Graduate students

Grad school professors should be held to higher teaching standards (essay)

High standards of accountability for teachers, which both the public and government called for, led to teaching standards for K-12 schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As a result, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1990 and 2013 the dropout rate for white students decreased from 9 percent to 5 percent, for black students from 13 percent to 7 percent, and for Hispanic students, from 32 percent to 12 percent. Clearly, those standards appear to have made a difference.

But dropouts are not only a K-12 problem. Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools show that graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields have a graduation rate of only 55 to 64 percent after 10 years. In fact, the graduation rate for humanities this past decade is not quite 50 percent. Given the significant number of dropouts, greater accountability seems a logical solution in the way it is has helped K-12 schools. Yet higher education has not turned to similar standards in order to increase retention and improve teaching.

Higher Education Critique

Most university retention efforts focus on problems of graduate students rather than quality control of professors’ teaching. For example, Ellucian, one of the largest education consulting groups in America, has said that “early academic achievement is a predictor of future success” for retention and student success in higher education. Nevertheless, improving teaching is never a part of the formula to improve academic performance. The only time professors are mentioned by Ellucian relates to advising rather than actual instruction.

Thus far a major criticism from the students who have left graduate school is the lack of support they received from their professors -- namely, the dearth of help with understanding class content. Students typically are left to tutors, classmates or other peers if they get lost in classes. Many students have wasted time and resources by not having relevant, helpful feedback. That lack of guidance leads many students to change advisers -- to those who seem to know what is going on. Even more just drop out.

Universities do claim to evaluate teacher quality, although not through standards such as those initiated by No Child Left Behind. Instead, most institutions use student evaluations, course syllabi, course examinations and peer reviews. But professional peers -- such as graduate students in psychology, science or history -- are seldom trained to recognize effectiveness in teaching skills. For that reason, only education professors’ teaching may be compared to a list of specific skills and classroom management techniques.

Implications for Graduate School Practices

Successful academic achievement in graduate school has been shown as a key factor for students’ low attrition rates. David Litalien and Frederic Guay, scholars at, respectively, the Australian Catholic University and Laval University in Quebec, have demonstrated that a student’s perceived competence is the strongest indicator of who completes their dissertation. Moreover, the other two significant factors -- quality of the student-adviser relationship and interactions with other faculty members -- indicate that more support and less isolation students have, the more likely they are to come to the final examination with a defensible paper. That means, of course, lower attrition and better graduation rates.

Having specific criteria for a graduate student’s preparation for the defense of their thesis is one way to increase perceived competence. Currently, students are told that the prospectus, exams and defense are a test of what they have learned. Yet that is often not the case. One student, for instance, was told by a professor on his dissertation committee that he needed to add feminist theory when his architectural design proposal was introduced. Because his vision was inclusive and not necessarily masculine or feminine, he failed his prospectus meeting. Another student had to retake the general exams due to her committee getting off topic about government in education, which had no relation to her research in morality. Many similar situations occur in academe when the objectives and goals of the program are not clearly conveyed.

In addition, professors believe that graduate students should be able to write for their academic discipline or field as they produce a thesis or dissertation. However, they often provide no criteria for the field as distinct from other fields. Instead of teaching that, many professors suggest books on academic writing or the writing-center tutors. They often just direct students to work with the “dissertation librarians” and figure it out. If professors taught students how to write a field thesis or dissertation, then students could understand the aims of research. As is, doctoral students are often left traveling without a map.

It need not be this way. Calls for reform in K-12 education resulted in a prescriptive approach which led to higher retention and graduation rates. In higher education, we suggest that five basic skills are necessary for effective teaching, as outlined by Raoul Arreola, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Michael Theall, faculty emeritus at Youngstown State University; and Lawrence M. Aleamoni, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona:

  • content expertise
  • instructional design skills
  • instructional delivery skills
  • instructional assessment skills
  • course management skills

Such skills must be broken down into specific observable activities that can be measured in a way similar to how they are measured when K-12 teachers are evaluated. That would allow university leaders to assess graduate school professors and make sure the best pedagogy is in place.

Professors can also participate in professional development about educational and teaching approaches that they can consistently apply in both individual and class instruction. For example, as we look at higher education reform in particular, students need quality teaching about dissertation writing, along with more time with dissertation committees for constructive feedback about expectations.

We are hesitant to apply a one-size-fits-all type of instruction as part of doctoral studies. But many doctoral students face confusion every day with the current hands-off method from professors who seem unclear themselves. Indeed, in identifying causes for grad student attrition, we found a number of instances when students perceived that their questions were not answered and needs were not met during the process of writing their dissertation. Future researchers must learn how to complete accurate, relevant and original work in their research field. In order to contribute in diverse academic fields, students also need mentoring in scholarly writing. By demonstrating the skills that are needed for research success, professors could provide students with the knowledge and tools that would lead to a higher graduation rate.

