An Experience of Choosing a New PhD Program

May 28, 2013

I was a PhD student at Indiana University (IU).  I confronted abusive administrators.  They retaliated by preventing me from graduating.  I wrote up the situation in a blog.  Then I turned to the question of what to do next.  This post describes some issues that arose along my journey.  Some readers may construe this post as being just a story about me personally; others may be more interested in what this story says about higher education application processes.

The General Situation

As I considered my situation, post-IU, my first thought was to see if there was some way to transfer into another PhD program in my field.  My field was social work.  Social work prides itself on defending people who have been maltreated in certain ways.  That did not apply here, however:  social work academics tend to be academics first and social workers second, and in my case were thus inclined to protect the privileges of their buddies at IU.

I had already had a taste of that propensity.  Among other things, I had submitted manuscripts about my experience in social work education to several journals.  As detailed in other posts, academic editors and/or reviewers had handled those manuscripts in questionable ways at each of those journals – Affilia, the British Journal of Social Work, and the Journal of Social Work Education.

Consistent with that, I now found that the social work professors whom I contacted about a lateral move were not supportive.  A student who would speak up about abuses in social work education – this did not seem to be the sort of student they wanted.  More broadly, my personal experience at three different schools of social work, and my exposure to other social work schools and professors over a period of years, did not inspire hope for finding an ethical, intellectually respectable school of social work.

It appeared that, if I still wanted a PhD, I would have to start over.  This entailed retaking the GRE and finding a new field.  I retook the GRE in September 2011, with a few hours of practice on word lists and several part-time weeks on algebra and geometry, and scored 170 verbal, 159 math.  (My previous scores, back in 1998, with more math study, had been 760/780, under the old GRE scoring system.)  My third peer-reviewed social work journal article was just about to be published.  I was all set.  Now it was just a question of deciding where to apply.

Some of the problems I had seen in social work education seemed to flow from the general higher education milieu.  It was no secret that politics and incivility would often lie just below the surface, for faculty members, employees, and doctoral students.  It appeared that a focus on reform of higher education in general might provide a way to address failings within and beyond social work education.

I guess I should not have been surprised when I found that institutions of higher education showed scant enthusiasm for  reforming themselves.  For decades, they had been riding a wave of popularity and self-indulgence.  I might feel that this could not last – that higher education was showing signs of real vulnerability in a time of fiscal limits and growing skepticism – but what I found at this stage of my search was pervasive complacency.  People just could not be bothered.

Peabody

U.S. News & World Report ranked the school of education at Peabody (Vanderbilt) at No. 1 overall.  I was particularly interested in Peabody because one of its professors, John Braxton, was the lead author of Professors Behaving Badly and was also the only education writer I had encountered who had described higher education as a profession that should treat students as clients (Braxton, Proper, & Bayer, 2011, p. 168).  That was consistent with my prior training, in social work and law, regarding appropriate handling of the individuals ostensibly being served.

Unfortunately, I perceived a potential problem.  In an email to Rosie Moody, the admissions coordinator at Peabody, I described the problem thus:

I believe I saw somewhere that the average age of PhD students at Peabody is 29.  I am 56.  For some purposes, including this one, I’d rather be 29.  As it is, I fear my admission could drag that average far to the north.  In other words, do you suppose I’m in the wrong place?

Rosie did not reply.  I followed up with a call to her.  She explained that, as a very competitive school, Peabody tended to admit only people with very high GRE scores.  And she was right about that.  A report I saw online suggested that, indeed, my combined GRE scores (under the old system) were only about 170 points above the mean for their PhD students.

It developed, during our conversation, that Rosie had not replied to my email because she had gotten as far as my mention of my age — and, as she now explained, older applicants would not tend to have GRE scores sufficient for admission to the Peabody program.  She just assumed that someone my age would not be competitive.  I did go ahead and file an application with Peabody anyway, but I believe the reader can guess how their Admissions Committee decided on that.

This was not a rousing start to my campaign to commence doctoral study focused on reforming higher education.  Back to the drawing board.  I had invested in the U.S. News Education School Compass” and thus, as just noted, had access to GRE scores and other information from schools like Peabody.  I had applied only to Indiana, last time around, because that’s where my parents were still living.  Now I wondered whether going to Indiana had unfortunately placed me with mediocre academics who might feel threatened by a student who questioned established dogma in a field like social work.  I did not know if going to a more competitive PhD program would solve that problem, but it seemed like it couldn’t hurt.

