This post is one in a series, arranged in approximately reverse chronological order, on the subject of my experience as a PhD student in Indiana University’s School of Social Work (SSW). This is the second post in the series. The previous one is the Introduction.
(Note: this blog also contains a separate series of posts on my experiences in IU’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies, within the university’s School of Public Health, previously known as HPER, short for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation).
In autumn 2010, in the School of Social Work, I researched and wrote a doctoral qualifying paper. This post does not contain that paper. It was long. Some of its chapters appear elsewhere.
That paper received a failing grade. A failing grade on a paper is not the norm, at any level of higher education. It is especially surprising where the student is a published author. Of course, failing grades can and do occur. But they may invite curiosity as to the basis for the grade.
By this point, I had published a book, a law review article, and an article in the field of parks & recreation that had won second place in a national student literary competition. I had also published two articles in one of the better-known social work journals. And, in fact, one chapter of the qualifying paper — the paper that received this failing grade — would later be published in another social work journal.
In short, there were reasons for concern that the failing grade might not accurately reflect the quality of the manuscript. When I received the grade, I reviewed the situation and made a few inquiries. On that basis, I prepared and submitted a set of five petitions to the PhD Committee at IUSSW. I have provided the full text of those petitions in the next post in this series. (That next post also provides a link to the following post in the series, for those who do not wish to read those petitions at length.)
The PhD Committee seemed to ignore those petitions. Accordingly, I prepared a manuscript related to the situation that I was encountering. That manuscript is presented below. A summary of the five petitions appears midway in that manuscript.
I submitted that manuscript for publication by the Journal of Social Work Education. That journal’s review process was interesting in itself. A separate post discusses that process.
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Qualifying-Phase Attrition within a Social Work PhD Program
Ray Woodcock, JD, MBA, MSW
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Little is known about social work PhD program environments. Attrition from such programs appears to be at least as serious a problem as in related disciplines, where more than half of PhD students fail to graduate. Much of the extant research on attrition focuses on student characteristics; however, program characteristics appear responsible for substantial attrition. The qualifying phase, in particular, may be more effective and less unnecessarily attritional when given a clear purpose and conducted within a supportive environment. Aspects of the qualifying experience of an apparently capable student in a relatively noncompetitive social work PhD program illustrate such considerations. Recommendations are provided for protection of students against conditions that may unduly aggravate attrition.
It has been famously demonstrated that people who start out being similar to one another, but who are cast into situations of unequal power, can quickly develop extreme divergences in self-regard and also in attitudes and behavior toward one another (Zimbardo, 1973). The present article describes an event of that nature. In a sense, this could be considered a response to Anastas and Kuerbis (2009, p. 71), who observe that little is known about doctoral students in SSWs (using that acronym, here, to include schools, departments, and other academic units of social work education). The response is that, to refine the observation, little is known about the environments in which people take on the divergent roles of social work doctoral students and faculty (see Green & McDermott, 2010).
This article explores some aspects of some PhD student-faculty environments related to the problem of PhD student attrition. Briefly, the article introduces that problem, explains certain features of the qualifying phase of doctoral study, presents some concerns about that phase, illustrates those concerns with an examination of the qualifying process as experienced by a PhD student in one SSW, and offers certain conclusions. That SSW lies in relatively unexplored territory, outside the circle of elite universities and programs that attract much of the research into the doctoral experience (see Barnes & Randall, 2011, p. 24; Gardner, 2009, p. 400). That SSW is referred to here as “Average SSW” because, in various studies (below), it tends to land among neither the highest- nor lowest-ranked SSWs.
From a lay perspective, this article presents a “case” as set forth in the first general sense identified in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Soanes & Stevenson, 2008): “an instance of a particular situation; an example of something occurring.” It does not, however, present a case from a research method perspective. A proper research case study is best understood as requiring certain elements, planned in advance (see Kyburz-Graber, 2004, p. 53; Luton, 2010, p. 153), that are not present here. Examples include prior identification of a theory to test, a deliberate case selection process, and a research protocol (see Rubin & Babbie, 2005, pp. 440-441; Stake, 2005, p. 450; Lee, Mishna, and Brennenstuhl, 2010, p. 684; Yin, 2003, pp. 40-42).
Soanes and Stevenson (2008) offer an alternative: a case can be “an instance of a disease, injury, or problem.” As a matter of method, this alternative meaning of “case” might be understood to apply only to those situations or events that call for some kind of repair or correction, such that there is no requirement of advance planning. In the work of a clinician or a judge, for example, the case inquiry process typically does not begin until things have happened that call for attention. As in a research case study, development of a case file for such professional purposes may entail an accumulation of relevant facts, along with a relatively cursory writeup in a style specific to the profession (see Dziegielewski, 2008, p. 80; Caulley & Dowdy, 1987).
