It’s one of the most widely acknowledged, yet widely avoided, problems in higher education: For doctoral students, the path to traditional — i.e., tenure-track — positions is narrower and strewn with more obstacles than ever.
My first graduate school adviser got his job — a tenure-track appointment at a Research I university — via a phone call that his adviser made to a department head there. It was, quite literally, an old-boys’ network. (None of this is to disparage my adviser, who told this story ruefully, and was a kind and generous mentor to his students.)
Those halcyon (for some people, anyway) days are gone forever. In one important sense, that has been a positive development. The old-boys’ network made the academy an overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and male space, and higher education was poorer for it. But even as the population of American colleges and universities has swelled to record proportions — and also become far more diverse — the odds of Ph.D. students entering this (deceptively) larger pool and actually landing full-time teaching positions have gotten exponentially worse.
Moreover, those who administer Ph.D. programs were slow to respond to the deteriorating job market, a remarkable development given our usual attentiveness to each and every nuance in our scholarly fields. Our relative slowness to react to an increasingly obvious crisis stemmed, I suspect, from two factors:
- First, we were reluctant to acknowledge the true dimensions of the problem, as it would force us to confront a number of unpleasant features of the higher-education landscape.
- Second, we lacked a set of tools to deal with it. The thing doctoral programs are really good at — producing Ph.D.s — is, in fact, exacerbating the problem as more qualified candidates compete for fewer tenure-track openings. The faculty in those programs actually made it through the increasingly fraught employment pipeline and, thus, may not be the best-qualified to prepare their students for a radically different post-Ph.D. landscape.
I don't think either of those factors were the result of active malice or a perverse desire to make life even harder for Ph.D. students. But the effect of academe’s inaction and inattention on this front was still problematic.
We’re paying attention now. Any effort to change this state affairs needs to be guided by the self-evident proposition that we ought to prepare graduate students for the post-degree world that actually exists — as opposed to the one we wish we had. We have to think more creatively about what it really means to reproduce ourselves as academics: Does that entail merely replacing the current cohort of higher-education faculty? Or, besides replenishing our faculty ranks, should we also infuse other employment sectors with the skills and traits that a Ph.D. provides?
Ultimately it comes down to a stark choice: Either retool graduate work to prepare students for a larger spectrum of employment, or see our mission and relevance dwindle.
That doesn’t mean we should cease working to change the larger systemic issues that are closing the tenure-track pipeline. We need to fight the increasing precarity of faculty work and the neoliberal fiscal impulses that make it so. But we can do that alongside the work of re-envisioning where, and how, our Ph.D.s are employed after their degree work is complete.
Fortunately, efforts are under way in several disciplines to better reflect the changing labor environment for Ph.D.s. Humanities fields are leading the way in developing interesting and innovative ways to rethink Ph.D. training, thanks to their tight budget constraints (Less funding! Not STEM enough! Easy prey for budget scolds!). A sampling of those efforts includes:
- The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Next Generation Ph.D. initiative is the leading edge here, and an important template for more efforts in the same vein.
- The American Council of Graduate Schools has undertaken significant work in this regard through its Understanding Career Pathways project.
- And there are discipline-specific efforts under way, too — most notably the Modern Language Association’s Connected Academics project and, in my own field, the American Historical Association's Career Diversity for Historians initiative (both funded by the Mellon Foundation).
In early June, I had the opportunity to participate on some panels for the AHA’s Career Diversity summer institute, and got to witness firsthand the expansion of this really promising effort. The program got its start as a pilot project with four Ph.D.-granting departments, and its new iteration will unfold on a much larger scale. This summer’s institute was the initial gathering of the next phase, which will involve more than 20 history departments.
For two days, we delved into areas of Ph.D. training in history that are ripe to be expanded, reconfigured, rethought, or revised. Several important themes emerged.
First, an array of speakers shared their experiences with “alt-ac” and post-academic career paths, paying particular attention to the ways in which their graduate training in the humanities — the speakers were English, classics, and history Ph.Ds — lent crucial assistance in both landing their particular positions and thriving within them.
Another set of discussions involved the four departments in the pilot program sharing their successes and challenges in incorporating career diversity into doctoral training. What surprised me most in these sessions was that, for a couple of the programs, the most significant resistance to change came, not from faculty, but from graduate students themselves. I was struck by how deeply the “tenure-track-job-or-else-you've-failed” narrative has been adopted in some quarters of the graduate-student population — further underscoring the need for programs like this to widen the perspectives of all of us in the field.
Finally, there were sessions on career preparation for jobs at teaching-oriented campuses. Tenure-track positions are scarce but most of the ones that do exist are at institutions like mine: teaching-heavy, less-selective colleges and universities. It’s an irony inherent in academic life that our profession is essentially a downwardly mobile one: Very few of us end up at an institution with similar resources and prestige to the one where we earned our Ph.D.
For many of us, that’s a trade-off we gladly accept. Teaching in a wide variety of settings, and with a diversity of students and colleagues, is often a profoundly rewarding experience. But the training for that type of teaching job is not the same as for a scholarship-oriented job at a major research university. Greater emphasis on pedagogy training (which, honestly, has nowhere to go but up in most doctoral programs) and grounding students in the scholarship of teaching and learning are additional opportunities for departments to prepare their Ph.D. students for a more diverse array of postgraduate careers.
Several of us offered perspectives on what teaching-oriented institutions are looking for in job candidates, as well as how to successfully incorporate pedagogy into graduate coursework and work with university teaching-and-learning centers to help doctoral students acquire a wider array of teaching tools.
What the AHA’s Career Diversity Institute showed me was that there are some important efforts under way to address the academic jobs crisis (particularly acute for, but not exclusive to, the humanities). But even with these promising beginnings, there is still much more work to be done:
- First, there needs to be a wider recognition of just how much the employment landscape has changed for Ph.D. students.
- Second, this awareness needs to move beyond mere fatalism (“Oh, there are no jobs out there; no one should go to graduate school”). If we seek to preserve the benefits of higher education for a democratic society, we cannot abdicate our position, even if we face significantly more difficulties when it comes to replenishing our ranks.
- Third, this recognition needs to prompt specific, significant changes to the ways in which we conceive of, and implement, graduate education.
There is no reason that strategic preparation cannot coexist with the intensive intellectual commitment of Ph.D. study. Indeed, those two things must work in tandem if Ph.D.s are going to be in a position to use their knowledge and training for the larger good — which is what we all say we want to do, right? Career diversity efforts like the AHA’s must become the new norm, not an exceptional trend, if graduate education is to continue and thrive in the future.