So we ask again, how do professors need to be evaluated? We argue that professors are teachers, and because K-12 retention rose after strict standards were imposed on teachers, higher education’s retention rates could also rise with specific standards for professors that ensure that both they and their students attain success.

Dana Ford is an emeritus director of studies in English as a foreign language, and Melissa Brevetti is director of accreditation for the School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Langston University.

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A faculty member no longer advises her students to go into academe

Faculty member Betsy Lucal now strongly urges any student who will listen to reconsider their plans to earn a Ph.D.

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Suggestions for ways that Ph.D. students should think about their finances (essay)

Ray Sin provides a few suggestions for effectively managing your finances in graduate school.

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Concerns about the impact of the NLRB's recent ruling on grad student unionization (essay)

Grad Student Unionization

On Aug. 23, the National Labor Relations Board issued its long-awaited decision in a case involving whether graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University could unionize, resulting in a significant decision that overruled existing precedent on the issue. In its ruling, a majority of the board concluded that student assistants employed by private institutions of higher education can be considered employees for the purposes of organizing and collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. While the decision dealt with graduate assistants, the potential impact on each institution must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The broad ruling has potential application to both undergraduate and graduate-level teaching and research assistants and thus may have substantial ramifications.

Tracing the history of NLRB precedent, which has changed course over the years, a majority of the board reduced the analysis to its essence: Do graduate assistants function as employees as that term is understood under the labor relations act? The difficulty has been that the act does not actually define the term “employee” in a useful or precise manner and simply applies to “any employee,” subject to certain specified exceptions. And while the definition of “employee” might seem to be universal, the board has applied several different tests to define the term.

For example, in a 2000 case involving graduate assistants at New York University, it used a common law agency test. The common law agency test employs the “doctrine of the conventional master-servant relationship,” which establishes that such a “relationship exists when a servant performs services for another, under the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.” The NYU board held that “ample evidence exists to find that graduate assistants plainly and literally fall within the meaning of ‘employee’ as defined in Section 2(3) and by the common law.” However, as one could imagine, the difficulty in applying the common law of agency test at institutions of higher education lies in determining whether the source of that control is primarily educational rather than economic.

Thus, in another case in 2004, the board applied an economic relationship test in order to determine whether graduate assistants and researchers at Brown were employees under the act. Concluding that graduate assistants had a “primarily educational” employment relationship with their universities, the board determined that the primary purposes of the relationship were not economic in nature.

The Columbia Decision

In the recent case, upon weighing the issue of what constitutes an employee, the current board concluded that it “has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the act does not reach.”

With this deceptively simple analysis, and by overturning the economic relationship test used in the Brown ruling, the board disregarded the concurrent and requisite student relationship that these graduate assistants have with Columbia. By professing the legal fiction that the existence of this concurrent relationship effectively did not matter -- or would not affect collective bargaining -- the board was able to overlook the myriad of complexities that will be created by its decision and instead relied on its analysis that its decision would further the aims of the act.

Notably, the board dropped a footnote to explain any allegations of an inconsistency between its decision in the Columbia University case to characterize graduate students as employees in order to further the aims of the NLRA and its decision in the Northwestern University case, stating:

“In Northwestern University, 362 NLRB No. 167 (2015), we denied the protections of the act to certain college athletes -- without ruling on their employee status -- because, due to their situation within and governance by an athletic consortium dominated by public universities, we found that our extending coverage to them would not advance the purposes of the act. Here, conversely, we have no reason to believe that extending bargaining rights will not meaningfully advance the goals of the act.”

NLRB member Philip A. Miscimarra criticized that seemingly straightforward analysis in a lengthy dissent to the Columbia decision in which he concluded that the board should not have reduced it to straight employer-employee analysis, given the complexities of institutions of higher education compared to industrial workplaces and the dynamics of the student-university relationship. He raised concerns about the applicability of the NLRB’s policies and procedures, noting “the best interests of students, however, necessarily revolves around whether they obtain the education that costs so much in time and money and means so much to their future. The board has no expertise regarding these issues, and Congress did not adopt our statute to advance the best interests of college and university students.”

Although the decision may be appealed, given the recent ruling, many institutions have immediately begun to examine what life would look like if student assistants unionized. The public sector may prove instructive for this analysis.

Models for the Way Forward?

