Greater Expectations

Recently, a friend suggested that the expectations on her as a PhD student in 2012 were much greater than those placed upon graduate students in previous generations. To a certain extent, I could see where she was coming from. In the relatively short time that I have been either a graduate student or a professor (the last 10-plus years), I’ve watched the expectations for publications and especially conference presentations and participation grow.

Where are these new expectations coming from?

As a graduate student supervisor, I will say that my expectations of students are not significantly different than those I faced: students need to successfully meet program requirements; they need to focus their main energies on their own research and writing; and they need to begin to build a professional network. As someone who reads and evaluates student applications each year, whether for reference letters, scholarships, or program admission, I can also say that I don’t actually think the base criteria for getting into graduate school or getting big scholarships has fundamentally changed. GPA is still key for admission into MA and PhD programs. Writing effective research proposals is critical once you are in these programs and want funding to research or present your work. Realistically, there are only so many measures that can be used to evaluate student performance and applications, so it’s not that surprising that formal expectations in this regard haven’t changed much.

What has changed? In my short time, I’ve seen graduate programs in the humanities grow without either a commensurate increase in permanent academic positions or the effective development of alternate career outcomes for graduate students in these fields. I’ve also seen funding opportunities proliferate (when I did my MA, there were no SSHRC MA awards and there were only regular SSHRC awards at the PhD level when I entered my doctoral program). These two factors have created different expectations for graduate students by creating more competition. Specifically, there are now more occasions for students to compete with one another. There are more students competing for funding once they’ve been accepted to graduate programs and, in turn, more competition for postdocs, teaching opportunities, and permanent positions once they are finished their PhDs.

All of this works to shift expectations, because even if individual supervisors and graduate programs are placing essentially the same expectations on graduate students that they did in the past, students now have to navigate a different environment than before. 

There’s been another shift that has influenced what is going on in humanities graduate programs. SSHRC has become far more concerned with the public profile of arts, humanities, and social science research in the past decade. This has manifested in changes to SSHRC’s structure (“architecture” is the term they used in their most recent revision) to encourage “knowledge mobilization and dissemination,” “partnerships,” and “public outreach.” Translating arts and humanities research into new inventions or commercial applications is rare, but translating such research into more effective public policy or a more informed citizenry are both achievable and laudable goals for a public funding agency.

There is thus a lot more money available now for disseminating humanities research than there was historically. I’ve seen this first-hand through my involvement in a SSHRC-funded research cluster. This cluster has not been able to fund research directly, only the “mobilization and dissemination” of research: so, for example, you can’t use the funds to send someone to an archive, but you can use the funds to send them to a workshop or symposium, particularly if this workshop includes policy makers or community members. Moreover, one of the SSHRC-directed priorities for this funding was that it be spent on graduate students. So here is where I come back to the changed environment in which graduate students, at least in the humanities, now operate: paradoxically, there’s more competition, but also more funds and opportunities for research dissemination, and thus more pressure and expectations to produce conference papers and to participate in workshops and symposia.

In effect, graduate students in the humanities today are being trained to be something different than they were trained to be 10-15 years ago and this is where some of the changed expectations are coming from.

10 thoughts on “Greater Expectations

  1. I think that one big cause not quite explicitly discussed is that the realities of the job market require more from graduate students in order to succeed. You mention the pressure to attend more conferences and publish more papers, and that there was an expansion of graduate student enrolment without a corresponding increase in academic jobs for those students to fill (and insufficient resources for finding graduates non-academic positions). However, there's more expected of graduate students who want those few remaining academic positions because the increase in supply results in far greater competition (you touch on competition too).

    But you don't quite push the point that there's competition for these jobs and *this* seems to be the driving force behind the need for greater conference participation and more publications. And of course, for those who've done “everything right” by gaining multiple publications, conference participation, and external scholarships, and who haven't managed to yet land an academic position, it can be very frustrating. People are seeing that what they're graduating with used to be enough even 10 years ago to have multiple job offers, but these days it might not even gain one an interview.