Michigan

In finishing my master’s of social work at the University of Michigan the previous year, I had been impressed by the overall management of the place, but had been decidedly underwhelmed by the school of social work in particular, even though U.S. News had ranked it No. 1 or 2.  Within the specialty of higher education administration, Michigan’s school of education was likewise ranked No. 1.  I was not sure what to make of that, since education, like social work, tends not to be a highly competitive field.

I decided to inquire further.  I noticed that the school’s website emphasized diversity.  My experiences as a heterosexual white male in schools of social work had made me leery of that subject.  Not of actual diversity, but rather of “diversity,” a concept that midwestern white academics seemed especially eager to flatter themselves with.  In “diversity,” to be cool, you had to have an Arab grandmother, or a black boyfriend, or you had to be a white guy who bought credibility by attacking other white guys – something, anyway, that would prove you were different from all these other people who looked like you.

Leaving that foolishness aside, it seemed to me that women were often as good at oppressing other women as men were, although not necessarily in the same ways, and similarly among blacks, Hispanics, and other highly publicized categories of difference.  In other words, if educators and social workers were concerned about actual abuse and humiliation of vulnerable individuals, they wouldn’t stand for an attempt to restrict discussion to easy (and commonly sexist and/or racist) matters that served merely to make themselves look good.

So anyway, I was looking at the PhD program webpages for Michigan’s school of education.  I was particularly interested in their individually designed concentration, and I saw that one of the three program faculty members for that concentration was a black man, Phillip J. Bowman, who had focused his career on various topics involving race and diversity.  I decided I had better learn more about what diversity meant to Dr. Bowman, in case he might become a barrier to my admission or, worse, might decide to punish me for my skin color after my entry into the program.  I sent him an email:

Dear Dr. Bowman:

I am writing to present a set of circumstances and, on that basis, to ask questions that will influence my decision as to whether to apply to your PhD program.  I don’t mean to be presumptuous in approaching you with these questions.  If you lack time for and/or interest in answering them, I understand.  I certainly will appreciate it if you do have the time and interest.  Pointers to responsive literature will also be welcome.

Circumstances

I am a heterosexual white male, age 56.  I grew up in a blue-collar family in rural northern Indiana, walked to the one-room elementary school that I attended for six years, and eventually made my way to Columbia in New York, where I earned three degrees.  There, and in my subsequent corporate law practice in a firm on Wall Street, I obtained some exposure to the advantages and concerns of very wealthy people.

Two decades after graduating from Columbia, I returned to graduate school to pursue double majors, at the master’s and doctoral levels, in parks and recreation and social work.  I completed the MSW at the University of Michigan.  I have also completed the coursework for a double major PhD in those fields at Indiana University.

Early in life, I accumulated preliminary training as an evangelical Christian minister.  Later, I experienced a spell of living in a garage and a year of sleeping in a tent, and also became associated with gay and lesbian friends, a Jewish ex-wife, a sister who converted to Mormonism, a brother who can’t walk or speak, and so forth.

Among graduate students, these remarks may suggest personal atypicality in some regards.  It may also seem likely that I have acquired some awareness of differences among people.  A thorough inventory might turn up additional, less visible ways in which I would depart from a norm (in e.g., preferences, orientations, or abilities).  In short, having worked for and with the stereotypical white male CEO, and having consciously decided to leave that sort of individual to his world, it seems safe to say that I would not ordinarily be confused with him.

And yet, especially in social work education, I have encountered discriminatory words and acts related to my sex, age, and skin color.  It seems that the existence of that stereotypical CEO, off in a corporate tower somewhere, has given some social workers license to make assumptions and abuse me, based merely on the way I look.

Most of that abuse has come from suburban whites.  This has been ironic on multiple levels:  (a) the code of ethics trumpeted by such individuals patently forbids such behavior; (b) it seems social work itself was pretty late to the party, for purposes of providing support to the black rights and gay pride movements when they needed it; (c) while earning comfortable incomes for proclaiming their solidarity in parochial journals that nobody reads, these social work academics do not always seem to be very active or effective, in real-world terms, on behalf of the people for whom they are supposedly advocating; and (d) minority youth do not appear to be flocking to schools of social work, to emulate the supposedly diversity-oriented faculty there.