This article does not present a case in that sense either because, as often happens, there is not broad access to relevant information on both sides of the matter. In such situations, the most applicable meaning of “case” offered by Soanes and Stevenson (2008) may be “a set of facts or arguments supporting one side of a debate or controversy” – a partisan case, as distinct from a research case or a professional case. An example from the clinical context is the perspective on the client stated by the client him/herself, as distinct from the perspectives that clinicians, family members, and others might add to the mix. In clinical, legal, and other contexts, when there is no evaluator (e.g., clinician, judge), or where other parties or other potentially important sources of input are not available, not consulted, or not fully forthcoming with relevant information, it cannot be guaranteed that the case, partisanly presented, yields conclusions similar to those that would follow from a “complete” or “intensive” investigation (see Yin, 2003, p. 2; Lee et al., 2010, p. 683; Lincoln & Guba, 2002).
Sometimes, to be sure, partisan advocacy is a fruit of extreme and even reprehensible motives (e.g., Greenstein, 2009, p. 361). At other times, however, it follows from an imbalance in rights, responsibilities, or resources. If, for example, one party engages in egregious practices, and then withholds information in order to avoid being held accountable for those practices, it might not be ideal to postpone investigation until the party someday changes its mind and makes that information available for use by researchers or other investigators. On micro, mezzo, and macro levels, social workers, lawyers, and others often engage in advocacy and other interventions, on a partisan basis, to bring about change that seems to be needed, based upon “the best available evidence” as distinct from complete evidence (Lee et al., 2010, p. 683, quoting Regehr, Stern, & Shlonsky, 2007, p. 412; see Coleman, 2001, p. 144; Reamer, 2009, p. 116).
A partisan case presentation tends to entail elevated risks of distortion and myopia. That is not to say that such risks are unmanageable. Good intentions cannot be completely discounted. This article, in particular, does strive to approach relevant matters cautiously. Observers also tend to have some capacity to weigh arguments, to reserve judgment pending further information, and sometimes to verify relevant data – such as, in this instance, viewing key texts on the website of Average SSW (below). The opposing party may also have avenues through which it can communicate its views. Here, such avenues include that very website, as well as a variety of in-house media and other opportunities for effective discourse with actual and potential grievants.
While maintaining appropriate caution toward partisan presentations, it should also be said that one can overdo the epistemological niceties. It has been standard practice, for millennia, to take into account the frequently incomplete testimony of witnesses. Meanwhile, the writers of dryly neutral research literature do typically have a personal stake in their work, and even the most prestigious research is often at risk of bias and unethicality (e.g., Stewart & Feder, 1987; McGarity & Wagner, 2008). There is also a legitimate question of unfortunate and sometimes tragic impacts upon various stakeholders, if an account is accurate and yet the voices calling for remedy are ignored for lack of pedigree (see Cech & Blair-Loy, 2010, p. 375).
PhD Program Attrition
Attrition occurs when a PhD student voluntarily or involuntarily leaves a PhD program. In that event, pursuit of the PhD will tend to yield a negative rather than positive credential for the student, and to absorb a great deal of unproductive time, effort, and money from all parties – to be, in short, “a tremendous waste of America’s financial resources and human energies” (Council of Graduate Schools, 2006). In that quote, one might underscore “tremendous”: for at least 50 years, about half of those who have entered American PhD programs have not graduated (Walker, Golde, Jones, Bueschel, and Hutchings, 2008, p. 3; Bair & Haworth, 2004, p. 481).
Good data on PhD attrition in social work are not presently available. Data provided by the Council of Graduate Schools (2008) indicate, however, that some of the lowest 10-year PhD completion rates are found in fields, such as sociology and political science, whose subject matter overlaps to some extent with that of doctoral-level social work. In those fields, as few as 44% graduate within ten years after starting their PhDs. In addition, Lott, Gardner, and Powers (2009, p. 258) found sharply higher dropout rates in applied sciences, among which social work could be included (see Barker, 2003, p. 408), than in basic sciences. It is possible, in other words, that social work achieves a deplorable rate of attrition.
Council for Social Work Education (2010) data seem to indicate that only about one-fifth of currently enrolled social work PhD students who have completed their doctoral coursework graduate in a given year. It is not clear how many others simply cease to remain currently enrolled. Because of the paucity of information about social work PhD programs in particular, a number of sources cited in the following pages report research into PhD programs in fields beyond social work. While divergent fields may take different approaches to doctoral study, perhaps the more pressing concerns are that SSWs themselves differ sharply in their approaches to PhD education, as illustrated below, and that attrition could vary significantly as a result.