  2. I think another fundamental change [which maybe only some of us older lags will know, since it was perhaps already unfolding when you were finishing your Phd, Liza] is that the ability of departments to fund grad students for very long stints in grad schools has diminished. The eight or ten year humanities PhD is (blessedly, all things considered) becoming a thing of the past. [The departmental reading room where I now work has some PhD theses from the 1980s that had to be bound in two volumes. Yours probably does, too. Nowadays lots of departments have maximum page limits for PhDs. The place where I got my PhD now has a limit of 250 pages.]

    This has various effects, some fortunate and some not. It's another pressure along with those you mention to “professionalize early”. The most important benefit, I guess, is years of lives are saved … why spend seven years ABD struggling with a 750 page dissertation? On the other hand, people are seeking venues to publish stuff they're writing earlier in their grad school careers. There are more venues to publish in than there used to be [but complaints about the effects of commercial publishing houses on the academic publishing industry are the subject of a different rant], with the result that some of what gets published the world could have done without seeing.

    Also, all this “compete early, compete often” advantages some sub-disciplines over others. If a historical sub-field requires mastering two or three languages in order to be able to make a real contribution and so publications often don't start to appear until after a PhD (especially if it's a four year PhD instead of a seven year PhD), for instance, and you're competing with others who can partner on projects with someone in a psychology department where people start co-publishing with professors as second-year undergrads, your odds of looking suitably precocious are not good.


  3. Having sat on hiring committees several times, I am agog at the CVs that people are presenting. Two things happen. First, all the tenured profs in the room (me included) say something nervous to the effect of “wow, her CV is better than mine and I'm 10 years out.” or “boy I never woulda been hired out of this pool!” Both of which are true, and uncomfortable. Do these people have lives? I don't know how anyone can work so hard. The second thing that happens is, people with perfectly good CVs–CVs like the committee members had on the market, 5 or 10 or 15 years ago–look like hopeless slackers and are quickly weeded from the pile.

    It's awful. I don't know what to do about this.


  4. I don’t think it’s helpful to focus on SSHRC for this transformation: SSHRC and its selection committees are comprised of the academics from previous generations. SSHRC transformations are symptoms, not the cause. These new expectations come from the hold of neoliberalism over academia (and I think it also exists in the corporate world). Aimee and Rachel touch on this in their comments: basically, the new productivity model is non-stop work and this is the new normal: success is measured by bibliometrics and grants. The fewer tenure-track positions, the more intense the competition to stand out amongst the many (we can consider Canada's CERCs to be an extension of this insanity). The end result will be burn-out or exhaustion (as we are seeing in the US where denial of tenure is more of a reality — it's still not as bad in Canada). This is a feminist issue particularly as it impacts women as caregivers as the new structures reward those who publish most (over teaching, community service/building within universities, etc). The market model might be a good way for universities to find a superstar in the making, but the externalized costs are born by the bodies and psyches of many.


  5. True, true. But, well, fun with counterfactuals (fun for philosophers, anyway) … we say that, but we're all well aware that we all secretly believe we would have been hired out of the present pile anyway. The game is different now than it was when we were hired and we would have played differently, and just as successfully, if the rules were as they are now. Or so we think. (Being on a hiring committee is a salutary reminder of the lottery aspect involved in our own good fortune,though. There are 20 plausible candidates in the pile of 200 applicants … only 3 get interviewed and one gets the job. A more realistic self-assessment would be that we'd be able to make that list of plausible candidates if we had to do it again.]

    Incidentally, I'm not really sure that there are more viable candidates per job now than there were in the mid-1990s, when my own university hit its lowest hiring point. And, frankly, the tenure track job market has sucked for decades. The “tsunami of retirements” has been promised for generations, and has never really arrived.

