This post introduces my blog about my experience as a PhD student at Indiana University (IU). I spent more than six years in that capacity, in two different departments. The posts following this introduction discuss key experiences in those departments. A separate overview page provides quick links to a few key points in the process.
I entered IU shortly before my 50th birthday. I was a good student. I had been attending the University of Missouri at the master’s level, where my GPA was 4.0. My entering GRE scores were 760 verbal, 780 math. I retook the GRE in September 2011. I didn’t brush up on the math as much, so it slipped to the 82nd percentile (159, on the new scale). My verbal went up a bit, though, to 170. And that was without studying, other than to go over a couple of word lists.
Earlier in my career, I had published some things, notably a 50,000-word peer-reviewed law review article and a critically praised book about the process of becoming an attorney. I became a lawyer and also earned a master’s in business, in the combined JD/MBA program at Columbia University. I passed the bar exams and was admitted to the practice of law in New York and New Jersey, and spent a good portion of the 1980s working in corporate law firms in Manhattan.
This aspect of my background gave me certain expectations. It’s not that I believed IU could be Columbia. Columbia has quite a head start. But there are some ways in which IU could provide a learning environment even better than Columbia’s. And perhaps it does, for some students. My concern is with important ways in which IU squanders its opportunities.
So a part of my reactions to IU were informed by my education in the Ivy League. But another part was informed by what came next, after law school. During the ensuing years of practicing law and ultimately deciding to leave that profession, I came to see many ways in which I should have paid closer attention, in law school, to the career for which I was being trained. This mindset was alien to my PhD classmates at IU. It appears that many doctoral students, especially those from working-class backgrounds, have a rather naive faith that they can just focus on school, and get their degree, and then everything will work out after that.
Like many young attorneys, I discovered that legal education was not necessarily what we had hoped or imagined it would be. I found, likewise, that the practice of law tended to be quite different from what law school had led us to expect. So this second time around, I believed it would make more sense to pay attention and ask the tough questions about my fields of study in real time, as I was going through the process, rather than looking back after the fact.
My reactions to IU were also shaped by a demographic dimension. Among the various ways to be considered a “nontraditional student,” I was nontraditional, first, because I was old. But being old entails another kind of nontraditionality. I was different because, as people accumulate life experiences, they become more different from one another. A white child and a black child may face very different life prospects. But at least they can play together. This, I found, is not necessarily the case when you put two graying Midwestern heterosexual white males next to each other, and make one a student and the other his professor.
In other words, I was surprised to discover the extent to which educators at IU departed from educational ideals. This was not a place where faculty and students sat around and talked about ideas and discoveries in their fields. As one full professor put it, he was “too busy to think the big thoughts.” He was also not too interested in students; he had his committees and other reasons to spend his time with his peers. But it was worse than that. The general mindset was that the professors were there for themselves, not for us. They were committed, above all, to preserving their own comfort and their perquisites — including the freedom to single out certain students for favor or for abuse. Again, the following posts provide specific illustrations in support of these remarks.
It goes without saying that no individual’s personal experience can provide a comprehensive account of what goes on at a place the size of IU. There have surely been many wonderful student experiences in that university; there have just as surely been many horror stories. The focus of this blog is on my own experience. Readers interested in a comprehensive understanding of IU, or anything else, are advised to take multiple sources into consideration. That said, a single person’s account can raise questions of university governance — especially when that account crosses multiple departments and administrative levels, over a period of years. My experience does suggest that something is very wrong at IU.
I decided to write this blog when faculty and administrators decided to prevent me from graduating. Several of the following posts look into the details of those matters. In other words, one purpose of this blog is to provide an explanation of what happened to my PhD studies at IU. Not everyone is going to be interested in hearing it. Some may completely miss the point. But some interesting and important people in my life will appreciate access to a cogent explanation supported with specific examples.
Naturally, I also hope that good people at IU, and at other similar places, will read these words and will take constructive action to prevent and, if possible, to rectify the sorts of evils described here. I suspect that many readers will wonder why IU’s faculty and administrators failed to take easy and obvious steps to put things back on track in my case. This blog would not exist and/or would not have taken this form if the university had been capable of taking appropriate measures of that nature.
I will be bringing this blog to the attention of some people who could use these words to make changes benefiting me personally. I don’t know that they will, but at least they could. Some of these people may also make changes to benefit future students. In addition, some researchers, policymakers, or other stakeholders at IU or other universities may find these words informative. Some students, in particular, may appreciate hearing about my experience. Finally, there is an appropriate and natural human interest in seeing things set right. I do hope this effort contributes to that sort of outcome.
Let me proceed, then, to move toward the next post in the series. First, a bit of specific background. Improving on my JD/MBA experience at Columbia, I once again decided to pursue a double major when I was at IU. I was still aware, as I had been in the 1980s, that having credentials in two separate fields can improve one’s options. But this time, the primary reason for the bifurcated approach was that I had interests overlapping both areas.
The two subjects in which I was majoring, at the master’s and PhD level — subjects in which I have begun two separate blogs — were parks & recreation and social work. I arrived at those subjects from various experiences in the realm of outdoor education and adventure therapy. As I proceeded through my studies, I discovered other points of intersection between the two fields, across a variety of topics pertaining to recreation and mental health.
IU’s parks & rec program was on the Bloomington campus (IUB), while the social work program was on the Indianapolis campus. IU and Purdue shared the latter; its full name was Indiana University – Purdue University – Indianapolis (IUPUI, sometimes amusingly pronounced “you-pooey”). I took numerous courses on, and spent years being involved with, each of these campuses. IU does have other campuses, but these are by far its largest. So while I cannot hope to know everything there is to know about IU, I do have a reasonably informed impression of the university as a whole.
Most of the posts in this blog report dismaying episodes. That is because, overall, my enrollment at IU was a dismaying experience. That is not to say that I spent all those years in a state of depression. People tend to be resilient. There is a way to make the best of a bad situation. But at the time, and even more in retrospect, there was an enormous difference between what I and my classmates experienced and what we could have been experiencing.
It has been suggested that some of what I experienced may have been due to an academic form of overqualification. Parks & rec and social work are not known to be intellectually vibrant. Average scores of GRE-takers expressing an intention to enter these fields are near the very bottom among all academic disciplines. Nor is IU a world-class university. I did appreciate the opportunity to take a year away, in 2009-2010, to finish my MSW at the University of Michigan. I realize that I should not have made IU the only PhD program that I applied to. But I grew up in Indiana, my parents were still there, and I really did not expect what happened.
After the experiences described in this blog, I went on to another PhD program, this time at the University of Arkansas. My progress in that program was terminated after the Arkansas dean discovered this blog and shared gossip about me with administrators at IU.
In a sense, this introduction has actually been a conclusion, a closing statement about my experience as a PhD student at IU. The posts in this series move backward in time from these concluding remarks. That is, they start with the last phase of my experience as a PhD student at IU, and then proceed, in reverse chronological order, to the next-to-last phase, and so forth, back toward the beginning. This is not an exact process — some posts are necessarily somewhat out of order — but it is the general rule. Hence, we go from here to a manuscript that I wrote on the subject of PhD student attrition.