On Managing the Graduate Student Workload

My summer was pretty relaxed and now the semester is in full swing. I am currently taking three classes, editing a project for peer review, writing a conference paper, working with colleagues to (re)launch a graduate student journal, and teaching an undergraduate course. I also have personal obligations. Yet, by and large, I loved being a graduate student. Despite the feeling of being on call 24/7, I am very happy.

I worked for 5 years in between finishing my Masters and beginning a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and I much prefer the graduate student schedule to a full time work schedule. When you work full time for, in my case, a non-profit organization (and I imagine it’s the same at a for profit business) your schedule is 9 to 5 or similar and it mostly doesn’t change. You wake up, go to work, work, and come home. If you are lucky you don’t have to take work home with you. I found the requirement to sit in an office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to be much more stressful than the graduate student schedule. I also had very little control over what I got to work on. This is why I say if you are lucky you don’t take your work home with you; I didn’t find the work terribly intellectually engaging.

My workload is higher now but I have much more control over when I do my work, how I do my work, and what projects I take on. This is the first time as an adult that I have felt I have the intellectual and professional freedom to pursue my own interests and create and exercise my own internal structure rather than the external constraints of a 9 to 5 job. One of the major differences I have found between working full time and returning to the university is that I have control over how busy I choose to be. My hope is that upon finishing my Ph.D. I will find a position that allows me to keep some of this flexibility and freedom.

I signed up for the hard work of completing a Ph.D. and I try always to remember that fact. The fact that the work was chosen rather than forced upon me makes a big difference on how I relate to it. Opting into a project is much different than having to do work because you don’t have a choice. There are of course moments (and stretches) of stress and the feeling that I can’t possibly get everything done. But so far it has been worth it for the luxury of time to think, read, write, and explore what really engages my mind.

Donations with Strings Attached

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article entitled: Strings Attached. In the article, author Rick Seltzer details a large donation ($40 million) given by Michael and Marian Ilitch to Wayne State University. The donation, given by the founders of Little Caesars Pizza’s, has caused controversy because of stipulations in the donor agreement that would potentially give the donors undue influence in several areas of the university. The contract stipulates that the business school built with donated funds will carry the Ilitch name in perpetuity, something the article notes is uncommon, as well as stipulations on how much the dean of the business school should be paid. Most controversially, the donor agreement “calls for Wayne State to meet with the Ilitches or their foundation at their request to consult on the curriculum of the business school, its strategic plan or ‘other aspects of the educational experience.'”

Given these stipulations, there has been, quite naturally, questions among university staff and faculty about the potential influence the Ilitch’s could have on curricula and fear that this could lead to an infringement of academic freedom. It is easy to see how accepting large amounts of money with strings attached from donors, any donors, can create at the very least a perception that independence will be damaged. Even without explicit language that donors have a say in how organizations operate, large donations have the potential to influence policy and practice. We are currently witnessing this debate play out in the political arena as well.

Illuminating such a case in action, the article cites an example from Yale University, which returned a donation of $20 million because the donors had requested approval of faculty members for certain courses. This seems to be clearly an infringement of academic freedom. Whether the Wayne State case will turn out to be as well remains to be seen. However, the potential for such infringement is large, in my opinion. The Ilitches have made money in a particular way with a particular business model. Yet theirs is hardly the only way an enterprise can or should be organized. It is easy to imagine that input from the Ilitches would be slanted toward their own business model, pushing aside valid and perhaps better alternatives.

It is hard for me to see why a donor should have any input on curricula or other “aspects of the educational experience,” particularly at a public institution such as Wayne State. Public institutions are, ostensibly, accountable democratically to citizens and not to private donors. Furthermore, donors are not necessarily experts in education, pedagogy, or specifically in teaching in a college classroom. Though there are examples of private foundations effectively setting education policy through their ability to direct large sums of money toward particular models, this does not mean that this is an effective or, equally importantly, democratic way to set policy.

If the Ilitches want their name on a building, I don’t have any problem with that. But, their influence should not extend into university buildings.

What are University Mission Statements Telling Us?

