It’s Time for a Professionalized Research University

The universities that respond quickly to this new paradigm will be the ones that survive, say Gillian R. Hayes.

January 24, 2023
Bookshelf inside Stockholm Public Library
(olaser/E+/getty images)

As long as there have been apprenticeships, apprentices have agreed to work for low—and sometimes no—wages in exchange for extensive training from an expert that will ultimately position them for stable employment. That’s the deal.

But throughout history, every time too many experts saturated the market or the demand for their expertise dropped, the deal was off. Too many blacksmiths in the local area for the guarantee of a new shop to run? Suddenly a blacksmith’s apprentice requires wages, not just room and board and training. Not enough demand for ceramics makers? The apprentices run off and join the weavers instead.

Without a guaranteed expert position to follow an apprenticeship, the craft becomes professionalized and apprenticeships die. People who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and here we are, in the utterly predictable place of watching the apprenticeship model of doctoral education die.

Low-paid apprenticeships in the hopes of a tenured position one day, years of training students in anticipation of some solid research from them before they graduate, near-peer teaching assistants who are often only a chapter ahead of their undergraduate students and have been told to do the bare minimum in their teaching—all of it, dead. The coroner just hasn’t arrived yet.

So what’s next? A failure of imagination won’t stop this train from coming. The universities that respond quickly to this new paradigm will be the ones that survive.

It is time to professionalize the modern research university. Ph.D. students without the guarantee of tenured positions will no longer tolerate years of training with low wages. For their part, undergraduate students deserve to be taught by dedicated, well-trained, full-time teachers. And the pace and quality of modern academic scholarship necessitate expert, full-time research staff. The modern research university must be reconfigured to acknowledge the reality of the academic job market for newly minted Ph.D.s and to ensure that the work of teaching and research is mostly done by full-time, expert professionals—not those who are still in training.

Does this mean we should get rid of all the Ph.D. students or that paying them above poverty wages is a bad idea? No, and absolutely no.

We should still train Ph.D. students, just a lot fewer of them. Training doctoral students is incredibly expensive, regardless of their stipends. Doctoral seminars frequently have three to five students, compared to undergraduate courses with dozens or even hundreds of students. The same amount of faculty time is required for both. In many disciplines, including my own, training doctoral students also includes hourly one-on-one meetings every week, a group meeting and time spent reviewing research study designs, editing papers and dissertation chapters, and more. This level of personalized training keeps happening long after formal coursework has been completed.

Doctoral students deserve this level of attention and care. Training a deep expert should require substantial resources, and this process should produce excellent, highly knowledgeable professionals. However, for all of this, in most cases, Ph.D. students pay little or no tuition—unlike their professional doctorate counterparts in law (J.D.), medicine (M.D.) and pharmacy (Pharm.D.), who generally pay very large sums.

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Even if we agree that training doctoral students is expensive, and that we should only do it when we feel confident in the outcomes, many people still fear that we’ll lose our graduate student workforce if we reduce our numbers. We have heard a lot in recent months about the way that modern research universities depend on the relatively low-wage labor of our Ph.D. students. The stories might make you think it is impossible to change.

It’s not. In fact, the economics are easy. We are faced with a long-overdue push to financially support Ph.D. students for the entirety of their studies at a rate that is above poverty, and those of us in public universities have no state, local or federal funds to support that effort. Even tuition-driven private institutions can only do so much. Two half-time teaching assistants will now be more expensive than a single full-time lecturer. And that single full-time lecturer is likely to teach more and at a higher caliber, bringing more inherent value to the undergraduate teaching enterprise than the two part-time TAs. Two half-time graduate research assistants will be more expensive than a single well-trained postdoctoral scholar or a professional researcher. In short, teaching and research done by trained professionals will be less expensive and higher quality than in the Ph.D. student–driven model.

Imagine if our undergraduate students could have the teaching experience of a small college coupled with the research opportunities of a major research university. That would be incredible. And it can happen with a radical reorganization of the work of research universities. More full-time instructors could create a better undergraduate experience. More full-time researchers could create a more efficient and productive research environment. Much smaller cohorts of Ph.D. students with more support could shorten and improve the journey to a Ph.D.

These changes don’t necessarily require more money so much as they require reallocating it. More than budgetary concerns, however, professionalizing teaching and research while shrinking Ph.D. populations would be a major cultural shift for most research universities. To make these kinds of moves will require the support of funding agencies, rankings organizations and the faculty.

None of this is easy, but it is necessary. If the modern research university is going to survive, it will be through a radical shift toward professionalization, specialization and reorganization.

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Gillian R. Hayes is vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Irvine.

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