The NLRB noted that unionization of and “‘collective bargaining by graduate student employees is increasingly a fact of American university life.’ Recent data show that more than 64,000 graduate student employees are organized at 28 institutions of higher education ….”

That is because state public employee relations boards -- the equivalent to the NLRB for public institutions, which do not fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB -- have characterized student assistants as employees for the purposes of unionizing and collective bargaining.

Citing the American Federation of Teachers’ amicus brief, the board noted that “the University of Illinois, Michigan State University and Wayne State University include language in their graduate-assistant collective-bargaining agreements giving management defined rights concerning courses, course content, course assignments, exams, class size, grading policies and methods of instruction, as well as graduate students’ progress on their own degrees … these agreements show that parties can and successfully have navigated delicate topics near the intersection of the university’s dual role as educator and employer.”

Indeed, if the decision stands, the delicate balance that such public universities have struck with regard to that dual role may prove to be the way forward, but it likely does not resolve all the open questions. One example is the yet-to-be-determined impact of an economic strike on a graduate student and their ability to complete their program in the anticipated time. Indeed, in his dissent, Miscimarra notes that “Columbia University and other parties have identified cases where bargaining by student assistants ‘has proven detrimental to the pursuit of the school’s educational goals,’ with ‘strikes and grievances over teaching workload and tuition waivers’ and ‘grievances over classroom assignments and eligibility criteria for assistantships ….’”

Time will tell whether the NLRB’s procedures are the appropriate venue for resolving the concerns of student assistants. In the meantime, given the success of Adjunct Action in organizing adjunct faculty, institutions would be well served to evaluate the current nature of their relationship with student assistants and determine whether the economic and procedural remedies available under the NLRA will further the educator-student relationship or substantially alter a fundamentally academic relationship. As noted in our amicus brief, very real concerns exist about the tension between “collective bargaining under the NLRA (for the protection of the individual worker through the power of the group)” and “the type of individualized educational decision making that is necessary to mentor, guide and evaluate graduate students on their academic paths. Not only are such decisions inappropriate in the collective bargaining context, the very nature of such an adversarial economic relationship could undermine the fundamentally academic nature of the relationship between faculty members and their graduate students.”

As recognized by the NLRB in the Brown decision, the danger of characterizing graduate student assistants as statutory employees under the act is that purely academic decisions could become the subject of collective bargaining, such as course length and content, standards for advancement and graduation, and administration of exams under the broad definition of items subject to collective bargaining. For example, negotiations over whether there must be just cause for discharging a graduate student assistant will be inseparable from negotiations regarding whether a faculty member can exercise his or her discretion to determine whether a graduate student is meeting the academic requirements to continue in the graduate program.

Such decisions regarding a graduate student’s progression toward their degree and their fulfillment of academic requirements are exactly the types that faculty members must have the discretion to make on an individualized basis while exercising due concern for a student’s academic progress and career -- without being hampered by the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement. In the Brown ruling, the board noted that “collective bargaining is not particularly well suited to educational decision making and … any change in emphasis from quality education to economic concerns will prove detrimental to both labor and educational policies.” (Italics added.)

Unfortunately, such complexities will have to be sorted out with current cohorts of student assistants serving as test cases. Perhaps that risk is outweighed by the harm of the current terms and conditions under which student assistants serve. Where people stand on that issue probably depends on their general views of unionization and the specific conditions of their institutions.

Natasha Baker is a partner at Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP in San Francisco. She is on the Board of Directors for the National Association of College and University Attorneys, the co-founder of Title IX ASAP, and the chair of the Higher Education Council of the Employment Law Alliance. In the Columbia University case, the author participated in an amicus brief filed on behalf of the council.


A onetime grad student revisits previous attempts to unionize (essay)

Grad Student Unionization

The recent National Labor Relations Board decision granting graduate students at private colleges and universities the right to unionize takes me back to 2000, the last time the NLRB ruled similarly (3 to 2). I was a first-year Ph.D. student at Tufts University at the time, excited to be pursuing a path in literary and critical study.

Not long after that historic NLRB decision bore its first juicy fruit -- an epic 2002 contract for the unionized grad students at New York University -- we began a campaign at Tufts as well. The NYU contract had shown that it was possible for graduate students to receive not only increased stipends across the board but also free health care and other crucial benefits. Moreover, it demonstrated that unionization could win graduate student teachers, TAs and researchers respect that had previously been denied them. Professors from NYU were quoted in the news as saying how the new contract was actually improving their relations with students -- that the respect and decent pay afforded grad students was making it possible to do a better job in general.

