who don’t put in enough work, or who probably shouldn’t have chosen to start the degree in the first place. But when it comes to implementing solutions, the nature of students’ supervisory relationships should be one of the primary targets of inquiry and intervention.
An example of an important issue that could be addressed is that of responsibility. Reasonable student expectations of faculty should be made clearer, and tacit institutional and professional knowledge – which is so crucial to students’ success in graduate programs – must be made explicit rather than being left to students to discover for themselves. If students understand what they should expect from a good supervisor – and for what they are responsible themselves – they may be able to make a more informed decision about this important working relationship (and whether in fact it’s working at all).
In some cases, this kind of change will take time and a great deal of consideration because if we take the research seriously, the problems extend beyond merely asking professors and students to engage more often in certain practices. They may be problems with the culture of a department or program, or in fact (considering some of the comments from Lovitts’ interviewees) the nature of academe itself, which is where we have to ask ourselves – what kind of a university do we want, and what kind of faculty will be working there? For example, if students also listed “personal problems” (as many of them did) including stress on existing relationships and the demands of raising children, does this mean those who desire a more balanced life will be inherently unsuited to academic work?
PhD students’ “dissatisfaction” should not be dismissed as merely the whining complaints of the academically inadequate. When students don’t know what to expect, they don’t have the opportunity to align their decisions and behaviour with the appropriate expectations; when they don’t receive adequate support, they may not know how to get what they’re missing, or indeed that they’re missing something in the first place (until it’s too late). Not only that but if we ignore these issues, do we not face a reproduction of what may be the worst aspects of academic life, in the name of “trial by fire”? Those who “make it through” are often assumed to have some inherent set of qualities that make them a better “fit” for academic life. But closer attention shows that this clearly isn’t the case, which means – even if the attrition rates are lower in Canada – we need to seek out appropriate explanations.
There’s a lot of discussion among academics these days about how to use new media in ways that are productive and engaging, in ways that help us build networks and share resources. But last weekend, we got a taste of what happens when social media work to reveal and amplify the biases that are operating in academe (and elsewhere) on a regular basis. Dr. Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, decided to tweet about how he believes fat students should not consider doing a PhD because they don’t have the “willpower” for it. After all (according to his logic), if they don’t have the self-discipline to go on a diet, how could they complete an advanced degree?
The online reaction was immediate and intensely critical. Syracuse University professor Collin Gifford Brooke observed that Miller “progressed quickly through the life cycle of denial: he initially defended his statement, then deleted it, then apologized for it, then disavowed it, and finally, when pressed by his university, claimed that it was part of a “research project.” He then made all his tweets private. Since so many people had already captured images of the tweet, deleting it was pointless and only served to highlight that its author wasn’t willing to leave his opinion in plain view. I saw it myself when Ed Yong, a science writer and journalist with over 35,000 followers on twitter, posted a screen capture.
Soon the post had ricocheted around the Internet and since academics tweet more on the weekend, the news travelled fast; many people sent emails to the chair of Miller’s department at the UNM, Jane Ellen Smith. By Monday, there was an article in Jezebel and Miller’s post had generated attention from other news sources, as well as a new tumblr blog inviting fat PhDs to submit photos of themselves as a refutation of Miller’s “#truth”. Smith, recognizing a public relations crisis, created a press release that also included a video. This departmental response contained the information that Miller had described his tweet as part of a “research” project, a claim that was greeted with skepticism by online observers.
Certainly if one insists on using Twitter in this way, one needs to accept the consequences. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented that “we need professors who understand why you cannot be a jerk on social media.” But does the visibility make the attitude worse, or does it merely bring attention to the fact that academe is not exempt from those attitudes that exist everywhere else?
This highlights the conflict between our assumptions about the “life of the mind” and the realities of prejudicial assumptions based on physical characteristics. Colin Gifford Brooke writes of his experience that “as a fat academic, I was thrilled to be in a field where (ostensibly) I would be judged for the quality of my mind rather than the “failures” of my body.” But of course, there is no guarantee of moral superiority in academic life. That a professor like Geoffrey Miller – one who has been rewarded and validated by the increasingly competitive institution of academe – feels free to demonstrate his prejudice in such an overt fashion, shows that it is still acceptable to hold such biases. When the attitude was expressed publicly and pointedly, many people were shocked; and yet no-one who has experienced fat phobia would have been surprised.
