Monday, January 26, 2015

Things They Don't Tell You About Grad School, Part 1: Freedom Isn't Free

My Dad has a rule about money: "my one rule about money is that when we're spending my money, I make the rules."  One place I didn't expect to put this rule to such good use is thus far in grad school.

So much of grad school is about being under someone's thumb: chairperson, class professors, advisor, lab head, and so on.  Much of that control comes with money - usually tuition and stipend - attached.  How and by whom a grad student is funded determines a great deal about what they can do and what they say, about what they feel comfortable doing and saying.  They won't do or say anything to rock the boat - because they might (indirectly) lose their funding.

Unfortunately, a lot of what school- or lab-funded grad students can't or won't say is what needs to be said to make their lives and their departments a lot better.

I am self-funded.

Institutions of higher learning often forget that they are in a service industry, their students are their employers, and when you remind them of that, whoo boy, does it get interesting.

It's a teachable moment - but not in the direction they have come to expect.

Just before the Christmas break the physical activity class program that employs many graduate students, including me, had a holiday party.  I stood in line to get seconds just in front of my department chair.  He saw people with dirty plates waiting in line and joked "careful how much you guys take, I have a direct line to your bursar accounts."  I turned around and said - with a straight face because it was absolutely true - "This morning I wrote a $14,700 check to this school."  His face went slack and white.  He handed me a clean plate and replied "have as many as you want."

The chair of a department should never need to be reminded of the fact that some people are paying the price of a small car per semester for the privilege to teach basketball and take his motor learning class.

The head of "my lab" (I use a desk in their office and am generally active in their research) is on the cusp of retiring.  He really wants it to have already happened, but it hasn't - and can't - because he six (!) PhD students and one Masters student who are outstanding.  Several are stagnant and probably won't finish.  [In my opinion, mostly for lack of buy-in and motivation on both parts.  If it's not coming from one side, does the other spend the energy to meet in the middle?]  Still he doesn't show up for pre-arranged meetings or respond to emails and swims every noon at masters and has gone on sabbatical this semester.  No one will call out his behavior - and I haven't quite worked up the guts to do so - even the ones who are at risk of not completing their doctorate.

The downside of not being in a lab: no funding.  The upside of not being in lab: I'm done when I say I'm done.

First semester counseling masters students take a counseling lab.  Counselor training works toward a national licensure, so this lab class is pretty standardized across all nationally accredited programs.  My co-hort's lab was taught by a professor unprepared and not suitable to teach this lab.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  The department didn't know this, but neither they did check his preparation or suitability nor provide guidance and oversight to ensure my class's adequate instruction.  "Blah, blah, academic freedom, blah, blah."

So I went into my graduate coordinator's office as a disgruntled consumer: "When you accepted me, you essentially promised to appropriately prepare me for professional licensure and practice in this field.  I placed trust in you to do this to the tune of $4,000 (just for this class) and you aren't holding up your end of the bargain.  It's our job to pay you, show up for class, and do the work.  It's your job to teach us what we need to know.  Do your job, the one I'm paying you to do."

His name was removed from where he had been slated to teach the class next fall.  (NOTE: All of my other instructors have been very good to great.)

Fifteen-thousand dollars a semester buys my freedom to do and say not just anything, but what needs to be done and said to get the most out of my time here.  It's a price I pay gladly.

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