Conceptualizing the Academic Life: Graduate Students' Perspectives

By Bieber, Jeffery P.; Worley, Linda K. | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Conceptualizing the Academic Life: Graduate Students' Perspectives


Bieber, Jeffery P., Worley, Linda K., Journal of Higher Education


Envisioning a Faculty Life

    A faculty member passes John R. in the hall during his sophomore
  year and remarks that John seems to have an academic bent of mind.
  Another professor, in addition to being a great teacher in the
  classroom, engages John in discussions in her office from time to
  time. John R., beginning to see himself in this role of faculty
  member, looks more closely at the life the faculty around him lead.
  He notes--and likes--the fact that he sees his professors coming and
  going as they please, determining their own daily schedules, teaching
  and advising now and then.
    John R. enters graduate school with a very positive view of faculty
  life or, at least, of the possibilities a few professors embodied for
  him. However, he soon recognizes that his professors in graduate
  school lead a different life than that which he had imagined. He sees
  graduate faculty scrambling to find research funding and to publish.
  Although somewhat taken aback by this new information, John R.
  believes he can create a life for himself more in line with his
  undergraduate vision. John modifies his original vision only to the
  extent that he includes the reality of the research he has now begun
  to do, if he must.

Graduate education has been a topic of interest and investigation in higher education for the last 60 years (Baird, 1990; Berelson, 1960; Brink, 1999). Although researchers have consistently paid attention to the issues associated with graduate education, the topic has lately been approached with new vigor. The reasons for this renewed enthusiasm are many and varied, ranging from lingering concern about the graying of the faculty and speculation about their replacements, to such perennial issues as overproduction of Ph.D.s who never land a tenure-track position. Added to this mix are questions stemming from the realities of a graduate education experience that produces individuals steeped in the world of research when a large number of faculty positions are at institutions that continue to reward teaching, albeit amidst growing commitments to research and receiving grants.

Much of the research focusing on graduate education (e.g., Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Seagram, Gould, & Pyke, 1998; Tuckman, 1991) has been concentrated on structural variables (e.g., time-to-degree) or on the factors (such as the presence of mentors, fellowships, or assistantships) operating in the lives of graduate students deemed to be successful, typically defined as those who not only complete their doctoral work but also land a full-time, tenure-track position in academia or, in the case of the sciences and engineering, a position in the private sector. A small but growing body of literature attempts to move beyond analysis of single, discrete variables in order to probe more fully the graduate school experience and its complexities. Anderson (1996), Conrad, Haworth, and Millar (1993), Golde (1998), and Lovitts (2001), among others, have provided insights into how students themselves experience graduate school. The work of these researchers takes us "inside" the experience, thus providing the context necessary for a more complete understanding of graduate education.

The concept of socialization has been the reigning paradigm for investigating the graduate student experience to date. The apprenticeship model assumes that a graduate student/apprentice will be socialized into the profession by a mentor in graduate school. We must note here that the prevalent view of the relationship between graduate mentor/master and apprentice is based on a model where the apprentice will become a master--that is, a scholar-teacher at a research university. When we began our research, we assumed that a person planning to embark on a faculty career would systematically seek information regarding both professional and personal aspects of the chosen career. However, our research has made it clear that the apprenticeship model does not account for many of the patterns we discovered. …

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