I recently followed a link to yet another post giving advice on “what to tell your graduate students.” This is something I worry about a lot, not just for the Ph.D. students I currently advise but for the B.A. and M.A. students who come asking for advice and reference letters, so I clicked over with interest. This latest one, at Inside Higher Education, responds to an earlier piece by Lennard Davis in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Davis explains how he tells students the secret to their future success:
First I inform them of the current job situation, whatever that is at the time. I don’t sugarcoat the dismal nature, say, of today’s academic market. But I also say that I have had very good success in placing my graduate students. Then I make it clear that the first thing they need to do is start thinking about the minimum requirements for going on the job market.
They often look a little stunned to be getting a lecture about professional development when they have just come in to ask me if I’ll be on their master’s-thesis defense. But I think it’s not just the early bird who gets the worm; it’s the very, very early bird.
The next thing I do is set the bar for the minimum requirements in my field. To even get into the race, I tell students, you need three published articles, two or three book reviews, attendance and paper presentation at professional conferences, and, ideally, a contract for the publication of the dissertation.
As others (including some in the comments) have discussed, these days even a student who meticulously and miraculously accomplished all of these things still might not win the job lottery; Davis’s piece problematically implies that students themselves bear the responsibility for their success or failure on the job market, that if they only do everything right, they will be OK. Plenty of “very, very early birds” will go hungry because there are so few worms at all; the idea that the best, or earliest, are the ones who are rewarded is one of the more demoralizing aspects of a failed job search. Davis also shows a discomfiting anti-intellectualism, in the guise of pragmatism, in his suggestion that students should be “strategic” in selecting their thesis topics. His advice here is also not as practical as he makes out: academic fads come and go, and by the time the student has completed 3-5 years (or more) of research and writing on that trendy topic, the jobs might all be in a different area. With outcomes impossible to predict or control, I’d think the only certainty is that students should do work they are passionate about and think is intrinsically interesting and important, so that whatever happens on the job market, they won’t regret the investment of their time and passion.
I do think we need to tell our students something like what Davis says: they need to understand that there are very few tenure-track positions available, and that if they hope to be competitive, they have to professionalize and publish. But we shouldn’t tell them, or even let them persist in thinking, that there’s any formula that guarantees they will win. The majority of them will not end up in tenure-track positions. So what else should we tell them? In the Inside Higher Ed piece, Christine Kelly offers a corrective to Davis’s essay, focusing in particular on what she feels is his belittling of non-academic options:
First, tell them that even if they follow all your advice and build a strong C.V., the reality is there are not enough tenure-track jobs for all the Ph.D.s, so many candidates will not receive offers. Let them know that if they do not get a tenure-track job they are not failures. . . .
Second, tell your students there are viable career alternatives where they can use their skills. Don’t suggest that their options are between a tenure-track job or a low-level dead-end job . . . Tell your students that while they prepare for their academic career, they should also explore their alternatives. While they are doing all the activities that may help them land a tenure-track job, they are also developing skills that will be useful in other professions.
Kelly’s piece seems sensible and level-headed to me, overall, especially her point about having “honest and open” discussions about career prospects and non-academic options. I don’t think I’ve personally ever belittled or shut out anyone who talked to me about non-academic options, but there is a sort of cult-like assumption within the academy as a whole that anyone who’s got anything on the ball intellectually ought to want to join us, and it would be better all around if we stopped imagining that our goal as departments is self-replication. One of Kelly’s comments points out that she “still seems to regard careers outside academia as consolation prizes when she talks about students who seek ‘non-academic careers when they don’t land faculty positions.’ What about those of us who wanted the PhD but not faculty position?”I agree that her phrasing reflects the assumption that the first choice of all Ph.D. students is a professorial career.
That said, I myself have never once met with a prospective or current Ph.D. student who wasn’t primarily interested in the Ph.D. as preparation for an academic job. At least in my field, in my experience, people want a Ph.D. because they want to become professors. They are the ones who see non-academic options as second-best, because that is not what they were aiming for when they started down this path. And if someone came to me and said they had different career goals but thought they’d do a Ph.D. along the way, I would discourage them.
