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Thinking about grad school?

Darryl Campbell | Thursday, February 7, 2008

One of the “Indicators of Excellence” on the Notre Dame website (which advertises its ranking as a top 25 school and a “New Ivy”) is the fact that Notre Dame is “first among U.S. Catholic colleges and universities in the number of undergraduates who have gone on to earn a doctorate since 1920.” In spite of its historical success, Notre Dame isn’t producing future scholars at the same rate it once did. In September, Father Jenkins reported to the faculty that less than five percent of Notre Dame graduates have gone on to Ph.D. and other research-based doctoral programs between 1995 and 2004, the lowest rate among any of the top 25 schools. Statistical quibbling aside – the number excludes those who take time off before postgraduate study, but so do the figures for other schools – the point is that Notre Dame’s graduates are less likely than those of our peer institutions to become the next generation of researchers, teachers, and intellectual leaders.

After Father Jenkins’s speech, other administrators suggested that graduate students could become an “additional mentoring resource” for those students considering Ph.D.s. However, the graduate students who do have regular contact with undergrads, TAs, are not in the best position to be the kind of resource the administration envisions. In the classroom, undergraduates are under the academic authority of the TA, and because the relationship is by nature subordinate rather than supportive, few people are going to look to their TA for informal career advice.

Because TAs have to maintain a strictly professional relationship with their students, and because they have to be impartial judges of students’ academic performance, students have a vastly different relationship with their TA than they would with, say, a guidance counselor or academic adviser. Not surprisingly, there is little informal interaction between TAs and their students.

For example, TAs get five free dining hall meals so that they can meet in a casual setting with their students, but very few students take advantage of this opportunity (even if they know about it). It’s the academic equivalent of having lunch with your boss; you probably aren’t going to have a completely free conversation or exchange of ideas with the person who decides your final grades. The combination of authority and professional distance makes TAs poorly suited to give out career guidance.

And yet there are almost no other opportunities for graduate students and undergrads to interact, except for the 54 assistant rectors in residence halls-many of whom come from the professional schools, which already attract plenty of undergrads.

Basically, grad students are a part of Notre Dame’s classroom life exclusively, and otherwise invisible in its residential or social life (occasional appearances in the Observer notwithstanding). As a result, most undergrads probably think that grad students really are all the stereotypical hopeless shut-ins who are incapable of talking about anything non-academic.

There are plenty of graduate students who would be happy to have the opportunity to simply talk to anyone thinking about pursuing graduate work, myself included. But if the University wishes graduate students to be this “additional mentoring resource,” it will need to set up a way for undergrads and graduate students to have this kind of dialog to happen in a setting that isn’t regimented and hierarchical; only in such an environment can the discussion honestly address the pros and cons of graduate school, and allow prospective graduate to make a sufficiently informed choice.

Until undergrads can look to grad students not just as graders and discussion leaders but as sources of advice or even mentors-in short, until grad students become a part of student life outside of just the classroom-they will never become the resource that the University wants.

An 800-word column is barely enough space to outline the problem, but let me suggest some potential solutions anyway. Getting more Ph.D.s to serve as ARs seems like an obvious solution, but one that might be constrained by lack of space or interest. What about having graduate students affiliated with each hall as a sort of non-resident adviser, with whom students could discuss their coursework, academic progress, skills related to their discipline, or even future plans for grad school, with someone from their department? Or having grad students within each department hold occasional “office hours” for the same sort of interaction?

There is, of course, no single reason why so few newly-minted graduates go on to graduate school, and likewise there is no guarantee that having this sort of advising, or any other scheme, will result in more undergraduates going on to graduate school. But at the very least, it will give people thinking about postgraduate study an additional resource for information and advice, and it will put doctoral research on more peoples’ radar screens. Above all, any opportunity for undergrads and grad students to have open discussions about graduate school is a positive step.

Darryl Campbell is a first-year graduate student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer