Finishing fast is what it’s all about in sports, sure…
July 12th, 2013

Finishing fast is what it’s all about in sports, sure. But it doesn’t work that way in other endeavours, like, say, sex.  Nor does it work that way, necessarily, in graduate school. But there has been so much pressure in the last few years to get students to complete their programs earlier than average that it’s come to this: a relatively new program at Brandeis University that asks students to sign a ‘commitment agreement’ that they will not work on anything besides their dissertations while getting financial support. Speaking of sex, it sounds a lot like a pre-nup. The student promises not to wander outside the relationship with the institution–no flirting, cavorting or sleeping around in other jobs or relationships permitted.

The assumption here is that working on other projects or jobs tends to extend the time it takes to complete the doctoral work. I have written about this somewhat controversial topic before. My position remains firmly ambivalent! I know employers like to see signs of a strong work ethic, and a timely completed program is a good indication of that. But not all disciplines are the same. As we all know, the average is longest in the humanities—at about nine years. (I wonder whether humanities students have better sex but that’s a research project of a whole other kind.)

Since the Brandeis agreement came into play, a couple of years ago, however, 13 of 19 students who had signed on and were receiving special grants were able to finish in six years. Those are good numbers. Of 21 humanities students who were not receiving those supplements only 5 have finished in that time period.

One obvious challenge or contradiction is the pressure on graduate schools to add employment bridging and professional development sessions to their programs, thereby adding to the demands on a student’s research time. Also true is that graduate students require hands-on experience at a variety of professional situations, from assisting in teaching to curriculum development to leadership and political training. These also add to the core program requirement load. Finally, but not least, many students have enormous debt loads and families to support and just cannot afford not working while working on their dissertations. We see this often in my own shop here, with many students seeking leaves or special dispensations and extensions for financial reasons. It’s tough for some. Lucky are those who are debt-free and/or supported and therefore free to pursue their dissertation goals in a timely way.

Increasingly, I want to ask—where are the supervisors in all this? Are they helping or hindering the time-to-completion rates? I know some students would say their supervisors haven’t been much help and, indeed, have been more hindrance than otherwise. Little or no research has really focused on the role of the supervisor in a student’s program progress. We are full of anecdote, but not evidence. We can spout a lot of figures and facts about financial exigencies and what it takes to live and do research these days. We cannot really supply anything solid about just how directly or deeply a supervisor affects that progress—one way or the other. Sometimes I wonder whether all the fuss about money is a smokescreen for what really counts—the moral support one needs to push through to the end of the task.

I heard a sad story just the other day, albeit indirectly, about a really good student whose supervisor had written some pretty discouraging things in the margins of his almost completed thesis draft. That would be enough to put your poor vulnerable soul to bed, wouldn’t it? I mean, talk about a turn-off. I wince whenever I hear that kind of thing because I know that I did the same silly business in my more junior years, unthinkingly being too harsh or saucy with a student’s work, insensitive to their fragility. I learned the hard way, and am grateful that my harshness was pointed out to me early. But what of those who have never learned the lesson and are still impeding a student’s progress with unnecessary criticism or exaggerated disapproval? What are they trying to prove? There’s a way of at once criticizing and supporting and, apparently, not everyone—even seasoned colleagues–can do it well.

Many factors conspire to assist a timely completion of a graduate program. Clearly, steady support and a good measure of attention and confidence building, as in, say, er, sex, can almost guarantee a graduate student a happy ending.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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