Tuesday, February 3, 2004
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The graduate school crisis
The Chicago Tribune runs a story today on the high dropout rate of graduate students pursuing Ph.D.s:
There are other academic bloggers who have and will comment on this, but I'm afraid that I'm (mostly) old school on this one. Hand-holding sounds great -- except that part of the job of being an academic is being enough of a self-desciplined self-starter that one can focus on research instead of distractions like... er.... blogs.
Plus, if the retention rate improves, it's not like there's a booming academic job market out there eager to hire -- as Bart Simpson recently pointed out.
So, if there's to be reforms to ensure a higher yield of graduate school entrants earning their Ph.D.s, there would also have to be a radical change in the culture of most academic departments. Faculty would have to tell their Ph.D.s that it's OK to get a job in the private sector. That won't happen soon -- for tenured faculty, a key measure of prestige is how well they place their students. The more students that get jobs at top-tier institutions, the better it looks.
However, for those political scientists contemplating what to do if academia is not for you, go read Ian Bremmer's Slate diary of a political scientist who's outside of academia. [Full disclosure: Ian was two years ahead of me in the Stanford poli sci program).posted by Dan on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM
Hey, it's bound to help with the 'No Doctor Left Behind' numbers though. Those deadbeats will just drop out before they have to take the test.posted by: Gary on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
"Plus, it's not like there's a booming academic job market out there for those who are dropping out,"
Not like there's a booming academic job market for those who DON'T drop out either. Universities want grad students for cheap labor teaching undergrads, and so there'll be enough of them to justify the grad school department. But they carefully refrain from telling those students how small the post-PhD market is. Compare the number of ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education for any non-science faculty position with the number of graduates in that field. Have not done the research, but I'll bet that it's at least 5:1
I have more on my site, as I often do.
Two points. First, the numbers don't work. It's less spectacular than a Ponzi scheme, but in the end there's no way all the entrants into graduate programs can remotely get the jobs they think they will. Mentoring and so forth will not change that.
Second, I'm skeptical that prestige actually accrues to placing Ph.D.s among senior faculty. The ones I worked with got their endowed chairs and honorary degrees with pretty dismal placement records.
In fact, I propose on my site coming up with a list of "prestigious" academics and actually seeing what their placement records are.posted by: John Bruce on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
It would be interesting to know the distribution of dropouts across disciplines. Are the dropouts all English Lit specialists, or are there engineering students in the set as well?posted by: Wayne Martin on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
An image popped into my head, unbidden, reading this posting. A youngish grad student in threadbare clothes makes a break for the exit, advisors and administrators lunge for his ankles. "Please, stay, we've come up with an extra freshman comp class for you next term, and we'll pay half your catastrophic coverage..." Disgusted, dragging these heavy burdens toward the door, he sneers "Too late! If I go now I'm ABD and only half of the jobs I apply for will throw out my resume as a matter of course. If I finish the thesis, they ALL will." Run young disillusioned one, run! Life really is better on the outside.posted by: Kelli on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
My own experience is that universities make it much harder than necessary for (graduate) students to finish. The difficulty in studying should be intellectual (including the trouble of independent research), but not procedural. And no, guiding students through university does not mean holding their hands. There's a middle way. Universities are failing their students in many, many ways. There's something very dishonest about the current system.posted by: Ahum on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
The average Ph.D. program prepares students for a life of cutting-edge research on narrow topics. The average job they will apply for wants them to teach a broad range of courses. I would rather fix that than try to improve retention rates for people, many (but no all, of course) of whom would not be happiest in academics.posted by: Brian Ulrich on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
I'd suspect that it's the economics, stupid. Law and medical school, for example, saddle you with huge debts and promise employment and high pay to graudates. Academic programs often impose more minimal debt burdens (at least if there's financial aid/grants), while offering slim chance at employment even if you finish. That structure almost guarantees a high dropout rate no matter what else you do.posted by: Crank on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
One difference is that law schools do publish placement rates, and there's less of a demand problem with medical school graduates. Ph.D. graduate students typically fund their studies with foregone income, by teaching very "profitable" introductory courses at subsistence pay, in hopes of getting "dream jobs" later. However, the numbers make it very unlikely that this investment will pay off. In this respect Ph.D. grad school is not really different from a multi-level marketing scheme, where early investors make money at the expense of the losses incurred by later investors.
