Welcome Back: Guided teaching should be focus of Ph.D. programs

By Simon Brown / Columnist

Anyone who has sought a support network to help recover from a traumatic experience knows that the Internet houses plenty of communities ready to embrace a stranger in need. Now, joining the ranks of recovering addicts and recent divorcees in these cyber communities is a rather unexpected group: graduate students preparing their dissertations.

Comments dot the Grad-School Life section of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s online forum as well as like-minded communities such as the aptly titled PhinishD.

“Folks on this forum — do you ever daydream about graduation? I looked up grad procedures the other day, and I was almost drooling I was so anxious. I know it’s far away, but one has to have hope.”

These testimonials all spring from a common neurosis about an ever-expanding time commitment to prepare for less and less certain job prospects, which affects graduate students of all universities and disciplines.

This anxiety surrounding the dissertation in particular — and graduate education in general — certainly has its reasons. 

In humanities departments, the average graduate student spends 9 1/2 years working toward a Ph.D. — and that’s if they have the grit to finish the task. They would be in the 49-percent minority of humanities students who can claim a doctoral degree after 10 years compared to the less-than-encouraging 57 percent of students across the disciplines who can do the same.

What’s more, even those few students who finish the Ph.D. confront an academic job market composed mostly of temporary, nontenured lecturer or adjunct professor positions. And the many who can’t land even these low-level teaching positions find few employers interested in hiring an “overqualified” Ph.D. for a nonacademic job.

All of these obstacles staring down prospective scholars could shrink if only university departments would re-evaluate the perpetual headache of graduate students otherwise known as the dissertation.

 The purpose behind requiring the dissertation as an entrance to academia seems obvious enough. The expression of new knowledge and novel perspectives remains an important responsibility of any scholarly career, and rightfully so.

But one would hope that a prospective historian could articulate a well-researched viewpoint in under 300 pages — the average length of a history dissertation, according to the University of Minnesota’s online thesis and dissertation archive. Though historians do write the longest dissertations, the average 100-page biostatistics dissertation at the other end of the length spectrum could still exhaust even the most committed readers.

The expanding length of the dissertation accompanies the equally frustrating “publish and perish” syndrome gripping scientific and humanistic departments. 

As academic jobs become more competitive, researchers feel the pressure to publish papers and books at breakneck speed to stay attractive to potential grant and tenure committees. For an anxious grad student looking to get his foot in the academic door, it only makes sense to publish as fat a dissertation as possible or else get lost on the ever-widening bookshelf.

But despite the high dropout rates from Ph.D. programs, academic departments are reluctant to reform anything. Why would they adjust a system that provides a steady supply of cheap teachers? It has become standard practice for graduate students to finance their education by teaching the recitations and introductory classes that tenured faculty prefer to avoid.

Hopefully, these graduate students don’t realize the tragic irony that their teaching is partially responsible for the limited market for tenured faculty, which they will encounter themselves in a few years — that is, if they manage to finish their dissertations.

Expecting graduate students to teach classes does not have to be part of the problem, though. On the contrary, it is the best solution. It just has to be done correctly.

By making guided teaching experience the cornerstone of graduate education, departments could address the problems complicating the route to the Ph.D. It could shorten the needlessly long time commitment toward the doctorate by providing a metric besides dissertation length to measure the strength of a Ph.D. candidate.

In addition, by standardizing the teaching preparation and experience required for the doctorate, recent Ph.D.s could approach employers outside of academia with credentials that a universally attests to their teaching expertise, communication skills and research abilities. The interpersonal skills required for successful teaching certainly translate to alternative career routes more easily than the scholarly knowledge necessary to write a dissertation.   

But not just any teaching will do. 

Graduate students’ teaching expectations, as they exist now, serve no purpose beyond relieving the reliance on decently paid tenured faculty. Rather than thrusting second-year doctoral students into a recitation or a 200-person lecture as “preparation,” graduate students should teach side by side with the most gifted educators within their departments and only progress to intimately sized classes after sufficient mentoring. 

That way, they can be more easily evaluated by their students; they can learn to emulate the best faculty, and they won’t deny a teaching job to a struggling Ph.D.

And all of these problems and potential solutions certainly took less than 300 pages to express.