Thursday, January 14, 2010

Playing The Blame Game: Or; How Should Graduate Schools Respond To The Bad Job Market?

Over at ConfessionsOf A Community College Dean your favorite administrator and mine, Dean Dad, asks: "Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts?"

Good question. Although I have no former undergraduates making the leap into a Ph.D. program this year, the bigger picture is quite different. As Dean Dad notes, "the adjunct trend is so well-established at this point, and the economic irrationality of grad school so screamingly obvious, that it's fair to wonder why many departments are actually experiencing record applications." While he explores various irrational explanations -- love for learning, self-delusion, and hiding out until the recession is over -- there is, he argues, some rationality to the choice:

academia still offers a surface legibility. Yes, the odds are daunting, but good students have spent years rising to the top of academic competitions. There's still a path, there are still hoops, there are still rules. They don't really work very often anymore, but they're there. As the rest of the economy has become less legible, this holds real (if misguided) appeal.

I think this explains some of the wounded indignation people express when they can't get the tenure-track jobs they wanted. In many other lines of work, it's simply understood that the climate of opportunity fluctuates, and you'll get both good breaks and bad. But academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility. When you follow the rules for twenty years, only to find nothing waiting for you at the end, it's easy to move to angry disbelief. Academia likes to tell itself that it's immune to economics, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It's supposed to be clear and fair, economics be damned. So some people hang on for years on end, waiting to redeem what they think they're owed.

I find this very persuasive, particularly since I am not a huge fan of rational choice arguments, and Dean Dad's explanation addresses the rational and the irrational. I speak as someone whose success as an academic was relatively unplanned, and in fact, a great surprise. My original decision to go to graduate school was both wildly irrational (I had a very hazy idea of what the outcome would be) and pretty rational (I knew I was good at school.) I believed that becoming more knowledgeable would push my plan of being some kind of intellectual ahead, but I just wasn't sure what kind of intellectual that would be. What I now consider in retrospect to have been wildly good luck on a really bad job market (the year I got the job at Zenith there were exactly four tenure-track openings advertised in my field in the entire nation) meant that I never committed emotionally to having a tenure-track job prior to getting one; nor did I have to make a difficult decision about what to do if I were not employed as a university professor.

Furthermore, I went to a graduate school that had many flaws but at least one signal virtue: it supported us by putting us to work in a surprising variety of ways. When I first matriculated we had an entrepeneurial chair, a historian of the Jacksonian period, who believed in and operated by the spoils system. Whenever financial aid allotments to the department were insufficient, he called in favors and found ways of stashing us in jobs all over the university that gave us stipends and whatever degree of tuition remission we required. As a result, my graduate school cohort includes people who now work in film, archives, libraries, labor organizing, museums and administration as well as in full-time tenure track lines. It wasn't just that no work was beneath us, but that many of us found that we actually preferred and chose intellectual labor that occurred outside the classroom. Why? Well the reasons differ from person to person, and the job market was terrible in the 1980s -- but the fact is we had the chance to try out many ways of using a history degree.

Because this happens to be my own experience, and because I work with a lot of intelligent, intellectual people at Zenith who are employed in IT, athletics, arts administration, academic administration and whatnot, I must be honest about one thing. While I am deeply sympathetic to those whose dreams of a teaching life are discouraged and perhaps dashed by a foul job market that gets only fouler, I am entirely unsympathetic to claims by disappointed job seekers that they have been lied to and bamboozled by the schools that admitted them to the Ph.D. because they were not cautioned at the very beginning of their education that they might not succeed in finding a tenure-track job.

In fact, I don't know a single form of professional education that guarantees its graduates a job, whether the market is good or bad, and why Ph.D. granting programs have a special moral responsibility to do this is unclear. But on the job wikis and the blogs there is an emerging consensus that the jobless should have received a waiver of liability with the letter of admission (which Brown University actually used to send its graduate students in English back in the sad old 1980s, and most of us who knew someone who received one were horrified by the practice.) Resentful job seekers , in other words, speak in the language of fraud rather than regret. This I find astonishing, given that an hour of research prior to applying, or accepting an offer of admission, could tell any prospective graduate student what their academic job prospects might look like six to seven years hence.

