What If Graduate Programs Empowered Their Students?


Lately, I have been pondering about what graduate school should have been.  Sure, I am far enough removed from that awful chapter of my life.  I have taken on bigger battles than I could have ever envisioned as a grad student.  But, to the extent that my first semester as a tenure-track professor has been fucking miserable challenging, I am increasingly aware of where my graduate training failed me for this job.

Here are the questions that have crossed my mind.  Please keep in mind that, even while speaking generally, these questions are informed by my own experiences and perspective.

  • What if graduate training programs empowered their students?  That is, rather than slowly and systematically tearing down their self-esteem and self-worth?
  • What if graduate training programs encouraged students to speak up, not shut up?
  • What if graduate training programs encouraged students to keep their heads up, not down?
  • What if grad students were encouraged to make a difference, rather than deradicalized or made to feel guilty for wanting to serve the(ir) community?
  • What if grad programs prepared students for careers at research-intensive universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, private and public schools?  Tenure-track positions and non-tenure-track positions?  And, jobs outside of academia?  Even if all of these cannot be offered to all students, what about having training available for multiple career paths from which students can choose?  And, without prioritizing one over all others?
  • What if grad students received training for research, as well as teaching and service?
  • What if foundational courses, like theory, did not end where the “classics” ended?  That is, including critical and interdisciplinary perspectives, and the work by marginalized theorists?
  • What if multiple methodological approaches were taught, encouraged, and supported (including financial support)?  That no grad student ever has to look outside of her discipline to find training or support?
  • What if diversifying the graduate student body, staff, and faculty was actual practice rather than pretty little lies?
  • What if more effort was made to retain graduate students?  And, to learn from those whose departure is completely unavoidable, rather than dismissing them as lazy, weak, stupid, or “quitters”?
  • What if graduate students’ health and well-being was considered a departmental priority?

What if graduate school didn’t suck?  What if it didn’t feel as though I traded my confidence, authenticity, mental health, and happiness for a PhD?  I do not regret my decision to pursue an academic career.  But, as I slowly recover all that I lost in pursuing one, I have to wonder — did it really have to happen this way?

I hope my work to make academia just a bit more socially just and hospitable will leave fewer future PhD students pondering these questions.

11 thoughts on “What If Graduate Programs Empowered Their Students?

  1. Oh, Dr. Grollman. You said it. I was thinking about this very notion–how unprepared I have felt, how this semester has swallowed me up a little, and why couldn’t graduate school have been different? What’s the harm, really, in recognizing that the landscape of academia is broad and diverse? Graduate training could be so different and so inspiring.


  2. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for posing these questions. I think we can apply them to undergrad teaching as well.


  3. My graduate training *was* pretty much like that, but it was long ago; school has apparently gotten a lot worse since. Undergrad was kind of like that, K-12 too. Perhaps I am not critical enough, or perhaps I see school through rose colored glasses because the family was so authoritarian. But I am constantly amazed at how many people think school should be a combination of vacation and punishment cell — oscillating between these poles. It is weird.


  4. Now imagine going through all of that only to NOT get the academic job, or any even non-academic jobs! I’ve been on the job search since graduating with my Ph.D. in May and have had scored 1 adjunct position (1 course only) and only 1 interview for a non-academic job. I’ve had to work a number of restaurant jobs just to survive. So I feel exactly as you felt about the trade-off of grad school but so far there has been nothing to show for it! Hoping that this will change soon but not holding my breath…


  5. 15 years after finishing the PhD, I still wonder why so many programs and profs felt the need to be the vicious gatekeepers of their fields. The chair of my PhD program fessed up: “it’s basically hazing, you know.” Another thing programs might consider: teaching their students how to teach, not just do research. Not everybody is going to end up at an R1 – or even want to.


  6. Yup. This is why I’m in business. Grad school is the opposite of what it should be. Infuriating.


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  11. Thank you for posting this. I empathize strongly with most of what you have written. I am in my final year of graduate school… one way or another. I gave up a fine job as an analytical chemist to pursue a PhD five years ago. The difference in how people are treated as grad staff vs. employees in industry cannot be overstated. My advisory committee has given me high marks during evaluations but all other interactions I have had with faculty over these five years has seemingly been with the implicit assumption that I am deserving of very little respect or consideration. The constant arguments from authority (still a logical fallacy last time I checked), the lack of acknowledgement that I should have some existence apart from work, and my wholehearted dedication to following the advice I am given to be “successful,” have taken an indescribable toll on me personally and psychologically. It encourages me to read that you are recovering what you lost in graduate school as I was unconvinced that I will be able to do the same. Confidence, contentment, and self respect may yet be restored over time, but I try not to think about the “opportunity cost” that this experience has exacted from my life.


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