My graduate program is a disappointment. Now what?
December 10, 2014 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm at one of the best schools in the world. So why does my program suck so much, and what should I do about it?

I'm a mature student who left a solid career in a major American city to attend graduate school overseas. I'm now enrolled in a school and a program that's tops in the world for the area in which it focuses.

We're at the end of the first semester now and I'm finding myself disappointed with what seems like a program with a lot of hot air and not a lot of substance. Here are my biggest complaints:

- The discourse is painfully junior-level. We jump from topic to topic to topic, never building on what we've learned. If this were a science program, I'd say Week 1 is "Chemistry," Week 2 is "Biology," Week 3 is "Physics," and nobody ever discusses how the topics connect.

- Lectures are taught by experts in their field, but seminars -- when actual discussion is permitted -- are taught by graduate assistants who are (IMO unfairly) expected to have deep knowledge in every single one of the topics that are presented. This has already lead to significant errors in learning; one harried TA was meant to teach us about "agonism" but taught the class about "agnosticism" until she was stopped and corrected by other students.

- The program is billed as an interdisciplinary approach to two subjects, but ignores one almost entirely at the expense of the other. (Back to our science example: I signed up for a "Biomedical Humanities" program, but all my classes are about anatomy. Where's the other half?)

- Program leadership is aware of these concerns and does not view them as issues. In their minds, the program's just fine as is and any students who disagree are themselves in the wrong. Other, younger students who have raised these issues privately have been told, "Employers will expect you to know these theories." As someone with 10 years of experience at fairly high-powered places, I know for a fact this isn't true.

So my question is...what do I do about this? Part of me wants to challenge what I see as an emperor with no clothes and a shitty, self-important attitude. But the other part of me -- the saner, more grownup part, I think -- wants to just put my head down, deal with it and get the hell out in eight months.

What do you think? Thank you in advance for your help.
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you in this program because it will help your long term career prospects to have it on your resume or because you want to do further study in this area? If it's a resume booster, then I would think it better to just keep your head down and finish it if possible.
posted by _cave at 12:49 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up near Harvard University, and have heard many stories over the years about how being a student there sucks. (Across the city, at MIT, I think some students sued the school a few years ago, complaining that their professors were lousy, mostly due to lack of proficiency in English.) Your program sucks because the faculty and staff there are too busy basking in the glory of the school's reputation to actually teach.

On the bright side, when you say "I graduated from X school!", people will be impressed and hire you.
posted by Melismata at 12:56 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Put your head down and deal with it and get out in eight months. Or leave now, depending on what you expect to get out of this program.

As an instructor in a discipline that is highly theoretical within the academy but is very practice focused in the real world I have lots of experience with the complaints you bring up. This is a fundamental problem of practice-oriented disciplines and there isn't much to be done about it. Your TAs and faculty are very aware of this issue. It's part of being in the academy when your discipline is practice-focused.

It doesn't sound like the academy is for you and that is completely fine. You should not be there. You're not going to change the minds of your TAs and faculty. They've heard it before.

I had a student who had similar complaints but he also seriously just did not ever engage with the material at all. His course evaluation for me (I could tell who it was even though they are unsigned) was so mean and so abysmal. He called me stupid and said that the entire discipline was just an exercise in learning common sense, like the sky is blue. It showed me that he really didnt even try to engage with the program or my course. It was not a good fit. He was wrong - my discipline is not what he described at all - but he wasn't willing to actually put his ego down and engage with the literature and the science. I wanted to say to him: "You do it, then. Show me how we can make this discipline better." He would not have been able to do so because he really did not understand the purpose of our field of inquiry and because he didn't understand he decided it was stupid and not worth engaging with at all.

Don't be that guy. Just try to engage with the problems in the field and keep your head down. The academy is not for everybody. No harm, no foul. And please don't take this out on your TAs in their course evaluations.
posted by sockermom at 1:07 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh also: I had similar complaints until I started a PhD in the field. My masters program felt similar to what you describe, but now I see that I just didn't understand the discipline and the profound pedagogical impact imparted by the rift between theory and practice.
posted by sockermom at 1:10 PM on December 10, 2014

I think the obvious way is to find out how to do a bit of both. It's not, prima facie, an either-or proposition and you would be truly saner for having attempted to find a personal resolution that addresses both sides of the issue.
posted by polymodus at 1:21 PM on December 10, 2014

My guess is that the program sucks because its stated purpose is to teach people stuff they need to know for the workplace, but its real purpose is to ensure the alumni get prestigious jobs that will result in donations to the program. And they're the kind of jobs where knowing stuff (beyond basic competence) doesn't help as much as knowing people.

Don't challenge it with a self-important attitude, but don't put your head down either. Pay enough attention to your classes to say something smart from time to time, get decent grades, and have at least one professor who knows you and likes you enough to write you a recommendation, if needed. But mostly you're there to make friends and build a network.

In your shoes, I would start a discussion group with other students where we talk about how the topics connect.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:31 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think this is a really common experience for graduate programs (especially professional Masters programs) at top tier universities. You think you are going to have this dreamy made-for-movies romantic experience with being educated by the top people in your field and it's going to make you think big thoughts and experience big things... but then you realize, nope, people here are just plugging away until graduation and the whole curriculum is entirely machinized and heartless.

