Opinion: KU doctoral grad sees lack of faculty support

The recent Saturday Column on Kansas University and customer satisfaction (Journal-World, May 18) deserves an investigative report, but my experiences with this university will have to suffice. Here are a few personal responses to his rhetorical questions.

“Have (students’) years on Mount Oread prepared them well for a successful career?” “Would KU win the conference championship on student-parent satisfaction?” Speaking from my experiences as a 50-year-old doctoral candidate, Fulbright-Hays scholar and December 2008 graduate who served the university community for 10 years, my responses to both questions must be “no.”

Chancellor Gray-Little has declared, “graduate education is what really sets a research university like KU apart…” (J-W, Dec 31, 2012). True, I received an education from some of this country’s brightest and best researchers. However, this top-rate graduate instruction was accompanied by subsequent professional mentoring that was nonexistent or failed to rise above the lowest professional standards. Moreover, while faculty and staff push for “better tuition benefits” for themselves and their own children (J-W, May 12), no one advocates for the creation and monitoring of those elements that directly affect doctoral candidates and their employment prospects.

The mentoring I received at KU amounted to such gems as “lose weight if you want to get an academic job” (I am 5-foot-9, 210 pounds) and “your (personal) essay was smarmy.” I received the latter response about a Fulbright essay written about my recently deceased father. While writing my first cover letter I was warned I was not qualified to teach any of the classes I had mentioned in my application. When queried about my lack of teaching experience in “all levels of language and literature,” a qualification noted in every job announcement, my adviser replied, “don’t worry, at your level no graduate student has experience teaching those classes.” Responses from academic institutions where I have applied for positions suggest this is patently untrue.

Perhaps I should have been able to predict my future employment success when, in November 2006, after returning from a Fulbright-Hays research year abroad and writing a letter to administration officials describing actions I thought were detrimental to graduate students, the departmental chair advised me, “just because you graduate from this department doesn’t mean you will get a job.” This surprising sentiment was further strengthened by the department’s lack of support when I was accepted into the Graduate School’s Preparing Future Faculty Program the following semester.

Furthermore, the dissertation member who had sparked my interest in the writer I was beginning to research unexpectedly stepped down due to “time commitments” after I turned in a first draft and refused to even write a future letter of recommendation. Another faculty member stepped in as a replacement, but only as a “professional obligation.” Although I was warned that “KU does not discriminate” (with respect to age, but that other institutions do), it is quite evident my (now failed) career path had been laid out without consultation with me. How early this decision was made for me is unknown.

“What yardsticks should be used to judge the excellence, effectiveness or other qualities of a university?” The Saturday Column is correct in suggesting that part of KU’s mission should include assisting students in gaining meaningful employment (J-W, March 30). However, while the KU Law School worries about the employment rates of its graduates (J-W, April 7), the graduate division of CLAS does not, nor does it attempt to gauge its success/failure rates. In fact, CLAS does not seem to notice that some of its own departments may be “cooking the job books” (J-W, April 7).

In my own case, the departmental website reports that I am (finally) employed, but overlooks the fact that the lowly staff position I hold has nothing to do with my doctoral (or even college) degrees. In fact, my annual income from combined full- and part-time positions averages only $20,000, an income that will never allow me to pay off my student loans, own/rent a modest home, or retire above the poverty level.

Most tellingly, although “KU is re-evaluating education for doctoral students” (J-W, Jan. 2), Thomas Heilke, dean of graduate studies, has no interest in hearing how KU and one department failed this particular graduate student, although Heilke himself has stated, “we may have some departments doing things well, others that are not” (J-W, Dec 21, 2012). How sad, how true! Woe to that unfortunate graduate student who earns a degree at a university that does not care!