The only thing that makes this phenomenon less astonishing is that today's prospective graduate students were yesterday's undergraduates, and undergraduate education has been trending towards nanny-ism and false guarantees for several decades. But what is it that graduate programs and professional associations could do to intervene in this situation? I have three suggestions.

Ph.D. programs should not allow graduate students to matriculate within three years of having attained the bachelor's degree. This would significantly reduce the number of young people who use a Ph.D. program to prolong a love affair with books and ideas, or who are bored by the ill-paid, entry level jobs they are eligible for immediately following graduation. My students who go on to graduate school in history or American Studies usually contact me for a recommendation within four or five months of graduation, when they have barely had time to think about work at all or how they might make an intellectual life without an advanced degree. Interestingly, and perhaps because of the greater financial investment involved, my students who go on to a professional school in the law, business, or the health professions average a 2-4 year gap between the B.A. and matriculating for a graduate degree.

Ph.D. programs should consider devoting at least one year of graduate support to administrative labor. This would have several advantages, the primary one being that everyone with a Ph.D. would have some idea of how a university actually functions and how to participate in faculty governance in a responsible, business-like way. Over time, it could reduce the mutual contempt that often exists between faculty and non-faculty laborers. But a third advantage would be that administrative work would become a viable option for Ph.D.'s who cannot find a tenure track job, who need to work in a particular region because of family responsibilities, or who find that teaching and writing are not all they were cracked up to be. Plenty of administrative jobs require the Ph.D. now, and there are in all universities talented administrators who have hit the ceiling because they lack the degree, or are not tenurable. University presses would also be an outstanding place to spend this fellowship year, since becoming a book editor, a writer or a literary agent is a viable (and often more vital) way to perpetuate an intellectual life.

Professional associations, particularly in history and literary studies, need to think about accreditation of graduate programs. More surveillance is not necessarily a good thing, I know, but there are too many Ph.D. programs that are perpetuated, not because they are a path to a career, but because the faculty in the department want to teach graduate classes and have teaching assistants. I'm not saying that all programs with poor placement records should close, but many of them (including some very prestigious ones) might want to retain their accreditation by creating multiple career paths within the Ph.D. One of the reasons my cohort at Potemkin University was as successful as it was in finding employment for everyone was that we had thriving Public History and Archives programs. A program might consider certificate programs in oral history, publishing, museum studies, public policy, speechwriting, journalism -- be creative! Ph.D. students could enroll; other students might matriculate for an M.A. and be full payers. This would acomplish three things simultaneously: create tenure-track jobs, generate the money to pay for them, and expand opportunities for post-graduate employment and consultancy.

While I don't think Ph.D, programs are responsible for unemployed graduates, they could do a better job of imagining what an intellectual life in the twenty-first century looks like and how the university can connect to the public sphere is more vital ways. While the vast majority of Ph.D. candidates are clear they want an academic job, it is simply a fact -- and not a secret -- that fewer than half of them will be able to get teaching jobs for the foreseeable future. But one might also add the following: not everyone should be teaching, not everyone wants to become good at it, and there are few people who are brave enough to admit that in an atmosphere where the teaching career is the only stamp of approval for an intellectual. This is the world that graduate schools may not have made, but it is the one to which they must respond.


Susan said...

I think most of this is spot on. However, I think the bit about why faculty keep graduate students is naive. In public higher education, the ratio between faculty and students is much higher than at a place like Zenith, and graduate students are central to the funding model employed by the university. We can't hire lecturers, but we get TAs. So we have to have graduate students.

Candace said...

Love the idea of certificate programs in the skills-based side. Do you know any examples of schools doing this?

Katrina said...