Questions

1.  It seems that diversity is a topic of interest, for purposes of applying to and graduating from your PhD program.  Would this be “diversity,” in the narrow and faux sense that I have described, or would you characterize it as a more informed awareness of myriad actual differences among people?  In polar terms, for someone like me, this may amount to the difference between being treated as a second-class citizen as just described, versus being welcomed as a unique mix of traits and experiences that my professors would be very unlikely to disparage.  Frankly, I’m never going to be Hispanic, so I might as well know up front whether that’s a problem.

2.  I would be interested in getting some sense as to what I can expect, in the PhD program, if I happen or choose to speak infelicitously.  In other words, I’m wondering how the program tends to negotiate what I perceive as an uncertain line between the right to express oneself in one’s own words, on matters related to diversity, and the suggestion (but hopefully not the demand) that one limit oneself to certain approved terms.  To cite one example from my experience, this is a question of whether male students may find themselves best advised to remain completely silent during a three-hour class discussion of feminism, due to uncertainty as to what they can safely say.

Surely these two questions do not exhaust the matter.  But they may provide some inkling of whether I could realistically expect to thrive in your program.

Thank you again for your time.

Best,

Ray Woodcock

These questions came directly from my experience at Indiana University.  Dr. Bowman had a number of interesting things to say about them.  I’m sure he did.  He just didn’t say them to me.  He didn’t even reply to tell me that he was too busy, or to point me toward written materials that might summarize his program’s philosophy.

Notwithstanding my experience at Peabody, I assumed that there must have been a good reason why Dr. Bowman ignored my inquiry.  There was always the chance that my message just slipped through the cracks somehow.  So, giving him and Michigan the benefit of the doubt, I went ahead and applied to his program.

Once again, sad to say, the reader may have anticipated the outcome of that gesture.  It seems I had a previously unrecognized need to donate application fees of $50 and $65 to assorted wealthy universities at this phase of my life.

But I did not arrive at that outcome as directly as one might imagine.  When Dr. Bowman remained silent, I tried again, with a message to UM’s Patricia M. King.  She replied immediately, acknowledged that I was asking good questions and that they did deserve a response, and put me in touch with a doctoral student who assisted the admissions committee.  That student, Ruby Siddiqui, was pretty responsive too.  Among other things, she spent an hour talking to me on the phone.  I got a sense, at one point, that it might be a put-on affair, where they were going to show me every courtesy before rejecting me.  Whatever the merits of that concern, in the end I did feel sufficiently reassured to apply, and was thus able to achieve an official rejection, as distinct from mere doubts and mutterings.

Stanford and Harvard

The message that I had sent to Dr. Bowman (above), I also sent to Arnetha F. Ball in the school of education at Stanford.  She immediately replied with a two-sentence message telling me that Stanford was very competitive and referring me to the admissions office.  I selected Dr. Ball because she, like Dr. Bowman, was a black person with a demonstrated interest in diversity issues, including a position as director of the African and African American Studies Program.  Given that position, I guessed that Dr. Ball might have provided a less dismissive reply if my email message had described me as, say, a young black woman, as distinct from an old white guy.

By this point, I think I had encountered the Indoctrinate U video, which includes a bit on Stanford.  In any case, I concluded that an application to Stanford would be a waste of money, insofar as I would almost certainly not be wanted there and would thus be likely to have an unpleasant experience if I did get in.

I also sent substantially that same email message to Natasha Warikoo in the school of education at Harvard.  My working impression, based on her vitae, was that her surname hailed from the Caribbean, though I might have guessed it to be aboriginal.  She, too, had focused on diversity, including research involving graduate students in New York City.  I did not receive a reply from Dr. Warikoo.  Here, again, it seemed that I might not be welcome.  Among other things, exposure to assorted Harvard graduates had tended to support the impression of elitism portrayed in films like Legally Blond and encountered during my own years in the Ivy League.  I had little reason to think that a rural midwesterner, as I had now once again become, would be warmly received in Harvard’s school of education.

Besides, as already suggested, neither Stanford nor Harvard seemed particularly invested in seeking change to the higher education status quo, when they were riding so high within that existing order.  I seemed to be re-encountering, in the field of education, what I had already encountered in social work.  While I was especially concerned with “diversity,” due to repeated adverse experiences in that area, I recognized that it might be a symptom of a larger narrowmindedness.

