Inside Higher Ed just had an article on the 7.7% increase in PhD enrollments in the humanities. While this article does focus on PhD enrollments, it again brought up for me something about the graduate school debate that continues to bother me anew every time something new gets posted. I wish people would start separating the graduate school question.
Attending graduate school to get a Masters and to get a PhD are two very different things. They have very different end goals, and I think that we do a disservice to both groups by not separating them.
Part of this, I fully admit is a bias on my part. I taught high school full time when I earned my Masters in Education (by commuting from Brooklyn to CUNY: CSI), and my Masters in English Literature (by attending summers at the Bread Loaf School of English). I am surprised now in my PhD program that there are people who are going to school full time for a Masters. To me, that's just not something you do. To my thinking, a Masters is something you get to advance yourself in your job or field. Therefore, it always made more sense to work on it as you worked. I also think approaching a Masters this way benefits the student. You're working, so you run a better chance of having tuition reimbursement through work. You are willing to do the work, because I think once you're in the workforce, you at least have a sense (or can identify) of what a work ethic is. I think you value the education more, and therefore are more likely to value what you're getting. Again, this is my bias, because for K-12 teachers, working on a Masters while working full time is the norm, not the exception. I have a hard time understanding a twenty-two year old student who would go into a Masters program without having a solid reason why other than school is a way to put off real life or real responsibilities. I think that the latter approach is what creates many of the graduate school "Don't Go" debates.
Now, a PhD program is a different beast. But if we can separate these two, or even better, if the university system can start to separate these two, I think it would help many of the PhD program issues as well. If the norm becomes that students graduate from undergraduate and are first encouraged to go into the workforce, I think this opens them up to many of the alt-ac careers people are encouraging. I also think that it creates some pretty valuable work/life skills. I also think that if you go to work full time right after college you have a very different perspective on what you're willing to give up in order to return to school. Again, speaking only from experience, out of the hundreds of teachers I know who worked on their Masters while working full time, I don't know a single one who didn't finish and graduate. That's a very different statistic than you hear in a lot of these articles on grad school. The difference is, they already have jobs, and are working on Masters to improve their performance in those jobs. The focus is entirely different. They're not competing for the job pool. A few of these teachers have then decided to go back to school and pursue their PhD. And while they are still early in the process, every one I know is thriving. They are not weighed down by the workload, not because they're in easy programs, but because they're already used to balancing heavy work loads, and have a strong work ethic for getting things done. Their teaching load isn't a problem, because quite frankly, teaching two classes of 22 students is nothing after teaching five sections of 25 students each. These teachers are grateful to be in an environment that focuses on scholarly work, and where their mature, responsible attitude is rewarded that they thrive. Again, while the teachers I know all want tenure-track jobs as an end goal, I also have a hard time thinking they couldn't succeed elsewhere.
Now, none of these solve the issues that there are too many PhDs being produced, and that there are no tenure track tracks for the few who graduate. However, I can't help but think that if the system could start separating these two things, and refocus the logic behind the two prongs of grad school, that some basic changes would occur, and that these changes could radically affect the entire landscape of the problem. People keep talking about changing the conversation about grad school. And there have been recent articles on possible changes at the university level (like Johns Hopkins). However, I think the biggest change needs to be how we define grad school, and we need to start looking at this as two separate problems.