How are the Minds of PhD Students “Disciplined” by Graduate School?

Thinking about getting a PhD? Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is the book to read. Already getting a PhD, ditto. Already have a PhD?   You should also read this book, even though it was published way back in 2000, and relies on data from the 1980s and 1990s. It applies to today as well—little has changed. What is more, it gives an insight not only to how graduate schools seeks to shape and discipline a conservative cadre of future professors, the principles can also be applied to the pursuit of tenure for people who have made it that far. Academic winnowing works the same way at the graduate school, tenure track level, and for that matter for adjunct hiring as well. All should read Schmidt’s book as a warning about the nature of “professional socialization.” Hint: It’s not about critical thinking and high quality independent academics.

Disciplined Minds is specifically about how PhD programs select for scientists (and others) who are disciplined to the pre-existing norms of the disciplines. The pinnacle of academic achievement he writes is not about how good the students is, or how smart, but how disciplined to reproducing the the previous group of academics. Academia does it by administering a system which selects conservative people willing to reproduce the status quo. This is done through a series of examinations, particularly the “qualifying exams” that are designed to select for people who

….have an intuitive feeling for the values, attitude, outlook and approach that the tests favor-they have internalized the spirit of the tests.

(Kindle Locations 2937-2938).

Values, attitude, outlook and approach are what is sought in graduate school admissions tests like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT and for PhD students the equivalent is the qualifying exams. And what the examiners are looking for are students who have internalized the spirit of the department and the discipline. Notably, this is different than getting general smartness, brilliance, or teaching well.

When the issue is how “good” the student is, there is no criticism of what the examiners are looking for and nothing is exposed about the true nature of the field that the selection system functions to reproduce. (Kindle Locations 1911-1913).

What the tests seek is to replicate pre-existing power relations, meaning graduate school is conservative in its very nature—it seeks to reproduce the examiners, even when the examiners are left-wing professors voting urging change for other people’s institution.

Generally speaking, the greater the power, whether corporate or state or even oppositional, the more eager professionals are to subordinate themselves to it. (Kindle Locations 3208-3209).

In the case of the physics PhD education Schmidt put himself through, they are seeking students willing to subordinate themselves to the funders of Physics experiments, which are the people in the US Defense Department and industry who fund grants to professors and universities.

When the professional leaves unchallenged the moral authority of his employer to dictate the political content of his work, he surrenders his social existence, his control over the mark he makes on the world. (Kindle Locations 3222-3223).

Lest Sociologists and Anthropologists think they are immune to such pressures, I would urge them to look carefully at the funding decisions that underpin administrative decisions to fund new positions as Assistant Professors and graduate students.

Schmidt’s book obviously made a big impression on me. I urge you to read it! I will also be posting now and then about other parts of Schmidt’s argument soon.