Generally, researchers have looked into a variety of attritional factors pertaining to the individual student. Such factors include finances, participation in social and professional activities, demands of family and employment, and a host of personal characteristics including gender, race, age, ethnicity, citizenship, social class, motivation, intellectual ability, career goal orientation, communicative ability, creativity, professionalism, proactiveness, ambition, extroversion, self-efficacy, and self-discipline (e.g., Attiyeh, 1999; Enright & Gitomer, 1989; Grover, 2007; Ross, 2009; Willis & Carmichael, 2011; Kerlin, 1995; Barnes & Randall, 2011, p. 2; Bair & Haworth, pp. 493-508; Nettles & Millett, 2006, p. 123).
That tendency to focus upon the student provides only part of the picture, and not necessarily the most important part (Gardner, 2009). When mature adults who have already excelled in college – and sometimes in graduate school as well (see Babbit, Rudd, Morrison, Picciano, & Nerad, 2008, pp. 2-3) – find themselves less likely to graduate than a high schooler entering college (see National Center for Education Statistics, 2009, p. 4), it appears that investigation might appropriately focus on the system rather than on the individual (Lovitts, 2001, p. 37). Identifying important differences among social work PhD programs in particular, Liechty, Liao, and Schull (2009) suggest that proactive departments help students understand expectations and overcome difficulties and that “faculty members and dissertation advisors have a responsibility to ‘meet the student where he or she is’” (p. 488). Generally, Liechty et al. favor an institutional-level, strengths-based, and solution-oriented approach to attrition (p. 493).
Institutional-level inquiries seem relevant in the case considered below. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the supply of social work PhDs in recent years has been believed to lag behind demand (Anastas & Kuerbis, 2009, pp. 71, 78). PhDs awarded in social work in the U.S. climbed by almost 50% between 1999 and 2005, but have been essentially flat since then (National Science Foundation, 2010, table 14). The PhD program at Average SSW, as an example, may not be making the most of its resources to produce graduates. The SSW is one of the oldest in the nation, and its MSW program is in the top 15% among the 177 MSW programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report (2011). But the PhD program is in the bottom half of the 55 PhD programs analyzed by Kirk, Kil, & Corcoran (2009, p. 81) in terms of student selectivity. Among 51 SSWs studied by Green and Baskind (2007), faculty publication rates are down in the 30th percentile. Regarding attrition, assembled sources paint a dismal picture. Despite enrolling approximately 50 students from its inauguration in 1995 through 2009, the PhD program produced only 11 graduates during those years. While the PhD program continues to enroll five to six new students per year, it is still graduating only about two per year. In times of increased demands for program accountability (see Cournoyer, 2001, p. 150), these are not good signs. Again, Average SSW is probably not among the worst in these regards. Rather, it seems likely that the attrition scenario described here is comparable to that found in numerous other social work PhD programs.
The Qualifying Exam Setting
In a majority of American PhD programs, the educational process begins with doctoral coursework; proceeds through a qualifying (also known as a comprehensive, preliminary, or general) exam or paper with an oral exam component (or, sometimes, a portfolio, capstone project, or other requirement); and culminates in the proposal, writing, and defense of a dissertation (Millett & Nettles, 2009, p. 68; Willis, Inman, & Valenti, 2010, pp. 48-51; see Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, p. 36; Cournoyer, 2001, p. 142). The case summarized below focuses on the second phase: the qualifying requirement (referred to here as “quals”).
In many if not most programs, quals probably should be finished within weeks but, unfortunately, many students are intimidated into months of studying and/or writing, while some simply give up (Anderson, Krauskopf, Rogers, & Neal, 1984, p. 80; Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, p. 32). Regrettably, some who do complete quals then receive a failing grade for their trouble. One large study suggests that quals, by themselves, account for 22% of all PhD student “stop-outs” (i.e., departures after which the student returns to doctoral study) – not much less than the 30% attributed to the long and much more noticed dissertation phase (Nettles & Millett, 2006, p. 122; see Bair & Haworth, 2004, p. 512). It is noteworthy, in this regard, that virtually no one fails quals in some PhD programs (Manus et al., 1992, p. 686; Anderson et al., 1984, p. 81). The high overall rate of stop-outs raises the question of whether other programs contribute disproportionately to the level of attrition among PhD students across all programs.
The quals requirement may also foster attrition in other phases, as when students look ahead and decline to continue in, or past, coursework (e.g., Herzig, 2002, p. 187) – not to mention those who reject the risk of wasted years and therefore do not even apply to PhD programs. Students who have survived a gruelling and/or abusive quals phase may likewise experience disillusionment with academia, or acquire a dread or dislike of faculty personalities or careers, that deters them from continuing to the dissertation (Golde, 2010, p. 92; Nettles & Millett, 2006, p. 229; see Nixon-Cobb, 2005, p. 71) or that impels them to switch disciplines (see Ehrenberg, Zuckerman, Groen, & Brucker, 2010, p. 179). Such concerns could be especially influential for students whose life history includes prior psychological abuse or other vulnerability (see Regehr, Stalker, Jacobs, & Pelech, 2001, p. 129; Lovitts, 2001, pp. 107-108).