To the extent that the grad schools don't either sysstematically cull the field based on merit, or publish realistic statistics on the hope of landing the "dream job", there's a scam going on. Class action suits, as I've pointed out on my site, have been filed for less.posted by: John Bruce on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Interesting thread--I went back for a PhD program when I was 55; had been teaching in a college and wanted to finish my terminal degree, so my motivations were quite different than many; and accordingly my interactions with my advisor and committee were different. The younger students in my cohort were generally unaware of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the job market in their field, and, in general, the "politics" of getting tenure let alone the politics of committee selection. I dont know if a more structured advising system would have helped.posted by: RogerA on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
I'm a Ph.D. in the science field who found a successful career in the industrial area. Working in industry was often referred to as "turning to the dark side" when I was in academics. I'm not sure that graduate programs are any better at describing industry has a viable option following graduation, or still described as a place to go for academic failures. Also, when I was in graduate school- it was not uncommon for a fourth year student (in a 5-6 year program) to drop out because of funding losses. The usual cause was the loss a critical grant renewal by his/her advisor. Our department had no system in place to provide finishing funds. I'm not aware of many programs addressing this today. With NIH's budgets being cut- we might see more of these -close-but no-cigar-losses in the near future.posted by: apple on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Excellent thread. I have my Ph.D. in a field (public policy) where leaving academia is not supposed to be unusual. Even with that as a backdrop many of the faculty members could not understand (and therefore could not give advice to) anyone who did not want to become a professor.
I think part of the reason for this is that professors have been told their whole lives that their's is the most prestigous profession and therefore believe that anyone who does not want to pursue that opportunity once it is in front of them is a creature from another planet. If it was that way in public policy I can only imagine how it must be in more traditionally "academic fields."
A culture change where Ph.D. students are encouraged to pursue non-academic careers would be a good one but I think getting there would be a Herculean task given the current university culture.
(btw I am now back in academia as a professor after 5 years of a non-academic career and hope to practice what I preach regarding advice to graduate students)posted by: Stuart on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Just to respond to apple: some schools (e.g. Yale) have instituted programs that guarantee funding right through the writing of the dissertation. At most places, however, nothing but teaching and external grants (most of them for travel, not writing time) remain.
I was in graduate school long enough to see several batches of students roll in, relatively well-funded by school or outside fellowships; after sucking down the money for three years of the "fun stuff" (coursework--like college all over again!) more than half of the best-funded ones just left; more took off after the fellowships for travel/research were drained.
When my brother attended the Air Force Academy, you could go there for up to two full years, drop out, and owe nothing to the government for all the expenses incurred. So many did this that they changed the rules--you bail after the first year, you go into the service for a couple of years. This is human nature--if there are no consequences, if all things are free, why shouldn't you take advantage of the system?
Universities could make fellowship money contingent on graduation; grant-making institutions could likewise impose penalties for students who "take the money and run." Ideally, the money collected could pay off loans incurred by those who finish the degree and cannot get a tenure-track job.
But let's not any of us hold our breath on this.posted by: Kelli on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
I've never seen graduate course work described as the "fun stuff" before. I must be in the wrong field.posted by: george on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Grad school is, comparatively speaking, fun. There are lots of other bright, motivated students your own age to hang out with and life is fairly structured--all you have to do is get your reading done, turn papers in on time, and whatever your TA'ship requires. The dissertation writing process is the first time that you're essentially on your own and where a lack of discipline becomes a problem. Not surprisingly, that's where the lion's share drop out--they're insufficiently self-motivated to write the thing. And, if you can't do that, you'll never publish as an academic.
