Wednesday, 27 August 2014

My struggles with graduate supervision

Having moved from the UK to Canada, I've now had some experience – not much but enough to pontificate on a blog – of differences in PhD training and supervision. Whereas my UK experience was at the sharp end (i.e. actually doing a PhD – see here for discussion of my various screw ups throughout), my Canadian experience – which I would generalize to North America – has been at the blunt end (i.e. holding the sharp stick with which supervisors get to prod and poke their graduate students).

My impressions of the North American system of PhD training has been marred somewhat by my impressions of wider problems with higher education – namely, disintegrating rationale for universities, the expansion of shadow governance, adjunctification, transformation of students into consumers, rising expectations of new faculty running alongside limited pressures on existing faculty, and so on and so forth. See here, here, here and here for my takes on some of these issues – I also intend to write something about creeping shadow governance soon. What this has meant is that I find the system of PhD training in North America quite troubling. Basically for the following reasons:

  • I've examined, read and looked at a number of Canadian PhD theses now and found them severely lacking in one particular area; they have not had distinct methodology and methods chapters, meaning that no-one else could pick them up and repeat the research (i.e. follow the same steps in the process). They lack reliability, in research design terms.
  • Graduate programmes largely lack consistent research design, methodology and methods courses; or, if they have them then they are limited to one amongst many other courses. Primarily, graduate programmes are made up of courses on the personal interests of faculty. This is a problem. What it seems to engender is a lack of research training (see above point for the result) as well as system of acolyte-ism. What seems to happen is that graduate students enter programmes with a vague idea of something they might like to do or something they find interesting, but then swing in the breeze for the next 2-3 years as they adopt one prof's personal perspective / approach after another until they settle into their thesis topic. Some swing for much longer, however.
  • The reason for this is the setup of the graduate programme: i.e. coursework (year 1), comprehensive exams (year 2), proposal (year 3), thesis research & write-up (years 4-whenever). This militates against focusing early or consistently on training how to do research and then doing it. To me coursework outside of research methods/design courses is a waste of time and should be limited to Masters degrees (saves 1 year) – don't let anyone do a PhD if they don't have a Masters; comprehensive exams are a double waste of time, it would be better for students to do a thorough literature review in their field of research, the philosophy of social science, and methods for that year (saves 1 year since this is incorporated into thesis research) – it's not necessary for teaching later on since it can be replaced by literature read for the thesis itself; the proposal should be the starting point for the PhD from month 1; the rest then follows. I also think – perhaps meanly – that students should be automatically withdrawn from graduate programmes once they hit 4-5 years.
  • There are certain implications to my suggestions: graduate students will have less time to do other things; therefore, universities will have to rely less on exploiting graduate students as cheap labour since they need to focus and won't stay beyond 3-4 years; faculty will have to rely less on exploiting graduate students to do their research for the same reasons; graduate students themselves will have to focus more on their thesis in order to complete on time; fewer graduates will get caught in ABD (all but dissertation) limbo that afflicts so many.


With those things in mind, supervisors need to take on more responsibility for directing the work of their students. My proposals would only work if supervisors help to focus their students' interests and research from an earlier stage, even before applying to graduate school. What I would even suggest is that faculty come up with a list of projects they are interested in supervising, or general conceptual / substantive issues they think would be interesting. Then applicants can see exactly what interests faculty, can decide whether that interests them, and can focus quickly and early on their research topic.

Here are my suggestions, for example, for topics I would be really interested in supervising. Creating this list does not mean that I'm not interested in supervising other topics, it is just that these seem to me to areas that need new research and will be relevant in the near future (i.e. once students complete).

Potential topics (this list is not complete):
  • Financial waste in science and engineering research funding: natural and medical sciences get enormous funding support (esp. compared to social sciences and humanities), but it is unclear whether this is actually used efficiently or whether it ends being 'wasted' on excessive expenses, unused equipment, inadequate graduate training, etc.
  • Sociology and political economy of “let's play” communities: see here and here for limited discussion of this. I think that LPs are an interesting example of Web 2.0 communities and new forms of cognitive capitalism.
  • Sociology of economic knowledge: while there is a sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), there needs to be a similar study of economics, business and accounting epistemologies that doesn't fall into the performativity trap (i.e. only able to study successful theories).
  • Implications of rising energy costs to housing values: climate change has significant implications for many areas of life, one being housing. Once climate change policies (e.g. carbon taxes) lead to rising energy costs, this will significantly affect urban planning and housing policies because certain housing forms (e.g. suburbs) will become uneconomic quite quickly. This will lead to loss of house value which will impact many people's decisions (e.g. where to live, how to save, support for public transit, etc.).
  • Full cost accounting of house values: is it better to buy or rent? This seems to be a key question for may people (those who can choose, at least). What is not so clear is whether one or the other is better for individual's financial security, and in what circumstances one is better.
  • There are no markets anymore: increasingly, economic activity takes place outside of competitive markets. For example, half of economic activity takes place in business organizations, while governments contract out public sector services as long-term franchises or public-private partnerships. New types of market have arisen that are no longer based on price, while the very notion of a market is open to problematization (i.e. are they effects of prices, causes of prices, or mechanisms translating price inputs and outputs?).
  • Academic entrepreneurialism outside the STEM subjects: there is often a policy assumption that innovation comes from STEM subjects (e.g. new products, new technologies, etc.) and that social sciences etc. are wishy-washy drivel. However, academics in the social sciences etc. are engaged in an enormous amount of activity (e.g. activism, popular writing, consulting, etc.), it just might not fit within dominant paradigms of innovation and economic growth.
Get in touch if any of these interests you.

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