The Formation of Scholars

There's an article in today's Chronicle about the forthcoming Carnegie Foundation report entitled The Formation of Scholars, which argues that PhD-granting departments and programs aren't adequately preparing doctoral students for the challenges of conducting top-quality research today. The article doesn't explain how preparation or education in research was measured, across many different fields and disciplines, but some of the general points seem applicable to many areas:
The solution is not to add more requirements and components to doctoral education, say the study's authors, but to investigate whether many of the traditions that have grown up within academe still serve their intended purpose. The authors question many conventions taken for granted in doctoral education, such as qualifying examinations, program requirements, and even the doctoral dissertation. Many of the origins and purposes of those practices are opaque or forgotten, they argue, and continue only through force of habit.

That "force of habit" is a real obstacle to change. My own department has been through several bitter fights about proposed changes to our PhD program, which tend to pit generations of scholars against each other, most of us arguing for whatever methods and formats trained us. So if you passed a 6-field comprehensive exam, that's what you think every student should do. If you took orals, or defended each chapter of your dissertation separately, you tend to think that's the way it should be.

What's especially pernicious within my own department, and within the field generally, is the way that institutional hierarchies get mapped onto program requirements. Thus if an Ivy department required all of its doctoral students to stand on their heads while reciting the first page of their dissertation, then other departments would eventually take this method as the accepted mode of examination. Faculty are often caught between the real identity and projected fantasy identity of their own department ("we are a fourth rank research school but we want to be second rank") as well as their own internalized professional ranking, which is frequently calculated using PhD institution and number of publications as factors ("I'm a first-rank PhD with the median number of publications for graduates of my program with x numbers of years in the profession").

These hierarchies -- real and imagined -- are also involved in how we envision the futures of our own doctoral students and how we train them. In my experience of an R1 doctoral program, we were never explicitly instructed in research or professionalization. It was assumed that we were able to figure it out along the way. This meant those with good mentors figured it out sooner; the rest of us developed our own various compensatory strategies. I'm currently teaching at an R4 university, where we know we need to teach our students a lot of things they probably didn't get in their previous BA programs. Yet many of our faculty (most educated at R1s) believe one "shouldn't have" to tell students how to do basic research.

I'll be interested to see how or if this forthcoming report affects our institutional and professional conversations about graduate education.