Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Little Light Reading..

I'm battling a pretty nasty head cold and a heavier-than normal workload this week (which is, needless to say, a really awesome combination), so substantive posting and responding to emails/comments is going to be a little bit light for the next few days.

But I didn't want to leave you all hanging all week long with nothing of substance to read! I was originally going to post another postacademic rant for you, but instead I thought I'd post a link to this discussion between a group of professors and a career advisor at the University of Chicago, discussing what humanities Ph.D. programs can and should do for their students, given the lack of academic jobs available to graduating Ph.D.s.

As always, I'm happy to see people talking about these issues. The jobs crisis in academia is a real thing that is not going away, and any indication that faculty are at least thinking and talking about the jobs crisis and how to respond to it is a good thing, in my opinion.

But of course, even in this piece that is clearly and obviously about nonacademic career planning, you have to have the requisite professor claiming that they're doing all they need to do by training Ph.D. students to do nothing more than write academic manuscripts. That somehow the knowledge that they gain while completing a traditional academic Ph.D. will be enough to send them off into the nonacademic job market, where they'll have the pick of any job they want. Sigh.

We know that this is not true. As I've written so many times before, it is true that grad students obtain a lot of concrete skills in grad school. We learn to read and interpret complex written passages, to write coherently, to teach and present material that we have varying degrees of familiarity with, and to conduct analyses of data using a variety of methods. We're taught to do research, to interpret and summarize other people's work without plagiarizing, and to communicate with a range of people. We have skills.

And yet, it's insanely naive for faculty to conclude that graduate programs are doing all they need to do to prepare students for a nonacademic job market. Really, shockingly naive. Because even if they are being given these skills, they often have no idea of how to recognize those skills or how to communicate *that they have them* to potential employers.

Students are graduating with the feeling that they have no real-world job skills. They graduate thinking that they have no useful knowledge other than the arcane subject matter they studied in grad school. They graduate with no idea of how to write for a nonacademic audience or of how to convert an academic CV into a resume. They graduate (or drop out) with low self-esteem, a lack of ability to view their skills and abilities objectively, and almost no knowledge of how to find and land a nonacademic job.

It's unbelievably, shockingly naive and blinkered to argue that by teaching students to do academic research, grad programs are doing all they need to do to help students prepare for the nonacademic job market. Grad programs simply need to do more - whether that means that students are required to meet with career counselors, or take courses in technical writing or applied research or some other field that will make the connections between their academic knowledge and real-world skills more clear.

Or perhaps, simply having grad programs acknowledge - for once - that all of their graduates are not going to land an academic job would be enough. Departments could bring in nonacademics as well as tenured faculty to give seminars on different types of jobs or on resume-writing. Advisors could be prepared with a list of nonacademic contacts or career counselors to hand over to their advisees if they express a desire for nonacademic work. Departments could champion their graduates who are working at research organizations or museums or publishing houses right alongside those who are working as tenure-track faculty. Perhaps then, grad students would feel less ostracized for seeking nonacademic employment, and won't blame themselves when the academic market doesn't work out for them. Because, unlike now, they would realize that there are other good job prospects out there.

UGH. I'm going to bet that if Dr. Abbott has ever had a student become employed outside of academia, he has absolutely no idea of the emotional or technical process that those students have gone through to get that job. He probably sees his students who are working in nonacademic jobs and thinks that they just magically landed in those positions on the strength of their first-authored publication in the American Journal of Basketweaving. It's blinkered thinking of the highest order to think that the leap from academia to non-academia can be made by anyone and everyone without any changes needing to be made.


I'm also getting a little bit tired of seeing defensive tenured faculty argue (as Prof. Abbott does in his third answer) that any discussion about preparing students for nonacademic jobs is actually a veiled call for universities to abandon research and academic pursuits (to stop keeping "knowledge going"). I don't know a single person in the postacademic world who makes that argument.

All we tend to call for is for departments to start providing information and resources for their students to help them identify transferable skills and/or find work if they don't want or can't get an academic job. And while there are a lot of people who argue that fewer people should go to graduate school, I haven't run across anyone who calls for the wholesale elimination of academic departments or academic work in general.

There is still plenty of room for academic research and training in graduate programs. After all, given accreditation requirements and funding cuts that require faculty to apply for grants and whatnot? There will always be a need for tenured faculty doing research out of R-1 universities. Calling for a wider definition of what constitutes graduate education does not mean that we are calling for the elimination of traditional academic pursuits. It just means that we're calling for something else to rise up in graduate education next to traditional academic pursuits. We're calling for faculty who are training graduate students to start training them for the jobs they can get rather than for jobs that simply aren't out there any more.

It just would be nice to see faculty concern themselves with the future well-being of their students every now and then, rather than simply the well-being of the research and ideas they produce and of the academic myths they cling to.


Despite my criticisms of the one respondent in this article, however, I'd like to commend the other faculty quoted in the article for recognizing the problem and the need for strategies to address it. Those are the kind of faculty that give the profession a good name - the type who truly see training their students and getting them placed into good jobs as a laudable goal in itself, even if it means that the annual academic conferences have a few fewer attendees each year or academic journals have fewer submissions every year.

So bravo to Professors Grafton and Roth, and to Ms. Daw. The grad students at the U of Chicago are lucky to have you.


  1. hear hear. It would indeed by nice to see the goal of graduate education to be training and placing students into good jobs. U of Chicago are indeed lucky that some people are starting to have this discussion...There should be more of it.

  2. Yes, these discussions are of paramount importance. As I (was somewhat heartened to) report in my blog, I was happy that my U was taking the steps to consider subscribing to the Versatile PhD web site. I wish they were doing a bit more like training students to write different kinds of resumes, etc but I'll try and be optimistic and say maybe it's a (smallish) step in the right direction.