    From my own experience on hiring committees, I think that sometimes people who have done nothing but produce a long list of publications while in grad school have received the wrong signal. Two papers in good venues plus five in questionable ones looks worse than three in good venues to a lot of committee members, I think (and worse than two in good venues to some). We say that we value quality more than quantity when we do merit reviews for faculty, and presumably the same goes for job candidates. [Whether we're good detectors of quality in these situations is another matter, of course.] And except at some very large departments, the hiring committee is hiring a colleague, not just a publication machine, so you need evidence of other things as well.


  6. I'm not sure that people are finishing earlier, despite the lack of funding. In my department it is almost impossible to graduate within the amount of funding we are given (indeed, I only know of one student ever), and the process then gets even more drawn out because people have to take on teaching jobs to be able to eat/live/etc and then have little time for their own work. It seems that this is also fed by the increase need for instructors but not an increase in tenured faculty. And so people are teaching contractually, trying to finish, publish and be humans.


  7. I am interested in how these changes in SSHRC not only impact the ways we think about and disseminate research, but also how it impacts the communities we have. Moving from my undergrad to my PhD I've noticed a marked increased in a competitive frame – I'm not sure if this is about the degree, or the institution (likely both), but I think it is something really integral to consider in relation to the impacts of SSHRC changes.

    Additionally, although i is laudable that research be made available and presentable to public stakeholders and policy makers I worry about the rush that SSHRC funding is putting between thinking and doing (and also that they're positioned as separate). What work in this frame doesn't get funded because it can't be 'applied' and what are the implications for theorizing? I worry a lot about this quick dichotomy between thinking and doing where thinking is the academic mode of yore in the armchair and ivory tower, while action is the enterprising academic who partners with institutions. This imagined dichotomy between thinking and doing is, I think, really dangerous for the kind of 'doing' we end up 'doing' and that thoughtful reflection and theorizing becomes not funded, less respected and marginal.


  8. Hi Katma,
    I'm sure somebody has done the completion time studies, but it wasn't me. And I'm sure it varies a little from field to field in the humanities. But lots of departments have revised PhD requirements (fewer courses, comps, etc.) to make completion feasible in four years, whereas in the past if was basically impossible. What counts as a suitable PhD project nowadays can be less ambitious, the idea of a “thesis” that is basically a few papers stapled together has gained acceptance, etc. My anecdotal experience is that time to completion is down, and I'd be surprised if it weren't true, but that ain't science.

    I think there's more of a class system among grad students than there used to be. Some of the fellowships available mean that some PhD students earn more than I did my first few years as an Assistant Prof … a Canada Graduate Scholarship only lasts three years, but it's lucrative, especially when universities reckon that the smart thing to do is compete for CGS winners with further top ups of the funding. On the other hand, if you're scraping by on $22,000 less tuition, and that involves lots of marking duties, well, completion in a hurry is a lot less feasible.


  9. Thanks for this ddvd, I think you're right about it varying from department to department and to signal that the change in requirements is an important factor here.

    I agree with you about the class system, and certainly there's a funding begets funding system where SSHRC winners are more likely to get SSHRC, and also have access to other pots of money that non-SSHRC holders do not have, such as the top-ups you mentioned for CGS holders. However, coming from York to the U of A, I've been really surprised (although perhaps this is naive of me) at the sort of benefits and support that we have as compared to the strong union at York.

    However, all that being said, I think with what Rachel pointed out as a looming anxiety about finding employment certainly delays the process too as students are feeling pressure to publish, present and be the perfect candidate. This is all happening too, as Terri mentions below, in a neoliberal institution where there are a lot more pressures on faculty members. I think this has led, for some, to a different supervisory model and departments where admin and faculty are juggling a lot of duties. I think this relates really well to an earlier post on this blog about supervision – there aren't many places where we talk about supervisory methods and how to help students complete.

    I'd be interested in seeing what completion times are like, but also in relation to getting a “good” position – I know students who have completed on or close to on time who are still looking for work.


  10. Terri – I think you are absolutely right about the role of the corporatisation of the academy in changing expectations for all of us. But I also think we need to focus on SSHRC because of its major role in shaping research and training in Canada and because its program changes can have unanticipated effects.


Comments are closed.