The real issue here is of course not (just) that one person demonstrated an opinion that reveals a deeply problematic attitude on his part. It’s that he seems to have felt confident enough to believe the majority of readers (and colleagues?) would either agree with what he said or let it pass without a significant reaction. In other words it’s systemically acceptable not only to hold such opinions but also to state them and act on them; this professor is only alone in his visibility.
Social media, as usual, have served to amplify a micro-aggression that occurs regularly in everyday life. After all, we live in a world where female athletes are publicly criticized for their “heaviness”. Where girls as young as 5 years old are planning their first diets, are still learning this from their mothers, who learned from their mothers in turn, seeing the same messages reinforced daily in the media and in casual conversation; and where fat folks are causing serious damage to their bodies not by being fat, but in the name of being “thin” (please – do read those linked articles).
And academe is a part of this world. I have dear friends who face the job application process with even more trepidation than the average, knowing the discrimination that women in particular face when they do not conform to acceptable norms of body size. Would they like to assume they will be judged for their minds alone? Of course they would, but that assumption would not reflect their knowledge of the (social) world and their past experiences in it. So let’s stop talking about how we can avoid being jerks online, and start asking how we can change the attitudes behind that jerkdom, which exist everywhere and which are the roots of the behaviour we claim to deplore.
Today’s post is about “process/es”, in the somewhat abstract sense that refers to the ways we organize ourselves when we need to make things happen, particularly things that are work-related.
I had to think a bit about this recently when I did an interview for Networked Researcher and was asked what my “workflow” looks like and how blogging fits into it. I had trouble explaining how I actually get things done, and I think that’s partly because the amount of work I do has been ramping up consistently for a few years now and I feel like I’ve been scrambling to keep up, rather than coming up with new and appropriate ways of dealing with it all. I have so much going on that I’m constantly “running behind”, so what could possibly be efficient about what I’m doing? What am I really “getting done”?
When I thought about it, I realized that of course I have found ways of juggling many things at once, but I don’t give myself any credit for it because there are usually so many unfinished projects pending. That’s why it feels like nothing is happening most of the time–so many things are “in progress”. It’s true that I’ve developed a bit of a system of dealing with all the projects and ideas that come up, so I neither have to dwell on them or forget about them. This involves a lot of little folders and documents, a means of channeling the urge to squirrel away every little thing in such a way that I can use it eventually; Liz Gloyn has written a post where she calls these tidbits “academic otters”. They usually need to be tucked away and kept for later, or tended over time rather than becoming the immediate focus.
All this relates to the process of becoming academic, or whatever it is that we want to be when the PhD is over. Though everyone is in a different situation in the latter part of candidacy, what I’ve noticed is the difficulty with trying to balance the necessary academic work (i.e. the dissertation) with other work and opportunities that come along, which can in turn lead to jobs in the future. This is a dilemma that many PhD candidates face, since it involves a difficult transition into largely unknown territory. We’re aware that the job market isn’t a friendly place these days, but the idea is to advance towards it as quickly as possible, whilst somehow simultaneously gaining enough experience to make ourselves employable when we’re done. We have to figure out how to split up our time between the all-important dissertation, and the publications, teaching, and other pieces that are needed to prepare for the post-doc and faculty job applications that many of us will be submitting later. Of course we’re also working to pay tuition and costs of living while we take care of everything else.
My biggest problem with “process” at the moment is that I’ve ended up having less and less time for necessary deep reflection on the things that are coming up both academically and in other areas of life. There is always a lot going on, but I don’t have much space to think about it. On the one hand it’s fantastic to have so many things on the go–I’m blessed–and each time something comes up I want to jump on board because of the benefit of the experience; it’s also an honour to be invited to participate in other people’s events and projects. But I’ve finally reached a point where, for the first time, I’ve had to start saying “no” (even when I feel guilty doing it). This is something Jo Van Every wrote about in her blog this week.
