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Today’s graduate students are not the elites of yesterday

Completing a PhD requires focus, above all else; it’s a long but narrow track, and there are plenty of ways a student can get derailed.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

While for most people the holidays are a time to relax, in academic life the winter break is used by many professors and graduate students as "catch-up time." For those of us in PhD programs, this often means focusing on overdue course papers or on dissertation work, which – ironically – often drops to the bottom of the list when we're juggling so many different commitments during the term.

As a doctoral candidate currently working on my dissertation, I've seen many cases where students "fell behind" or left their programs for various reasons. I also have an interest in this issue because the topic of my research is the university itself, and how it's governed. The PhD model, in Canada and elsewhere, has traditionally been an "elite" one. It's based on the idea that very few people will go to graduate school, and that those who do will have plenty of preparation and support for it.

Throughout my time in graduate school, I've found that this model is built on outdated assumptions about the context of graduate education and the kind of person who pursues a PhD. For example, there's the idea that students will have available four to six years during which little or nothing else will be going on in their lives, and that they'll be free from commitments that take time away from academic work. As more people enter PhD programs, more of them are likely to come from different contexts that don't fit with this model, yet policies often treat students' everyday circumstances as "exceptions."

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Completing a PhD requires focus, above all else; it's a long but narrow track, and there are plenty of ways a student can get derailed. Some get caught up in other commitments like politics or activism, a job that takes time away from research, or a supervisor's project that doesn't relate to the dissertation. Sometimes a supervisor "disappears" for long periods, or decides not to continue working with the student. Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child, or illness or a death in the family. Many students struggle with financial issues that compound other problems.

The more time passes, the more opportunity there is for students to go off-track and thus further extend their time in grad school. In Canada, this is not difficult because the early stages of the PhD, consisting of coursework and comprehensive exams, can take up to 3 years; only once the "comps" have been passed can the candidate begin dissertation research. In the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, PhD students begin their research immediately, and completion time is closer to 3 or 4 years.

There's also a conflict between needing to finish the PhD, and needing to bulk up one's resume in order to compete in the academic job market where positions are scarce compared to the number of PhD graduates seeking work. Building a professional profile is crucial for future researchers and academics. In this sense, not all "distractions" are unhelpful; it's been my experience that writing a blog, which, yes, takes time away from my dissertation, tends to connect me to current debates in the field and to enrich the work I'm doing. It's also brought peer feedback and further motivation to complete my research project.

Are we trying to do too much with the PhD? Professional development has to be balanced with academic progress, but over time there are ever more bases to cover. Students need support to prepare for various career paths, not only for faculty work – but opportunities for this are still very uneven. Above all, they need to finish their degrees, which means finding a compromise between exploration and focus, and enough support to make informed decisions and overcome the various obstacles that might arise in the process.

Melonie Fullick is a Ph.D. candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University.

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