The luck of the draw

In this post I discussed a few issues relating to how graduate scholarships are assessed and assigned to Canadian Masters and PhD students, and what students need to do to have a chance at winning them. I actually changed the word “grant” to “scholarship” below, because in the original piece I wasn’t clearly differentiating. Here is a link to the post from September 8, 2011: The luck of the draw.

For academically ambitious Canadian university students, including those finishing their undergraduate degrees this year and those already in graduate school, September is scholarship application season.

Application-writing is like the unpleasant medicine of graduate school. While the outcomes are beneficial in terms of professional development (and sometimes, funding), the process of application is painfully difficult and nerve-wracking for many students.

Though we’re fortunate that the funding is available at all, the competition for federal Tri-Council scholarships — those from SSHRCNSERC and CIHR — is intense, and with increasing numbers of graduate students applying that situation is only likely to worsen. Particularly after a recession and a significant increase to enrolments, funding is tight. Financial pressures on grad students intensify the competitive nature of funding, as well as the need for students to distinguish themselves from their peers in the ever more difficult academic market.

If financial pressure and academic competition alone aren’t enough, the process of application can also feel like a course of bureaucratic hoop-jumping. I suffer from “bureaucratophobia”, and I always felt anxious having to order transcripts (from four different universities), getting the “ranking” forms and letters from referees, and making sure to correctly fill out every esoteric section of the actual applications, as well as sticking to the technical directions for producing the proposal. I remember being told at one point that I’d used the wrong colour pen.

Graduate students get stressed about competitive scholarships in part because they tend to feel as if they have no control over the outcome of their application; most of the selection process is hidden from view. Our lack of insight into the process can make the outcome look like “luck”. But is that an accurate assessment?

For SSHRC grants, with which I have direct experience, the application is often worked on by students with their supervisors for more than a month before it’s due. But building a successful application is a process that actually starts much earlier, since the first “screening” mechanism is your GPA. Undergraduate grades, built up over years, are an important factor especially when applying for a Master’s scholarship.

You also need time to build relationships with the professors who’ll end up supporting your application by writing letters of reference. Some students now find it difficult to find refereesfrom their undergraduate years, having had little or no contact with permanent faculty members.

The last thing to develop is your project proposal, in which you’re required to imagine and articulate a feasible piece of research that can be completed in the allowed period. Often there are no examples provided of successful proposals. Even when examples are available, you can’t see what the rest of that person’s application looked like, so you don’t have a clear sense of why they may have won.

After the application leaves your hands it’s passed to an internal audit committee at the program level, then to a faculty committee (often a faculty of graduate studies). The desired result is that it’s sent on from the university to the Tri-Council in Ottawa, where there’s a chance that funding will follow.

At the student’s end of things, much of this process is about waiting, in a great tense silence filled by the effort to “just forget about it” between submission in October and announcement of results sometime late in the second semester.

Graduate students fear that the assessment process is not meritocratic. When all applicants have A-averages, when every proposal is of high quality, how are decisions made? Of course politics — of individuals, departments, and universities — can make its way into decision-making that is supposed to be about “merit”. Perhaps your topic isn’t currently a major issue in the field, or you lose out because of the internal dynamics of a department or academic discipline. As an applicant, you have no way of knowing because no feedback is returned, only a result.

There may well be an element of sheer luck; certainly there’s a hefty helping of serendipity, which isn’t the same thing. More often there’s just a long-term plan, a lot of good mentoring, hard work, and the right topic or project at the right time.

I’m lucky in that my own tribulations with scholarship applications have come to an end. And I’m even more fortunate in that I won scholarships for my Master’s degree and for my PhD. I got to see the most positive result, though certainly the process was extremely stressful even with strong support I had from faculty mentors. Perhaps the experiences of many graduate students — anxiety and frustration with the process — point to the need for more specific explanations from the Tri-Council and more advice and support during scholarship applications.

Know your value

In this post I addressed the idea of the “academic economy” (and culture) being one in which we’re required to offer up our time without compensation, a holdover from a past time when more elite students would be attending (and would have more resources at their disposal).

This post never seems to lose its relevance; I see the issues I raised here being discussed and re-discussed regularly on Twitter and in other blogs. I’m raising the issue of a part of the “hidden curriculum” of graduate education, which is that we learn not only to work for free but also to de-value our own labour – within academe but also if we choose to leave and work elsewhere.

The changing demographics in graduate education over the past 30 years should be reason enough to question these assumptions. As it is, those with privilege will always find it easier to get ahead in an environment where not only do we have to work for free to earn the right of recognition, but we’re even expected to pay for the opportunity of sharing what we’ve done (i.e. the conference model). This long-standing arrangement is not one that supports inclusion, and I think that point should be made more often and more loudly, since graduate enrollments are expanding and the amount of financial support for their academic participation is diminishing.

