The odd world of graduate education

Photo by Somesh Kesarla Suresh on Unsplash

Years ago I used to give teach summer class at the University of Trier as part of an exchange program. The region is beautiful with the small medieval villages and castles scattered along the Mosul River. The class was offered in English, and I enjoyed talking with my students over lunch. One question that my students always asked was how much tuition was at my university. In-state tuition at PSU is now $9,579 US dollars a year (which is not expensive for a state university in the United States) and it was perhaps seven or eight thousand at the time. But my students were shocked when I said this figure. The first time this topic came up they startled me by all shouting in protest at once. They couldn’t understand how Americans could accept that a university education could cost so much.

In Germany, as I understood it, whether or not universities charged tuition varied from state to state. But I think that the students told me that their tuition at the University of Trier was about $200 U.S. dollars a year in the period around 2008 to 2012. When they heard what my students were paying, some of them laughed so hard they cried. In Canada, citizens can attend a world-class university like McGill for a fraction of PSU’s tuition. For a Quebec resident tuition would be $2,725 Canadian a year. With fees, books and other charges they might pay five to seven thousand a year, apart from room and board. In Canada it’s perfectly reasonable for students to expect to be able to earn their tuition money through a summer job, and to help support themselves with a campus job over the year. Then there is the United States.

In the US, it is increasingly difficult to find a job working for an NGO or company if you don’t have an MA. I did a podcast episode in which I talked about career paths in International and Global Studies, in which I said that I wasn’t sure that MA programs were always worth the cost. At the end of the episode I interviewed my former student Chiara, who disagreed with me. She explained the challenges that she faced finding a good job without an MA. Over the last decade, MA programs have become increasingly important for anything above an entry level job, and perhaps for many of those jobs too.

For this reason, students are increasingly entering MA programs. Many of these programs are also ridiculously expensive, and students fund them with debt. Jordan Weissman has an article on this topic in Slate which is drawing a lot of attention: Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education. In my opinion, the article lacks nuance because there are wide variety of costs and experiences available with MA programs. But Weissman’s main point that many students go into debt that they can never hope to recoup is an accurate reflection of many students’ experience. In the nineties I had my first teaching job in Joplin, Missouri. One of my colleagues told me that his student debt was greater than his mortgage. I was shocked then, but I think that this increasingly becoming a norm. I have spoken since with many students who simply cannot afford to attend an MA program, even though they are exceptionally talented.

I’ve blogged about this before, but twenty years ago when I wrote recommendation letters for students going to graduate schools they were almost entirely in the U.S. Now students increasingly are looking at MA programs in from Canada to New Zealand, because they tend to be cheaper. My international students are much less interested in U.S. graduate programs, not only because of cost, but also because of concerns about the United States. I think that international students also perceive visas to be more difficult to obtain in the United States than in Australia, Canada or Europe. Asian or Middle Eastern students also worry about how they will be welcomed while studying in the US. At my institution there was a dramatic drop in the number of Middle Eastern students after 9/11. Just anecdotally -I don’t have the figures to back this up,- this shift hasn’t changed over the last twenty years. I don’t think that my school is unique.

This change impacts US graduate students’ experience, which is now arguably less international than before. But since international students pay a premium to come to the United States, it also means that universities face increasing pressure to shift the tuition burden to domestic students. The cost of MA programs at a minority of institutions looks predatory. I want to stress that although high graduate tuition rates is a problem across the United States, many MA programs enable to students to find financially rewarding and fulfilling jobs. But I think that this overall trend will increasingly turn higher education into a class privilege unless something is done.

Harvard and Yale will always attract sufficient students. But as I talk with students -and hear about their worries as they balance their employment prospects against student debt- I believe that something has to change. Funding graduate education through student debt creates a strange political economy, in which universities and private lenders have incentives that don’t always match well with student needs. The total student debt burden in the US is 1.57 trillion. I would be curious to know how much of that debt is for master’s programs. And I have no doubt that this debt burden will continue to snowball into the future unless major changes are made at the federal level.

I don’t think that most of the jobs that my students are applying for actually require the skills developed by an MA. Instead, an MA has become -in my opinion- an easy way for employers to sort applicants, when there is so much demand for these jobs. What bothers me the most is not only that students are sometimes going into so much debt for these MA degrees, but also that I’m not sure that it should really be necessary for them to do so.