Arizona State

I was not looking only at the crème de la crème among education programs.  As the application season grinds on, an applicant can experience a growing unease at the approach of the “last call,” sometime in the wee hours, when the bar shuts down and all must exit.  The pretty girls – in this context, the Stanfords and such – have PhD application deadlines in November and early December, and I suppose we should be grateful that their deadlines are circa Thanksgiving rather than Labor Day.  These application deadlines are for the student body presidents and the captains of the football team – for the applicants, that is, who are not only gifted but whose parents or other middle- or upper-middle-class guides have clued them into exactly what to do and when to do it.  Here, it becomes essential to demonstrate that one has the paperwork-handling capabilities of an administrative assistant.  Through such mechanisms, the beancounters at various universities seek to maintain a predictable stream of socioculturally acceptable and ethically homogeneous outputs.

Then there is the mid-evening shift, when the pretty girls have gone home (or to unnamed elsewheres) and you find yourself milling around with a relatively large, nondescript crowd.  This is the phase for most big state universities and – especially in its later stages – for a welter of variously transitional, uncertain, bohemian, flawed, and otherwise complex and conflicted candidates, not to mention those who find a certain logic in procrastination.  The odds for a guy arriving during this phase may or may not be good; it all depends on who he is and what he shoots for.  It’s not a grand free-for-all, though there may be some of that in the less seemly places.

Events then segue imperceptibly into the late-night jostle, when an oversupply of the willing vies for a rapidly shrinking population of the unspoken-for.  There are various permutations on the theme – for instance, there are always schools that are willing to charge you full price for the privilege of seven years of doctoral study – but for applicants on a budget, financial aid application deadlines tend to be closing time.

From which, the message is not that Arizona State falls into any particular category, other than that it is not commonly counted among the leaders.  The point is, rather, that I found myself securely ensconced in the pool of complex and transitional applicants, and not only for reasons already stated.  No, it seems that, along with my age and everything else, there was a Problem regarding letters of recommendation, to wit:  my formerly favorite professors at Indiana University were now refusing to supply same.  IU had been my primary institutional affiliation for the past six or seven years – I’d spent only one year in social work at Michigan and, as I say, had not had a great experience – so it wasn’t as though I had a lot of alternative sources of recommendation.  Indeed, the sudden refusal of faculty who had previously written glowing letters on my behalf was a particularly obtrusive part of Indiana’s retaliation project.

Letters of recommendation did not actually have to be a problem.  Some target schools did recognize that students could encounter difficulties.  They might be refugees from some holocaust abroad; they might be refugees from Indiana University.  For various reasons, the best letters of recommendation they could produce might be (in my case) photocopies from three or four years ago, written by those IU professors in support of my Michigan social work application.  Perversely, sometimes the most competitive places (e.g., Peabody, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania) seemed more willing to leave it to the applicant to figure out the best that s/he could and should submit, while schools that were less likely to see fierce competition (e.g., University of North Texas, University of Denver) considered it necessary to hold the candidate’s feet to the fire for every last detail.

But perhaps an exchange of correspondence will tell this tale best.  Here, in reverse order, are emails with Jeanne M. Powers, coordinator for ASU’s PhD program in educational leadership and policy studies.  I provide my reply first, so as to draw attention to the core of her suggestion:

Dear Dr. Powers:

Thank you for taking the time to reply.  I’m not sure what else to tell you.  I am a 56-year-old lawyer.  I have pursued the matter over a period of several years in considerable detail.  When I say that I cannot obtain a letter of recommendation from a faculty member with whom I have worked closely, it is difficult to understand a suggestion that I do exactly that.

Given the respectable length of your reply, I am sure you did not mean to be dismissive.  I would be happy to take you through the details of my situation, if that would help to dispel your doubts as to the competence of my conclusions.

But apparently that will not be necessary.  What I think you are saying is that, consistent with my earlier exchange with others, no PhD application to ASU will ever be approved without letters of recommendation that (a) provide “a reasonable assessment” of my academic work and (b) are written within the past 12 months.  Since I cannot meet those criteria, the matter appears to be settled.

Thank you again for your time.