It seems sensible that a PhD program would require coursework, and also that it would require a research project along the lines of a dissertation. The purpose of the quals phase is less clear. Purposes cited by researchers (and, where applicable, by the faculty whom they query) include evaluating student knowledge of the field broadly and/or of specific topics, testing student skill (in e.g., applying knowledge to a problem), stimulating an integration or synthesis of student knowledge or otherwise providing a learning opportunity, weeding out deficient students, serving as a rite of passage, and helping students write publishable manuscripts or introductory chapters of their dissertations, as well as evaluating the effectiveness of the educational program itself (Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, pp. 24-25; Ponder, Beatty, & Foxx, 2004, p. 227; Loughead, 1997, pp. 140-141; Manus, Bowden, & Dowd, 1992, pp. 679-680).
But where do these objectives come from, and are they achieved? Walker et al. (2008, p. 43) found that, in six very different departments across universities, no more than 55% (in English departments, a mere 33%) of faculty felt that all members of their departments shared a common understanding of the purpose of quals. Manus et al. (1992, p. 685) state that scholars have been debating the purpose of quals for 700 years. And yet Furstenberg and Nichols-Casebolt (2001, p. 21) found no experimental or quasi-experimental research on the relationship of quals methods, format, or performance to relevant outcomes. There is some irony in the prospect that researchers who apply the most exacting scrutiny to phenomena throughout the known universe may not quite have gotten around to looking at the legitimacy of the process that provides their own credentials (Bair & Haworth, 2004, pp. 481-482).
If faculty who have spent years in academia are unsure about the purpose or effectiveness of quals, one can imagine the confusion experienced by PhD students (see Lovitts, 2001, pp. 67-68, 113). According to Walker et al. (2008, pp. 41-42),
[Quals can generate] profoundly mixed messages and cross-purposes. The educational purpose of the exam is often unclear to students. . . . [Students’ confusion appears] in such comments as: “we are left drifting,” “in the dark,” “terrifyingly nebulous,” “hazy,” “opaque,” and “just stumbling through.” Students may see the importance of mastering certain material in principle, but the actual steps toward that mastery are much less clear. Students also say that their understanding of the exams often comes from informal sources, usually more veteran students.
The weeding-out rationale illustrates this puzzlement. There does not seem to be any justification for the notion that a one-shot exam or paper should be trusted to detect suitability in students who have already successfully completed two or more years of post-master’s coursework (see Pelfrey & Hague, 2000, p. 169; Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, p. 32). If inadequate teaching or learning is not being detected and rectified in regular course grading and evaluation processes, presumably it should be professors and/or administrators who are penalized, not students (Anderson et al., 1984, p. 80). Further, the professors who grade the quals are often not those who taught the courses, nor is there necessarily any consistency among the professors who do grade quals submissions (Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, pp. 27-28, 32). For instance, a fair synthesis of what a student learned from one professor could receive a failing grade when read by another (see Brady, Milkie, Hostetter, & Pescosolido, 2001, p. 282).
As another example of a puzzling purpose for the quals, students in some programs are required to provide a “comprehensive” treatment of the knowledge of an entire discipline. It seems that professors imposing such requirements must be reminded that “comprehensive” means “covering completely or broadly” or “including or dealing with all or nearly all aspects of something”; synonyms include all-embracing, encyclopedic, and exhaustive (Merriam-Webster, 2011; Soanes & Stevenson, 2008). In that light, a comprehensive treatment of the entire subject matter of a discipline could be roughly equivalent to the substance of the complete literature of that discipline. A comprehensive treatment of social work might therefore call for a presentation of the knowledge contained in many thousands of manuscripts produced over at least the past 130 years. Since an expectation of that nature would be ludicrous, students confronted with a demand for a comprehensive paper are left to guess that what is desired may actually be a summary, or a synthesis, or perhaps an interpretation of some unspecified and/or arbitrary fraction of such materials (see Loughead, 1997).
Matters become even more difficult when the quals requirement is an exam rather than a paper. Unless all PhD students have not only taken the same courses but have also written all of their papers and done all of their presentations on the same subjects throughout those courses, it appears infeasible to develop an exam that tests a consistent body of knowledge fairly across all students. One could understand an entrance exam to identify deficits to be addressed in remedial coursework, so as to insure that students share some foundational awareness. But the possibility of a uniformly fair and meaningful exit exam or paper requirement recedes as students progress into the writing of divergent papers for their doctoral courses, to the point of potentially knowing more than the graders on some topics (see Anderson et al., 1984, p. 81; Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, p. 31). Quals exams suffer the additional drawback of purporting to test knowledge or skill in a high-stakes environment that, in some cases, is so stress-inducing as to raise ethical and legal questions (Pelfrey & Hague, 2000, pp. 170, 172; Manus et al., 1992, p. 687; Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, p. 32). Instances of doctoral student violence (e.g., suicide, murder) have been traced to such stresses (e.g., Zhao, Golde, & McCormick, 2007, p. 263; Hall, 1998; Anonymous, 1996; Bass, 2010; Van Derbeken, 2008; Honor, 2010).
