A new book happily argues that we can find jobs for all those PhD students outside of the academy. Don’t be too sure.
3rd December 2020
| 5:00 PM
Ph.D. Student, April 2010.
My PhD students got jobs teaching colleges and universities. That was her goal to get into graduate school. And most of them got there.
In recent years, however, her luck has turned. It’s not because there’s nothing wrong with my students, who are as brilliant as always (if I may say so myself). That’s because there just aren’t enough teaching positions in higher education, at least not the ones that give you health insurance and a living wage. In recognition of this, about half of PhD students have dropouts before they graduate. Those who finish attend appearances for additional instructors and other part-time work, waiting for the tenure track position, which is likely to never come. As would be expected, the situation is particularly dire in the humanities, but social and natural science students are also struggling to find the academic jobs they envisioned. Jobs themselves have disappeared, wiped out by greater economic challenges and contractions in higher education.
It’s a bleak picture, but it’s changing too. At least, say Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch in their upcoming and surprisingly optimistic book, The New PhD: How to Build Better Graduate Education. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 408 pp. Cloth, $ 32.95.)
Cassuto and Weisbuch recognize that the current system is unsustainable. But they are also celebrating an embryonic movement towards “career diversity” aimed at modifying the doctorate to prepare students for actual jobs. Building on some large grants from foundations such as Mellon (which also funded this book), the reform campaign is redesigning coursework, counseling, and research requirements to prepare graduates for positions in museums, journalism, government agencies, and industry. When the transformation is complete, Cassuto and Weisbuch predict that my future students will get good jobs again. It’s just that most of these jobs aren’t in academia.
I hope you are right. But I wonder how many employers in the so-called real world are just out to hire young PhD students in English or history, even those who have learned to teach (a long-standing lack of PhD education) and to write for the public audience ( dito). . And most of all, I wonder if – and why – the faculty can handle the new program. As Cassuto and Weisbuch admit, the old system served us pretty well. We wrote long dissertations that turned into equally bulging books. we worked our way up the corporate ladder; and our own students also got academic jobs until schools stopped recruiting. But Cassuto and Weisbuch believe you can teach an old dog new tricks, provided you pay for lunch too. Her book contains numerous descriptions of seminars and conferences where administrators, faculties, and students dine together and reshape doctoral education for the world as it is, not as it was. Everyone goes away happy, or at least not hungry.
Count me as a skeptic, at least for now. Of course, our doctoral programs must take teaching much more seriously, as Cassuto and Weisbuch repeatedly demand. University critics, however, say that for over a century, recycled lectures have been deciphered by lazy professors and aimless discussion groups led by overworked PhD students. Part of the problem is the bad reputation of educational schools, which Cassuto and Weisbuch do not mention. They are professors of English and have a tight focus on their peers in the arts and sciences. But certainly the low status of Ed schools in the university world has prevented any real reform of teaching because nobody wants their name to be associated with the subject. Why should we expect this moment to lead to a different outcome? Likewise, exposés of impenetrable academic prose date from the founding of the modern academy itself. Yes, we should train our students to write in real English. But who exactly is going to offer this training? The same faculty members who pushed the totem pole up by posting jargon-laded tracts that were only read by other professionals? Don’t bet on it.
Cassuto and Weisbuch have their hearts in exactly the right place. And if your book revives PhD education, I’ll be the first to applaud. But they have a lot more confidence in the professorship than I do. After reading her book, I called a few friends across the country to ask them how “career diversity” is taking shape in their own departments. Everyone had heard the phrase, which is a sign of small progress in itself. And they theoretically supported the idea of preparing doctoral students for jobs outside the academy. But they also said that most professors – and most students – remained committed to the traditional goal of tenure track or bust despite the reality. We know the system is broken. But we can’t help ourselves. So I suspect changes will come from outside the academy, not from within. We’re living in a delicate political moment for higher education: Republicans don’t like us because we’re too liberal and Democrats don’t like us because we’re too expensive. What if both sides threatened to slash or cut our state and federal funding if we didn’t change our doctoral programs to meet the real needs of students? I agree with the diagnosis that Cassuto and Weisbuch made in their serious and spirited book. But I fear the treatment will require more hero medicine than any of us imagined.