The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.
The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.
Milestone at a Crossroads
Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—the oldest in the nation—turned 150 this year, and at the official celebration on April 26, Jaroslav Pelikan, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, seized the occasion to challenge a semi-sacred Yale text: the lyrics of “Bright College Years.” Standing before an audience that packed Commons for the School’s sesquicentennial gala dinner, Pelikan said that—contrary to the sentiments expressed in Yale’s alma mater—the time spent as an undergraduate was overrated. “The gladdest years of life,” Pelikan declared, “are those we spend in graduate school.”
Surely many would agree. Whether one’s standard is U.S. News & World Report or the rankings of the National Research Council, Yale’s departments of history, English, and French literature dominate the competition, while those of neuroscience, mathematics, and political science consistently place in the top tier. Meanwhile, the roster of former Yale graduate students—from historian Garry Wills '61PhD to fire-brand academic Camille Paglia '74PhD, from Duke University president Nannerl Keohane '67PhD to author Tom Wolfe '57PhD—continues to confirm the institution’s power and influence on the national scene. And the appeal endures: Last year alone, Yale’s doctoral programs received 6,000 applications for a mere 450 openings.
But amid the celebration of a history rivaled by few other universities, there was a palpable sense of unease about the future. Indeed, to hear many of today’s graduate students tell it, the initiation process into what Pelikan called the “Eleusinian mysteries of a life devoted to research” leaves much to be desired, and the prospects for the future are by no means as bright as they once were. Those facts were addressed squarely by Thomas W. Appelquist, a professor of physics and the dean of the Graduate School since 1993. At a panel discussion held as part of the semiannual assembly of the Association of Yale Alumni, which this spring coincided with the School’s festivities and was entitled “The Graduate School: Reflections on the Past and the Future,” the dean insisted that “graduate education is at the core of the University.” But he went on to concede that for the School as well as its graduates, “This is a time of changes, of challenges, and of stress. It is not at all clear what the future holds.”
Of course, the School has been confronting challenges internal and external since its founding in 1847 as the Department of Philosophy and the Arts. But its mission has not changed greatly since a future President of the University, Arthur Twining Hadley, was appointed its first dean, in 1892. As Dean Appelquist pointed out, the process of getting an advanced degree—taking a variety of courses, passing a series of examinations, and writing a dissertation based on original research—has remained essentially unchanged for a century and a half. “The heart of a graduate education is pretty much the same now as then,” he said.
What is not at all the same is the relationship between the graduate students and the University, and the outlook for employment on completion of their studies. These interrelated issues began to assert themselves seven years ago, when a small group of graduate students founded the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, or GESO. In their view, the role played by graduate students as assistants to senior faculty members in their teaching of undergraduates entitled them to recognition as employees of the University. From the outset, the University’s response has been that the teaching done by graduate students is a fundamental part of their training as future educators—in essence, an apprenticeship relationship analogous to that of the ancient guild tradition. The University also emphasizes the fact that most graduate students have their tuition and fees waived and receive stipends that boost their total support to roughly $130,000 each over the course of a typical graduate student career at Yale.
The graduate students' arguments have nevertheless become more strident, at least in part because the prospects for jobs upon graduation have steadily shrunk. An informal survey done by the Graduate School itself last year shows that academic placement rates are indeed low, and dropping. Just four years ago, 41 percent of Yale’s doctoral job seekers were offered tenure track positions, and 25 percent garnered non-tenure track jobs. By contrast, the hiring figures last year were 32 percent and 21 percent, respectively. The news is equally bad at other top graduate schools. A study conducted by Harvard of its graduate students who received doctorates in 1995 found that a mere 27 percent had found tenure-track jobs as teachers.
Faced with the prospect of extended service as assistants, GESO advocates have demanded not only acknowledgement of their status as employees, but also recognition of their organization as a union like any other, with appropriate bargaining powers, and the provision of medical and other benefits now available only to University employees.
To drive their point home, about two dozen teaching assistants, all members of GESO, in December of 1995 refused to turn in their grades for the undergraduate sections they had taught in the fall semester. In response to the grade strike, Graduate School officials threatened participating students with disciplinary action, including the denial of any further teaching assignments.
Under federal labor law, an employer cannot punish unionized workers for striking, but because Yale does not regard GESO as a union, and because the University regards teaching assistants as students rather than employees, it also maintains that regulations enacted to protect auto workers, teamsters, and the like do not apply. The students nevertheless characterized Yale’s actions as retaliatory, and took the University to court. The case resulted in a ruling last fall by the National Labor Relations Board that the University had violated federal labor laws. An appeal by Yale is now under review before administrative law judges for the NLRB. A decision is expected this fall.
