© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Author Interview: 'The New Phd: How To Build A Better Graduate Education'


We've talked a lot about how the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has affected many places of work, but it might surprise you to know that it's been very hard on higher education. Throughout the country, colleges and universities are slashing budgets, furloughing employees and imposing hiring freezes. And as in other fields, those conditions are especially tough on those at the beginning of their careers, graduate students and newly-minted grads seeking their first academic positions.

But a new book makes the case that graduate education was in trouble long before the pandemic. Ph.D.s can take years to complete, about half of students never finish, and job prospects are diminishing. The book is called "The New PhD: How To Build A Better Graduate Education." And in it, two scholars with long histories in the academic world offer their views on the problems facing graduate education from admissions to advising and what needs to be done to make it a better experience for students and more productive for the economy.

So joining us now are the co-authors, Leonard Cassuto. He is a professor of English at Fordham University. He also writes the graduate advisor column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Professor Cassuto, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

LEONARD CASSUTO: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: And Robert Weisbuch is the former president of Drew University and a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. He's held a number of positions as a university administrator after spending years as a literature professor.

Nice to have you with us as well, professor Weisbuch.

ROBERT WEISBUCH: Thank you. Great to be here.

MARTIN: So the book obviously centers on the Ph.D. It's considered the highest degree in most fields in higher education. You both have deep knowledge about this. You've lived it. But for people who don't know, can you explain exactly what getting the degree entails and what a typical career trajectory could look like? I guess, in other words, how is it supposed to work? And, Professor Cassuto, why don't you start us off?

CASSUTO: Sure. The Ph.D. is the crown jewel of academia. It's the most prestigious degree, and it's designed to be hard to get. What all Ph.D. aspirants have in common is the need to complete a dissertation, which is a full-length - for a humanist, can be book-length, for a scientist, a substantial body of experimental work gathered together and presented to a group of faculty who will credit it in order to give this the highest degree that academia has.

In practice, the Ph.D. takes years, but how many years is something that has been historically variable. Today, the average time to degree can be eight to 10 years. It depends on field. And we find this to be unethical and a human tragedy. We think it has to be brought down.

MARTIN: President Weisbuch, why don't you take this next one? You write a lot about the fact that it's not that people don't know that this is going on, but that there have been a number of attempts to change it. Why has this been so hard to change?

WEISBUCH: Well, for one thing, I think we are all creatures of habit. But it's also the case that academia tends to be conservative. It's one of the few institutions that's been around since the Middle Ages, and that's partly because it knows not to change in any giddy way. On the other hand, it needs to change now, and it needs to change more rapidly than academia is used to, especially given what we're going to be finding in a post-COVID environment.

MARTIN: You're talking very much about - so small-C conservative, not sort of politically conservative.


MARTIN: I think that would be...


MARTIN: ...A shock to some people to hear that (laughter) the academy is conservative. But I will say that political conservatives have been complaining about the culture of the academy for some time in that - obviously, some people just want people to agree with them, all right? But others have made the argument that the colleges and universities don't do enough to prepare people for lives outside of the academy.

I mean, you argue that, you know, one problem is that many graduate programs are only interested in students who are drawn only to the academy, which is facing a severe job shortage. So I don't know. Professor Weisbuch, maybe you want to take that one. So do the conservatives have a point in that they're - you're saying that, you know, academics often are not interested - or colleges and universities as institutions just aren't interested enough for preparing students at this level for lives in other fields?

WEISBUCH: Fair enough. And I think that that's particularly the case in graduate education. If you think about your typical university, there is a career development office. But there often is not any person in that entire, let's say, 30-person office devoted to graduate study. And that probably is because the old paradigm about the Ph.D. was that the Ph.D. is a replication factory. That is, it's an apprenticeship. It is about creating mini-mes.

So what we really have to do is to say - is to start with the idea that our goal is different now, that we need to rethink our goal. And our goal should be to develop people who can provide expertise in every social sector rather than simply to be mini versions of their mentors.

MARTIN: Professor Cassuto, I want to direct this question to you because you're still teaching. And as we said, you write the graduate adviser column for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Are graduate students themselves voicing these concerns? I mean, on the one hand, they have to know that their job prospects are diminishing. What are they saying to you about how they feel about this sort of - where they are in their lives? Or do they just kind of put blinders on and just think that they're just going to power through, and somehow, it'll all work out?

CASSUTO: Graduate students are a pretty smart bunch. They know how to count, and they can see what the situation is. And that makes it all the more imperative for educators to create a system that is responsive to their needs. We're calling for graduate school to become more student-centered.

And if that seems obvious that - you know, it's school. It should certainly be student-centered. It hasn't been the case historically because graduate school historically has been an outgrowth of faculty research, that graduate teaching is seen as something that happens almost by itself, that the faculty engage in their research, and graduate students come along for the ride. We can see this in the sciences very vividly when students join professorial laboratories, and they get their work from the professor's research agenda.

So we have to start thinking about graduate school more in terms of the students, not only because it is school, but because, as Bob was describing, our students already - they have a variety of outcomes. They wind up in a variety of sectors.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, that political conservatives have had their eye on graduate education, the university writ large, for some time, in part because they feel that the university's captured by liberals, and they would like to, you know, shift that ideological balance. But clearly, that's not your motivation. So what is? Is it that you - are you hoping to kind of reclaim the argument for - from the politics of it and more toward what students need and what the economy needs? What's the motivation in bringing this book forward now?

WEISBUCH: I think you stated it very well just now. There are really two main motivations. One has to do with the terrible waste of brilliant students' lives to some extent, and the other has to do with social waste. These are enormously gifted people. They know how to discover. They know how to do research. They know how to bring a major project to a term. They are great teachers. They think outside the box. They are going to be valuable in any area.

This is something, by the way, that a CEO said at one of our conferences some years ago - said, really, why would I want to hire an MBA rather than one of your Ph.D.s? Because I can teach that Ph.D. the specific job in a week or two, but I cannot teach the MBA how to think, how to teach, how to impart, how to discover in years. And so why would I not want to hire a Ph.D.? And then he stopped for a moment, paused and ended up by saying, it's because none of you ever apply.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, a book doesn't sort of arise from nowhere. My assumption is that you've been talking about these issues for some time among yourselves and among your colleagues. The book's just come out. But what reception are you getting from people that - who have been acquainted with your argument? What are people saying, professor Cassuto?

CASSUTO: Well, we've certainly heard from some pretty influential folks who are in philanthropies and also in university administration saying that this is a book we need. And we hope that it not simply gains readers, but that it creates motivation because this is a culture that has served us very well. We don't need to overturn it, but we do need to modify it so that it can meet the needs of this exigent time.

MARTIN: That was Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University. Robert Weisbuch is the former president of Drew University in New Jersey. Together, they're the co-authors of "The New PhD: How to Build A Better Graduate Education," which is out now.

Professor Cassuto, Mr. President Weisbach, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WEISBUCH: Thank you, Michel. It's been great.

CASSUTO: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.