For this post, I considered the mission statements of two higher education institutions, both of which I attended: Nazareth College and Syracuse University. (See full mission statement texts below.) Nazareth College (Naz to those who go there) is located in Rochester, NY and was founded in 1924. Syracuse University is in Syracuse, NY and was founded in 1870. Both are private institutions. Nazareth is a relatively small, liberal arts college, around 2,000 undergraduate and 800 graduate students, while Syracuse is a “highest research activity” university and has nearly 22,000 students, undergraduate and graduate. Both schools confer undergraduate and Master’s degrees. Nazareth also offers Doctorate of Physically Therapy degrees. Syracuse offers a wide array of Ph.D. and professional degrees.

Right from the beginning, there is an interesting difference in what the two mission statements emphasize. Nazareth opens their statement with a commitment to providing a “learning community” that educates their students in many fields and with many intellectual competencies. Syracuse, however, opens their statement with a commitment to attracting the “best scholars from around the world.” Syracuse also notes the ways in which their faculty can “support student success.” The impression that comes across is that Nazareth prioritizes its students and what it can provide for them and Syracuse prioritizes or highlights its faculty and its competitiveness. Why this is the case, I can’t say for sure. Having attended both schools, I found the administration, faculty, staff, and others to be equally attentive to student needs.

Additionally, Nazareth emphasizes how it seeks students who want to make a difference in the world and are committed to service. (Not unlike Virginia Tech’s motto: Ut Prosim.) Syracuse does not seem to have a similar emphasis. While Nazareth makes a point of noting its commitment to various values such as service, ethics, and aesthetics, Syracuse focuses on “innovation” and entrepreneurship. In fact, a little over 100 words, Syracuse’s mission statement mentions innovation twice. The implication seems to be that Nazareth wants to connect the education it offers to developing well-rounded, active and engaged citizens. Syracuse seems to be positioning itself on the “cutting edge” of an economy and culture that increasingly values “start-ups” and an entrepreneurial ethos.

Finally, as a brief aside, Nazareth was founded by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph. However, in the 1970s, the college became independent of the church and is currently non-denominational. Despite this, it is interesting to note that their mission statement still specifically mentions fostering a life informed by “spiritual” values. In my experience, spiritual life is still very much present on Nazareth’s campus, of many denominations and faiths. There was at the time of my attendance a two course religious studies requirement (I took Introduction to Religion and Buddhism) but there are no religious requirements such as compulsory church attendance.

I don’t want to read too much into short documents, such as mission statements, in isolation. In order to get a full picture of how these schools view themselves, their students, and their faculty, one would need to speak with those groups of people and perhaps enroll in a course or two. However, mission statements are part of the public face that these schools put forward.

With this in mind, if I were looking for a college or university in which to pursue my education and the only information I had to make my decision were mission statements, I would choose to attend Nazareth College. Its emphasis on students first and foremost is more appealing to me than the emphasis on prestige of faculty emphasized by Syracuse. Finally, even though Syracuse uses the term “liberal arts” in its mission statement, Nazareth’s commitment to its liberal arts values comes through more clearly and appeals more to my intellectual and normative orientations than the more research focused language of Syracuse.

Mission Statements:

Nazareth College

The mission of Nazareth College is to provide a learning community that educates students in the liberal arts, sciences, visual and performing arts, and professional fields, fostering commitment to a life informed by intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and aesthetic values; to develop skills necessary for the pursuit of meaningful careers; and to inspire dedication to the ideal of service to their communities.

Nazareth seeks students who want to make a difference in their own world and the world around them, and encourages them to develop the understanding, commitment, and confidence to lead fully informed and actively engaged lives.

Syracuse University

As a university with the capacity to attract and engage the best scholars from around the world, yet small enough to support a personalized and academically rigorous student experience, Syracuse University faculty and staff support student success by:

  • Encouraging global study, experiential learning, interdisciplinary scholarship, creativity, and entrepreneurial endeavors
  • Balancing professional studies with an intensive liberal arts education
  • Fostering a richly diverse and inclusive community of learning and opportunity
  • Promoting a culture of innovation and discovery
  • Supporting faculty, staff, and student collaboration in creative activity and research that address emerging opportunities and societal needs
  • Maintaining pride in our location and history as a place of access, engagement, innovation, and impact