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The Idea of the PhD: The Doctorate in the Twenty-First-Century Imagination
Date Reviewed: March 29, 2017
Understanding the concept, contours, and concerns of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) studies is the central focus of this book. It explores the world of PhD as it is imagined, experienced, and analyzed in various academic contexts. It unearths the relationship between the PhD of the past and of the present, and argues that there is a tension at the core of the idea of PhD in its twenty-first century understanding. Is the PhD undergoing a radical transformation? Where is it heading? In exploring and responding to these questions, the author, Frances Kelly of the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, initiates a needed conversation within higher education.
The book consists of four chapters, each examining an aspect of the subject matter in focus: the nature of doctoral research, the idea of the doctoral researcher, PhD pedagogy, and the spaces of doctoral research. The introduction outlines the rationale and agenda of the book and briefly reflects on the themes of the PhD and university in general as they relate to culture, images, and stories. The author also claims the book is about critical analysis of contemporary discourse on the PhD.
Chapter 1 reflects on doctoral writing and with the help of illustrations and case studies argues for understanding the process of dissertation writing as work. This is a helpful perspective for graduate students working on or preparing for their dissertation writing. The second chapter explores the person, character, and identity of a “knowledge worker” and highlights five key attributes of the doctoral researcher: (1) specialist knowledge, (2) effective communication, (3) general intellectual skills and capacities, (4) independence, creativity, and learning, and (5) ethical and social understanding (45-46). This chapter contributes an important conversation on the struggle of the researcher in the context of university and society about his or her contribution as a doctoral researcher. Chapter 3 examines the nature and function of doctoral pedagogy in terms of supervision, socialization, and issues of gender, power roles, and their impacts. It begins with the study of the traditional pedagogical practice of private and dyadic supervision and proceeds with the ideas of doctoral pedagogy in groups and voices for the later. The fourth and final chapter takes up the discourse on the spatial realities of doctoral learning, which includes the university campus, the location and design of that campus, library and archives, the writing desk, and the imagined space (location) of the researcher. The significance of each of these in doctoral research are explored within a context of cultural imagination. In her conclusion, Kelly says that the cultural imagery of the PhD is tied to a Western idea and wonders about the nature of non-Western ideas of the PhD.
The book is rich in illustrations from a variety of researchers and their experiences with the PhD. However, it does not define or explore the concepts of imagination – Western or non-Western – or social and cultural domains, thus taking them for granted. Some contents of the book may disappoint the experts in the field. Yet it will make a helpful tool, especially for the emerging scholars of higher education.
The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
I could not put this book down, and I strongly recommend that anyone concerned about higher education in America take it up.
In this volume, Leonard Cassuto expands on topics he explores in his Chronicle of Higher Education column (“The Graduate Advisor”) and integrates them into an argument to reconceive the role and nature of teaching in graduate schools for the benefit of graduate students and higher education in general.
What Cassuto means by “reconceiving” teaching at the graduate school level is something more fundamental than changing styles or methods of pedagogy. He wants faculty to help students succeed, personally and professionally, by seeing careers outside academia as worthy of professional pursuit. This is not, Cassuto repeats, a betrayal of graduate training, rather it is the retrieval of an earlier model of graduate education that envisioned doctorates serving in a broad variety of professional positions.
In this, Cassuto differs from common approaches to “fix the mess,” such as calls to expand the ranks of professionally preferred and economically sustainable positions by converting part-time, non-tenurable ones to full-time, tenurable ones (for example, American Association of University Professors 2015-16 Annual Report on “The Economic Status of the Profession”). Cassuto argues, persuasively, that this will not come to pass. The days of every freshly minted PhD stepping into a full-time, tenure-track job belongs to the past; specifically, the period between the end of WWII and the close of the 1960s. In the history of American higher education woven throughout the book, Cassuto establishes that the unique circumstances of that period led to those halcyon days for those aspiring to the professorship. Changes in demographics and policies (educational and public) force us to abandon hope of this returning and instead imagine, again, a more expansive job market for those with doctorates.
Towards this end, Cassuto recommends that from first contact with a prospective student through every stage of advising, faculty speak openly of the dismal academic market and approvingly of “alt-ac” careers. The chapters are arranged around the “life-cycle” of a graduate student (Admissions, Classwork, The Comprehensive Exams, Advising, Degrees, Professionalism, and The Job Market Reconceived) and offer concrete recommendations on how to adjust each of these phases in ways that will serve graduate students, graduate education, and by extension, undergraduate education and public life. The discrete changes he advocates (such as ways to reduce time to degree completion and alternate models of comprehensive exams and dissertations) are not original, but situating them within an enlarged concept of the possible uses of a doctorate is.
An expanded concept of the potential purposes of the doctoral degree requires a significant change of attitude among graduate school faculty; they must sincerely support, and at times initiate, student embrace of career paths that do not resemble their own. Jobs in high schools, in business, in government, and so forth, must be accorded the same respect as full-time, tenure-track positions. This attitude shift will be, I venture, more challenging than Cassuto acknowledges.
Cassuto is correct that this shift requires faculty to grasp, and leverage, the oversized role they play in their students’ lives. Interviews and anecdotes poignantly remind readers that the trust and admiration graduate students extend to their advisors may result in students shying from decisions that are in their own personal and professional interests for fear of disappointing their advisors. The prejudice that only a career in academia is worthy of doctorates exacts a tremendous toll on students. They sacrifice years, foregoing earnings and retirement savings, while accumulating debt and enduring personal and professional limbo. Cassuto rightly characterizes this as a “moral” crisis demanding action.