From #whatshouldwecallgradschool titled "Reflecting Back on Grad School"
From #whatshouldwecallgradschool titled “Reflecting Back on Grad School”

Here is a list of skills that, as a grad student at one time or another, I’ve been expected to have with absolutely no offered training whatsoever:

  • Creative writing
  • Public relations writing
  • Typesetting
  • Sound engineering
  • Videography
  • Photography
  • Graphic design
  • Web design
  • Film editing
  • Institutional procurement
  • Professional event catering, with the commerical refrigerator rental and similar related services
  • Conference planning and management
  • Brand representation on social media
  • Copy editing
  • Public speaking
  • Managing a grade book
  • Learning content management systems
  • Advanced settings and features of Excel

These skills are not optional for me. I cannot expect to be competitive in the Ph.D job market without possessing at least three quarters of these skills. Through trial and error and the mutual aid of fellow grad students and sympathetic junior faculty (who know what its like and help in spite of the fact that this kind of service won’t go towards tenure) it all gets figured out, but there’s a serious, unsustainable problem here. Don’t get me wrong, there are much more egregious workplace abuses happening around the world, and enjoy an immense amount of privilege in society just by saying that I’ll probably have a Ph.D in a couple of years. I am not claiming that my challenges are the same caliber that fast food workers and Wal-Mart employees have recently started to fight against, but there are some important intersectionalities at play here. Namely, the ill-defined role of the grad student replaces well-paying jobs with privileged students that can afford to work for little money until they are credentialed enough to maintain a destructive status quo. 

First, there’s the simple fact that all of this informal learning takes time. Lots of time. In between reading Foucault or waiting for spores to bloom in petri dishes, a grad student might learn WordPress or Maya. They might spend an hour in a campus computer lab (on the off chance their key card grants them access to this “non-essential” service) learning the entire Adobe Creative Suite or fiddling around with the infamously incomprehensible BlackBoard interface. Once you develop a passing fluency in InDesign or Logic, you have to decide if you want to keep that skill a secret within your department, lest you become known as the go-to person that knows how to make posters, film a speaker, or speak in the arcane language of the Business Office. Its a fine line between establishing your worth in the department –showing off the fruits of your new skill– and becoming the grad student that fills the gaping hole left from the last round of your department’s staff lay-offs. “Oh, can you order the food for next week’s department brownbag? Great! Barbara used to do that before they consolidated the offices.”

Which brings me to the second intersection: Universities are saving a ton of money in this arrangement. Good jobs with health insurance and a decent salary are being replaced by grad students who are desperate to stand out in a competitive marketplace. Our own job descriptions are so vague (if they exist on paper at all) and our employment so tenuous (its common to not know if or how much you’ll get paid from semester to semester) that you can convince us to do just about anything: we’ll work 60, 80, maybe 100 hours a week on things that amount to maybe one line on a CV and another soon-to-be outdated software fluency skill. This is time that could be spent on a second job (if you’re contract lets you even do that) that might supplement your paltry living stipend. A grad student might need the money for all of the supplies and services that she’ll need to buy upfront on her credit card while she waits a few weeks or months for her reimbursement. Or maybe a grad student just needs to buy a new computer, something that every other white-collar corporate job would have waiting for you at your desk. Or $400-worth of books because your cash-strapped library hasn’t procured a recent title in your field since 2007.

Its the darkest of ironies that at precisely the historical moment that the human race need as many people as possible to parse complex problems –climate change, energy crises, lock-jawed governing bodies, and brand new forms of systemic poverty– being a grad student has become something akin to a feudal apprenticeship. You are at a severe disadvantage if you do not have some source of external income and/or a profound gift for writing grants and selling yourself as a professional scholar. It means that the young scions of families that have benefited the most from corporate welfare and oligarchy are the ones that will graduate into the positions of power charged with nothing less than saving our planetary civilization. It means that the large corporate and nonprofit entities that have amassed enormous war chests will be funding and directing the research of those few graduate students that don’t have a personal stake in maintaining an unsustainable status quo.

Lots of different kinds of people can become a graduate student, but those that succeed are more well-to-do. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “The GRE [basically the SAT or ACT of graduate school] is particularly susceptible to the influence of socioeconomic class. ETS’ own research has shown a strong relationship between family background and test scores.” Men tend to do better on the test, independent of other factors, and outside of any kind of predictor of graduate school success. Race factors in as well, but its mostly socioeconomic. The National Center goes on to note that “When family income was held constant, most of the test score differences between races disappeared or shrank dramatically.”

Socioeconomic status (SES) not only predicts one’s chances of getting into graduate school, but it also predicts successful completion. Unlike undergraduate admissions, graduate schools rarely set up admissions procedures that give preference to low SES applicants. In too many peer-reviewed articles to mention,[1] the most common predictors of success once in a graduate program (regardless of discipline or field) seem to be a mix of race, class, and gender. Even this American Psychological Association article that claims IQ as a major predictor, uses GRE scores as its measure. To which I say, well, look at my previous paragraph.

Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) has written several excellent opinion pieces for Al Jazeera on this subject. Last December she wrote, “One could argue that these problems are limited to a small segment of the population. But when a graduate degree is considered mandatory in so many professions that shape society, who can obtain it and how – and at what cost – matters to everyone.”  She also cites an NSF study [PDF] that shows blacks carry more grad student debt than any other race and women have more debt than men. Cumulatively, blacks have almost twice the amount of student debt than whites.

I say all this after being the benefactor of grants, endowed research programs, and a decent living stipend. (Not to mention all of the cis-white male privilege I enjoy as well.)  I’m relatively comfortable and am grateful for all the opportunities that have been presented to me. I like my department a great deal, and am proud of our collective opus of publications, reports, conferences, workshops and careers. What I’m trying to highlight, and I think the list I opened with does this on its own, is the downright bizarre way the American academy has arranged its labor to the detriment of all. The well-to-do are positioned to succeed in graduate school, but only because they have the time to learn a dazzling array of skills that at one point were the jobs of middle class support staff or the service component of tenure-track faculty. This doesn’t even include the intangible and difficult to define cultural distinction necessary to make it seem as though you belong in the academy to begin with. Or, as Kendzior puts it, “ Higher education today is less about the accumulation of knowledge than the demonstration of status – a status conferred by pre-existing wealth and connections. It is not about the degree, but the pedigree.”

The role of the graduate student needs a serious overhaul, if not for the sake of the graduate students themselves (which, honestly, are doing far better than most in the world) than for the people who would have filled the hundreds of different jobs that grad students  are informally pressured into taking on. Or do it because grad school needs to be seen as and treated like a job in and of itself, not a wobbly stepping stone towards some quickly disappearing professional career. Maybe we could start by removing “student” altogether in favor of “training faculty” or “Professor’s Assistant.” From there we can start deciding whether it makes sense to describe earning a Ph.D as a process of credentialing or just another job with a very peculiar and uncertain form of promotion. Perhaps that would give prospective grad students a better understanding of what they’re getting themselves into.

David Banks is on Twitter and Tumblr

[1] Thanks to everyone, especially RC Richards for helping out with research.