There are so many possibilities for distraction when focus is required. Though I need to concentrate on the parameters and completion of current projects, obsessing over (often) longer-term goals doesn’t seem to be productive; it interferes with work “in the moment”. It’s also harder to think about the ideas you’re trying to articulate in some particular paragraph or chapter, when you’re thinking about the hydro bill, the talk you’re giving in three days, and the grading that needs to be finished. Most academics are juggling in this way, and I think there’s a need to carve out a specific space for reflection without pressure because if we can’t find that, we simply can’t think and reflect the way we need to.
That part of the process is perhaps the most important one, yet it’s the easiest one to lose when we’re overwhelmed since we can always “get to it later”. I’m reminded of what some academics have said anecdotally about being overwhelmed by changes in the workplace, such as downloading of certain types of administrative work to faculty, that decrease the amount of time available to think about what’s going on. In the end, we can’t just quickly digest ideas and regurgitate them if we’re going to do our best work–as much as it feels like a luxury to take time out and reflect (or to “just read” as some academics say), to process what we’ve seen and heard and read, how else can we participate in the “life of the mind”?
Much attention has been paid to student mental health issues over the past year, and recently the level of coverage peaked with a new report from Queen’s University at the end of November (PDF here). The report came from an initiative prompted by a number of student deaths by suicide at Queen’s in 2010 and 2011. On a related note, some of you may recall a post I wrote a year ago (and a follow-up), regarding Ph.D. attrition and mental health issues such as stress and depression.
Last week, a blog post from HESA’s Alex Usher invoked both the more recent media attention to undergraduate stress, and my own (aforementioned) post, expressing skepticism about the reality of an “epidemic” of mental health troubles. The post is written as a kind of “Mythbusters 101” about student mental health, and the topic is unfortunately treated as if it is merely the fad of the month (or year) in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE). While it’s always a compliment when someone engages with something I’ve written, I believe the compliment is a backhanded one in this case, since the arguments I made about graduate education are quickly dismissed as a smokescreen for Ph.D. student “angst” and fear of (real or imagined) failure.
This choice of term is revealing; “angst” is a significant word because through connotation, it both individualizes and trivializes the problem. Here, it is part of an argument about “the tendency to over-medicalize daily life”, a comment that assumes there’s nothing going on in daily life that should be considered “stressful”. The very point I was trying to make in my post, a year ago, was that the problems of stress and anxiety are not just attributable to individual weaknesses or quirks of circumstance–not when we can identify certain patterns unfolding across systems over long periods. Suggesting that the problem lies with individuals’ interpretations of their circumstances, rather than being (also) a structural and cultural one, is dismissive of the elements in an equation that may be beyond the individual’s control. We need more understanding about what those might be, rather than an assumption that they aren’t part of the equation.
As others have already pointed out, there are a number of causes for increased visibility of mental health issues among students (not just in Canada), but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there before or that they haven’t been building over time; they’re long-term and influenced by systemic factors. For example, the massification of PSE, and related increases to costs, have changed the kinds of students who attend university and the circumstances from which they have to work on their education. This means more students who have fewer (academic, financial, and cultural) resources to draw on, and are more likely to be struggling to keep up for various reasons. So perhaps students are “a lot more fragile, and less prepared” than in the past — but not necessarily for the reasons provided by Usher.
It’s also a problem to assess students’ financial straits primarily by looking at tuition numbers. This is a very superficial way to examine finances, no matter what other argument is being made (in this case, Usher also argues tuition has not really increased–and neither has student debt). It’s particularly problematic when we know there has been a serious economic recession that has affected finances in many ways that go far beyond tuition and other fees. Stress from financial difficulty is a serious problem to which some people have much more immunity than others. To be financially vulnerable is to be exposed, perpetually, to the possibility of loss and disruption. It often signals, or in fact creates, a parallel social isolation; this is why it’s impossible to deny the reflexive link between mental health and poverty.
There’s also a recurring gripe, raised again by Usher and of course taken up with much enthusiasm by Margaret Wente in her latest column (the argument has been “answered” eloquently by Gary Mason here), that accuses young students of having (ironically?) “too much self esteem”. I’m not sure where this assumption could be coming from — perhaps the focus on “high achieving” students? — but it certainly doesn’t match the experiences I’ve had working with undergraduate students in universities over the past eight years or so. Perhaps this is all part of the new “young people don’t have it as bad as they think” discourse that seems to be emerging, though much of that commentary is coming from those who benefited most from what young people are now losing, i.e. the welfare state systems of education, health, and pensions.
