It is always interesting -- and in some cases disturbing -- to read a rant by a professor about the current (apparently awful) condition of graduate education in the US and what (radical) things need to be done to change not just graduate programs but the university as we know it. The most recent example was in the NY Times on Monday.
I do not recognize the university environment described by the author, a professor of religion. It is of course possible that my inability to share the view that the graduate education system is flawed in the ways described could relate to my narrow view of the world but it is also possible that my views are directly related to my very different perspective as a Science Professor.
Long-time readers will know that one thing I love about being at a university is the diversity of academic pursuits. I have a liberal arts background and I teach courses that merge science and the humanities. Some of my best friends are humanities professors..
Even so, I know there is a huge gulf between the experiences and cultures of faculty and students in the sciences and the humanities, especially at a large university. I sit on university-wide committees in which I interact with my non-science colleagues, and I am always struck by these differences and how difficult it can be for each of us to understand the other no matter how much we interact professionally and socially. At a large research university, professors of science and professors of humanities exist in very different worlds.
But there are significant similarities, of course, and that is why it is disappointing when a fellow academic takes a cheap shot, like using the obscure topic of a dissertation, to argue that universities are too hyper-specialized and need to change. We are supposed to be experts at something, and that something, at the graduate student level, can be quite specific. It is not a sign of the horrific state of graduate education that dissertations and journal articles and many books are highly specialized and have titles that appear boring to the vast majority of humans, academics and non-academics alike. Some of these titles even win awards.
Being highly specialized does not preclude one from having a broad view and does not disqualify one from being involved in interdisciplinary research. There are many opportunities to do multi-inter-transdisciplinary research during, but especially after, the PhD. Most of my colleagues participate in various initiatives of this sort, and many of these are organized to benefit graduate education (e.g. IGERT). The stereotype of the ultra-specialized professor working alone to produce scholarly works that 5 people will read is not something I encounter, and I publish just as many articles with obscure titles as anyone.
In fact, many of us live and die by citation indices. One can argue about whether that is better than not caring whether anyone reads our work and whether it is a good thing that we know our h-index and the impact factors of journals, but it would be difficult to make a reasonable case that we don't care about the audience of our scholarly works and are content to send our scholarly works off into obscurity.
And what of tenure? Tenure is either seen as the major cause of stagnation in academia or the key to academic freedom and therefore the ability to be creative and take intellectual risks. That's because it is the source of both and that is why I prefer that tenure live on, but with a post-tenure review process that has sharper teeth and real consequences. It should be possible to create (and implement) a post-tenure review system that is carried out in a constructive, humane way that minimizes political and personal issues and allows for shifts in the research : teaching : service equation over the course of a career.
That said, I think mandatory retirement might be a good thing.
I am not against major, dramatic changes in our universities. For example, I was recently sitting in a large auditorium filled with hundreds of scientists and engineers, and as I looked around and realized that there were about 10 women present (mostly students), I could think of one particular major change I wouldn't mind seeing in my lifetime.
12 years ago