I agree with some of your comments, but I'm in two minds about some elements. The notion that people should spend several years after undergrad doing something else before a PhD is one that I have some sympathy for: certainly I think those who come into grad school in that way can have a more mature and rounded approach, and perhaps a more serious commitment to their choice. However, in the US where PhDs often seem to take a decade, I see people who started their PhD at 30, are graduating at 40, and only then trying to begin an academic career. I'm not sure that's a situation to promote (as much as we decry ageism in academia, it does exist, and people spending the usual several years pedalling through adjunct and VAP jobs before they get a T-T while in their mid-40s are not in an optimal situation. Only beginning to save for retirement at 48?)

This time-to-degree issue is a main point here. The UK system of a 3 year PhD, although flawed in some ways, has the redeeming feature that 3 years in one's 20s is not as damaging in terms of opportunity cost if academia doesn't work out. (Plenty of people take gap years and spend time exploring various avenues in their 20s, and getting a PhD is hardly a bad way to spend some of that time).
But I see some programs in the US that expect a Masters for entry, and THEN expect 2 years of coursework, and THEN 3 years plus for a dissertation. To this I say: are you *&^%$£ kidding me?? While I am sure such programs may be rigorous and produce scholars with an encyclopedic knowledge of historiography, I have to ask: is that really necessary?
That's 7 years, MINIMUM, after an undergrad degree, to prepare for a job you probably won't get anyway.
And such long lead-times, as well as meaning people can hardly be expected to anticipate the job market situation when they finish a decade later, also inevitably lead to institutionalisation, and when people have spent the greater part of their adult lives in graduate school, a limiting of options - both self-selectingly and in the way their experiences will be perceived by non-academic employers.

I wrote some other things on the job market a couple of days ago here:

Jonathan Dresner said...

Ph.D. programs should not allow graduate students to matriculate within three years of having attained the bachelor's degree.

All you're doing is guaranteeing full enrollment for MA programs. I teach in one of those, so thanks!

Seriously, though, I am actually kind of offended by your comments under this suggestion, which suggest that those of us -- yeah, I'm one of them -- who went right on to graduate school had no good employment prospects (I had a degree in Japanese culture with a minor in computer science in 1989) or had never seriously considered "life" or are somehow pathologically limited in character or spirit.

Yes, I went right from undergrad to grad. Did I expect to have a career? No, actually. I went on because I had questions, which is, I've discovered, pretty much exactly why people should go to graduate school.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting very tired of listening to (reading) tenured faculty telling me how stupid I was to go to graduate school and actually believe that I would have a chance of getting a job. Yes, the best plan here is to blame those of us, without connections in business or academia, first-generation college students, for actually believing the authority figures who told us we would have a chance-- people who were in the field we planned to be in. 8 years ago, when I started grad school-- and when I didn't even have a computer or internet to do all of this "easy" research you mention-- I naively thought that people in the field would tell me the truth-- the market was bad, but nothing like today. People from my school and field DID have a decent chance of getting a job, or so it seemed from my perspective-- and the alternative of returning to the kinds of jobs the adults I grew up around did (low-level, "working-class" jobs) was not the end of the world for me. Now, even THOSE jobs aren't available. And so for those who got jobs in the days before us to sit there, from their position of privilege, and tut-tut at our foolishness while allowing the profession itself to dissolve into nothing but low-paid, no security adjunct work makes me even more disgusted with academia and academics. Those with degrees from my (state) school, in similar fields, got jobs even 3 years ago. Now? I'm just so tired of the smug elitism of academics. I don't expect a high-paying tenure track job, but I DO believe I was misled. This isn't a matter of being "cautioned" that we "might not find a tenure-track job"-- it is anger at a system that seems to have completely unraveled while those who HAVE jobs smugly blame us for doing the SAME THING they did-- and anger that those jobs increasingly DO NOT EXIST. We were also fed the "jobs are going to open up in the next decade as the boomers retire" line-- but we did not know that when they did, their positions would turn into adjunct positions that pay less than fast food restaurants.

Shawna said...

This I find astonishing, given that an hour of research prior to applying, or accepting an offer of admission, could tell any prospective graduate student what their academic job prospects might look like six to seven years hence.

