practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

There were moments of graduate school when I would wonder “Why do we have to do this?” and “Why do we do things this way?”  As someone who tends to think of process and efficiency, there were several aspects of the PhD process that just didn’t seem to be in the best interest of graduate students.  Most of these inefficiencies seemed to exist for two reasons: university requirements and academic hazing.  

University Requirements

Individual departments and faculty don’t have complete control over how the PhD process is implemented for their major.  Universities also have requirements to ensure that departments are producing PhDs that maintain a certain level of standards and, thus the university’s reputation.  These types of requirements are challenging or impossible to change even when the case can be made they are not in the best interest of graduate students.  

For instance, my PhD granting institution has a rule that the faculty member who chairs a student’s qualifying exams cannot also be the chair on their dissertation.  So if all of my qualifying exams had been with faculty who were also on my dissertation committee, I would have had to eliminate one person as an option as chair. Picking at that point in the process, before knowing (a) what direction my dissertation was headed in, (b) how well I work with each committee member, and (c) how well my committee members work together, means I would have had little flexibility to change chairs if the direction of my project shifted dramatically or if the demands of my chair didn’t work for me.  The requirement undermines the relationship building students have undergone to even construct their qualifying exam committees.  

These kinds of requirements extend to annual evaluations of progress, funding restrictions, qualifying exams, and prospectus and dissertation defenses as well.  In some cases and for some students, these policies complicate the PhD experience making what is already a long and arduous process inefficient.  

Academic Hazing

Hazing is a term we often associate with sororities and fraternities in the context of higher education to describe humiliating and sometimes dangerous rituals that these groups undergo during rush.  “Academic hazing” refers to the use of rituals that trigger feelings of imposter syndrome and humiliation, encourage overwork and burn out, and lead to physical and mental health decline in an academic setting.  Under the guise of “this is what we’ve always done” or “this is what I had to do in graduate school,” these practices produce unreasonable expectations on which graduate students gauge their performance, which can lead to feeling like a failure or a fraud, overworking to try to meet expectations, and eventually suffering the consequences both physically and emotionally.  In this way, academic hazing is violent (#academiasoviolent), reinforcing the internal narratives of “I don’t belong here” that non-white, working-class, first-generation college students, immigrants, and women often already feel during the process of graduate school rather than countering this narrative with work that affirms and supports that all graduate students have earned their place and belong there.  Many of these practices are also inefficient and less useful to training PhD students. While you might first think of hazing as acts of verbal abuse, it comes up again and again in more subtle ways in every aspect of the PhD process. To illustrate this point, let me take one example that a group of folks have been discussing on Twitter: the amount of reading assigned in graduate courses.

If you’ve gotten through your first semester of a PhD program, you are most likely familiar with this issue of academic hazing.  You find you are assigned 500-1,000+ pages of reading to do in a week as if the only thing that you are doing is reading for that one class, when in fact you are taking 2 or 3 and maybe also working as a Teaching Assistant or a grader.  Under these circumstances, graduate students are stuck with making decisions about what gives. The likelihood of finishing all of the reading and understanding the details is unlikely, so they either resign themselves to skimming everything or “choosing” a subset of to read more closely, opting to not read every word.  (Choosing is in quotation marks because my own experience of this is actually just reading until I ran out of time and thus “choosing” a subset of reading based on whatever I could get through before class.)  

Why am I calling this academic hazing?  First, the arguments for why this amount of reading is assigned (and why it is necessary) are often about the ritual of what was done before in terms of how the course was previously taught or how the instructor was taught the same course.  Second, most graduate course instructors do not provide any guidance on how to navigate such a large corpus of reading. You can imagine that a student who tries to read each page carefully and to understand all that they’re asked to address might feel incompent when they are unable to finish all the reading or don’t understand all of it.  Thus, the practice has intentional and unintentional implications for well-being. But I also believe that this practice is inefficient and less useful. If the goal of assigning so much reading is that graduate students should read broadly in a subfield, why assign more reading that one could possibly digest in such a short period of time?  This goal is not for coursework alone. In fact, coursework is only the first stage in which graduate students engage with the literature. Students inevitably take qualifying exams, which includes an enormous amount of reading beyond that in related courses. They are also likely to read even more for their dissertations because they need a new literature or more depth in a specific part of a subfield.  Because neither coursework nor qualifying exams are typically built to deal with depth, it seems only appropriate to provide an amount of reading that will allow grad students to engage with each of the readings they do, while pointing them to other sources they should read if they’re interested in a particular literature.  

The quantity of reading in coursework is one example, but the hazing continues beyond courses.  Students are told their MA chair won’t sign off until their paper is deemed “publishable,” dragging on the requirement for longer than needed and making students feel less competent with each rejected draft.  Qualifying exams are used to force more large quantities of reading on graduate students, in some cases without allowing them to choose what they read or allowing them to focus on the areas most relevant for their dissertations.  I was also told that the qualifying exam process should be pleasurable, which made me think I was doing something wrong when it was not for me. Faculty refuse to sign off on prospectuses, prolonging the process to advancement to candidacy and reinforcing feeling like a fraud.  Finally, dissertation committee members expect polished work in early drafts instead of the realistic expectation that early chapters will be works in progress using writing to think and process.  

These forms of academic hazing leave graduate students feeling like maybe they’re not cut out for graduate school and doubting their ability to continue.  The academic career path is full of rejection from the outside world from journals, funders, and jobs. Additional rejection from the people training you only sends the message “you aren’t smart enough,” “you don’t belong,” and “you won’t survive this process.”  Frankly, I’m sick of seeing capable and smart graduate students be so beat down by their PhD experience that they leave. We can and should change this.  

What Can Faculty Do?

Faculty play an important role in advising students, reducing the hazing aspects of their own practices, and supporting individual student’s needs.  For university requirements, the options are limited because these kinds of requirements are not flexible and not following them may lead to the student being punished.  The main thing faculty can do is help students navigate these requirements. This involves making sure students are aware of the policies and helping them think ahead about how to navigate them.  In addition, some faculty members are in a position to give feedback to higher-level administrators about the requirements and their misalignment with student needs. Potentially these forms of feedback could lead to change longer-term.  

Thankfully, there is a lot more that faculty can do to reduce academic hazing.  We can reduce the reading load on our syllabi, explain to students what to focus on in the longer readings, help students move past programmatic benchmarks while giving them guidance and feedback for future drafts, provide flexibility to prepare for the dissertation through qualifying exam readings, accept less polished draft chapters to teach students how to work through their findings, and encourage students to have real work-life balance.  Changing the culture of academia is in our hands. We shouldn’t accept hazing just because it’s what we went through. Academia should be supportive because that’s what we all deserve.  

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