Grading is problematic as well. In many PhD programs, the original qualifying process, established in the High Middle Ages (see Manus et al., 1992, p. 678), seems to have lapsed into the arbitrariness of a latter-day, authority-based Dark Age. In place of a publicly visible debate, that is, in which the emerging future professor could present evidence and reasoning in support of a position, it is now possible for quals graders to hand down their unilateral private decisions, potentially terminating the student’s academic career, in a process that is not open to question even if the student can raise a credible suspicion of ignorance, ineptitude, or malice in the grading (e.g., Anderson et al., 1984, p. 81; Ambrose, Huston, & Norman, 2005, p. 815). Presumably the best doctoral professors today would not be happy to contemplate that they might approve or reject PhD students – that they, themselves, may have been selected – in processes that apparently would have been considered deficient in the 13th century.
These remarks have summarized only a few of the many criticisms that have been put forward in connection with the quals requirement. The essential point is that, in at least some programs, high rates of attrition appear to result, in part, from irresponsible practices and expectations. Far from accurately eliminating unqualified students or effectively enhancing the educations of qualified ones, the process in some programs may well do the opposite, or produce a more or less random hash of faculty whim, favoritism, and guesswork. Concerns of this nature seem especially appropriate when knowledgeable observers advise that PhD graduation often depends upon political savvy as much as on merit – or that merit may be defined in terms of what most pleases one’s superiors, as distinct from what is most intellectually defensible (e.g., Hawley, 2010; Grover, 2007, pp. 13-14). While political thinking does commonly enter into human determinations, its undue prioritization should raise concerns of potential corruption.
Alternative and Enlightened Quals
Criticisms of quals have inspired a plethora of alternative approaches. Some years ago, for example, Eisenberg (1965) suggested that the results of peer ratings were so close to those of quals as to be substituted in their place. Other alternatives in use include additional courses, sequences of position papers or focused exams, additional research requirements, take-home exams, and article critiques (Anderson et al., 1984, p. 79; Manus et al., 1992, p. 686). Ponder et al. (2004, pp. 233-234) indicate that, among doctoral programs in marketing that have replaced traditional qualifying exams with nontraditional quals, two-thirds have found the new approaches superior for purposes of dissertation and employment preparation, and none have found them inferior (see also Furstenberg & Nichols-Casebolt, 2001, p. 34). Manus et al. (p. 686) even recommend allowing retries until students pass, as in Kohn’s (1993, p. 208) advice to teachers: “Reduce the number of possible grades to two: A and Incomplete.”
Closer to home, quals processes in highly ranked sociology PhD programs are relatively unlikely to use exams and to fail students (Brady et al., 2001, pp. 277-278). Similarly, some leading social work programs approach quals in fairly supportive, transparent, and multiphase ways. To illustrate this, one might compare aspects of quals at Average SSW (as of this writing) and at the highly ranked University of Washington (UW, 2010). At UW, there is an exam at the end of the first year, “to assess the student’s ability to understand, explicate, and integrate” materials from that year’s courses. By contrast, the first and only qualifying assessment in Average SSW is postponed until students have invested years to complete their coursework. At that point, UW requires a general “exam” which, like quals at Average SSW, is most notably a scholarly paper. Again, though, there are significant differences. At UW, the quals paper is focused on a narrow topic (e.g., key immigration legislation; the historical context of child care) and, used well, can provide a useful opportunity to move toward the dissertation (see Lyons & Doueck, 2010, p. 166). But at Average SSW, a puzzling 982-word “Introduction” to the qualifying paper requirement, presented in the program’s PhD student handbook, tries to say what is expected. That Introduction is discussed in some detail below. A sense of its contents is provided in these excerpts, totaling about one-quarter of its full length (emphasis in original):
[Students must] synthesize or pull together in a “comprehensive” manner the knowledge, values and skills that have been accrued as a result of their formal doctoral studies. . . . [The paper] is intended to be extensive and inclusive of content from both the social work and external minor areas of the student’s doctoral studies. [It must] analyze in a very focused way the meaning and relevance of that body of knowledge, values, and skills . . . [and must demonstrate] the expected competencies as prescribed by the program. It is designed to address issues that are related to all aspects of the Ph.D. Program, including . . . the student’s research internship. . . . [It] is expected to demonstrate the student’s capacity to critically analyze, synthesize, apply, and evaluate the contents of her/his educational experience in relation to the following substantive areas: (1) A summary synthesis of the various components of the student’s educational experience in relation to a specific area or issue . . . . (2) A critical discussion of the underlying epistemological issues . . . . (3) An analysis of the identified area of social work interest in terms of its implications for the development of theory and research related to social work practice, policy and human behavior. . . . The formulation of the research agenda must include a critical review of the relevant literature, a discussion of its importance and relevance to social work, and a conceptualization of the theoretical issues at stake.