(I finished my dissertation reasonably quickly and still didn't publish a lot. My self-motivation vanished after a few years of chasing jobs and teaching four and five courses a semester, mainly outside my expertise.)posted by: James Joyner on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
A little “anti-intellectualism” could do us all some good. We can only hope that fewer people seek a doctorate in the soft sciences. This is generally a huge waste of time and encourages piled higher and deeper, over specialization . I can readily understand the pursuit for the Masters degree, but the Phd is an indulgence in overkill. Earlier today, David Brooks wrote the following:
“For decades, the U.S. intelligence community has propagated the myth that it possesses analytical methods that must be insulated pristinely from the hurly-burly world of politics. The C.I.A. has portrayed itself as, and been treated as, a sort of National Weather Service of global affairs. It has relied on this aura of scientific objectivity for its prestige, and to justify its large budgets, despite a record studded with error.”
To be crudely blunt, these people participated in academic programs that turned them into a bunch of screwballs. Do we really need more of these clowns?
The vast majority of folks that I’ve met possessing a liberal arts Phd were strange birds to say the least. Also, they were usually liberal sluts who put their wet finger into the air to make sure which way the wind was blowing. The pursuit of a Phd outside of the hard sciences probably causes far more harm than good. Richard Hofstadter focussed too much on harmful anti-intellectualism. He totally overlook the legitimate American tradition that takes professional academics with a huge grain of salt. The mandarin class deserves to be ridiculed.posted by: David Thomson on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Did my previous post sound over the top? Oh well, we should never forget the infamous scam “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” by Alan Sokal.
The prosecution rests its case and expects the jury to find the defendant guilty as charged.
David Thomson, Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in America laid the problem of anti-intellectualism squarely at the feet of universities, which he felt were hotbeds of careerism and upward mobility. Jacques Barzun said essentially the same thing in The House of Intellect. I think these books were from the early 1960s, but were actively being ignored by 1970!posted by: John Bruce on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
HAND HOLDING??!!! He said HAND HOLDING??!!! Good God, I would have appreciated it if my advisor and my husband's advisor hadn't actively sabotaged us.
I worked for my advisor for years while going to graduate school. She ran a policy institute that did quite well with the grants. She employ a small stable of graduate students to do the research, write the papers, and get more grants. Let me just say that it was in her interest for me not to graduate.
My husband's situation was worse. He had a micro-manager who proofed the punctuation in his footnotes. After Steve turned in the final draft of his dissertation, and the other members of his committee approved it, his main advisor decided that it should be reorganized. The guy had been reading drafts for two years and suddenly he wanted a major shift in the basic outline. One year later, Steve finally graduated.
We weren't looking for hand holding, just some decent behavior. One of things that my husband finds most refreshing about working in the private sector is that the managers are so supportive. Asking for more support by academic advisors is not going to lead to a new crop of wimpy Ph.D. It might just get them through with the graduate school ordeal quicker, so that they begin their new lives as temp workers with slightly smaller student loan bills.posted by: Laura on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Think that's bad? I had a colleague who had the following happen: virtually every paragraph of his dissertation was rewritten by the outside reader.
Needless to say, that outside reader was not invited to sit on my dissertation committee.posted by: Chris Lawrence on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
My advice on outside readers is to keep them outside. I've heard of other outside reader horrors, too. These ORs often seem too eager to impress the other members of the committee by scoring easy points at the student's expense.posted by: Laura on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Hell, I can beat that. I'm ABD from two major universities. In Computer Science. In the first one, they denied my advisor tenure (she only founded our entire field and eventually gave the keynote address at her own advisor's Festschrift conference) and then decided my dissertation topic was unacceptable the week of my defense; the second one was more supportive, but after the first experience my (then) wife left me because she couldn't face it any longer.
The whole mechanism is flawed: it doesn't reward creativity and it doesn't reward knowledge, it rewards conformity and an ability to spot which way the political winds are blowing.posted by: Charlie on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
All this and more is old news to the Invisible Adjunct.
For the large universities that use PhD students as a cheap labor pool, will they give that up?