That was my reply to her one-paragraph message, which read as follows:

Dear Ray:

We do need current letters of recommendation for you and, as you note below, it is most helpful to us when they are from individuals who can assess your work (either current or potential) as a researcher.  You indicate below that this requirement will be a problem for you because you have been a critic of your profession.  I would suggest that you request a letter of recommendation from at least one of the faculty members that you have worked with closely that you feel will provide the most balanced assessment of your work.  I suspect that many faculty members will be willing to put aside personal and professional differences and provide a reasonable assessment of your work – and regardless the faculty member(s) may be willing to help you move on to another program. . . . You might also request at least one letter of reference from a current or former employer, or your law school professors, which would also provide a different perspective than those from the faculty referees in your PhD program.  Alternatively, you can request all three letters of reference the latter if you think they will provide a reasonable assessment of your academic work, and then explain why the letters are not from your current faculty advisors in your personal statement.   In both cases you should include your strongest peer-reviewed journal article as your writing sample – the rest will be listed in your c.v.

I hope that helps.  Good luck.

I realized that, in her way of seeing things, Dr. Powers probably felt she was bending over backwards to make it easy for me to submit an application.  This, however, is not the same as saying that she was leveling the playing field in terms of my prospects of being accepted.  There will be some people who don’t mind rejection, and then there will be some who have had enough of it, and anyway are not inclined to pay for more of the same – especially not when there is this overhanging sense that one’s application is coming across as that of an oddball, a special case, a tarnished soul.

It was strange that Dr. Powers would suggest that letters of reference from my law school years would be useful.  I had attended law school 30 years earlier.  I had been an unremarkable law student.  There was scant likelihood of finding a professor, still alive, who would even remember me, never mind having anything impressive to say about me.  The notion that a recommendation from 1981 would be relevant and helpful in 2012 was simply bizarre – unless, of course, the purpose was just to get me to pay that application fee and take my chances.

It seemed that ASU and I needed to arrive at an understanding, where I would not be perceived as limping my way up to a status of being almost as good as the next applicant, and where I would not be depending on a new letter of reference from a professor who had decided to ruin my career.  Given my intention to focus on the reform of higher education, I felt that my experience at Indiana University was a valuable and relevant indicator in its own right.  If the members of an admissions committee could not even begin to wrap their heads around that, then I rather doubted that their school could enthusiastically welcome me into a motivated body of reform-oriented PhD students and faculty.

Even so, as my message said, I would have been glad to give Dr. Powers or the admissions committee as much detail as they might require, for purposes of enabling them to grant a waiver or to permit some alternate form of documentation.  It seemed very unlikely that I was the first person in the history of ASU whose circumstances might have warranted flexibility in an application requirement.

To me, it was obvious that those who rock the boat will often be at a disadvantage, in terms of what their former professors and/or employers might say about them.  Unfortunately, ASU was not yet up to speed on this concept.  In practical terms, I could have given them a letter written by my cousin, but it did not seem they would appreciate the humor in that.

I did think that Dr. Powers meant well, and I appreciated her effort in replying.  The point here is just that she, like many others I encountered in the PhD application process, seemed fixated on one bureaucratic way of doing things, to such an extreme that potentially worthy candidates could be inappropriately deterred or eliminated.  It was as though such schools did not care too much who applied, as long as somebody did – and as long as they had their papers in order.

Like virtually all program administrators whom I questioned about such things, Dr. Powers did not reply further.  She had the luxury of dropping into the trash any communication from a potential applicant who would dare to question her.  That, in itself, could serve as a bellwether for the school’s receptivity to a reformist orientation.

University of Arizona

While in the Southwest, we might want to pause briefly at the University of Arizona.  My email to them, dated January 5, 2012, tells the tale:

Dear Admissions:

I am writing to ask a couple of questions, and also to let you know that some potential applicants may be finding it difficult to get answers to these questions.  I have twice emailed the address shown at http://grad.arizona.edu/live/programs/description/76#PhD, but have received no reply.  I have also called your number listed on that webpage (520-621-3471) during regular business hours, but found myself unable to get past the automated phone attendant to reach an actual person.

I belabor the point because my first question has to do with the January 15 application deadline for this degree.  That deadline is 10 days away.  I am concerned about the possibility that ETS will not deliver my GRE scores to you within that timeframe.  Hopefully they will; but I would like to know whether their delay by an extra day or two will jeopardize my application’s status.

The original questions, on which I have been waiting for answers, have to do with your webpage regarding the PhD program.  That page, cited above, does not provide answers to common questions about the program, and also appears not to link to any other pages that do answer those questions.  For instance, the section of the webpage that purports to show the names and research interests of faculty is blank.  It is not clear what assistantships or other financing possibilities may be available, and what the timeframes are for applying for such possibilities.  And so forth.