At both Average SSW and UW, these quals papers are supposed to be publishable, though the meaning of that term is not equally clear at both. UW requires the paper to be actually submitted for publication; it expects the paper to run 25 to 40 pages unless the targeted journal imposes a shorter page limit. Average SSW, by contrast, states that papers are to be from 40 to 60 pages long, but as of this writing, the samples of previous approved papers offered for students’ guidance are all in the range of 60 to 90 pages plus references. It does not appear that any have actually been submitted for publication. The rules at Average SSW harshly state that, if the paper is given a failing grade, the student is permitted one more try before being dismissed from the program. The rules discourage faculty from reviewing multiple drafts of the paper. Things are very different at UW, where it is anticipated that the student will revise the paper many times, working with his/her quals committee. The completed paper is then formally reviewed by two other faculty members, who recommend minor or major revisions. In the event a paper requires a second round of major revisions by these formal reviewers, there will be meetings to discuss the student’s progress.
Introducing an Illustrative Case
To introduce the specifics of the case used in this partisan presentation, it may be helpful to provide a few remarks on preexisting circumstances. Prior to the events discussed below, certain faculty and administrators at Average SSW attempted to take disciplinary measures against the student in question. There was no justification for these attempts, and they were ultimately dismissed by university administrators – one of whom admonished the dean of the SSW to be sure to treat the student the same as other students. The SSW rejected requests, by this student and by several of his classmates, for serious dialogue on these and related matters.
Some observers suggested that this apparent hostility might be due to certain characteristics of the student. The reader may find it helpful to consider those characteristics. At the time in question, the student was 55 years old. He was a former Wall Street attorney with a JD from a top-five law school and an MSW from a top SSW. He had no criminal history and had never failed a background check. He had published a well-received book, a 50,000-word peer-reviewed law review article, and two articles in a leading social work journal, and was also a peer reviewer for three social work journals. He was one of very few who entered the PhD program at Average SSW with a University Fellowship. His combined GRE scores (760 verbal, 780 math) were about 640 points above the combined average for GRE-takers who plan to enter social work graduate programs (see Stoesz & Karger, 2009, p. 107; Kuncel, Wee, Serafin, & Hezlett, 2010, p. 347; Hawley, 2010, pp. 3-4).
Some observers suggested that, in certain regards, this student’s credentials were comparable if not superior to those of some members of Average SSW’s faculty. Stoesz, Karger, and Carrilio (2010) offer a number of observations about social work faculty that would support such a possibility. Their data indicate, for example, that many social work deans and directors have not published enough to qualify for tenure as researchers; that this has resulted in weakening of research expectations for faculty (pp. 90-95); and that Average SSW, while not at the bottom of the list, produces only about one-third to one-fifth as many research articles as any of the top five schools of social work (pp. 36-37).
What should one make of the possibility that a PhD student could compete with faculty? While there may be some faculty who would resent such a statement, it would seem that a good PhD program would want its students to be capable of competing, in all seriousness, for faculty positions. But perhaps the more interesting point for present purposes, harking back to this article’s introduction, is that such suggestions evoke Zimbardo (1973). Someone who could conceivably be a faculty member is instead a student. One might ask whether such a student’s alleged failings are a mere artifact of circumstances. If roles were reversed, could such a student detect inferior performance by faculty? After all, students do sometimes reach conclusions pointing in that direction even without role reversal (e.g., Kolodny, 1996, pp. 684-685).
As the reader may have surmised, the student in question is the writer of this article. In that sense, this article joins many other contributions to the academic literature in general, and to the literature of social work education in particular, in which openly acknowledged individual experience of a distressing or challenging nature is channeled into productive communication (e.g., Grady & Mr. S, 2009; Quinn, 1999; Chung, 2008; Williams, 2001; Nixon-Cobb, 2005; Fine, Anand, Jordan, & Sherman, 2003). Along with potential drawbacks cited above, such reports have some potential advantages. In particular, persons reporting from such a position are often deeply informed and motivated with respect to the circumstances of the advocated cause.
A Case of Five Petitions
Having provided some background information, the illustrative case situation presented here began when all three graders of the student’s quals paper at Average SSW gave that paper failing grades. Such profound failure seemed to suggest that his academic abilities had lapsed, or perhaps that the admissions office had erred in considering him qualified for doctoral study.