I strongly encourage you to just try to plow through it and focus on it as work you are doing in order to improve your career prospects. Remove the romance and view it practically.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:33 PM on December 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

I only ever did a first semester in grad school, and it felt somewhat similar to what you describe concerning jumping all over with a thousand different theories. (We did have mostly great professors, though, and if not - well, I chose a different class.)

The thing is, grad school is mostly what you make of it. You take one of these subjects/theories and do your research around it. That is, if you are in a programme that is focused on research/leading up to a PhD.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:36 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perhaps with your experience in the field, you're familiar with the underpinnings of these theories already? Don't assume everyone in the class is. They might be fresh out of undergrad with no idea how the industry works.

Is this a program that will require you to write a thesis or defend a dissertation? I would assume that the connections between theories are for you to make in regards to your own research interests and areas of specialty. I'm considering an "interdisciplinary" PhD (quotations marks because it isn't really, it is in teaching 2 different foreign languages), and I'm sure the beginning part will be theories on how to teach languages, plus information on each individual language, and then I'll take the theories to study the history of language teaching in America, and another student will focus on the learning of past tenses, and another will focus on issues in teaching pronunciation, etc. etc.

I agree with sockermom - doesn't sound like grad school is the place for you.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:25 PM on December 10, 2014

Are you, by any chance, doing a master's degree at Oxford or Cambridge? You may want to read my previous description of Cambridge MPhil courses.

In any case, given the situation as you describe it, it is very unlikely you will be able to make positive change during your short time there. Universities change only on a glacial pace. If it's less than a year, the best thing to do is just to get through the program.
posted by grouse at 3:34 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Honestly, the types of changes you want to this program are simply impossible in the span of 8 months. Things like who is assigned to teach classes (TA vs. prof), overarching course content, etc. could potentially change over time if motivated, invested individuals put in a concerted effort to do it, but it's not going to happen
a) in 8 months
b) because one student wants it to.

That's not to say it isn't super frusterating! I totally feel your pain. I would just try to look at this as one of those "find peace with the things you cannot change" because the potential for institutional change here in the time frame you would need is highly, highly improbable. If it's truly a waste of time on all fronts, by all means leave and go back to what you were doing before. If the degree/line on your resume and networking contacts, will be valuable, head down and power through.

And, if anyone asks you advice on attending this program in the future or asks for your letter of recc to go there, be truthful and try to help others avoid a bad experience.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:50 PM on December 10, 2014

8 months is nothing, a blip on the EKG of your life.

Suck it up.
Get the credential.

This time next year it will have been 4 months since you finished.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:37 PM on December 10, 2014

This is a very very common issue. A lot of people think that just because a school has a reputation that it is deserved. A school's reputation comes from 2 things: Marketing and previous teachers that no longer teach at the school. Neither have ANYTHING to do with how a program is run when you actually get there. I too went to a highly selective program in college and when I arrived I learned that their reputation was entirely derived from great teachers that were no longer in the program and the amazing students they churned out. The school uses these alumni as bait to make others believe that it was the institution that churned these greats out, when the reality was that the institution had nothing to do with it. In fact they fired one of the famous teachers and took away the program's funding because they knew they could still attract students as long as people believe the institution's name was what created these success stories. Schools are little more than money making marketing machines nowadays. I remember well that one of our professors wouldn't even bother to show up to their own class half the time! We would just all sit there in class spending most of our time waiting for him to feel like going to work.

On the other hand, because almost everyone believes in the B.S. that a school's rep has anything to do with how good you'll be taught there, the reputation DOES help a great deal when the name goes on your resume. I still remember the ooos and ahhhs I got from employers who would see that name on my resume. I got many jobs that I didn't deserve because of it. All the while knowing in the back of my head that there were candidates who went to less well known schools who were taught much better and had way more knowledge on the subject. It's just the way it goes. If you try to change things for the better you almost certainly will not and you'll risk losing all the money and time you spent. I say just suck it up and get it on your resume. Instead use your knowledge to post anonymously on online boards and be honest about the program to people who ask.
posted by rancher at 10:40 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

The "best schools in the world" derive their reputation mainly from their research.
posted by grouse at 4:24 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

You have to keep in mind that education is different overseas. I was to attend a psychology program in Spain and didn't for reasons not applicable to this discussion. At times I'm happy I didn't eventually go because the Southern European school of psychology tends to use what I consider outdated and less empirically studied theories.

I'd say you've made this great change in your life and go with the experience of living abroad. You are smart enough to recognize the shortcomings of the program. Can you augment it on your own and do some additional self study in the field? Studying abroad at a prestigeous university does look good on the 'ol resume.
posted by Che boludo! at 6:57 AM on December 11, 2014

I'm with everyone else (especially grouse) on this one.

I (and many of my classmates) went through the same things during our master's degree. It felt disjointed and useless at times. I went for a very related certificate afterwards -- that made a huge part of my degree seem pointless and stupid.

I also studied overseas (although I'd been living in the country for a few years at that point) and all of my classmates were from other countries and we wondered about this too.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:30 AM on December 12, 2014

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