Book Review: The New PhD–How to Build a Better Graduate Education


Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021, 404 pages.

by Michael Nietzel

America’s higher education is struggling with the realization that its training of PhD’s is broken. It’s a system that’s poorly matched to the career intentions of many doctoral students and ill-suited to the job market they’ll encounter. It’s laden with cherished, but untested assumptions, and it’s shackled with prideful, but hidebound resistance to change.

As a result, doctoral education badly needs some fixes, and pronto because its problems are being exacerbated by mounting economic troubles, tightening job markets and growing public skepticism about its value. And then there’s the pandemic.

Just in time comes a new book that suggests a set of reforms and innovations meant to transform doctoral education into a more student-centered, career-diverse, socially engaged enterprise that enlarges the possibilities for students and expands the benefits for society.

It’s The New PhD: How To Build A Better Graduate Educationby Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch, two seasoned higher ed leaders who’ve been on the graduate education frontlines for years. Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham, and Weisbuch, also an English professor, served as president of Drew University and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Cassuto and Weisbuch begin by reviewing eight graduate education reforms introduced between 1990 and 2005, which collectively they judge to have resulted in an “outcome bust.” Some, like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s “Graduate Education Initiative,” were national in scope. Others such as the University of Washington Graduate School’s “Revisioning the Ph.D.”were localized to a specific institution.

Their review focuses more on what went wrong and why these initiatives failed to achieve substantial or lasting results, rather than on the occasional, but still remarkable successes. Acknowledging that reviewing a list of reforms that largely fizzled out “seems a gloomy way to begin,” the authors argue that “before graduate schools…can formulate plans for improved practices and outcomes, they will do well not to reinvent some square wheels.”

The review also catalogues a list of efforts to increase the racial and gender diversity of students in doctoral programs, typically funded by foundations like Ford and Sloan or federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

Next, the authors scan a new generation of reforms they believe have been more successful and therefore can serve as good models for other programs. These efforts share a couple of distinguishing qualities: they were centered in the academic disciplines themselves, and they promoted faculty awareness of the need to rethink PhD training from stem to stern.

Building on lessons learned from these more successful reforms, the remainder of the book offers detailed “how to fix it” advice for doctoral programs that are serious about opening up the preparation of doctoral students for the much broader diversity of careers awaiting them.

First, start with a thorough planning and assessment process focused on “moving from consensus to action.” Use this process to decide on final goals and the means for achieving them, examining what the program’s purposes are and what each program element is intended to accomplish. Make sure that the students themselves are well-represented at every step. Then “backwards plan” to arrive at the innovative practices and policies that a given program most needs.

In the next eight chapters, the authors address how to leave the status quo behind, replacing it with reforms that advance career diversity and recognize broader student interests and opportunities. Several major challenges are addressed:

  • Recruiting, admitting and retaining students who are more diverse, both demographically and in intellectual interests, as well as rightsizing entering cohorts to fit current realities;
  • Broadening career options for doctoral students beyond the academic market by creating a more “socially consequential PhD”;
  • Shortening the time it takes to earn a degree through clearer program expectations, financial incentives tied to timely completion, and strong faculty guidance;
  • Planning the curriculum around a set of desired student outcomes and revising – or even finding substitutes for – traditional comprehensive exams;
  • Developing a culture of collaborative, rather than solo, faculty advising that emphasizes students’ professional development;
  • Preparing graduate students to teach by sequencing pedagogical preparation, supervised practice, co-teaching with faculty and finally solo instruction;
  • Expanding the doctoral dissertations in various “boundary-pushing” ways and offering professional Masters of Arts degrees tailored to prepare students for nonacademic careers;
  • Encouraging public scholarship, which involves communicating and applying scholarly expertise to non-expert audiences, a repaving of “the road between the academic grove and the city of social urgencies.”

In a final “from words to actions” chapter, the authors discuss the steps necessary to translate good ideas into lasting reforms.

  • Step one: empower graduate deans by strengthening their authority and increasing graduate school budgets.
  • Step two: establish standards and expectations for doctoral programs and then diligently assess them and tie resource allocation to the results.

I asked the authors about those recommendations because one recent trend in the academy has been to weaken or even eliminate graduate dean offices, typically as a cost-cutting measure.

Acknowledging that universities have sought to reduce the already meager authority of graduate deans or to remove the position entirely, leaving either deans of faculty or VPs for research in charge, Cassuto and Weisbuch answered bluntly, “That’s a disaster for graduate students…This, in the vernacular, is nuts. Vacancy or economic weakness at the top throttles innovation and discourages assessment—and ultimately harms the reputation of the university. Universities that are serious about their graduate programs must empower and enable their deans who are responsible for it.”

In addition, they warned of the dangers of institutions being overly enamored with college rankings: “Doctoral rankings in particular display a pageantry that relies heavily on reputation gained from the research achievements of the faculty. If doctoral education is to respond to the needs of its students, it should make clear to students what it’s offering to them other than the cv’s of professors, such as guaranteed financial support, average time to degree, teaching opportunities, internship opportunities, and the race and gender of student cohorts. Feedback can beget change. We suggest in The New PhD that what we need is something like a “Yelp for Doctoral Programs.”

The New PhD has much to commend it. It’s scholarly. It’s readable. It’s practical. While it offers many suggestions for changing the culture of doctoral programs, its overall plea for a more student-centered, socially engaged graduate education cannot be answered with off-the shelf solutions. It will require the hard work of challenging cherished assumptions, replacing them with thoughtful alternatives derived by reverse engineering from desired student outcomes to better program practices. Faculty also will need to be convinced it’s in their own interest to re-center graduate programs around graduate students’ aspirations and career prospects.

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