Ph.D. students often feel betwixt and between. They’re not yet established academics, but they possess highly specialist knowledge and research skills well above the undergraduate level. The question then becomes, should we, the professoriate, treat them like students or as colleagues?
My own experience as a Ph.D. student was fairly alienating. Cambridge is, of course, a very hierarchical institution with “high tables” for the academic elite and “low tables” for lowly students. Although I had a supportive supervisor, it was clear that I was also “just a student,” certainly in the eyes of administrators (many of whom lorded their power over us) and largely in the eyes of faculty. I had some special privileges that undergraduate students didn’t have, like my own desk and keys to the building so that I could work after hours. But, at the same time, I was not at all involved in faculty governance, nor invited to faculty social events, save for a few exceptions.
One time, as a second year Ph.D. student, I found that an undergraduate student in one of my seminars had plagiarized her essay. When I notified the student, she in turn notified the course co-ordinator of my “poor” teaching. He quickly and quietly removed me from the seminar without even asking me what happened. This would not have occurred to full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty, but I suspect it’s par for the course for Ph.D. students. We were more or less expendable with no rights, so to speak.
There is also a pervading sense of powerlessness that Ph.D. students feel. For my part, when I was removed from the seminar, I felt like complaining to the Head of Department, but knew that I couldn’t because the people to whom I would complain could in turn decide to torpedo my chances of graduating. Getting a doctoral degree is very much like indentured servitude. Ph.D. students generally take whatever comes their way: bullying, harassment, exploitation, you name it. Yes, there are avenues for making a complaint, but they most often lead to expulsion from the department or even from the university. The power dynamic is very uneven.
“Getting a doctoral degree is very much like indentured servitude. Ph.D. students generally take whatever comes their way: bullying, harassment, exploitation, you name it. Yes, there are avenues for making a complaint, but they most often lead to expulsion from the department or even from the university. The power dynamic is very uneven.”
This is why I go out of my way to treat Ph.D. students as colleagues, rather than as subordinates. They deserve to be treated with respect and to feel themselves on a generally equal footing with faculty. I say “generally” because there are some areas over which they should have no say. They obviously cannot assess the quality of their own work and determine on their own accord if they have met the criteria of a Ph.D. But they are equal in terms of intellectual curiosity and commitment to science and the pursuit of truth. We should call them by their first names and insist that they call us by our first names. We should drop the titles of “Prof.” and “Dr.” on conference badges so that we meet on the same level when presenting. It’s fine to put those honorifics on our publications or when we’re talking with members of the public to establish the legitimacy of our expertise, but not with Ph.D. students.
The truth is that you are no different a month after getting your Ph.D. as you were a month before. It doesn’t bestow on you any academic superiority. Indeed, many Ph.D. students today are more productive than some of the established academics I know.
It’s time we put aside the notion that Ph.D. students are beneath us.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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