Along with a collection of other humanities departments, English became the hub of the organizing for our union effort. We went with the acronym ASET, the Association of Student Employees at Tufts, and affiliated with the UAW -- cool folks with experience from NYU and other grad student campaigns.

Why did English become the hub of our organizing committee? It wasn't because we were the worst-treated or the worst-paid graduate students. As we came to learn, grad student lecturers and TAs in departments like drama or art history were paid just a fraction of what we were receiving for similar work, while some research assistants in the sciences were working far longer hours -- 40 or even 60 hours per week -- for little more pay than we got. Indeed, the gross inequities that became apparent when we started talking to people and gathering union cards from beyond our own departments became yet another impetus for organizing.

It wasn't because we were a bunch of intellectual radicals, either-- although a few of us were, and a few more would become radicalized through the work of the campaign. More crucial, I think, was the fact that it was clear to all of us in the English Department that we were teachers, providing the same type of work, delivering the same courses and awarding the same grades and credits that both adjunct and even some tenure-track professors were. The idea that we weren't employees -- that we were simply “apprentices,” as the private universities were then arguing -- was clearly bogus. (I credit many of our English Department faculty for treating us collegially as well, which helped to reinforce the notion that we were, in a sense, colleagues -- albeit junior ones.)

I found while organizing in other departments that grad students who didn't have that experience of teaching their own courses were more likely to be sucked into the ideology of apprenticeship -- even though their labor was just as essential as ours was. So there would be discussions and arguments.

But it was never just about ideology. There were barriers to organizing that weren't mainly about ideas: the fear of retaliation from hostile faculty, cynicism that students couldn’t really change things, plain old workload exhaustion and backgrounds of privilege that buffered peers from caring too much for the fate of others.

People offered plenty of passive support. They would sign a card and maybe agree to vote for a union if given a chance, and of course they would gladly accept its benefits. Who wouldn't want free health care? But for many of those folks, taking that next step to get actively involved was not on their agenda -- they were busy as heck, after all. Many of our supporters saw the union as a kind of third-party representation that would do stuff for them -- not as a community organization of which they themselves were an essential part.

A related and perhaps even greater barrier we encountered was that many grad students had a willingness to live in poverty for the promise (perhaps some imagined it as a guarantee) that at the end of their three, five or seven years of study, training and research -- and playing nice with their adviser -- they would be rewarded with a well-paid, secure and honorable position as a tenure-track faculty member. They assumed they’d become an assistant professor at an institution -- if not of their choice, then at least on earth and in this lifetime.

Looking back, I can see that even I was subject to that way of thinking at times -- budding Marxist intellectual and reader of Marc Bousquet though I was. Thus, borrowing $10,000 or $15,000 a year in living expenses for several years to supplement inadequate pay for teaching was something I didn't think twice about. I figured I'd be making $70,000 a year before too long. Wasn't I "wicked smaht," like all my professors told me? Given that, the six-figure debt load I was saddled with -- undergrad loans from a private college plus several years of grad student living expenses -- would not be too much to bear.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in this. At least in the early 2000s, the myth that we'd all be able to land that tenure-track job still had considerably more purchase than it does today (although even back then those who studied the trends closely knew better). I remember walking down the hallways at Tufts, confident that, in the near future, I would be like my professors, those well-dressed scholars whom I was wowing with my insightful comments in grad seminars. I would not be like the adjuncts teaching the intro classes and sharing offices and occasionally kicking the copy machine in despair. I would have an office all to myself … with my own starry-eyed grad students lined up around the corner.

Of course, graduate education is in various ways designed to encourage grad students to see themselves as the future tenured star professor -- not as the “lowly” adjunct. (Who were those people, anyway? And did they do research or write or have, you know, ideas? I’m sure that they did, and do. But we ambitious grad students did not want to find out.)

Yet the reality was that the vast majority of us were not going to be landing tenure-track jobs in the near future -- certainly not unless we were willing to move to Timbuktu or Dubai. Indeed, to multiply the tragic irony, as graduate students accepting low pay and a lack of benefits, we were effectively -- if for the most part unknowingly -- helping to undermine the future of our own profession, making it possible for universities to staff classes without investing in solid full-time (let alone tenure-track) positions. We were helping our own longed-for full-time tenure-track jobs to disappear. In effect, to use the vulgar term, we were scabbing on our future selves.

Of course, we could only do this because we were all, each of us, convinced we were sitting on a winning lottery ticket -- or, more precisely, scribbling one at night in the form of our beloved dissertations. And we could only maintain that illusion because we kept our distance from those abject adjuncts.

