There’s no doubt that the world of higher education is radically different from the way it was even ten years ago. Today, my biggest reminder of that reality is the fact that there are a ton of people who “graduate” in the spring ceremony…actually haven’t graduated yet, and this year, I get to be one of them.
For those of you who don’t know, graduate degrees don’t work like undergraduate degrees in the US. When finishing up your Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, basically all you have to do is make sure to pass all your classes. Once you’ve got that on lock, you’re done, and it’s all pomp and circumstance from there.
Most European systems I’m familiar with involve some sort of exam, and that’s also the case for some American grad programs, but for the most part, the thing that separates those who can move on from those who are still stuck is the completion of some sort of major document. That document may vary from school to school for Master’s students, but for the doctorate, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, that capstone document is the dissertation. If you haven’t finished it, or you haven’t finished the last of the rest of your stuff, you aren’t done.
Of course, there is no graduation ceremony in most Universities for those who finish up in the summer, so those who have to push off a little past the spring end up walking in the spring, even though they may not complete their work for several weeks or even months.
That’s the hell I get to live in until the dissertation is completed and defended. I will have walked, but I will not have earned the honor I’m receiving.
This is kind of an issue for a lot of graduate students, though, and it’s due to the sharp rise in impostor syndrome amongst academics. A couple of months ago I attended an on-campus workshop on how to deal with impostor syndrome, but the only real takeaway was that the self-diagnostic test they gave us to see if we were actually dealing with this issue showed me exactly how much I seem to suffer from said state. I red-lined the test. It was like looking at the speedometer of a 1970s car and realizing that it can’t go any further because there’s a peg in the way holding the clear plastic sheet up in front of the instruments. I probably could have gotten extra credit for that test. It was eye-opening in exactly all the wrong ways it could have possibly been.
Now what do I get to do? I get to play impostor once again and stand in the fancy robes with the velvet stripes on the sleeves and be hooded in front of everyone, even though I haven’t finished. More pressure.
This post may sound like it’s a gripe session, and I guess it kind of is, but I didn’t intend it to be, so I’m going to try and do something different here at the end and change it into a call to action. We need to figure out how to reduce the amount of unnecessary stress on graduate students by figuring out a more gradual way to introduce them into the profession. It’s a hard thing to be in training for so long and not have any real accomplishments under one’s belt. It’s distracting, it causes psychological harm, and the level of competition for jobs makes the environment unsustainable.
I’d like to call on my fellow academics to help change the way we structure our graduate programs so we can get this under control. I don’t know if it would be best to limit admissions or start finding ways to get students working in the field as they’re studying (in ways that make it less jarring than just teaching two and taking three until the end of time). Can we start an internship program for prospective professors? Find ways for students to gradually become professors who work in academia outside of the typical faculty model? There’s gotta be something we can do.