Op-ed: Four ways to reform graduate schools

Undergraduate reform depends on graduate school, professor argues

Most experts focus on undergraduate programs when talking about higher ed reform. But graduate education shares many of the same problems and opportunities, argues professor Len Cassuto.

Washington Post reporter Jeffrey Selingo interviewed Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, about how graduate education can't be ignored when talking about university innovation. Selingo identifies four key themes from the interview and also from Cassuto's recently published book on the subject, "The Graduate School Mess."

It's not just about tenure. Right now, most people holding a graduate degree aim to become a professor. But the current academia market is "abysmal," Cassuto says, as professors are retiring in small numbers and leaving a glut of academics struggling to find a job.

Academia isn't the only option, but many institutions regard industry work as "a poor second choice at best," Cassuto says. Schools should stop framing a tenured professorship as the only thing to do with a Ph.D., he argues, and instead offer students guidance on other industries that need workers with Ph.D.s.

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Cut through the jargon. Academic research is important, Cassuto says, but if it isn't compelling to a wide audience, it can seem like a highly specialized waste of time. Schools often reward professors for being published—they should offer similar professional incentives for engaging with the public about important research.

Be transparent. Many Ph.D. candidates apply to graduate school despite the poor career outlook, and the lack of data on what Ph.D. candidates do after they graduate makes it easier for some graduate students believe they will be the exception to the rule. Undergraduate programs often report job outcomes for recent graduates, and graduate schools should do the same, Cassuto argues, along with taking a more prominent role in helping students navigate a rocky job market.

Financial focus should be on students. Administrators can have high hopes about graduate research, hoping that substantial spending will translate into an increase in national prestige. But it "often just result[s] in disappointment and budget deficits," Selingo writes, while costing students in the long run. But fixing graduate school will translate to financial payoff for undergraduate institutions, Cassuto argues, saying that without graduate school reform, "it's hard to make the case for the rest of higher education" (Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 12/4).

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