The student responded to those failing grades by submitting a memorandum to the PhD Committee at Average SSW. That memo presented five petitions – five requests for action by the Committee, that is – supported by a number of arguments. As those petitions may make clear (below), this was basically an attempt to take constructive action in response to a situation with disturbing ethical overtones (see National Association of Social Workers, 2008, Ethical Standard 2.11(c)). It is not possible, here, to discuss the full details of the grades given, nor to explore the entire contents of the student’s memo. The following paragraphs merely summarize the five petitions, provide examples of the concerns raised in that memo, and point toward several considerations relevant to quals-related attrition.
The first of the student’s five petitions requested clarification of the quals requirement. Referring to the language quoted above, he stated that at some points the assignment was unintelligible – that, for example, he did not understand what was expected in the obligation to “analyze, synthesize, apply, and evaluate” his educational experience “in relation to . . . a summary synthesis” of his educational experience “in relation to a specific area or issue.” What is an analysis in relation to a synthesis in relation to an issue? Referring to other wording quoted above, the PhD student handbook did not specify any “expected competencies,” so he did not know what he was supposed to do there. He pointed out that, over a period of years, some students had complained of great confusion, that their papers diverged markedly from one another in terms of structure, and that some papers had actually included two separate literature review sections, and yet the quals guidelines had not been appropriately revised or clarified. He noted that he was expected to produce a “publishable” piece, but that his training had taught him that a 40- to 90-page monstrosity, evidently expected to combine a pseudo-comprehensive recitation of generalities with a focused research piece, would be eminently unpublishable. The larger concern was that any number of students may have been compelled to rewrite such longwinded papers, or forced out of SW PhD programs altogether, due to such requirements.
Certainly some students did pass the quals requirement at Average SSW. One hopes, but cannot verify, that their success in this phase was consistently due to high quality of output. Virtually all of this student’s classmates enjoyed a more supportive experience than he did in the SSW, with consequently greater likelihood of graduating (see Weidman, 2010, pp. 50-51; Sallee, 2010, pp. 144-145; Nettles & Millett, 2006, pp. 104, 227; Ehrenberg et al., 2010, p. 176). Some classmates enjoyed especially favorable circumstances. Given preexisting hostility, academic integrity called for a demonstrably valid quals evaluation process for this student.
That leads to the second of his five petitions. This petition asked the PhD Committee to revise the grading sheet that graders used to score quals papers. One problem was that the criteria on that sheet did not match the instructions cited above, so it was difficult to know what to emphasize in the paper. For instance, points were awarded for attention to some “required” topics (e.g., research methods, diversity), but not for others (e.g., epistemology, policy, human behavior), and also not for supposedly required components (e.g., attention to the minor and the research internship). According to the grading sheet, the worthy but not fundamental criterion of “recognition of implications for related research” was eligible for as many points, by itself, as the combined and presumably vital criteria of “intellectual discipline,” “logical consistency,” and “critical judgment.” Then again, because of the way in which the grading sheet was arranged, all three graders might give a student a score of zero on every one of those items, and also on “accuracy,” “understanding of research concepts,” and “use of relevant literature,” and yet s/he could still pass. There was no also no clarification of what would count as an Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Marginal, or Unsatisfactory treatment of the grading sheet’s assorted vague and/or complex criteria (e.g., “creativity, imagination and insight”). It did not appear that the evaluation criteria would produce reliable results across different graders and different students. In short, rather than steer graders toward items that would be essential for the quals paper’s uncertain purpose as agreed by the faculty at large, it appeared that the grading sheet might merely function as a device for a post hoc rationalization of whatever grade the grader wished to award, based upon his/her feelings about the student, the topic, or other unpredictable priorities.
The student’s third petition requested that certain publications be counted toward the qualifying requirement. While publication is not a guarantee of scholarly excellence, it is a fair indicator in the case of some journals. Since publishability was a stated goal of this qualifying assignment, it seemed the fact of publication would cast appropriate doubt on a failing grade. The argument in support of this petition suggested that publication would also be an exceptional achievement within students’ actual experiences in Average SSW, and would significantly enhance their confidence and chances of employment.
In his fourth petition, the student asked the SSW to discard the three reviewers’ grades. For a flavor of the argument in support, one might consider the grade provided by the second reviewer. The petition noted that the chair of the grading committee had quickly graded the paper and then shared his scores with the second grader. The chair’s grade fell precisely at the cutoff where the paper would be adjudged a failure regardless of what the other graders decided. In other words, no matter what grade the second grader gave, the paper would not pass. (The third grader was a minor field representative whose expected role regarding the social work aspects of the paper was not specified.) The second grader was a junior social work faculty member who had completed his own PhD just two years earlier. His degree was actually not in social work at all, nor was it from a top-50 university in his field. The scores he gave on the grading sheet, item by item, were almost identical to those given by the chair. The grading sheet required each grader to explain each marginal or failing grade. This non-social worker, operating as a junior social work grader, awarded marginal or failing scores on six criteria, but explained his grade only on the criterion of organization. That is, he declined to provide the mandatory explanation of what the student might have done wrong on the other five criteria. The complete text of this grader’s remarks on the student’s 72-page paper read as follows:
I have decided to go with my initial review of the comps – it is a fail since [the student] did not address the criteria for a comp exam laid out in the PhD Student Handbook. The guidelines asked for one thing and [he] produced something entirely different. I hope that in the retake he will decide to address the criteria and stay within the page limit.
