Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 1)

Image source: PHD Comics.

Image source: PHD Comics.

In this anonymous guest post, the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, offering a few suggestions to vastly improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the second part of their essay here!

Stuck In The Past (Part I)

As soon as someone learns that I have a Master’s degree, invariably they will ask why I don’t have a PhD. Depending on the situation – and who’s asking – my answer varies. In truth, there are many reasons; some are personal and I don’t share those readily. The rest…well, that’s why I’m writing these posts.

Since I’m writing this post anonymously, I’m aware that I need to establish some sort of credibility with you. My Master’s degree is in a field that falls under the broad “Arts & Humanities” heading, from a nationally respected institution. Not quite Ivy League level, but many from my cohort went on to top-rated programs in our field. I completed several semesters of coursework in a PhD program in a slightly different field (also in Arts & Humanities) at the same institution. Leaving the PhD program was my choice: I had a perfectly acceptable GPA, a dissertation topic, and funding. In other words, I was not asked to leave nor did I fail out. That matters, if for no other reason than to reinforce that leaving was my choice. You’re asking yourself, why, then, did I leave? And why haven’t I tried a different program or university? In this two-part post, I look at some of the reasons for my decision not to finish the PhD.

Comprehensive exams

Source: iupac.org.

Source: iupac.org.

Comprehensive exams is the first reason that comes to mind for choosing to leave my doctoral program. In both fields of study in which I have participated, the exams have been described (verbally by students who have gone through them, instructors in passing, and in written departmental manuals) as a multi-day exercise in writing detailed answers to questions formulated by the student’s dissertation committee. Any topic within the field is considered “fair game” for inclusion in the questions, even if it is outside of the student’s primary or secondary areas of research. Depending on the department and dissertation committee members, students may or may not be allowed to use a handful of index cards they’ve prepared ahead of time for reference. Students are expected to prepare for these exams more or less on their own, without much guidance from advisors on how to direct their study. I am aware that the format I have described may be specific to the academic disciplines in which I’ve studied, and so my comments should be read as talking about that particular model of, or approach to, comprehensive exams.

Yes, I’ve had people laugh and look at me incredulously when I list comprehensive exams as a leading reason for my disinterest in pursuing a PhD. Surely, they say, you’ve spent how many years in higher education and you’re afraid of a few exams? No. I am not afraid of them. I think they are a pointless exercise, a waste of time, and a throwback to a much earlier model of education. When I’ve expressed this opinion, the person with whom I’m speaking generally tries to convince me otherwise. I’m reasonably open-minded. If you could come up with a valid reason or purpose for comprehensive exams – that is, not some variation on “it’s tradition” or “it’s the best measurement of knowledge” (both of which make me think the exercise is a thinly-veiled form of academic hazing) – I’ll listen. No one has yet been able to convince me.

While each discipline and program handles comprehensive exams differently, in my experience there appear to be at least two common components: one semester (or more) of intensive reading, and multiple days of writing essays in response to exam questions crafted by the student’s dissertation committee members. It’s rumored that some professors purposefully choose obscure points on which to base their questions as a way of really “testing” the student’s knowledge. It’s optimistic of me to hope those rumors are the university version of an urban legend.

There are a couple of things to consider about comprehensive exams. First, there are costs to the student. I’m referring to not only the literal, financial cost to the student – as funding becomes more scarce, how many PhD students are taking out loans to cover their expenses during the semester(s) spent reading? Further, what about the psychological health effects stemming from the stress and pressure of trying to prepare for these exams? The student has already demonstrated their “value” to the program and field in a number of ways before they get to the point of taking exams through coursework, teaching assistantships, research grants, presenting at conferences, and so on. What functional purpose does it serve to insist that the student must then spend months preparing for the grueling ordeal of writing essay after essay that will most likely never be used for anything else? What does that demonstrate?

