Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Graduate Education: A Retrospective

That’s right, after 5 and ½ years I am finished. Ironically, I feel little sense of accomplishment. I would have to say the overwhelming emotion would be one of relief. You see, although one certainly may gain valuable skills in graduate school, and may publish a few papers of import (such as yours truly) graduate school is more about the ability to survive than to accomplish. This is an unfortunate fact. There have been a number of people who have dropped out of Ph.D. programs with the ability to be more than excellent researchers but the sheer political, emotional, and physical turmoil forced them to turn their backs on science. Whether it was the poverty of empathy of their advisors, the cut-throat competitiveness of their peers, or the persistent negativity which seems to be the norm among graduate students, many people who could have made great contributions to a number of fields are now either in other, more “affirming” disciplines (hopefully) or languishing in unfulfilling positions with little opportunity to make the social difference that was their genetic due (hopefully not..).

I am sure many (especially members of the academic set) are thinking “But those people are better off left behind. You know, sort of like separating the wheat from the chaff. People without the emotional wherewithal to make it through the rigors of a Ph.D. are unlikely to contribute in any significant sense to science in general”. This is, of course, rather backward thinking. Although our model of graduate education is the envy of the world it does not mean that it is without the possibility of improvement. Would it be difficult, for example, to place newly minted assistant professors in a one semester managerial class so that they might be better able to deal with, quite literally, controlling the lives of their graduate students? Perhaps it is totally without merit to institute a set of policies to which graduate students could turn in the event of a totally unreasonable advisor. Any reasonable person would approve of these small changes but, unfortunately, academics are quite often not reasonable people. They, like most, jealously guard their own fiefdoms of power and so are unlikely to advocate that new rules, or even restrictions, be instituted for the greater benefit of the masses if it means that their own near omnipotence be even slightly curtailed.

This jealously guarded power is of course not new in the world. It is seen on a daily basis in the dealings of unions with management, legislators with members of the judiciary, and even in the intricate social interactions between children and parents. It is not within our nature to easily give up powers which have accrued but, as this power becomes more concentrated (as it is in academia) it becomes not only more difficult to control (For an example look at the effects of the fundamentally innocuous idea of tenure on graduate, and secondary, education as a whole) but also more prone to be abused. Currently there are few checks on this near absolute power leaving the emotionally, psychologically, or physically disadvantaged student at the mercy of his or her "mentor". This is unacceptable. How many potentially great students must be sacrificed at the alter of academic ego before we learn that the system can and should be changed? Why must people who enjoy lifetime appointments, cushy teaching loads, and 6 month sabbaticals also be given free-rein to be the judge, jury, and executioner of a student’s life?

The question of my objectivity must be raised at this point. One might question my own motives by asking “Surely your views are a tainted, simply a bitter graduate student who now must face the world without the niceties you once expected as the first-year ingénue you were as you entered.” While it is true that, in retrospect, I do not view my graduate experience with any particular favor it isn’t true that I am embittered. I received a number of job offers before graduating with my Ph.D. (certainly not the norm for my particular institution, or science Ph.D.s in general) and agreed to a lucrative position with a scientific concern working in a cutting edge area of science (proteomics). These statements are not meant to be self-congratulatory or boastful, I write them only to communicate that I have been fortunate enough to obtain a position in the sciences without a post-doc and thus have little reason to be resentful about my graduate education. Although I did not have a stellar experience in academia, the concerns I state are borne of objective, reasonable observations I have made while still within the “ivory tower”.

The process of graduate education must be changed so that it not only fosters the ability to withstand tedium and negativity, but also promotes creativity and productivity. Currently sycophancy is the skill best learned; one, I must say, that is not particularly conducive to the dialectics which produce the best ideas. The comfortable world of the academic must be readjusted to reflect the needs and realities of the workers upon whose backs those great discoveries are made. I have decided that this will be a mission of mine. I will not step out of the tower, satisfied that I have made it only to leave others behind, mired in the dysfunction endemic to academia. We Americans have a great tradition of picking what works from institutions and discarding what does not. As such, we must look the tradition of higher education in the eye and say “Stand aside and prepare yourself for change”.

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