It’s not that I see no portable value in the deep learning and intensive skills training acquired through graduate work in English. But at least as currently constituted, Ph.D. programs in English (at least all those with which I am at all familiar) are designed as professional training, and the profession they train you for is Professor. I’ve already written at some length about my dissatisfaction with the “skills argument” when applied to graduate school; here’s an excerpt from that earlier post:
[D]oing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student’s critical analysis and writing skills. But . . . the particular specialized demands of a PhD make it an astonishingly indirect and inefficient way to master those skills[.] Most PhD students in the humanities complete at least a year of coursework, to increase the breadth and depth of their expertise in the materials and methodologies of their field.In English, that will almost certainly include not just sustained attention to literature from the medieval to the contemporary period, but also exhausting (if not, probably, exhaustive) engagement with esoteric theorists and critics of all persuasions. One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, . . . philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature. [2011 update: in fact, if you use it elsewhere, people typically stop listening to or reading you!] Then follows a year of really intensive reading in preparation for a set of qualifying exams. Precise requirements vary: at Dalhousie, our exam lists are field-specific and teaching oriented. The exam itself is a grueling combination of written essays and an oral examination–aha! writing to deadlines and oral presentation skills! And of course the final phase is the production of the thesis, a 300+ page document demonstrating your ability to first create and then resolve a critical ‘problem’ or ‘crux’ that hasn’t yet been addressed, or at least not from your unique angle. Anyone who has revised a PhD thesis into an academic book knows that even that step requires changing almost the entire tone, not to mention the supporting apparatus, of the original work, and probably expanding its scope.
Arguments for treating Ph.D.s as reasonable preparation for non-academic careers continue to abstract general skills from the work we specifically ask our students to do, as if the particulars don’t matter. For instance, a colleague directed me to Kel Morin-Parsons’ essay “Infinite Hope – and for Us; or, Come on in, the Real World is Fine.” Morin-Parsons did a Ph.D. in literature but decided to seek out non-professorial options and, at the time of the article’s publication, was “the manager of the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, part of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” Morin-Parsons is very happy with her decision and urges those of us “who teach PhD students [to] think beyond the pointless dichotomy of a PhD put to ‘proper’ use in the academy versus a PhD ‘wasted’ elsewhere.” Again, I think it’s the students themselves at least as much as their faculty advisors who consider an academic job the ‘proper’ use of their graduate training, but setting that quibble aside, here’s Morin-Parsons’ case for the benefits of the Ph.D.:
the graduate programs made demands on us that developed tremendously applicable capacities. As most of us not only took seminar courses but taught or assisted with undergraduate courses, we all had experience in organizing teaching material, developing it and presenting it as lectures, managing people, and managing time. Added to this experience were the skills developed by all graduate students as they learn to conduct research—the gathering and analyzing of information and the transformation of that raw data into coherent pieces of writing. On top of all of this is the fact that those of us trained in literature can, as a rule, write well—something not always a given—and tend to understand the basics of good communication. In a world inundated with information and people trying to extract from the pile some genuine knowledge, a graduate degree in English literature can situate a person beautifully. What I have not yet mentioned is what underpins all of this—the deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general that comes with humanities education. This is not some sop to the high-mindedness of higher education in some degraded context; this is the thing that seals the deal for those taking the things they’ve developed inside the academy and applying them outside. I have grown to cherish more and more warmly a notion which, I think, we have largely lost sight in the early twenty-first century—that which proposes that a liberal arts education, as we once termed it, is to fit people not just for a particular institution but for the world. The long view of history and the insight into human action nurtured by such an education combine with the often incredible demands for production, organization, and analysis now made upon graduate students as they turn into well-trained scholars. The world needs this, and wants it—not just in the classroom but virtually everywhere else.