Precedent would seem to be on Yale’s side. While the courts have allowed teaching assistants at about a dozen state universities to form unions, NLRB legal opinion has blocked unionization attempts at private schools. In breaking with its interpretation of the law over the last 20 years, the labor board will—if its initial ruling is affirmed through an appeals process that may extend all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—not only change the relationship between graduate students and professors, it will also change the shape of both graduate and undergraduate education.
To give delegates to the AYA’s spring assembly on the state of graduate education a chance to expand on these and other issues, assembly chairman Robert F. Yeager '76PhD provided a series of panel discussions with faculty, administrators, and graduate students, as well as potluck suppers with students in their New Haven apartments. These contacts only reinforced the impression that the status of the graduate student has changed dramatically, even if the educational mission of the School has not.
The most fundamental change has been in the amount of time students devote to their teaching-assistant role. In an assembly discussion on “The Graduate School: Shaping the Future,” Donald Engelman, a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry who received his doctorate from Yale in 1967, explained that TAs “have been active for a long time” in teaching the laboratory sections of science courses. But Ruth Yeazell '71PhD, a professor of English, told the panel audience that the situation was very different in her discipline. “In the 1960s, graduate students in English didn’t teach undergraduates,” said Yeazell. “It was understood that most people would get their teaching experience in their first job.”
The 1960s were boom times for higher education, and universities and colleges throughout the country could afford to be relatively loose in their hiring practices. President Richard C. Levin ’74PhD, who was Appelquist’s predecessor as Graduate School dean, noted that the personal and financial sacrifices made by graduate students in those days were “ultimately made tolerable by the confident knowledge that the experience was very likely to have a happy ending—a finished dissertation in four years or five, and a job teaching in a good college or university.” Neither is true any longer.
The success of academic research in recent decades has so pushed the front lines of knowledge that it simply takes longer to accumulate enough expertise and data to complete a doctoral thesis. “There’s a demand for more sophisticated, and often interdisciplinary, work,” says Yeazell, adding that while the PhD program in English was “officially a four-year program” in the 1960s, the “average time to earn a degree has increased to more than six years. In fact, at some schools, it often takes eight or nine years.”
Similar increases prevail in other disciplines of the humanities, as well as in those of the social sciences and the “hard” sciences. But even meeting these more rigorous thesis demands is not enough to satisfy potential employers, says Yeazell. “On-the-job teacher training is no longer an option—in this tight academic job market, universities and colleges are looking for experienced teachers.”
How this experience is obtained and how it is valued are matters of intense debate. A teaching fellowship program, originally administered by the College but now an integral part of the Graduate School, has been in place since the early 1970s. Designed as a kind of apprenticeship, the program provided opportunities for graduate students to develop instructional skills under the tutelage of experienced professors. Depending on their discipline, TAs perform such tasks as grading papers and running the lab sections of science courses. Some of the more advanced students have even designed and taught entire courses, but the primary TA task is leading the seminar-like discussion sections that supplement the lectures given by senior faculty members.
Learning how to teach has long been considered an integral part of graduate education, and in many disciplines, students are expected to teach as part of the aid package most students receive at Yale. However, unlike their counterparts in the professional schools, who pay tuition to come to the University, graduate students are, in effect, paid to study at Yale. Not only is tuition currently waived in more than 90 percent of the cases, but most students are supported with stipends that are currently set at about $10,000 for students in the humanities and social sciences, and $15,000 for those in the sciences. (The former amount covers the academic year only, while the latter stipend runs through the calendar year.) This support is typically granted for a student’s first four years, and Yale has recently inaugurated a program believed to be unique in this country: a one-year-long $10,000 dissertation fellowship—which requires no teaching responsibilities—to do nothing but write the doctoral thesis.
“We provide a lot of financial aid—about $50 million annually, half of which comes from the federal government, and half from the University,” said Appelquist. “And we’re trying to improve this.”
In the past, one way doctoral candidates could improve their financial lot was to teach more. But if the overhaul of the teaching fellowship program that was recently suggested by a review committee chaired by English professor Vera Kutzinski (“Light & Verity,” Apr.) goes forward, teaching will simply be a requirement of most degree programs, rather than a quid pro quo for the stipend. “The feeling here is that all graduate students should teach, but that the teaching they do should be separated from matters of funding,” said Katherine Kearns, the director of the teaching fellows program and assistant director of the Whitney Humanities Center.
However this volatile issue is resolved, observers like Nannerl Keohane, who received her doctorate in political science, feel that these apprentice teachers play “a critical role.” Speaking at a Graduate School panel chaired by writer Tom Wolfe, who earned his Yale PhD in American Studies, Keohane explained that “graduate students work at the cutting edge, they speak the language, and they show undergraduates that excellent teachers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. In terms of intellectual capital, they’re a resource we cannot afford to underestimate.”