Sure, the “kids” have expectations–which were happily passed along to them from their parents’ generation. They were told that if they worked hard and went to university, there would be a job at the end of it. They were told that standards of living could keep rising, and that they could do what their parents did, but somehow do better. Yet the real bubble–that 30-year blimp of post-war prosperity–has long since gone down in flames, and we’re finally seeing the long-term effects. This is about more than changes to the job market or periodic recessions; it’s about risk, speculation on long-term “outcomes” of larger “investments” being made by people when they’re at a young age, when they cannot expect the kind of socioeconomic mobility that their parents could. Yet commentators continue to assume that all this must be the responsibility of the individual, the family, perhaps even the school system (since education is supposed to prepare us for life — and it perpetually “fails” at this).
Wente’s comment that “stress is a fact of life at university” disturbingly echoes the “everyone has a breakdown!” mentality that I described in my initial post about PhDs and depression. While she describes herself as “extremely sympathetic to the issue of students’ mental health”, the actual argument is, “if I could take it–they should be able to take it too.” But if we take a step back, the larger context might start to look like a recipe for stress; and if you think undergrad students are worried about jobs, you should see Ph.D. students who want university faculty careers. So I must disagree that structural issues in the university, and in the larger society and economy, can be written off so easily as “angst”.
I would argue that comparisons to the 1990s are not really useful, because the problems of disappointed expectations and increasing stress (over outcomes), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, are not just blips on the historical-economic radar. They signal the end of a way of life, or rather, a life trajectory, and at a deeper level, a kind of betrayal of trust that further dents our faith in social progress. Whatever we may think about “kids these days”, one thing’s for sure: unless you start out in a nice solid position on the socioeconomic class ladder, sustainable ascension is more and more of a challenge. That means it’s harder to have the things in life we’ve been told we should want — a home, a family, some security for the times when we can no longer work to sustain ourselves.
From what I can tell, the majority of young people entering university want to be able to do something reasonably meaningful, and sustainable, with their lives–without having to be perpetually concerned about whether finances and lack of social capital will trump opportunity at every turn. If those expectations are too high, then I would ask, what exactly is “reasonable”?
Recently I presented on PhD education at HEQCO’s Learning to Earning conference in Toronto. In my contribution to the panel, I focused on disconnects or “mismatches” in PhD education and how these highlight issues that need to be resolved if doctoral programs are to be improved. The other contributors were Andrew Potter (Managing Editor of the Ottawa Citizen), who spoke about his past experience as a PhD candidate in Philosophy, and Marilyn Rose, former Dean of Graduate Studies at Brock University. Dr. Rose presented research on the professional development options available for graduate students at Canadian universities.
One of the things I discussed in my contribution was the strange disjuncture in government rhetoric and policy, when contrasted with how education happens in PhD programs. Too often, when explaining why PhD numbers (for example) should be boosted, the government’s answer is that Canada simply has a lower proportion of PhD graduates than other OECD nations, therefore, the proportion should be increased. The underlying assumption is that increasing numbers of PhD grads will translate into benefits for the economy. Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s just the inevitable outcome of focusing on numbers, without sufficiently investigating process.
This reflects deep differences of opinion about the purpose of graduate education. While governments want more HQP (“highly qualified personnel”), that isn’t the same thing as “more professors”. Technically the term just describes those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher credential; often it’s used to refer to those with graduate-level training, as on the various Tri-Council websites where the term appears.
Is the government’s approach shared by universities–by graduate programs, and by the faculty providing graduate supervision? If not, do these differences in opinion translate into practice in doctoral programs? What does that look like? I think to answer that question, we need to look at the details of doctoral education, paying attention to how PhD students are “socialized” in particular ways (often solely to become academic professionals, and to seek tenure-track positions). This is why the question of whether it’s “worth it” to do a PhD is so frequently wrapped up with the discussion about dwindling numbers of tenure-track positions. It’s assumed that if there are no faculty jobs, then clearly we have an over-supply of PhDs.