Though I don’t doubt she’s right that graduate students have and hone those core skills, what I’m missing is why Ph.D. work that also involves (and indeed explicitly prioritizes) expert knowledge of highly specialized kinds is the best way to “deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general.” I don’t actually think understanding of “the world in general” really describes Ph.D. work very well: this all sounds more like what we hope a good undergraduate liberal education will achieve. Maybe the subtext here is that undergraduate education can no longer be counted on to turn out good writers (not with classes of 1500, that’s for sure!) or a “deep and wide” engagement with ideas and narratives. But many specific elements of Ph.D. programs still seem to me not so much unsuited as unnecessary to the “long view and insight into human action” Morin-Parsons emphasizes. Is this really what preparing for comprehensive exams gives us? What about writing a thesis? I’m not saying that doing this work in any way makes Ph.D. students unfit for the world, but I have a hard time finding it reasonable that someone should deliberately undertake it if they have already ruled out academia as a career path. It’s too much work, not just for them, but for me, as I would have to treat them (unless we institute streaming of some kind) as pre-professional students. Their course papers would have to be just as academic as anyone else’s. They would deserve just as much time for coaching sessions before their comprehensive exams. Their thesis would still need to be defensible to a panel of academic experts, so I’d give their drafts just as much time, and guide them in the same academically-approved directions. I guess if they were self-declared non-academics I wouldn’t urge them into publication, but they couldn’t escape the pedagogical training or experience. Well, marking stacks of first-year essays is good for time-management, after all.
Now, maybe there are people who are happy to do all the specific components of an English Ph.D. with no intention of going into academic work, who find it (or imagine they will find it) intrinsically interesting and rewarding enough that they don’t mind deferring the start of their actual career for seven years or so. My disbelief probably stems from my own Ph.D. years, which were marked by unhappiness, self-doubt, and intellectual uncertainty. I actually had it pretty easy: I had an excellent funding package, a supportive supervisor, small classes, lots of flexibility in setting up my exams and thesis topic. And even so I can’t imagine anyone choosing to do a Ph.D. for the sheer intellectual satisfaction of it! But maybe there are such people, and if so, may they flourish as Morin-Parsons has. I do consider hers a good-news story (and it’s one that also takes a stand for values I share); I think it’s a story we should share with our current Ph.D. students, as part of our attempt at having those open and honest discussions Kelly mentions. They can do other things with their Ph.D.–in fact, most of them, by recent statistics, will have to–and they can be happy doing them. Happier even, perhaps, than their tenure-track or tenured friends, who are expected to do more and more for more and more students with less and less encouragement and support. We should do everything we can to encourage and help them (including, of course, steering them to the many websites and resources now available to guide and assist them, like Versatile Ph.D or Jo VanEvery’s Conscious Career Course).
Still, I wonder if a different kind of program wouldn’t make more sense for those who are really after the broadly applicable skills Morin-Parsons (and those I cite in the earlier post about the “skills argument”) focus on. Even in today’s difficult circumstances, we do need Ph.D. programs to continue training new professors (don’t we?), but we could conceivably work on streaming students into academic and non-academic tracks. However, not only are the logistics and the differentiated curriculum hard to imagine (how many academics would know how to proceed? our training has been of a different kind), but the Ph.D. means certain things, professionally, academically, so I’m not sure any single institution could just transform what they considered worthy of the degree. And what if students didn’t know, or changed their mind about, their desired goals? Maybe multidisciplinary MA programs could be devised to provide the enhanced “liberal education,” with a focus on ‘deep wide understanding’ of ‘the world in general,’ that Morin-Parsons talks about. They could include a lot of research and writing–not of the micro-specialized, often highly technical / jargon-filled kind we generate for academic publication (which has its own value, but is not of universal application or interest), but work aimed at smart nonspecialists, with lots of emphasis on editing and revision, and more focus on fitting people for ‘the world’ than (as per Davis’s advice) molding them for departmental positions.
And these remain, for me, hypothetical cases. Again, in my 16-year experience, I have only ever met with students whose interest in a Ph.D. is as a path to the professoriate. (In fact, almost all of the undergraduates are primarily interested in it as a path to a teaching career: undergraduates are often quite surprised to learn that the Ph.D. is primarily a research degree, and that the work they see us doing in the classroom, the work that inspires them to follow in our footsteps, is a fraction [and the least valued fraction, at that, professionally speaking] of the job we have.) Those who actually want to do something else are making different choices earlier on. It’s not easy to counsel someone to want something else, but that still makes more sense to me than encouraging students to pursue a Ph.D. because while they struggle through their specialized coursework, teaching, and research, acquiring deep literary expertise, they will also be, as Kelly says, “developing skills that will be useful in other professions.”