I hope I do not sound particularly irritated.  The better word would be disappointed.  As long as the January 15 deadline is not an issue, no harm done.  If I could get some information on faculty, financing, program emphases, and other basic matters, I should be able to review it and make a decision on ordering the GRE scores within the next day or two.

Thank you for your assistance.

Ray Woodcock

I sent this email to a different address than before; yet, once again, nobody replied.  This was not, by the way, the only school with communication issues.

Georgia

A different sort of issue arose in my application to the PhD program in higher education at the University of Georgia.  Blame it on my legal training, but that school’s application posed a question that I found remarkable.  It was, briefly, a question as to whether the applicant had ever been “charged with” (as distinct from “convicted of”) a crime.  With my application, I included a memo discussing that question.  I have provided that memo and additional information in another post.  For present purposes, the brief version is that I wondered whether such a question was compatible with the school’s claim to be oriented toward a “tradition” of “public service.”

The admissions committee at the University of Georgia did not reply to my query, did not admit me into their program, and did not improve or eliminate that question.  Multiple incidents at Indiana had taught me that one might expect such behavior in an environment indifferent to PhD student communications on key issues related to courses, program requirements, and graduation.  These were among the concerns identified in my separate manuscript on PhD attrition.

Iowa

By this point, I was a bit at a loss as to how to proceed toward a doctorate in higher education reform.  I sent emails to a handful of professors at assorted universities, asking about various aspects of my potential fit in programs like theirs.  Some of the professors to whom I wrote were willing to ignore me, even without being paid $65 to do so.  Others took time to provide thoughtful responses on point.  The latter included Mary Morningstar at Kansas, Cindy Macgregor at Missouri, Eileen Gambrill at Berkeley, and Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale.

That last one, Dr. Wrzesniewski, was actually in a school of business, not education.  My theory, in that connection, was that institutions of higher education are organizations and, as such, require management.  This could entail attention to the study of marketing, mission, and ethical management, and also to the measurement of quality and performance.  Given my growing impression that schools of education were not highly interested and competent in such matters, I wondered if I might find more support, and enjoy better employability, if I approached higher education reform through a business PhD.

As it developed, that angle had a couple of problems.  One was that I really wasn’t very interested in business.  Even though the PhD is a specialized degree, there still tends to be a preference for people whose have some evident attraction to the general field in which they are being awarded the highest educational credential.  I plowed through catalogs and webpages, trying to work up some enthusiasm for this thing.  I already had my MBA, earned in a joint program with my law degree, and it did seem that there might be some potential.  B-schools, these days, were exploring niches that they had previously shunned.  Nonetheless, I figured that, if my perusal took me most of the way down a school’s list of faculty without finding anybody doing anything of interest to me, I was probably not going to enjoy a good fit there.

That was not my only problem with the B-school application idea.  Another was that I had already missed some application deadlines.  There were also some schools that transgressed an informal principle of selection:  if the school’s website is a mess, there is a good chance that the school itself is something of a cluster.  This principle, assuredly unscientific, was supported by exposure to (and sometimes by enrollment in) places that could not get their act together.  I don’t know if I ever relied exclusively on this principle, but I did notice the extreme cases – especially when the apparent indifference to potential applicants extended to the point of making the application itself unnecessarily difficult.  And then, for some schools, there was the letter of recommendation issue (above).  Altogether, for such reasons, the business school concept did not go too far.

As the season wore on, I came around to thinking that there might be one kind of department where I could be close to a rigorous study of higher education and yet might also be relatively insulated from the racism and other forms of discrimination I had encountered at Indiana.  In particular, some schools of education had departments that would concentrate on research methods.  This could involve a narrowing of focus to the educational quality and performance measurement issues that I found interesting.

Research methods programs seemed to emphasize precision in logic and accuracy in research.  So I was surprised by communications with Michael J. Kolen, coordinator of a PhD program in measurement and statistics at the University of Iowa.  The issue was, again, the letters of reference.  What surprised me was that, even in a measurement program, an admissions committee might be content with inferior data on an applicant, rather than seeking the best available information.  The exchange made me wonder what these people would teach their students about other types of investigations where one might likewise expect caution and diligence.

