Academic Crossroads

I find myself seriously considering whether or not to continue in this Ph.D. program, and unlike this year’s April Fool’s Day prank, this time I’m really pondering it. I’m in the final week of my first 12-week term, and I’m not certain whether or not I really want to continue.

And it’s not for the reasons that you’re probably thinking.

In April I posted about the crushing workload, and how I wasn’t prepared for how much time it was going to take. Like most of my April Fool’s Day pranks, I was exaggerating but there was a nugget of truth buried in there — this is a huge time commitment, and it’s led to some drastic changes in my routines. I’ve had to say no to far more activities, events, and invitations than I would have ever thought were even offered to me, but while that stinks, it’s not why I’m doubting my future in this program.

The program is also expensive, of course — each term costs a bit over $3,000 total for two classes, and then there are textbooks to purchase. Over the course of a calendar year, with a Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter term, that’s more than $12,000 a year plus textbooks. Granted, my company has an education reimbursement program that covers up to $5,250 a year of tuition, books, etc. so there’s a decent chunk of that back, but the out-of-pocket cost is still significant.

No, my dilemma is more around the value of what I’m getting. To be blunt, this program just isn’t what I thought it would be, in some respects.

Call me needy, but I’m finding that the educational component is sorely lacking. Some instructors are spending time each week recording video lectures for their students, answering questions in detail, posing thought-provoking questions in return, and in general challenging and promoting the academic exploration of their students. They may be driving us crazy with tons of work, but they’re actually working us, helping us learn, and contributing significantly to the process.

Others are barely responsive to questions, and don’t seem to be providing much value at all other than giving a reading list for students to digest and then write a response to in a class discussion board. They give assignments but little direction and virtually no feedback. Even academic pursuits that are new to most of us, like writing white papers and even scholarly papers for publication, are introduced with virtually no actual instruction, and questions are met with vague answers such as “you’re on the right track”. At more than $1,500 per class, this is quite the expensive reading list.

To make matters worse, though I had originally thought that this would be a program full of Human Capital practitioners, people who are just as nerdy and obsessed about HR stuff as I am, and thus we could learn a great deal from one another in spite of absentee professors, I’m realizing that more than half of my classmates don’t seem to have any real background in the material that we’re studying, so what they are contributing in our online discussions is mostly repeating back what they’ve learned with descriptions of vague or flat-out incorrect applications in their non-HR work environments. Those classmates that I find myself interacting with most tend to be better aligned with the field, but unfortunately they seem to be the exception, not the rule.

And don’t get me started on giving out blanket grades to an entire class of students. I’m all for working as a team and being treated as one, but when an entire class all receives the same grade on a massive assignment, that doesn’t suggest team-oriented grading, it suggests that the professors didn’t want to bother evaluating individual submissions and just said, “Fuck it, give ’em all an A.”

It certainly doesn’t help that there seems to be a profound lack of organization or consistency in the program. These are mostly nitpicky gripes, but anyone who knows me well will certainly not be surprised that they bug the hell out of me. Things like grades (again, for one of the two classes in particular) not being posted until the instructors get pestered for them, or the grade sheet having multiple entries for the same item with different point values… Instructions for a week’s assignment being posted in two different places, with contradictory direction for what’s actually due that week. Links being posted for support references, only to find that the links don’t work and nobody ever tested them before posting.

Look, I know that none of these things are big deals, but if I were to turn in work at my job with this level of detail, I’d be in a world of shit. It’s just plain unprofessional. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from undergraduate students who’ve never worked in a professional environment before, not experienced Ph.D. graduates who are educators at an accredited university.

I came into the program worrying that I wasn’t going to make it, because I wasn’t experienced enough in the field, or wasn’t smart enough, or wasn’t committed enough to put in the time that it would require… And instead, I find that I’m actually doing quite well, but I’m not sure that the program is living up to its end of the bargain.

So I find myself contemplating all of this and wondering, do I finish this term and call it a day? With my company’s reimbursement program I can literally get back every dollar that I’ve invested in the program so far, tax-free, as long as I get an A or a B (which I will). I can call it quits, and walk away with virtually no out-of-pocket expenditure. I can say with confidence that I tried, that the program wasn’t what I wanted, and that I got out before it cost me anything that I didn’t get reimbursed.

Or I can give it another term, which means eating up the rest of my summer with another pair of Ph.D. classes. It will mean that I won’t be able to escape without some out-of-pocket costs, because I’ll exceed my annual reimbursement limit. But at least I’ll be better able to assess whether my concerns and complaints were just a fluke (i.e. professors who need improvement) or if they are reflective of the program overall.

Well, shit. I started this post thinking that I was explaining why I was probably going to finish the term and walk away, but now I think I just wrote my way into giving it one more try, just to be sure.

And with that, I suppose I’d better get back to writing my final paper for class.

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