Why most graduate school requirements do not adequately prepare doctoral students for the academic job market and what can be done about it?

July 22, 2021

Although I can’t really speak to the ability of doctoral education requirements to assist someone seeking a nonacademic job, most of what I was required to do in grad school, in order to earn my Ph.D., neither adequately prepared me to be a scholar, nor a professor.

Sure, I enrolled in and completed graduate seminars, submitted term papers, finished my written and oral exams, and wrote and defended a dissertation. I also served as a teaching assistant and helped the departmental secretaries register undergraduates each semester.

But I wasn’t really taught how to conduct scholarly research, teach a class, and engage in departmental, college, university and professional service. I had to learn these three pillars of a traditional academic career on my own, and primarily on the job.

I know I’m not unique. Now that I have been a full professor for some years, and having talked to numerous colleagues, I’m convinced that the graduate school requirements that most Canadian and American graduate students were subjected to were primarily poorly thought-out exercises, which graduate students had to do to leave the school with a Ph.D. in their hands.

Yet, there is still a widely held belief that the majority of tasks that graduate students are required to complete, somehow, perhaps by osmosis, helps them become scholars, instructors, or even service minded individuals.

There are probably four arguments that support the traditional practices: these methods are the only way we know how to best train graduate students to best prepare them for life beyond the protective shield of graduate school (aka we don’t have anything better to replace it); these practices were good enough for us and our contemporaries when we did our Ph.D., so you just have to buckle down, and grin and bear it too; and we are too busy, uncreative, etc. and thus we are going to continue to do as we’ve always done.

I would argue, on the other hand that, in general, the big four requirements (i.e., graduate seminars, term papers, comprehensive examinations, and writing dissertations) are a complete waste of time.

Graduate seminars, the ones that were in the catalogue, that appeared to interest me were rarely offered. And the ones that we were required to take or were available were mostly dull exercises. Few of the students who attended did the reading, and over time the instructors were about as bored of the process as the majority of students. I learned next to nothing. And what I was required to know, bore little resemblance to what I needed for my comprehensive examinations.

Sure, sometimes you can flip a term paper and after considerable revision submit it to a journal, hope that it will not incur a bench reject, and benefit from unbiased feedback, that allows you to dig deeper into your subject matter, and maybe even get the paper published.

Comprehensive exams were the ultimate garbage in garbage out process. It really doesn’t actually teach you how to read broadly in a way that is useful for your own future research and teaching. Despite focusing on three areas and learning the major literature in these fields, most of the jobs that I interviewed for asked me to teach subjects unrelated to this preparation.

Although I was able to successfully “publish out of my dissertation” and later get it published as a book, this does not always happen. Most people who complete the dissertation are by the end totally bored with the subject, only chose the subject for expediency sake, or the topic is too narrow to interest a book publisher.

Instead, we should seriously rethink our current model, subject the requirements, as some other graduate schools have, to empirical analysis, ditch or modify the ones that don’t produce the desired outcomes, and experiment with others.

Perhaps requiring our grad students to write grant proposals, get them funded, and then publish three or more articles in highly ranked peer review journals is better. (In fact, some places say three published articles — or documentation from editors indicating that the papers have been accepted for publication- equals a dissertation or something like that). After all, you need to do those things if you want to have any chance at a dwindling academic market that is hyper-competitive.

Hopefully this approach will minimize the hazing aspects of graduate education and have candidates better suited to a life as a scholar and professor.

Photo credit: Keith Lam
Graduation Ceremony