What university will be the first to stop granting doctoral degrees on the grounds that they have been lying to students about job prospects?
When will academic search committees rely on examining candidates' quality of work - instead of using either the mentor's name or the candidate's school as shorthand for such?
Given that the institutions have such strong incentives to be dishonest with their students, and the students have at least mild incentives to pretend, should anyone wonder that there is so much cant and mendacity floating around?posted by: Doug on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
My guess is that what will eventually fix the problem, but good, is a class action suit filed on behalf of TAs who "invested" on the basis of foregone income and opportunities, but were misled about the likelihood of the investment paying off. There have been a number of class action suits against Amway and other MLMs on this basis. It might be "interesting" if a state attorney general a la Eliot Spitzer got involved, too. I discuss the parallels between grad programs in some areas and MLMs on my site.posted by: John Bruce on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
I'm intrigued by the idea of a class action suit, but wonder how feasible it really is (of course, if you get Spitzer on board, count me IN). The fact is, while there are some psycho "mentors" and callous administrators, most of us who ran the gauntlet through grad school realized (eventually) the risks ahead, and pursued the path anyway. There ARE, undoubtedly, far more hurdles to be overcome than most kids entering grad school have any concept of. After a while, I got tired of it all--maybe I just got close enough to the "prize" to see how tarnished it was. Point is, it would be relatively easy for "defendants" in any CAS to make a case that anyone CAN get the brass ring if they try hard enough. Maybe this isn't strictly speaking true, but who among us would be willing to stand up in a court of law and call attention to their supreme LOSER status?
"Your honor, I stuck with this career for 9 years of grad school penury, eating cheap ramen 4 nights/week. Followed that up with 8 years of temp jobs and adjuncting, paying my way to conferences and publishing articles in obscure journals, even at the cost of my marriage, any hope of owning a home or driving a car better than a 15 year old Chevy Nova. And I STILL failed to get a tenure-track job." Blech. I KNOW people like this. This is not a group I want to be associated with, even if I could get my student loans paid off.
Brutal but honest.posted by: Kelli on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
The MLMs who've been sued have used similar arguments, unsuccessfully. They've said that if you work hard enough, you CAN succeed as a Blue Sky distributor. But there are two counter-arguments. One is that Blue Sky doesn't uphold its side of the bargain by, for instance, limiting franchise territories the way a real fast-food franchise would. In other words, they deliberately overproduce and saturate the market, destroying the value of your investment. So of Podunk U churns out Ph.D.s in English without regard to the actual market (I think this is demonstrable), then they're setting up conditions that make it impossible for you to realize your investment.
The other argument is simply mathematical. If the universities churn out X Ph.D.s a year, but there are openings for only X/4, then, again, your actual chances of realizing your investment are misrepresented.
Keep in mind that for reforms to be made, I strongly suspect that even the credible threat of a class action suit would be sufficient.posted by: John Bruce on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Part of the potential value of a lawsuit is devalued, however, because there are other careers in which having a Ph.D. is of economic benefit. For example, if you go into K-12 education, where arguably "good teachers" are in short supply, there's a salary and prestige bump for getting a Ph.D. And, in the natural sciences, a Ph.D. is good preparation for an industry job. (Even for a social scientist like me, a Ph.D. opens the door to research-type jobs at survey research firms and the like.)
So, I don't think the case is really a slam dunk, especially when you bear in mind that your prosecution witnesses are arguably, as Kelli says, a parade of "losers" who the defendants (who? AAUP? the accreditation boards? professional associations? every single Ph.D.-granting institution in the United States? all of the above?) can semi-reasonably paint as bitter because they couldn't hack it in grad school.posted by: Chris Lawrence on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
----but I'm afraid that I'm (mostly) old school on this one. Hand-holding sounds great -- except that part of the job of being an academic is being enough of a self-desciplined self-starter that one can focus on research instead of distractions like... er.... blogs.
I can't tell if your sarcasm is in the first part of the sentence, either.