In my communications with Dr. Kolen, the specific question was what, if anything, we could do about the fact that the people at Indiana who had written my letters of reference several years ago would not now be willing to enter those letters into Iowa’s electronic application system.  As the reader may imagine, by this point I was getting tired of jumping through hoops.  That weariness was evident in my reply:

Dear Dr. Kolen:

Thank you for that reply.  Let me make sure I understand it clearly.  It sounds like you are saying that the Admissions Committee is willing to contact referrers to verify that they were the authors of letters submitted electronically by the referrers themselves.  But the Admissions Committee is not willing to contact referrers who wrote letters supplied by the student.

In the situation I have presented, the student is obliged to supply copies of letters previously written because the referrer is now retaliating against the student for doing what may have been the right thing.  I believe you are telling me that the College of Education at the University of Iowa has no sympathy for students in such situations.  That seems to be a tacit endorsement of such retaliation.

For purposes of making a well-informed admissions decision, the faculty of a program in measurement and statistics wants letters of reference.  Given the circumstances I have presented, it seems that this faculty would rather have those letters come from alternate sources – from people who are not well informed as to the applicant’s abilities – than to have letters that may have been verifiably written by people who are well informed.

Of course, the tradition of the letter of reference is well established.  My inquiry goes solely to a situation in which excessively rigid enforcement of that tradition could seem counterproductive.  Needless to say, I would prefer not to be in this situation.  But given that this is how things are, I hope it makes sense that I would pursue this matter.

Sincerely,

Ray Woodcock

Predictably, I received no reply from Dr. Kolen.  I did not apply to his program.  Hence we come to the message of this post.  Higher education may not always be attracting and keeping the best candidates (e.g., Lovitts, 2001, p. 9) – but it is surely good at favoring those who don’t make waves.

Reflection

In this post, I have discussed several issues that arose as I sought a PhD program that would make use of my experiences in social work education.  Perhaps these remarks will be useful for people who manage or apply to programs like the ones discussed here.  There is a great deal that needs to be changed before many higher education application processes will be able to claim concern for applicants as clients rather than cattle, to be valued rather than exploited.

Some readers may conclude, from this post, that I am complicated and that it is no wonder I got rejected by various programs.  To these readers I say, Welcome to diversity!  A key discovery of the 20th century was that we don’t admit women, or blacks, or old people to assorted activities in this country because they are really just funny-looking versions of ourselves.  We admit them because they are people.  We do so even when their differences require adjustments in the old traditional ways of doing things.  We are supposed to have systems that do not prejudice them by making them act and think as we would.

As this post illustrates, you can’t expect someone with a bit of wisdom or life experience to just go rushing through some half-brained application process without saying, “Whoa, hold on, let’s think about this for a minute.”  My mission in this ordeal was not to pretend I was a clueless or intimidated 22-year-old.  It was to be myself, and to look for a place where someone like me would be welcome — assuming I did not have an absurd need to re-enact the experience of trying to be someone else.

The issues I encountered in these PhD application processes are a negative reflection, not upon me, but rather upon higher education systems that have resisted those 20th-century lessons, determinedly excluding people who do not quite fit the mold.  As one professor put it, getting accepted would probably require me to present myself as “a good old boy” who would just “blend in” and not be “original.”

In the end, the pathetic thing about the application process was not that I was such a tangle.  It was that there were so many regards in which I seemed to be the only person who had ever posed a question.  As that same professor advised, most people will either fit (or try to make believe they fit), with no hope of altering the application process and no desire to jeopardize their applications — or else they will just turn away and try something else.

These are regrettable outcomes.  It is appropriate, and in some instances important, to ask questions and to identify concerns like those identified in this post.  When it appears that there is just one individual doing the heavy lifting, facing barriers at every move, you have a pretty good indication that everyone else is afraid to try to influence the system, even when it directly impinges upon their own circumstances.

If applicants and admissions officers had been attentive to these matters, the path would have been smoothed out long before I arrived on the scene.  Admissions offices would have been right on top of the situation, anticipating these various concerns.  The unfortunate reality is that, instead, higher education has become, too often, a deplorable affair that treats a questioning mind as a threat, rather than as a pointer toward something that actually can or should be improved.

In this post, I have focused on admissions to PhD programs in major research-oriented institutions.  Conditions may not be much different in other kinds of programs.  There is, in higher education, a general propensity to treat students as cattle, even where administrators really could pause and think for a moment about their impositions.

Ultimately, in this area as others, reform may require a substantial shift to a client-oriented model of higher education.  My application experience raises a question of whether current higher ed administrators are capable of such a shift.  Judging from my own experience, it seems they may be more likely to resist it than to support it.

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