Graduate students

Graduate students and faculty at U. of Minnesota pilot new, ongoing program review process

Smart Title: 

Seeking to supplement traditional forms of graduate program assessment, U. of Minnesota pilots an approach that asks key questions about students' needs and goals.

Temple University faces scrutiny over rejection of African-American studies department's choice as chair

Smart Title: 

Temple was the first institution to offer a doctorate in African-American studies and has seen heated debates over the discipline's direction. The rejection of the department's choice as chair has set off a new controversy.

NRC report calls for greater investment and improved efficiency for research universities

Smart Title: 

U.S. research universities' global dominance will be threatened in coming years unless governments invest more and universities become more efficient and better educate under-represented groups, according to new National Research Council report.

New analysis shows high debt levels for some humanities Ph.D.s and no debt for others

Smart Title: 

Some doctorate earners emerge with high levels of debt, while a growing number have none. For a plurality, teaching assistantships are top source of revenue, but that's not the case for most other disciplines.

Report finds many graduate students are stressed about finances

Smart Title: 

Many have fears about meeting monthly obligations, study finds.

Should graduate students with disabilities disclose them in job interviews? (essays)

Category: 

When graduate students are searching for jobs, should they disclose any disabilities they may have? Sue Levine explores the question.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Topic: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
iStock/J-Elgaard
Image Size: 

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.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/imilian
Multiple Authors: 

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.

Job Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

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.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
istock/mamphotography

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.

Section: 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Graduate students
Back to Top