In case you think that I am merely a disgruntled former graduate student, let me propose an alternative:

If you, as the student’s dissertation committee chair or member, think that the student absolutely must read [insert list of 300+ books here] before being able to move on to the next stage in the PhD process, I’ll accept that for the moment. Instead of testing the student on the supposed knowledge gained by trying to absorb that much information in a short period of time, what if the student is required to write a one page (500-700 word) summary of each reading, which would then be reviewed in a meeting between the student and advisor? (This might have the pleasant side effect of trimming the reading list rather substantially.) In this summary, the student is required to identify the author’s thesis and main arguments, then provide a short commentary on the work (i.e. the student agrees or disagrees for x reason, thus-and-such was well argued or poorly argued, etc.). If putting scholars, trends, or ideas in dialog is part of the purpose of the exam, then divide the readings into thematic units and after each unit is finished, have the student summarize the school of thought, trend, or theme.

The purpose of having the student and advisor meet about each reading is to guarantee that the student has acquired the necessary information. A secondary purpose is to make sure the student is doing the reading and summary-writing. Once the meeting to review the readings is done, the student puts the summary into a folder (digital or physical) to be kept for later reference. That way, five years down the road when the book comes up as potentially useful for a new research project or preparing to teach a course, the student can refer back to the summary. In fact, this is a strategy that could be incorporated into all graduate-level courses, to better prepare the student for the task that lies ahead.

My suggestion isn’t perfect. It still requires a great deal of time investment by the student and committee members. But this alternative approach accomplishes the overall goal of holding student accountable for necessary concepts and material, while honing the student’s reading and critical thinking skills.

I can’t help but wonder, though, what the point of multiple semester of coursework is if there is still a list of several hundred books and articles the student must read on top of what has already been required along the way.

Funding

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I received tuition credits, a monthly stipend, and health insurance as part of my doctoral program’s funding package. However, many of my fellow doctoral students were not so lucky, and I was not one of the lucky ones to receive funding during my master’s degree work. I know entirely too many graduate students who are mired in debt from their programs.

I discovered that even with my generous doctoral funding package there were many things it did not cover. Language study is a perfect example. My graduate programs required fourth semester proficiency in languages standard to the field, as well as additional languages relevant to my research. Because I tested out of my undergraduate university’s language requirement coming out of high school (something I’m not sure would happen now), I did not have a fourth semester of language on my undergraduate transcript. As far as the graduate programs were concerned, nothing on my transcript equated to not “having” the language. Graduate students, in theory, had the option to take an exam to demonstrate language proficiency instead of taking undergraduate language courses. When I attempted to pursue that option, I found that it was an option on paper only. Since I did not want to make waves (as asking about the option generated enough waves), I opted to take the required language courses.

For the language that I had previously studied, I was able to take the fourth semester as an online course through a community college for a fraction of what it would have cost to take it at my university. For another language – one that I had to start from the beginning – I was lucky enough to unofficially sit in on the first and second semesters that were being taught by a fellow graduate student who understood my predicament. Since I didn’t need the credits for those courses on my transcript, it wasn’t a problem. Had I continued in the graduate program, though, I would have had to register and pay full tuition for the third and fourth semesters. (At the time, those two courses alone would have cost around $10,000. Since graduate tuition credits only apply to graduate courses, I would have been responsible for that entire amount.) The best that the university could offer was to help me find a private tutor whom I would have had to pay entirely out of pocket. And, since I wasn’t taking courses at the university, how would I have demonstrated fourth semester proficiency…? Perhaps I was naive prior to starting graduate school, but these were things I had never considered.

As an aside, I discovered after I was accepted into the PhD program that a language necessary for one of my areas of interest wasn’t taught at the university. This narrowed my options for dissertation topics, and shaped my subsequent studies in the program. (Why didn’t I check if the language was available ahead of time? As it happens, I had checked and the language was listed. It was only after I arrived on campus that I discovered it wasn’t being taught anymore.)