Has it occurred yet to people that being self disciplined is a Learned Skill? It just seems that your opinion is self-selecting, and that your professors' opinions were self-selecting too, which is why you are a professor today with this attitude that hand holding is of no value and that self discipline is innate.
There's a wide ocean between "hand holding all the way through a phd" and "believes that picking 6 graduate students and ignoring them for 5 years will make the cream rise to the top".
Maybe you got your hand held as an undergraduate, but at some point, someone taught you a bit about how to phrase a problem, how to think of a problem, and how to proceed when you are stuck. A professor can do this. If he talks to you every day or every week, or every two week,s regularly, he can take an immature bright student who does not know how to cull through her 9 immature ideas and teach her how to evaluate them. This is called "hand-holding". He asks leading questions. She goes and does the work. She comes back with answers. He tells her "good work" and then asks more leading questions. If she goes down a blind alley, he lets her, for a while, and then if she is still there, he pulls her out, points out why it's blind, etc.
If this goes on for a year or two, then a student who is bright and/or hard working will have learned self-discipline. They will have learned to work even when they didn't like the topic, learned to plug away when stuck, learned how to evaluate their work and see a better idea and worse idea.
People drop out because without that level of interaction from someone--profs, post docs, other grads--they feel, correctly, like they do not belong. If you do not belong, you cannot work with other people. If you cannot work with others, you cannot have a productive career in academia. Even if you tend to publish by yourself, you need to bounce your ideas off of people, talk to people you respect, ask for constructive criticism, etc. If you don't belong, none of those things can happen.
The professor sets the tone for belonging. If he doesn't encourage students to interact, doesn't have them work on similar problems, doesn't have them profit from each other, then it's very hard to learn how to do that.
Hand holding just means spending a year or two cultivating the seeds you planted. Or do you think that planting them, and then not watering them for 2 years counts as a plan ? Do you think the best flowers will come from having been left to bake in the heat and draught?
But nothing will change, because there is no need for it to do so. There are enough students that no one cares if half drop out. There are enough students that there is no need to nurture more; second, since no one is nurturing, the people who are grad students today will be non-nurtured, and non-nurturing professors tomorrow. They will look for and solicit students who need no nurturing. The cycle has no reason to stop. Since virtually no prof wants his students going anywhere but the top schools, there is no reason to have more students, and no reason not to pick the ones that succeed despite being ignored. There are enough such people to fill the top positions, so now more than that is required.posted by: greifer on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
I gotta agree with the "be thankful is they hadn't ACTIVELY SABOTAGED us" line.
I know professors that stole their students work (i.e. published it as their own, with only the prof's name on it). I know professors whose sole positive comments are "that proof is incorrect." "could you tell me where?" "Somewhere." "For example?" "Somewhere." I know a professor who thought it was professional to pit his students against each other, by telling one what the other one said about the first, and vice versa (usually, these were flat-out-lies). I know a professor who thought it was professional to skip their own scheduled meetings with you 10, 15, 20 times a semester. I know a professor who switched schools and refused to take his graduate students with--even the ones who were ABD. Better still, he never told them he was looking to switch schools. I know a professor who got a post doc a far away position but didn't help him get a closer position; coincidentally, he was sleeping with the post doc's wife. I know a professor who would leave the country without telling anyone, on no notice with no contact information in the middle of the term, during terms he was teaching. Even (especially?) his TAs didn't know he wasn't going to be at school that week. I know a professor who left the country without signing his grad students' (yes, plural) thesis but didn't tell the students he was leaving. I know a professor whose level of micromanagement consisted of telling a student how books had to be organized on the student's desk. I know a professor who would scream and throw things at his students when he didn't like their work. I know a professor who told his 3rd year student to go to a certain summer position; when she did and published that work without his name on it, he retaliated by moving someone into her office at her old desk, and telling her he didn't have space for her anymore. I could continue. Do you know how many grad schools I had to be at to collect that knowledge? Just one. I'd bet money that kind of behavior is typical.
