04 February 2019

“We need to do a better job training PhDs in...”

I went looking for how many ways people completed the some version of the sentence, “We need to do a better job training PhDs in...”:


And that is with a couple of very trivial searches. I daresay many more entries could easily be added to this list.

As an educator, I never want to be the person to be the person saying that we shouldn’t train people. Heck, one of the entries on the list above is from me! But there is a finite number of things we can expect to teach people in a finite amount of time. I see two problems..

First, faculty tend to think, “We can do this in house.” They underestimate the complexities of fields, and they don’t reach out to experts in other fields. So the training risks being done by amateurs.

Second, long lists like this tend to encourage superficial “box checking.”

It may be that this “Train them in everything” is a symptom of the loss of support jobs in universities. Faculty are increasingly expected to do everything. If a department doesn’t have a staff photographer, who will do it? Faculty. Professors have to be one person bands, capable of playing every instrument, because universities don’t want to hire an orchestra (so to speak).

This is not a realistic expectation by academics. We should not expect to train grad students to be experts in everything, because nobody can be an expert at everything.

If I had the ability, I would rather see departments try have many more staff positions for some of these task above. Expand the pool of staff experts so that faculty don’t have to try to do everything.

Additional, 3 June 2019: Kieran Healy has a great thread underlining why graduate programs tend to push towards “Train students in everything”: the brutal academic job market.

Many grad programs exist in a state of permanent revolution that is fueled by the real anxiety produced by uncertainty about one’s future work and prospects. This creates demands that something be done to make those anxieties go away. ... the core uncertainty—and thus the anxiety—is ineradicable through policy, especially in a brutal labor market the program has no control over.

Assessing the "treatment effect" of program structure is itself infected by the core uncertainty about who will “do well” and why. The market is tiny. Admission processes deliberately neutralize many elements that would predict success if literally everyone could be admitted.

A common response is to wish one could inoculate against this uncertainty by "requiring" people to learn everything or somehow be intellectually fully-formed right away. But this is impossible; faculty will disagree about what it means; students will likely rebel against it.

In practice you have to be humane about the reality that underpins the anxiety, while remaining clear-eyed about what a program can and can’t do about it at the level of training. The levers that can be pulled aren't attached to the things you really want to adjust.

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1 comment:

biochembelle said...

I think these musing also reflect the pronounced variability across programs and even individual groups within programs.

As you note, some of this perhaps comes from the increasing expectations of what faculty should do (or what they're supported/not to do). Another component is the increasing pressure that PhDs should be training people for a wide variety of careers, and that perspective has shifted to tangible skills for every avenue. I worry about the idea that PhD programs should be all things to everyone, in part because of the way programs approach training (as you noted) and in part because either the time for training will grow longer or there will be breadth without depth that may give a false sense of preparation.