Between students’ needs and desires and the academic logic, and the government’s assumptions about economics and HQP, something’s getting lost in translation. Who and what is supposed to make this translation actually happen for PhD students? Should it be faculty supervisors? Non-academic mentors? University career centres? Organizations like MITACS? Academic mentoring is still a part of many supervisory relationships, and academic development activities and services are usually available on campus. But whose responsibility is it if a student doesn’t know exactly how competitive the academic job market is at the moment, and thus doesn’t realize the level of accomplishment required to be able to “compete”? Or if students simply don’t know what their options are? The current culture in many graduate programs promotes an ideal of success that is relatively limited. We need to look at how that affects students’ choices and the kind of professional and social support they receive from peers and mentors.
What can we do to ensure that students have adequate support to develop academic careers, but also to work in other areas if they choose? In other words, how can we make sure PhD students really know what they’re in for, and can plan accordingly? That isn’t going to happen if we focus primarily on the numbers telling us how many PhD graduates we have in comparison to other countries, or if we continue to assume that more education must lead to economic innovation–without asking “how?”
It’s much more likely to happen when policy is informed by the kind of research that tells us what actually happens in the doctoral process. That’s going to mean finding out more than whether grad students are “satisfied” according to a tightly constructed survey, as the CGPSS does. It’s going to mean going beyond numbers when even quantitative research on education is being cut. We need the stories behind the numbers; we need to show how different aspects of a situation come together and influence outcomes, how various factors involved actually play a part (e.g., why students’ experiences are so different between and even within programs and institutions). Good policy can’t be created in a vacuum, so why do we keep wasting our time trying?
Recently, Colorado State University and Harvard University each posted job advertisements that included specific time limits on when the candidate’s PhD had been earned. Colorado’s ad requested PhDs only from 2010 or later; and Harvard’s ad read: “Applicants must have received the PhD or equivalent degree in the past three years (2009 or later), or show clear evidence of planned receipt of the degree by the beginning of employment”.
Both Colorado State and Harvard ended up re-writing these descriptions, but not before the ads set off a good deal of discussion online. UK scholar Dr. Ernesto Priego has already pointed out the incredibly time-consuming and expensive process of applying for academic positions, and I’ve written in the past about the large amount of unpaid work that all candidates much put in to stand a chance at a long-term academic position. Jo VanEvery cast a new light on this by raising the issue of Harvard’s recruitment of younger tenure-track academics:
In her blog, Lee Bessette articulately described the frustrations of an academic now “out of the pool” as an “old PhD”. At Escape the Ivory Tower blog, Julie Clarenbach argued that perhaps this kind of restriction isn’t actually a bad thing, because it provides an explicit signal about when we should get out of the academic job market, move on, and do something else.
I’m not convinced by this latter argument, because while it’s practical in the moment–for those “caught in the middle” between being a “recent” PhD, and being an established superstar–I don’t think it helps us to address the real issue, which is that the job market operates implicitly in ways that are discriminatory, since right now it’s most definitely a buyer’s market.
I think this relates to something I wrote recently for University of Venus blog, wherein I took a brief look at the potential effects of increased competition on young and early-career academics, and on the culture of academe in general. The dynamics change when a larger group of people are “competing” for a smaller pool of resources. In the meantime, academic socialization often demands that we continue the search (even if in vain) lest we be considered traitorous to the profession. As we know, for many PhDs this has meant taking a low-paying postdoctoral position and/or teaching part-time and/or on contract for long periods while continuing the search for a tenure-track position. Those people will of course be written out of the equation officially if job advertisements can explicitly call for recent PhDs only.
As a bit of a side note, it’s interesting that one of the follow-up articles quotes my tweet about feeling like an over-ripe piece of fruit being cast into the cider bucket (of course in the tweet that followed it, I augmented my comment). I think the metaphor is an apt one: “over-ripe” for one, (narrow) purpose may mean “just right” for something else, ie for the making of some other, potentially very different “outcome”.
I think the really egregious thing here is the idea that after anywhere from 7 to 12 years of higher education in preparation for such a job, there is only a 3-year window in which you’re considered eligible to apply. The idea that this is “just what’s happening anyway”–even if not so much in Canadian universities–should make us all furious, considering the waste of time, talent and funding involved. So in a way, I’m disappointed that the job ads have been removed. Perhaps a solid, visible barrier, rather than nebulous claims about “meritocracy”, would finally provoke a real fight about what’s happening in the academic profession, given that the trends have already been so bad, for so long.
