Monday, January 30, 2012

Are PhD Students "Academically Adrift"?

After reading Arum and Roksa's book, I define "academically adrift" as the condition of being enrolled in a school that does not require that you read and, especially, write on a regular basis. Last week, I started thinking about whether PhD students can be said to work under those conditions. Programs vary, of course, but I think it is safe to say that many of them (especially in Europe) involve a great deal of independent study. Also, few PhD programs set a hard and fast deadline for the submission of the thesis at the end. The funding runs out, but the program does not thereby end. This means that it is often only after it is too late that problems in the writing process become conspicuous. Finally, supervisors, who are themselves busy people, rarely actually supervise the work in the sense of providing a surveillance function. If the student wants to defer a deadline or cancel a meeting, that's normally allowed without question.

This means that the typical PhD program is a great place to develop bad work habits. But it is also a place where all sorts of non-curricular activities impinge on the core activity of researching and writing the thesis. PhD students are embarked on an important leg of their careers as scholars, and they are acutely aware of the need to network, which often means participating in a wide variety of "social" activities that do not directly contribute to their project. In some periods, moreover, they are are also likely to feel the pressure to teach more strongly than the pressure to learn. All of these factors resemble, albeit at a "higher level", the conditions that keep undergraduates from learning anything of lasting value in school, i.e., that keeps them "adrift".

What Arum and Roksa showed is that being adrift in this way wastes the opportunity to become smarter. It is only students who read and write regularly who improve their capacities for analytical reasoning and critical thinking. They are keeping their brains in shape by swimming in a sea of knowledge rather than just floating on its surface.

1 comment:

Z said...

What a great post. I wasn't like this in undergraduate or graduate school, but I became that way as a professor and I think it was due in part to peer pressure!