None of this even begins to mention what kinds of political views were voiced, or what happened to the non-leftists...posted by: foo on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Can you guys stop holding up the hard sciences with such reverence? I know you think somehow those people are better, but they are precisely the same. People chase the money and put their finger to the wind there, too. And if you think the leftists are only in liberal arts depts, you are sorely mistaken. It is just as bad in the sciences. Yes. Truly. And in some ways, it is far more dangerous, because all of those people who talk about what can/can't be done scientifically have a leftist bias to claim certain kinds of weapon systems/defense work/large scale science project can't be done. The hard sciences that are peripherally related to environmental issues are even worse off.posted by: foo on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Interesting points--but how does one promote their scientific career by arguing that such and such "cannot" be done? Who gives grants for that? In order to succeed, it would seem they would need to promise wild results, suck down the money, THEN claim it couldn't be done. And who would give money in the future? Just curious.posted by: Kelli on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
I'm in complete agreement with Laura, griefer, and foo. I would have been delirious if my advisor had stopped chasing the students he thought he could sleep with just long enough to read the chapters I submitted to him. He ended up leaving the school to take another (non-teaching) job and dumped all of his advisees. I was less than 3 months from defending and had to rebuild my committee (wound up with one of those punctuation checkers too) and finally defended a year later. Hand-holding is not the problem....simply recognizing the responsibilities of being a faculty member would be nice.
BTW, I do have a tenure track position now, no thanks to my grad school. All my recommendations came from my 2nd diss chair (at a different institution) and the jobs I managed to scratch together over the last 4 years.posted by: BeckyJ on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
mathematics, computer science, and theoretical physics have entire subfields devoted to proving that things cannot be done. It may seem odd that grant money is given for furthering the list of problems that are too hard to solve, but there it is.
If you think about Fermat's last theorem, it's a proof of things that cannot be done. (that there is no solution to the problem x^n + y^n = z^n, for n >= 2) Computer scientists have lists of problems that are considered essentially unsolveable. There are many such impossibility proofs in physics as well. Some are called lower bound techniques, which prove that you can't do better than X at some task. The main concept is to demonstrate that a new problem is much like an old unsolveable problem. Of course, when they say "Can't be solved" they usually remember that that is "can't be solved exactly/analytically by any way we currently know". But not always.posted by: foo on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
Wow! I do have a friend who's been through the multiple bad advisors ringer, and have heard of other such things, but honestly never realized people (especially those not in hard sciences, where I always thought there was more room for abuse) were that bad.
Just so you know, I had what Daniel would call a hand-holder, and I thank my lucky stars that I did. I actually changed my emphasis slightly to work with the medievalist I clicked with. I think part of the reason we clicked was that he believes in the "Doktorvater" model, which was something that resonated with me. I know a lot of my peers disliked the paternalistic aspects, but it translated to an advisor who introduced me to his colleagues abroad, fought for me whenever it was necessary (more than occasionally, as I used to have a bad habit of really, really procrastinating), and kicked my ass almost as often as he needed to. He also gave me huge amounts of emotional support, as did his wife and kid. And despite the paternalism some find objectionable, he always made me feel that my happiness as a human was important to him.
The results? I finished, despite doing silly things like getting married and taking on a teenager mid-dissertation. More importantly, I think the kind of mentoring he gave me, which meant a real investment on his part, accompanied by the willingness for me to be my own person (sorry, but I do know women who were raked over the coals by their advisors when they decided to get married -- mine said it would make the diss harder, but that life is not all about grad school and work), has made me a much better mentor to my students. It also makes me want every day to do a better job.
Apologies if it sounds sappy, but I thought y'all should know that there *are* advisors out there who are incredibly ethical people who genuinely take their responsibilities to their students seriously. Oh -- and I know of another -- a friend at Big Research U in the middle colonies almost quit after the MA, because of advisor sabotage, but said student is now finishing the diss with an advisor much like mine -- happy as a clam, multiple job interviews, finishing in very good time.posted by: Another Damned Medievalist on 02.03.04 at 10:42 AM [permalink]
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