I've come to see this disavowal of the adjunct as a major weakness, one that we failed to take on adequately in our grad student organizing back in the day. That alienated way of (not) thinking cut us off from the reality of our situation, from our colleagues and our own likely futures. It was the antisocial underside of the belief that we had a merit-based path to a solid middle-class life. This individualist outlook in turn discouraged people -- at least at a place like Tufts -- from fully recognizing either their exploited status or their collective potential. We consoled ourselves with the (debt-buffered) fantasy that these low wages were temporary and that our best bet was to go it alone. Certainly we could hold our breath for a few more years, right?

Don't get me wrong -- most of the grad students that ASET was able to reach were in favor of joining the union. In 2003, our committee collected hundreds of union cards and held an election, which we think we won -- at least, according to our internal polling. We never found out for sure, because Tufts followed the lead of Brown and NYU and filed an appeal with the NLRB claiming that we were "apprentices, not employees" and therefore should not have been able to have a union vote in the first place. Alas, the ballots were boxed, pending the appeal. And after the Brown decision came down in 2004 (with a Bush-appointed board flipping 3 to 2 against our rights), they were destroyed.

Our union campaign didn't cease immediately. Throughout 2004, we kept working to hold things together, aiming our efforts at putting community pressure on the administration to recognize the union voluntarily. We used moral suasion, we wrote op-eds, we held rallies. The administration even made some adjustments and some concessions. Stipends in many departments were raised, and some grievances were addressed. It wasn't a total loss.

But it was a loss nonetheless. To compel the administration, we probably needed something like a work stoppage (or a plausible threat of one), backed by support from community allies. But we hadn't laid the basis for that kind of militancy. In our more immediate focus on merely gathering cards and winning votes, we ducked the difficult yet necessary work of pressing our peers to see themselves as having genuine power, power that stemmed not from the NLRB but from ourselves: our social networks, our labor, our principled arguments and our solidarity with other university workers. Rather than dig a firm foundation, we built on sand. Stripped of NLRB backing, ASET/UAW collapsed into history.

Looking back on it now, I wonder if we should have made the argument for unionizing in deeper terms from the get-go, in more radical and existential terms, instead of lulling our peers with the assurance that all we needed to do was vote and the NLRB would do the rest.

Grad student organizers today should not make our mistakes. Even as they surge to take advantage of this terrific legal opening, they would do well to place their faith not primarily in the NLRB but in themselves --including their future selves (those contingent faculty) -- and in their honest community allies.

One thing that makes the recent NLRB decision exciting is that it seems like grad students today -- at least the ones that I know -- may be less caught up in the individualist and meritocratic fantasies that many of us still had in our heads in the early 2000s. Facts that used to be the property of activists and experts are now widely known: most graduating Ph.D.s won't be landing tenure-track jobs (pending major structural change); most university teaching is now done by contingent faculty; most of those contingent faculty, unless they have the protection of a union, are exploited, expendable and often crammed in a shared closet-office. And also this: contingent faculty across the country are now unionizing in droves and winning contracts and respect that might just make being one of them not such a bad thing after all. (Here I should mention the lecturers at Tufts, who have recently won a union and a solid contract, inspiring further adjunct organizing across the Boston area.)

With such long-disavowed specters assuming flesh and blood among us -- I speak as one of them -- a legally rejuvenated grad student labor movement might become something much more exciting than it was a decade ago. No longer floating meritocratic fantasies on bubbles of debt but instead embracing its fighting future, this new wave of organized grad students might just help change everything.

Joseph G. Ramsey is editor of the volume Scholactivism: Reflections on Transforming Praxis in and Beyond Classroom, now available from Works & Days. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Socialism and Democracy, he is a full-time lecturer in the English and American Studies Departments at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he is active in the Faculty Staff Union and the All-Union Organizing Committee.


Columbia U announces pay increases for graduate student workers ahead of decision on union eligibility

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Columbia U announces major pay increases for graduate student workers ahead of a major NLRB decision on their union eligibility. The would-be union is happy but says collective bargaining is still the way forward.

Balancing act: providing grad student health insurance and complying with Affordable Care Act

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Universities grapple with providing subsidized health insurance to graduate students while complying with the Affordable Care Act. Seventeen U.S. senators urge the government to give institutions clarification.

Researchers outline guidelines for ethical use of student data

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Researchers convene to discuss how the deluge of data collected about students can be used to benefit higher education without compromising privacy.

How to Survive and Thrive During the Dissertation Process (essay)

Having just completed the process, Ramon B. Goings shares what he wished he'd known when he started.

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Report: postdocs lose clarity about career goals

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Postdocs in biomedical sciences don't make career options clear, and that may be one reason so many people in these positions lose interest in academic careers, report finds.


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