Another Thing to Think about for Grad School Reform

I think a lot about what needs to change when it comes to graduate school. I thought a lot about it before I read Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess (which is excellent and highly recommended), but I especially have been thinking more and more about it after having read that. Cassuto makes excellent points about what’s broken, how it got to that point, and who is thinking about good ways to fix it. You don’t have to convince me that grad school needs to be reformed. It needed reform back in the day when I did it!

One of the most important points he makes is that graduate schools need to overhaul the curriculum to incorporate professional development writ large. If students are to succeed in any career path, they will need to be taught how. How to find jobs appropriate to their training, how to market their transferable skills, how to interview and succeed on the job.

That’s all true. Grad school reform is long overdue.

I’ve written about this many times before. I’ve sketched out a new core curriculum for grad schools. I’ve pointed out that Johns Hopkins is investing in new approaches to training grad students. And I’ve grappled with how to scale professional development training to grad schools in order to meet the backlog of demand.

I’m still thinking about it, though. One thing that strikes me as a total paradigm-shift that needs to take place is that we need to train graduate students to be able to set boundaries on tasks, to teach them time management.

Here’s the thing. When you’re in K-12, you learn this by default. You have to take many subjects at once – literature, math, history, art, band, PE, civics. And so time for your homework each night and weekend must be divided amongst these various things. On top of that, maybe you’re also taking piano lessons, working on learning drawing or coding, and playing a sport, too. Plus babysitting or even a part-time job. You are required to limit the amount of time you deep dive into one singular thing.

Undergrad is exactly the same. You’re having to take gen ed requirements of english composition, math, and a foreign language at the same time that you’re starting to embark on courses in your major, working your work-study job in the tutoring lab, and being social with your dorm mates and campus activities. Even once you are taking mostly your major classes, you still are not doing exclusively that.

But once you get into grad school, you are taking exclusively courses in your discipline and doing very time-consuming tasks in your discipline. Here’s the problem, though. The effect is that right before you go get a job, where you’ll have to switch tasks and projects all the time (from email to meetings, from writing CSS to helping a student troubleshoot CSS, from working on a deep-thought project to leaving for a required training workshop, etc.) , you’re being behaviorally trained to focus solely on one thing, with no time limits (other than end-of-semester deadlines) . You are trained to do things as comprehensively as possible in grad school. “Did you think about how [this seminal article] affects your hypothesis?” Back to the drawing board to revise your approach. “What about the outliers in your data set? What accounts for that?” You get to reflect on that for A VERY LONG TIME. You have all-nighters and weekends to devote to a singular paper – your thesis or dissertation, and while there are in theory time limits, really one can – and does – spend months, even YEARS on that.

So the result is that it’s kind of instilling perfectionism in you, and setting you up for a major shock when you can’t spend infinite amounts of time on a singular task or project in the “real” world at your work. Other people are waiting on your outputs as their input. Your manager needs data analysis from you ASAP for a report he has just learned he has to present tomorrow afternoon. And academics often try to get out of this trap by pulling all nighters and working weekends to get the task done exceptionally well, and thoroughly, as they have been trained to do.

And while that may work – even in spurts – it doesn’t long term. You’re an adult now. You have adulting to do. Whether you like it or not, you must be concerned with matters such as your household, your significant other, your dependents, your health, your finances. So you don’t have the ability long-term for your work to suck up all available mental energy and time.

I’m thinking that grad schools must not only make professional development courses must-haves but the timing of them matters, too. Adding them mid-semester. Making them last different numbers of weeks than the term to force them to meet competing deadlines. Making them convene in the daytime when their program is mostly at night, or vice versa. Just thinking out loud here, I realize that’s problematic for many (ahem) non-traditional grad students, so I’d have to think through this more.

Point being: you have to do something to disrupt the grad school mentality of I have endless hours to devote to running this experiment, crunching the data, thinking it through, re-running it until it’s perfect, ad nauseum. The work world is unfriendly to such an approach. ANY work world. Even if they land a tenure-track faculty line, they’ll have to teach, mentor, apply for grants, write & publish, attend conferences, serve on committees, do outreach, and advise students, all at the same time.

We need to be helping grad students learn how to multi-task. Actually, that’s not quite the right term. It’s more how to handle task-switching. To learn how to put constraints on their time and deliverables and accept ‘good enough’ and move on, because that’s what any job will require of them.

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