Ryan Armstrong
Change management. Learning. Maps.

Future Shock! Goal, role, and process ambiguity in Ph.D. programs

14 May 2019

My dad and I were talking about change management the other day. In theory we are concerned with change from different perspectives, he from psychiatry, and me from organization development / management. The subject of our discussion was on the lines of “nothing new under the sun”, in that people have been concerned about the increasing rate of change for a good long while.

Specifically, he called my attention to a book and corresponding documentary from the 70s called Future Shock (thanks to recent technologies, readily available on Youtube. Video below).

The question is: What makes change so hard?

I originally framed my research on the mental health crisis within Ph.D. programs as one of change management. As that research progresses, three elements relate to change processes appear to be 1) germane to the nature of the work and 2) often systematically, spectacularly mismanaged. These are three related types of ambiguity: goal ambiguity (being unsure about something’s purpose), role ambiguity (being unsure about one’s own purpose in achieving a goal), and process ambiguity (being uncertain about how to go about achieving some goal).

Briefly, research suggests that ambiguity can be hard on humans, and further that the levels of it we face will likely increase for many as more work becomes automated.

Surprise, surprise: Ph.D. programs are steeped in all three types, i.e. the purpose of doing on is often ambiguous or shifting, the role of the researcher (“student”) unclear, and the steps involved in “good research” differ from person to person and project to project.

But there are other elements, perhaps more worrying, that relate to the physical, technical, and social structures that exist in tandem and seems to drive and sustain the ambiguity.
For example, other members of the research community often either see little benefit in taking steps to address the problem or are themselves limited by existing structures. For example, the increasing emphasis on publishing (as reflected by REF standards in the UK, ANECA in Spain) combined with a number of other time pressures mean that more senior scholars, and especially Ph.D. supervisors, do not take the time for supportive activities that might help assuage the doubts of their more junior researchers. A coordinator commented, for example, that when she suggested team building activities at a budgetary meeting, the tenured staff nearly rioted.

A key limiting structure facing Ph.D. researchers in particular relates to their role: Are they students? Early career researchers? Teachers? More and more, various groups (including governments) are demanding that the word “student” be avoided and that contracts and budgets reflect the change. Sweden, for example, requires that anyone pursuing a Ph.D. be included in the departmental budget.

So things may be getting better, but are they getting better quickly enough to keep up with the change? For higher education, I have a feeling they are not. As alternative sources of learning become more readily available social acceptable, traditional higher ed is likely to face a backlash unless it starts taking the change around it seriously.