Yesterday, as I was taking a short break between grading assignments and exams and working on my dissertation, I found myself amazed to be reading an article from the Guardian UK wherein the author argued that in spite of what others might say, academe is not a stressful place — in fact it’s the best possible place to work.
This article, which is obnoxiously entitled “Academia, stressful? Not for me!”, is by graduate student (postgraduate, in the UK) Katie Beswick. Ms. Beswick writes, after a cursory nod to the legitimacy of other people’s stress, “I’m familiar with the problem. But, personally speaking, I still don’t get it.” She then proceeds to list the reasons why academe — or rather, a very idealized version of it — is the ideal work environment.
I want to make it clear that I do not see the university in a wholly negative light — of course not. There’s a reason I’m there. Indeed, I want to understand the way the university itself functions, and why, and how we can make it better. But I know the research and reading I’ve done about higher education suggests that this post’s author has been shielded from some harsh realities. This is why, when I read about her “instinctive inner eyeroll” at the “complaints” of others, I’m afraid my own physical reaction was something more akin to gagging.
Yes, everyone experiences something different in graduate school and in the academic job market and workplace. But what’s deeply offensive here is the imperious tone expressed, the personalization of the problem and the suggestion (assumption?) that those who criticize are merely whiners. All these are familiar means of dismissing the legitimacy of (well-documented) experiences of others. It’s impossible to take seriously an argument that describes “an onslaught of moans” from fellow students and professors and wishes they would “stop bloody whinging!”, given the context of the comments and the vast body of research literature that contradicts these superficial statements.
So if you’re a graduate student and you’re enjoying life, then let’s talk about some of the conditions of that enjoyment. Firstly, you made it in. That means you’re less likely to be from a low-income background, or to have suffered discrimination as part of a racialized group. You’re less likely to have been persecuted for being gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer-identified. You probably don’t come from a “second-class” nation in the global hierarchy, one without the research infrastructure to support your endeavours, or lacking the kind of education system required to propel you into university in the first place.
It’s less likely that you’ve had family troubles that distract you from getting work done. In fact, your family probably provides you support — moral and emotional, financial, and perhaps even academic (you might also have a partner who now supports you in similar ways — particularly if you’re male). Partly because of this, you don’t work more hours at your outside job than you do on your studies — and your job is more likely to be related to your career goals.
You’re likely to be free from health problems that could prevent you from getting academic work done and from earning a living. You’re free of significant debts, or perhaps you don’t have to worry about tuition payments, rent, or costs of upkeep for any dependents. You’re not a single parent. You don’t suffer from anxiety or from any mental heath issues that might impede your academic performance or social integration in the academic environment. You probably don’t have a disability; you’ve probably never lived on food stamps or other forms of social assistance.
In a Master’s or PhD program, to do well you need a good relationship with your supervisor, as well as appropriate mentorship and an academic environment that’s supportive and integrative, and some degree of financial stability. These supports help students finish their studies within appropriate time limits.
And if you’re not at all worried about finding an academic job, is there something you know that the rest of us don’t? It seems more appropriate to consider what information one would have to lack, in these times, to pose the question: “what’s everyone so stressed about [in academe]?” As one commenter responded, “I think once you finish your PhD and start looking for an actual job, you’ll be able to answer your own question quite easily.” Or perhaps a quick read-through of the comments on my article about PhDs and mental health.
Do the contextual factors described above necessarily prevent us from achieving our goals in academic careers — or from being happy? No, definitely not. But we must acknowledge that these factors contribute to people’s experiences, and that they make academe harder for some than for others. While universities are indeed admitting more students who don’t fit the “ideal” model, there’s an underlying model that persists. The university is a changing environment, and the demands of an academic career are changing too. This has increased the pressure on early-career academics, not the least in the UK, and it must be taken seriously as a cause of re-stratification and increased gatekeeping.
Is there a productive way to make the point Ms. Beswick is getting at? Of course there is. How about “I’ve had a great experience in academe, and I’m thankful for that because I know it’s not that way for everyone. These are the things that made it good.” That would be a better way of “framing” the truth, and it might even lead to consideration of what makes life “better” for some of us and less enjoyable for others.
As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.
Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.
Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.
I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.
Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).
In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.
Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.
Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.