Here is a link to the original post, from July 19, 2011: Know your value.

Summer is “conference season” in higher education, a time when many professors, graduate students and administrators find themselves hastily packing the smallest possible suitcase in order to spend three or four days in some remote and/or obscure location.

Conferences can be a great academic opportunity and are presented to graduate students as such. You can meet others and share ideas, as well as giving and receiving feedback and discovering new possibilities for collaboration. But to be realistic, conferences are also an expensive (and therefore a somewhat exclusive) opportunity. Attendees must pay for travel, accommodation, and of course the ubiquitous registration fees. In the past I was able to do presentations in the U.K. and in Washington D.C., and at other conferences within Canada, only because I had a federal grant supporting my studies. These were incredibly rewarding experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.

The high cost of conferences is an example of the strangely skewed economy of the academy. For many graduate students, it’s an expense that is beyond their limited budgets. Yet there is little hope of finding an academic job without attending and presenting at conferences during the course of the Ph.D. Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour). It’s considered both a privilege and a necessity to have something published, since reviewed publications are another “must” in the process of building an academic career. While we are paid to teach, that’s the work that tends to lack prestige and is not considered as helpful for long-term career development.

What this means is that in graduate school we get used to working for nothing, even as we’re expected to invest heavily in expensive professional development activities. By attending conferences, we pay for the opportunity to present our work to our (future) peers, who are the primary “gatekeepers” to academe. This system helps to perpetuate privilege because only “those who have afforded to work for free will get jobs. The vicious circle is maddening” (Ernesto Priego, July 2, 2011, Twitter).

Thus in spite of increasing accessibility in terms of enrolments, graduate education still tends to be stratified by socioeconomic class (and plagued by high attrition rates). Who can afford to spend time on publication papers and conference proposals and travel, when they must earn money for tuition and rent?* For grad students, especially those from under-privileged circumstances, this can be a trap; and the assumed, eventual “payoff” is now less available than ever as tenure track hires decrease and low-paying contract teaching becomes the norm for an ever-greater proportion of new Ph.Ds.

While all this may seem “normal” to those working within academe, just try explaining the conference system, for example, to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the way academic careers work. My mother has often asked “when are they going to start paying you to go to these things?”. Viewed from this angle, it’s no surprise that the “investment” in graduate education, specifically the Ph.D, can seem like an illogical one (in spite of all the non-material benefits)—or even a “raw deal”, as many other commentators have framed it already.

The “academic economy” I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don’t really do these things (publishing, conferences, and so on) for “free”. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job. On the other hand, graduate students and early-career academics—particularly those who find themselves doing a lot of contract teaching or other part-time work—are less likely to have the time and resources to fully develop their CVs; and as the academic job market has tightened, the bar has been raised in terms of the level of professionalisation required.

It matters how students “get ahead” in graduate school because the most successful Ph.D students go on to become faculty who help carry forward the university as an institution. If the academic profession becomes a “labour of love” for all but the most elite students and professors, what are we saying about the worth of our education system and our concern for diversity and accessibility within it? What example are we setting for future students (and potential professors)—who will they be?

The contemporary university appears to undervalue the skills, talents, and education of many grad students, rewarding only those committed to an extremely narrow track of professional development and willing and able to make the (material) investments necessary to pursue it. Meanwhile, in other contexts our Ph.D-related experience is much sought after. My recent experience in a career course has been somewhat eye-opening in this respect. While all members of the group are Ph.D candidates or graduates, we each had a hard time coming up with lists of our “skills” because we’re so used to taking our own capacities for granted. Yet once “translated”, our collective experience and expertise was impressive, and applicable to many of the most interesting positions turning up in job searches.

My point is not that we should do nothing for free, or that we should all leave the academic profession for higher-paying jobs in other areas. What I want to emphasise is that many graduate students have little sense of the worth of their contributions beyond the logic of the academic system (and this has psychological effects, too). While it may no longer lead to a full-time, permanent faculty job, the PhD is not a devalued degree; it’s only under-valued in the academic marketplace, because desirable jobs are scarce.

Because academe presents itself as a meritocracy, often those who “fail” tend to blame themselves for it. But “pure” meritocracy is a myth. This is why knowing your own value means understanding not just what you have to offer in multiple contexts, but also that you have real choices, that there are fruitful possibilities, and that given the kinds of sacrifices involved, “traditional” academic work may not be the best among them.

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*In Canada, there’s some assistance to be had: students may win non-repayable merit scholarships through provincial and/or federal governments. Some universities have options for reimbursement, through graduate students associations, academic unions, faculties or schools of graduate studies, and sometimes through individual programs and departments. There’s increasing demand for all these different forms of funding, but at least some support is available.