Imagine a "primitive" culture that prepares its shamans to explore its ancient mysteries and understand its current problems, but then puts them to work minding its young -- and there you have a reasonably fair description of the current state of graduate education in America.
In that crazy state, especially but not only in the social sciences and humanities, graduate students are taught to become scholars and to undertake research. However, once they are PhDs, almost all actually spend most of their worktime as teachers.
Nonetheless, job advancement requires them to devote as much time and energy as possible to research, or at least enough to produce the number of "publications" deemed necessary for tenure. Quality teaching and favorable student evaluations help, but without sufficient publications, perishing is neigh inevitable.
In a sensibly organized academy, young people would be able to choose between teaching and research. Consequently, every discipline would establish career paths for each. Then, prospective teachers would not have to be saddled with producing a dissertation and could instead better learn how to teach their discipline to undergraduates. Researchers would be able to concentrate on learning their craft and thinking about what subjects they want to investigate and what research puzzles to solve.
Entering students would receive assistance in thinking about career paths. Articulate students who are also ready to listen should probably head for teaching, while those who display unusual curiosity, enjoy puzzle solving and like to write are logical candidates for the research path. Actually, students who have not already begun to write outside of class in high school should probably not be choosing or chosen for career paths of research and writing even now.
The two career paths would begin with a common curriculum, perhaps for the first year or two. The new graduate students would not only begin to learn the substantive and other basics of their discipline but would have time to decide whether they want to take the research career path or the teaching one.
Thereafter the two paths call for somewhat different kinds of education. The research path would emphasize theoretical, methodological and empirical training and practice, and teach students how best to report what they have learned.
The teaching path would have a more difficult assignment: to translate what graduate students have learned about their discipline into a version that is meaningful and useful to undergraduates. Instead of passing on the latest textbook concepts and theories, say in political science, teachers would learn how to instruct undergraduates in all aspects of politics, including how to represented in the ever changing American polity.
In addition, undergraduate instructors should seek to improve their students' analytical and critical thinking. The current assumption that a quality college education automatically provides training in these forms of thought is dubious. Courses in logic and related subjects teach some analytic processes but effective courses in critical thinking, however defined, remain rare.
Separating teaching from research and establishing dual career paths probably works best in the humanities and the social sciences, less well in the laboratory sciences and least so in professional schools that place a higher priority on practice than on research. Thus, dual career paths are not a universally applicable idea.
For this and other reasons, universities and their graduate departments should retain the right to choose the career paths they want to teach. Schools and departments could also decide to concentrate on only one career path, and since the demand for teachers will always outweigh that for researchers, ultimately teacher preparation will obviously become the numerically dominant path.
However, schools calling themselves research universities should be expected to place more emphasis on and allocate more resources to the research career path. They should also establish more research institutes so as to increase opportunities for full time researchers. (Most so called research universities are already moving in that direction anyway.)
Many universities should stay with the current curricular path, for it may always remain in demand. A brief midcareer version of it would be helpful for teachers who find their teaching improves if they undertake periodic research or writing projects. So should researchers who get new research ideas by teaching undergraduates, while undergraduates thinking about their future careers should also have a chance to learn from researchers. A midcareer path must also be available in fields in which many researchers burn out at an early age for they might need retraining for teaching or administrative careers.
However, paths must be left flexible for all. Teachers who want to become researchers later in their career and researchers who want to become teachers should be helped to do so. Moreover, teachers should still be encouraged to write in their spare times and researchers should be able to do some undergraduate teaching alongside the graduate instruction that is often part of the researcher's de facto job description.
Whatever their variety, the two basic career paths should be equal in all possible respects. Student career paths should be of similar duration and intensity, and they should end with the same terminal degree. (Whether that degree ought to be a PhD and how long it should take is a separate and here not relevant question.)
Students preparing themselves for research degrees would need to write a dissertation. Better still, they should be asked for three or more publishable research reports or papers on different subjects and using different conceptual themes and methods applicable to their disciplines.
Students taking the teaching path should conclude with practice in teaching basic and advanced undergraduate and graduate courses, established and new. They must also practice transforming the substantive contents of their graduate disciplines into topics, questions and issues relevant to undergraduates and to the lives they will lead after graduating from college.
The university careers to which these paths lead should also be of equal status, with the same ranks, pay scales and requirements for promotion and tenure. Both paths deserve job security and should be protected from exploitation as cheap labor.
Researchers are entitled to work under the same hard money contracts as teachers and should be free from levels of grant proposal writing that interfere with their research. In fact, proposal writing should really be a specialty left to the equivalents of law firm rainmakers, to people who are particularly skilful at successful proposal writing.
Researchers can be evaluated easily by the quality of their research and publications, while teachers would be judged by classroom effectiveness, levels of instructional inventiveness, comprehensive student evaluations and the like.
Dividing the current basic academic career path into two should benefit both teaching and research. The systematic training of undergraduate teachers and the more sensitive undergraduate teaching that should result might help to create a smarter and more aware citizenry.
Training people for a research career should be even more beneficial. The small and narrow projects to which today's academic researchers are limited while teaching or during summer vacations will be replaced by longer lasting and more significant studies. Research universities could then fully justify their claims about how much they are contributing to knowledge.
The increased number of researchers will also help the country in the heightened global intellectual and economic global competition that is already under way. We might even catch up to some of the other countries now ahead of us in various intellectual and other skills and achievements.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more