Unlike the above section on comprehensive exams, I don’t have a suggestion for fixing the lack-of-funding problem in the arts and humanities. All I can say is: faculty, be aware of what impact departmental requirements have on your students. It would also help for written program descriptions to specify that language study is not covered by departmental funding, grants, or assistantships, and that students will need to either demonstrate that the requirements have been filled prior to beginning the program, or that they will need to seek alternative funding sources specifically for language study.

Teaching Preparation

Another reason I was dissatisfied with my graduate education is related to the funding issue: preparation to be a teacher. My undergraduate university was small enough that I never experienced a teaching assistant or graduate assistant from the student perspective. Before I started graduate school, I expected that the main purpose of a teaching assistantship (or TA positions) is to train graduate students in all the aspects of being a college-level instructor.

As I mentioned previously, I was not fortunate enough to receive a teaching assistantship for my MA program. However, my PhD funding included a teaching assistantship. My comments about teaching assistantships should be read as what I’ve experienced and not as a blanket statement about how funding is handled across the board – I know that each department handles assignments differently.

As the start of my first semester in the PhD program approached, I was getting nervous. I’d had no contact from the department regarding my teaching assignment; it wasn’t until the blur of orientation that I discovered that I would be the sole TA for an upper-level undergraduate course with about seventy-five students. (Another semester, I was sole TA for a class of almost 100 students.) By the time I left the doctoral program, I had been a TA for several courses. Each professor required something different: one professor didn’t care whether I attended the course sessions, but wanted me to grade and keep track of attendance; another professor insisted that I attend every session of the course, keep track of attendance, grade, and teach occasionally when the professor was out of town; a third professor had all of those requirements, and asked me to lead periodic study sessions for the students. My point is not that these tasks were unreasonable or onerous, but that there was no consistency within the department. Nor was there much (or any) guidance when it came to grading. This caused no end of problems. For example, I was often tasked with covering more material than the professor usually covered in a single class session when I was required to teach. Simply being a TA, which varied from course to course, was my sole form of teaching preparation.

There is something terribly wrong with this model. Teaching is the primary means by which people with their PhDs earn a living. Why, then, do PhD programs do so little to prepare students to be effective teachers? It is not only a disservice to the graduate students, but also to the students they teach. Some universities have teacher training sessions for graduate students. While a good start, these are often not enough. In terms of some of the more mundane aspects of teaching, my assistantship taught me those things. What was not taught were what I consider the more important aspects of teaching, namely, how to structure a course (from selecting a topic through selecting readings and assignments), how to craft an effective lecture or seminar session, how to evaluate student progress, and most critically, ways of keeping students engaged. In theory, a graduate student would be in a position to learn a great deal from the professors with whom they worked since each professor has their own approach and teaching style.

My suggestion here is to rethink the current teaching assistantship model (wherein the graduate student does little more than grade, track attendance, and lead the occasional lecture) and restructure it to be a teaching partnership. After the graduate student has been a teaching assistant for at least one semester (following an established set of departmental guidelines for what is required of teaching assistants, of course), the student would be assigned to teach an undergraduate course in partner with a professor. The graduate student would be involved in each stage of course preparation and execution: crafting the syllabus and choosing readings, teaching the course, leading study sessions, and grading, all under the direct supervision of the professor. An additional semester following this model would allow the grad student to take the lead in planning and teaching the course. And, ideally the two courses should be different types – for example, the first a lecture course, and the second a seminar.

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Thus far, I’ve talked about aspects of graduate school that I found dissatisfactory in my experience as a student. In all honesty, I can’t say that the thought of writing a couple of hundred summaries on readings is vastly more appealing than taking comprehensive exams. However, with the changes I’ve suggested, there would be less stress, more engagement between faculty mentor and student, and a tangible outcome in the form of summaries that can be referenced later. The purpose of these posts is to suggest possible changes working within the current structure rather than proposing an entirely new structure for graduate education. I frequently consider what my ideal PhD program would entail if I wasn’t bound by the existing framework of coursework-exams-dissertation. That is a much longer question to tackle, so I have chosen not to go down that path here.

