By Elizabeth Labiner
When I asked Dean Andrew Carnie about the impact of the pandemic on the Graduate College, he immediately centered people, not programs -- a focus that he maintained throughout our chat about the future of the Graduate College. “Our biggest challenge,” Dean Carnie says, “is mental health issues. Graduate education typically builds so much on cohorts and the ability to interact, toss ideas back and forth, and find people who share your interests.” The benefits of meeting other graduate students in person are both scholarly and social, and remote learning has undermined much of that. Dean Carnie highlights not only the academic loss of students engaging with one another both in the classroom and in casual in-person extracurriculars, but also the feelings of isolation and anxiety that it can cause or heighten. Teaching and connecting on Zoom simply isn’t the same, despite many creative innovations from professors all over campus. “Graduate school is a stressful time in the best of circumstances, and this just adds to that stress,” he explains. “So that’s my biggest worry: the well-being of our graduate students on an individual basis.”
Looking beyond the immediate tribulations presented by the pandemic, Dean Carnie feels strongly that the biggest challenges to graduate education as a whole include a general lack of funding, and problems of career expectations, and the resultant unreadiness among graduates. “It’s unacceptable that we have graduate students living below the poverty line,” he says, “and so we have to improve the funding models to fully support graduate students and empower them to fully concentrate on their scholarship and career preparation.” He points out that graduate student salaries have not kept pace with increases in the cost of living, and that as a result, the pay has proportionally shrunk over the past several decades. When it comes to career readiness, he says, we need a culture shift around the traditional mindset that everyone who earns a doctoral degree will enter into academia as a professor or researcher. For a multitude of reasons, including poor job markets and personal preferences, it shouldn’t be assumed that doctoral students will stay in academia. Dean Carnie explains, “Nationwide, we need to rethink graduate education to ensure that while we still meet the needs of all those who do want to stay in the academy, we’re also meeting the needs of the many who will pursue careers in other sectors.” He urges a recalibration of values to stop the hierarchical approach to education and training in which careers in academia are valued above all other possible career choices.
Ensuring the holistic well-being of students and preparing them for diverse careers post-degree are two major undertakings, and they neither exist nor can be fixed in a vacuum. The Graduate College faced assorted structural, financial, and ideological problems before the pandemic exacerbated their severity -- but there were also new ideas proposed before the pandemic forced graduate programs to take drastic measures. The two proposals are the 21st Century Master’s Project and the Doctoral Excellence Project. The former aims to create Master’s programs that are designed to instruct students in critical and applied skills necessary for meaningful contributions to one’s community and workplace, while the latter seeks to re-focus doctoral education on training student-scholars rather than viewing them as a source of institutional labor, and by doing so, improve both completion rates and time to completion for PhDs. The intent is to build something better for graduate students:
These plans were actually in the works prior to the pandemic, but the fact that we ended up introducing them during the pandemic created the false impression that they are a result of the current circumstances. What the projects have in common is that they want us to rethink professional training, graduate student funding, curricular design, TA training and evaluation, and institutional improvements on both the large and small scale, such as better recruitment of students and making GradPath clearer and easier to use.
The 21st Century Master’s Project calls for doubling the number of Master Degrees awarded by UArizona by 2024, expanding the programs offered and improving the curricula to better reflect the needs of students. Meanwhile, the multifaceted proposal for the Doctoral Excellence Project calls for re-evaluating cohort sizes -- but not in the way that pandemic has forced upon us. “What we’re seeing right now is a crisis response, and shouldn’t be taken as a permanent plan for how we want to structure graduate programs,” Dean Carnie assures us. “In these proposals, we’re absolutely not saying to drop from cohorts of ten to two, but rather admitting one less person per year than is currently standard, or admitting the same number of students but switching to a model of only admitting a new cohort every other year.” Advising scaling back on the number of doctoral students admitted isn’t about saving money, he explains, but rather reallocating the same amount of money (or, ideally, more money) so that each student is better supported. Further, each student can then receive better faculty support and mentorship, which in turn will aid in the ability to earn one’s degree in a timely manner and be as prepared as possible for the job market, regardless of the particular career the graduate is seeking.
Dean Carnie explicitly rejects the notion of a one-size fits all approach:
I want to be clear: this is not a single plan for the Graduate College, but rather a starting point for each program to figure out what will work best for them to improve the conditions and outcomes for graduate students. These are not mandates from above, but rather a set of goals and best practices. They are meant to guide programs in making their own decisions. Our main goal, and the most important element to us, is to make sure that our grads are successful and healthy in all areas, in order to set them up for successful, flourishing lives.
The plans are still in the early stages, but it is certainly good to see the roadmap for where and how the Graduate College hopes to progress in the coming years.