Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#152 Changing the Graduate Student Experience

In their article, "On the Road to Becoming a Professor: The Graduate
Student Experience," Change, May/June, 1999 pp. 18-27, Nyquest,, ask
why, in spite of over 30 reports from esteemed education organizations, all
emphasizing such issues as time-to-degree, preparation for teaching, the
need to foster an understanding of faculty roles and the academy, effective
mentoring, overproduction, narrowness of - or disconnected -
specialization, and economic issues, there has been so little change in
graduate education.
In the excerpt below, the authors argue that the fundamental problems are
structural across the institution of higher education and maintain that any
real reform in the experiences of graduate students will depend on a,
"rethinking of the academy's values and a structural reorganization -
processes way beyond offering TA orientations, "preparing future faculty"
programs, or even better mentoring, as essential as they are."

Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Further Comments on the Third Revolution in Higher Education

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Excerpt from: Jody D. Nyquest, Laura Manning, Donald H. Wulff, Ann E.
Austin, Jo Sprague, Patricia K. Fraser, Claire Calcagno, and Bettina
Woodford, "On the Road to Becoming a Professor: The Graduate Student
Experience, Change, May/June, 1999 pp. 26-27
Despite this history of calls for reform in graduate education, the reports
from our participants show how little has changed in terms of their
preparation for the various roles the faculty members must fill. Why does
this issues persist as an unresolved problem?

Perhaps we don't change our approach because we believe at heart that tough
experiences truly are justified in the name of "social Darwinism." Is it
possible that those who have come through the system simply write off the
frustrations stemming from institutional ambiguities, lack of preparation
for teaching, professional and personal crises, and emotional and
financial hardships. Do we actually consider such experiences an
unfortunate but necessary part of "the graduate student experience"? After
all we made it through.

Or is it that we cannot see a way to change the very structure of higher
education, which prevents us from making the academy a more attractive
place to work? Consider (among others) the two following structural
issues which make it difficult to effect change.


Universities' desperate need for the research dollars generated primarily
within the sciences (which build buildings and support instructional
programs) requires them to pursue research at whatever costs to graduate
student education. This issue is reflected in Jim's comments:

I think any research advisor in their right mind would kill me for
[seeking additional TA opportunities]. It's certainly not something I
would do. It'd be ludicrously unfair to a professor - to the professor
that you are working for, to seek out another teaching assistantship.
You are literally robbing them of thousands of dollars of effective
research. It would almost be stealing from your employer to do that.
The professor depends on the graduate students because the graduate
students do all of the work in the lab. Not a whole lot of people tend
to volunteer [their graduate assistants as TAs] because it would mean
sacrificing their own careers. (Jim - Chemistry)


The continued demand for TA-taught service courses in the humanities and
social sciences often creates a need for more graduate students than a
department can supervise and mentor. This problem is reflected in Sally's
comments on her supervisor's lack of availability:

"We didn't have meeting times. If we tried to schedule a meeting, he
would e-mail us with an excuse of why he couldn't do it. It was
never a face-to-face 'I can't meet you.' All the communication was
through e-mail." (Sally - Psychology)

Beyond these structural forces are deep-seated cultural norms - especially
the valorization of research and scholarship by most members of the
academy, often at the expense of attention to teaching and service. Is the
academy ready to match its behavior to the rhetoric it espouses about


We return to the fundamental question of which our data - the experiences
and concerns of our graduate students - point: Can and should we really
change graduate education? Bruce Wilshire, in "The Moral Collapse of the
University," wrote that "Only when the extent of our difficulties is known
can we realistically hope to reconstruct the university effectively"
(Albany: SUNNY Press, 1990). Although our data represent only a very small
number of graduate students, we feel we know enough from these cases to
suggest some directions for change. Any real reform in the experiences of
graduate students may depend, however, on a rethinking of the academy's
values and a structural reorganization - processes way beyond offering TA
orientations, "preparing future faculty" programs, or even better
mentoring, as essential as they are.

And much is at stake. The issue goes beyond altruistic concern for the
lives of graduate students, as important as we believe that concern should
be. We also are considering the future of the academy and whether we are
adequately preparing the kind of innovative, committed, and thoughtful
faculty members needed to become the next generation of the professorate.
As universities and colleges face rapidly changing external contexts,
demanding competition, and high expectations from students and the broader
public, are we willing to let some of the best and brightest of our
graduate students slip quietly off to other occupations? And do we
believe that we can afford to let those who are committed to joining the
professorate do so without careful attention and preparation for their

We must ask these and other important questions, and we should ask those who
will be the next generation of faculty to join in answering them. How can
we demystify the academy, clarify out values, and behave accordingly so
that messages about what we value are clear, consistent, and convincing?
How can we better prepare them for their roles? What should the pictures
of graduate student journeys look like? Should they be different from what
we have found so far?