Shawn Smallman

Crazy Book Prices

As authors, the prices that Amazon and other e-stores charge for our books can be mystifying. Today I received an email from a graduate student interested in accessing a book (Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and Legend) that I had written on an evil-spirit being in Algonquian religion. They said that they couldn’t afford over $700 for the book, and asked if I could help them. I was confused and went online to look on Amazon. Sure enough, what I saw was the prices that you can view on the screenshot below. This left me rather mystified. The Kindle version of the book is under nine dollars (U.S. funds), while on Apple books the e-book is selling for just under ten dollars. Why would anyone pay $1,187.50 for the physical book? And why didn’t I save a couple of copies myself to sell on Amazon?

I know that the windigo is a common subject in pop culture, such as young adult novels, television and video games. I also know that a movie on the windigo called Antlers (set in Oregon) is coming out shortly. But these prices are unbelievable. Just to be clear: I certainly receive no share of these inflated prices, and my profits on the book have been quite modest. That’s typically the way it is for academic authors. I spent eleven years researching and writing my first book, and my first (and by far the largest) royalty check was about $220 U.S. dollars. My wife and I used it to go out for dinner to celebrate. You can imagine what the hourly rate for writing that book must have been, especially after spending a year researching amongst dusty papers in Brazil’s military archives. I try not to think about it.

So when you see such elevated prices for a book, please don’t think that this has anything to do with the authors, or that we are somehow receiving a large share of these funds. For anyone who is interested, you can obtain a paperback copy of the book for $19.95 Canadian from my publisher, Heritage House press. If you can afford to buy it from the publisher (and are in Canada), your purchase supports a small, independent house that’s an important venue for books on history.

Want to learn more about the windigo? You can watch a video by PBS’s Monstrum on YouTube here.

Shawn Smallman

Dangerous Spirits on Amazon

International Students

As faculty, we often focus on what takes place in the classroom, but it’s useful to remember how much learning takes place throughout our students’ entire college experience. International students are a particularly important part of that process, as Stephanie Argy discusses in “Sharing the World,” which was just published in Portland State Magazine.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The Campus Politics of Online Teaching

A few years ago I moved my teaching entirely online. One of the joys of online teaching is that it allows faculty to better know our students. In a conventional classroom, I would come to know the four or five students who spoke the most. In my online class every student must do two detailed discussion posts a week. There is always someone in the class who finishes their first lengthy post by saying, “I don’t normally talk in class, so this is unusual for me to say so much . . . ” Teaching online also allows for greater creativity, and has enabled me to rethink my pedagogy. Over the last two years I have become inspired by the principles of the negotiated syllabus, in which students choose their content in the course. In my classes students take increasing responsibility for the content as the course progresses. For example, in my Global Drug Trade course this quarter every student creates a 12-15 page research paper, which they share with their peers in the final week of the class. This is the only content in the course for this week. At the same time that my course is based upon a negotiated syllabus, the entire content of the class is shaped around the principle of Universal Design, which fosters the learning of diverse groups, such as people for whom English is a second language, and those with different learning needs. I teach at a public university that has historically has an access mission, and I believe that teaching online enables me to continue to serve those students who would otherwise have difficulty completing their degree. As such, online education reflects our core institutional values. …

10 interview tips you’ll need for academic jobs

I have served on many search committees in International and Global Studies over two decades, and I want to give some tips for academics applying for faculty positions. Some of these points are obvious, but they are easy to forget during the pressure of a job interview:


  1. Do your research, and know all the faculty members’ work before you arrive. This is a sign of respect, and will be very helpful during the dinner meetings.
  2. Before you come to the campus, you should also look at the department’s courses online, and have a good understanding of how the curriculum works. This step will enable you to better explain how you can contribute to the department’s offerings.
  3. When you are giving a talk based on your research, make sure that you convey the relevance of your work for nonspecialists. Many applicants don’t do this, and no matter how theoretically relevant or innovative, you can lose your audience otherwise, even when they are in the same field.
  4. Maintain your energy throughout the interview process. Yes, the search process is exhausting, but the person having coffee with you on the second afternoon should still see you as someone who will be dynamic in the classroom.
  5. Think about how you would teach online. Increasingly departments expect faculty to be willing to do some online teaching, and they often just assume that younger faculty will know how to do this. While you may not have had a chance to work with a class in an online format, spend a little time talking with someone who has, and convey enthusiasm about the opportunity to do so. This may set you apart from the other applicants.
  6. Be flexible in what courses you would be willing to offer. Do not be too modest, and say that it would take you a lot of work to develop a course, or that you’re not sure if you have the expertise. That is not how you wish to present yourself during an interview.
  7. Often candidates will have a lunch meeting with students. Search committees take student input seriously, so treat their questions with respect, and make an effort to engage with everyone. Try to learn student names, and to address students by them, even during a brief meeting. If a student has a question, get their email, and send them some follow-up information.
  8. After you have a campus interview, always send a thank you email to the head of the search committee, as well as the committee members. This conveys enthusiasm for the job, and people will remember it.
  9. Don’t bring up spousal hires, moving expenses, and related issues until you’ve been offered the job. All those questions should be addressed during the negotiations after you’ve been offered the position. Remember, once you have been offered the job the power shifts to you, because departments are very reluctant to move to their second choice.
  10. Never, ever complain about your adviser or your graduate program. You were invited to campus in part based on the strength of that program or that adviser’s reputation, so such complaints undermine you as a candidate. They also may paint you as a difficult person. You’ll have lots of time for this after you get the job.

Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies”

Charles King has an outstanding article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Decline of International Studies.” The core of his argument is that cuts to federal funding programs (especially “Title 6” funds for regional studies) have saved the U.S. government little money, but have cost much expertise in International Affairs. He also argues that the government is increasingly supporting only research tied to security issues. He also provides evidence that college students are taking fewer language classes than in the recent past. Perhaps equally significant, he also points out that many scholars of “International Relations” do not themselves have a good command of a foreign language. …

International Studies versus Global Studies

NASA image: NASA Identifier: sts040-73-037
NASA image: NASA Identifier: sts040-73-037

I’ve just done a peer review of an outstanding article on the field of International Studies, which again raised the question of the difference between International and Global Studies. Although I’ve touched on this topic before it is worth revisiting this issue, because the differences are significant. International Studies is a field that emerged within the parent discipline of International Relations within Political Science. The field developed because scholars were dissatisfied with the heavy focus on inter-state relations, as well as a stress on quantitative methodology. It’s important to note that the positivist approach that was so powerful in the United States (especially in the fifties and sixties) was never as influential in Canada and Europe. Still, within the United States, the field of International Studies still bears signs of its birth from Political Science. Those scholars who visit the International Studies Association conference for the first time are likely to be struck not only by its sheer size, but also by the dominance of traditional social science methodology. If you read the two major journals in the field –International Studies Review and International Studies Quarterly– they are dominated by International Relations scholarship from classical Political Science. Many articles focus on Realism, Constructivism and Liberalism in IR. …

Free MOOCs on World War One

Although I teach both hybrid and online classes, I haven’t yet taken a MOOC, which is a free online class made available to a large number of people. Now the BBC has worked with four British universities to make available four MOOCs on World War One, and I’m thinking about joining. Curious too? You can sign up here.

Professor Smallman, Portland State University

Resources for Internationalization

"3d Earth In Blue" by chrisroll
“3d Earth In Blue” by chrisroll

One of the challenges when working with internationalization is to learn what resources already exist and where you can look for models. I’ve created a list of key websites that provide links to awards, resources, and white papers. In particular I recommend the outstanding work being done by ACE.

American Council on Education, Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement

 This probably represents the single best, sustained effort to think about internationalization in a comprehensive manner.


University of Minnesota Duluth- an example of a great Internationalization Review Report

Minnesota State Map Flag Pattern" by koratmember
Minnesota State Map Flag Pattern” by koratmember

I’m currently preparing to take part in a Global Studies conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota later in the month. For this reason, I’ve been spending some time reviewing different international activities in the state, so that I can mention them in my keynote address. I’ve just finished reading the University of Minnesota- Duluth’s Internationalization Review Report, and it provides an example of how such reports should be done. The work was done as part of a project with the American Council on Education (ACE), which is spear-heading efforts to internationalize campuses. UM Duluth is one of eight campuses nationally taking part in the project. As one aspect of this commitment the Internationalization Leadership Team carried out this study, on the way to developing “a systematic plan for comprehensive internationalization at UMD.” …

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