In the second part of this series, I consider three additional ways in which PhD programs (in my fields) do not adequately prepare students for a career in academia.

3 thoughts on “Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 1)

  1. I pretty much agree with most of what you mention here, but I come from a different system, where no one encourages or tests comprehensive knowledge. So in answer to your challenge to come up with a valid reason or purpose, I offer: “Reasons that I *wish* I had comprehensive exams”

    They give the student an incentive to know entire fields well, instead of narrow fields very, very well, which can profoundly influence both the direction and depth of research. They prove that a student has natural aptitude for intellectual inquiry – good memory, passion and dedication, intelligence, determination – and push students to test their skills as far as possible. Further, those 500 word summaries you speak or are what the student SHOULD be doing to prepare for the comprehensive exams, anyway, as a method of study, so I assume most students doing the comp. exams have those notes anyway, and should be organised enough to file them without wasting the time of academics, who ideally should be paid to think and engage in academic discourse, not read student summaries on books they already know. Essentially, though a trial by fire, it introduces students to academic discourse and debate at the highest level.

    What you suggest is just rote learning, it’s not critical engagement. It’s not linking theoretically disparate concepts together. It’s not analysing or assessing different approaches… all of these things should be basics for PhD, and note taking and summaries should be a given, no need to assess… I don’t see how such basic work hones critical thinking skills, because it’s not active or adaptive – it is not responsive to ongoing debates or novel questions.

    Essentially, yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it sounds like it can be unfair and so should probably be conducted in a more structured fashion. But reading hundreds of books and up to thousands of articles should be par for a PhD course. If students can’t do that, then give them more time (And funding. HA).- or consider whether they really are good enough. I don’t believe that knowledge acquisition could ever be a waste (although admittedly in the current climate people view PhD’s as a task to complete, not a recognition of knowledge).

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    • From Anonymous:

      Thank you for your perspective, Derp! I certainly hadn’t encountered anyone who wished they’d had comprehensive exams before.

      As to your first point – to “give the student an incentive to know entire fields well, instead of narrow fields very, very well” – don’t you think that by the time someone gets to a PhD program, especially to the point of finishing their coursework and preparing to start the dissertation, the student has the incentive to learn? Also, most PhD programs still require a Master’s degree; is it unreasonable to expect that between two to three years of coursework for the Master’s degree, and an equal number of semesters of doctoral level coursework, a student would have been exposed to the important literature in their field? In other words, what’s the purpose of four to six semesters of coursework if that doesn’t sufficiently expose the student to their field and ‘force’ them to engage in critical debate with their classmates?

      Perhaps the idea of the summaries I mention sound like a given to you, or a rote task. Neither of my programs “taught” this or required it. Occasionally, a professor might include a one or two page summary on a reading as a course requirement, but it was far from consistent or useful in the long term. And, even if a PhD program operates under the assumption that students have learned this in their previous graduate work, what if they haven’t? Where is a student supposed to learn this if it’s never taught?

      I strongly disagree that discussing the summaries with the student’s faculty mentor is a waste of time. Maybe my original remarks weren’t clear. The purpose, in my mind, of the discussion between student and faculty is to have what you term “academic discourse and debate at the highest level.” The idea of a student reading group has occurred to me as well, but there still needs to be involvement on the part of the faculty, who have the experience to guide a discussion to make it productive.

      If the idea of short, written responses to each reading – what I’m calling summaries – seems to lack difficulty or engagement with the student’s field(s), surely there’s a more beneficial way for students to demonstrate their knowledge than an intense (and condensed) period of written examinations? If you were to replace comprehensive exams entirely, what ‘task’ would demonstrate the same level of knowledge?

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