Feeling underestimated explains some, but not all, of the sentiment that has fueled the unionization movement, says Antony Dugdale, a fourth-year graduate student in religious studies and co-chair of GESO. The push is also, Dugdale explains, a response to “the larger trend toward the downsizing and increased 'casualization' of the academic workforce.” A union would not be necessary, he continues, if Graduate School administrators would meet GESO’s goals for improving the conditions of graduate student life—and guarantee the improvements in writing. In other words, GESO wants a contract.
That, however, is not likely to happen any time soon. The Graduate School has consistently rejected putting into place what Dean Appelquist called, in an April 18th article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the adversarial economic relationship between employer and employees upon which collective bargaining and the rules governing it are premised.” Instead, the dean has attempted to defuse the unionization issue by addressing GESO’s concerns, but not the organization itself.
In addition to improvements in the financial aid package, Appelquist points to the new McDougal Graduate Student Center, currently under construction in the Hall of Graduate Studies, as a way to address many of the quality-of-life concerns that have been raised. The center, funded through a major grant from Alfred McDougal '53 and his wife, Nancy A. Lauter, was designed as a place to meet the social, cultural, and intellectual needs of graduate students. Lisa Brandes '94PhD, the center’s director, hopes it will become the “nerve center” of the Graduate School. When the facility opens this fall, it will include facilities ranging from practice space for musicians to a fully wired meeting room to be used by the newly created student assembly. Brandes expects two programs under her purview—a center for teaching and a career services office—to be critical to the center’s success at meeting student needs.
Teacher training is currently handled by the individual departments and programs, as well as through a program called Working at Teaching (WAT) that was set up in conjunction with GESO in 1992 and which is administered by the Graduate School. “Teaching is one of the most important—and pleasant—things that grad students do,” says Debby Applegate, who directs the WAT program and expects to receive her doctorate in American Studies next year.
Even the best-trained teachers, however, remain anxious about their future these days. Many of current doctoral candidates are where they are because in the1980s the academic world was abuzz with talk of a looming dearth of faculty members as the generation hired in the 1960s retired in droves. But two unforeseen developments intervened. One was the end of mandatory retirement at age 70, which has allowed senior professors to go on teaching as long as they are healthy. The other was the downsizing of faculties at many universities across the land. (Yale’s has shrunk by five percent in the past five years.) The result, in many disciplines, has been a glut of PhD's.
Some observers point to another cause—the conflicting trend toward increasingly rarified study in the best graduate schools, and a growing demand among “lesser” institutions for teachers who can cover more general subjects. Whatever the merits of that argument, it is common to hear stories among humanities students of several hundred qualified applicants angling for a single job.
Chris Gaj, a fifth-year student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, explains that the formerly dependable path to a secure career in science was a PhD, a two-year post-doctoral fellowship, and then a tenure-track position. “Now, it’s a post-doc, another post-doc, and another one—all in the hope that something somewhere will open up.” He describes the growing number of such supplicants as “gypsy” academics. “I’ve enjoyed science since the third grade, and it’s hard to imagine doing anything else,” he says. “But I’m thinking about a career in business administration.”
Well aware that it risks charges of raising unrealistic hopes in those applying to the Graduate School—let alone charges that it is holding graduate students hostage to its teaching demands—the University is reducing the number of graduate students it accepts. “It’s the prudent thing to do,” says Dean Appelquist, noting that a “10- to 15-percent reduction over the next six years” is likely. There are also plans to reconfigure some departments, expanding their reach and eliminating overlaps with others.
Indeed, “flexibility” seems to be the word that best describes what will be required of both the Graduate School and its graduates in the future. Last fall, the McDougal Center sponsored a program on alternative careers, and, to hear students at the AYA’s assembly tell it, finding new and different career paths has become a fact of life.
That is not necessarily the worst of fates, said Dean Appelquist, who drew a laugh from the assembly crowd when he described a physics PhD who switched to Wall Street as a financial analyst. “He’s doing quite well-better than me, in fact,” Appelquist conceded.
To be sure, a life on Wall Street—or anywhere outside academia—isn’t what many in search of a doctorate had in mind when they started their rigorous training. But Eric Papenfuse, who hopes to finish his PhD in history in 1999, speaks for many when he explains why, despite the uncertain job market, he became and continues to be a graduate student. “I’m here to engage with the ideas of my discipline and learn how to teach and share them,” says Papenfuse. “These are portable skills that enable you to find fulfillment in many areas, vocational and personal. This has been a wonderful opportunity.”
©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org