Apparently the grader, a newcomer, was unaware of the page lengths of the actual sample papers provided by the SSW for students’ guidance. He also effectively ignored the cover letter in which the student described his confusion and uncertainty about the PhD Handbook’s expectations, listed a number of specific areas of befuddlement (including some summarized above), and stated that it was “difficult and in some regards impossible to provide, or even to understand clearly, what seems to be expected.” In fact, none of the three graders chose to address the issues raised in the cover letter, or to defer grading until questions could be answered and a fair process could be assured.
The student’s fifth and final petition asked the SSW to deem the student’s qualifying requirement satisfied. The grounds for this petition were essentially that, in the submitted paper and otherwise, he had demonstrated an ability to function at the dissertation level in Average SSW. It should be noted that one of the four chapters in his qualifying paper was accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal a few months later, apparently making this student the first in the history of his PhD program to publish any part of his qualifying paper. Reviewers at another journal rejected another chapter for reasons of structure as distinct from substance. A third chapter was returned from another journal with an invitation to revise and resubmit.
In response to the student’s five petitions, a spokesperson informed the student that the PhD Committee could not overrule the decision of a quals grading committee under any circumstances. The grade would stand even if the members of that committee failed to provide the required explanations of grades and seemed to have copied one another’s scores. Upon follow-up inquiry, the spokesperson stated that, even if the quals guidelines were revised, that would be of no use to this student, who would continue to be governed by the rules that were in place when he entered the PhD program. In subsequent months, the spokesperson confirmed that, in any case, changes to the guidelines were not on the agenda for the school’s PhD Committee. None of the required explanations were subsequently provided to explain the failing grades.
It appeared to the student, at this point, that there had been a predetermined conclusion that his paper would be flunked. Such an impression would be difficult to verify without open admissions from relevant faculty. Generally, a student may sense that his/her advisor deplores something about him/her – his/her sex, for example, or weight, religion, or inability to accept sustained abuse – and factors of that nature may constitute the true reasons for academic penalty; but such biases are almost never admitted. Absent rigorous safeguards of integrity, the evaluation process can become a mask for prejudiced decisions based upon unauthorized criteria.
From the perspective of a typical student at this point, receiving grades like those summarized above, there may be nothing more to go on than a sense that “they don’t like me” or that the chair, by him/herself, is able and determined to torpedo the student’s career. One would expect such perceptions to yield some attrition, with or without what could appear to be a futile rewrite. Sadly, some students in similar situations may gullibly take graders’ criticisms to heart, earnestly pursue a retake, and continue to blame themselves, for years to come, for their ultimate “failure” and ejection from the program.
Doctoral student attrition appears to be at least as large a problem in social work as in related disciplines. Some such attrition may be due to counterproductive and even cruel practices in some SSWs. Such practices are generally not compatible with the NASW (2008) Code of Ethics (see Woodcock, 2011) or with best educational practices (see Braxton, Proper, & Bayer, 2011, p. 168). Rather, Zimbardo’s (1973) research suggests that brutality and learned helplessness may flourish where power – in this case, faculty latitude vis-à-vis PhD students — is inadequately constrained.
Research has not established that the quals requirement in PhD programs serves clear and valid purposes. Parsimony calls for the pruning of potentially counterproductive peripheralities. Doctoral courses should be able to teach students and evaluate their learning. The obligation to write a qualifying paper places a substantial and perhaps unnecessary burden on students and faculty alike, particularly when the assignment results in an unproductive, sprawling, and even confusing product.
In short, it appears that the freedom to impose unreasonable demands upon hapless students may be at least partly responsible for the persistence of poorly designed if not completely superfluous qualifying requirements. The case reported here raises the prospect that some faculty may not only abuse students in such settings, but may receive the endorsement of a committee of their peers when they do so.
There is precedent for university provosts to take determined steps to rectify educational embarrassments in schools of social work (e.g., Sowers & Patchner, 2007). In cases like the one presented here, unfortunately, such steps were not taken. Perhaps the department and the larger university alike lacked the motivation and ability to police themselves. In such situations, others – lawmakers, regulators, accreditors, and other organizations (e.g., the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work; see Anastas, Bronson, Crook, Doueck, Harold, Ross-Sheriff, Tucker, & Wilson, 2003) – could perhaps provide a useful corrective, were they to step into the breach. Whatever the solution, it appears at present that qualifying processes in some SW doctoral programs may require significant improvements in order to achieve a medieval level of quality.
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