Research would not have told us that the entire US economy was going to collapse, and that the typical job listings at MLA would fall from a little over a thousand to a little over three hundred in a span of two years. The eighties were not at all as bad as this. Just refer to the numbers.

good enough cook said...

What Susan said. I agree that most of this is smart and right, but it seems to stop a little short, both in allocating blame and suggesting a solution. Yes, it's unreasonable for today's new and jobless Ph.D.'s to blame their programs for not anticipating how bad it would get and posting disclaimers. On the other hand, grad programs have not been candid about why they admit so many more students than the market will bear: in order to staff service courses cheaply. Grad programs should respond to the bad job market not only by reassessing whether they ought to exist, but thinking hard about the tenured and TT faculty can fulfill their institution's teaching mission without relying on an inexhaustible stream of irrational and imprudent (if well-intentioned) recent college grads or exploiting the adjunct labor of recent (and now bitter and resentful) Ph.D.s.

Tenured Radical said...

Susan: Wrong in some cases, perhaps, but not naive. Graduate students are seen as a recruitment tool because they are a mark of prestige and they do work that would otherwise fall on full time faculty. They also, as you point out, do work at cheap rates, which is where the professional associations need to step in and look at programs. If a major answer to the question "Why a graduate program" is "Twenty sections of freshman comp!" that should be easily available information.

Candace: Brown, Delaware and William and Mary have excellent museum studies programs; Potemkin, my alma mater, has resurrected its public history MA, and Berkely has an outstanding oral history institute. That's only a few.

Katrina: One of the questions anyone needs to ask about a graduate program is, what is the average time of completion? 10 years is absurd. Princeton seems to kick them out in 6, and many people delay defending the diss. because they don't have jobs and they don't want a gap on the vita. I would also just say that some of the scenarios you describe are real judgement calls, since the returns, as you point out are diminishing. Few people would suggest, for example, that going to law school when you are 50 is a good idea, unless you can really afford to take a 200k hit. You can do it, sure, and it might be right for you, but as a life plan it will only work for very few.

JD: Nice to hear from you -- my point about the "wait three years" shouldn't offend you, since it wasn't aimed at you. rather, since getting a Ph.D. and trying to become a college professor is a hard road, it should be at least as well-considered a decision as any other, and I don't believe it always is. What could be done with those three years? Reading, for one thing; travel, for another; future Americanists could learn to read and speak a second language fluently which few do nowadays. A person could teach high school and really think about whether they like teaching.

Anonymous: Sorry dude, this is exactly my point -- no body is blaming you for anything, but why rage at me for the problems of the profession when the point of this post is reforming graduate programs? And yes, to some extent, jobless academics need to do what jobless auto workers, telephone operators and bankers do: retrain and move on.

And btw: There was research before the internet.

Shawna: True, but didn't that happen to everyone? And by the MLA has never made a significant dent in the unemployment list, I'm afraid. Betting your life and prospects on a tenure-track job in literature has been a shaky proposition for over three decades.

Morant Espier said...

As a humanities PhD student 4 years into a 6+ year program, I am planning to walk away this spring. I am looking for--and have found out there--jobs that will be more intellectually rewarding, creative, and remunerative than academia has proven itself to be thus far.

And let's be honest, 6+ years as a grad student, several years of job searching and adjuncting, 6 years until tenure if I'm lucky to get a tenure track position and not get pushed out by petty politics or "stupidly waste time" on work that isn't scholarly articles placed in print journals or scholarly monographs published by univerisity presses, standars which everyone thinks are limited and becoming outdated, but no one is willing to change...that's 15 years of investment for the freedom and security tenure is supposed to guarantee, when I could already be doing what I want working 8-5 or freelancing.

I half agree with Tenured Professor's suggestions to expand the work worlds of PhD students and half agree with Anonymous who says, "the best plan here is to blame those of us, without connections in business or academia, first-generation college students, for actually believing the authority figures...[who allowed] the profession itself to dissolve into nothing but low-paid, no security adjunct work." I think those fully enmeshed in academia are sometimes unaware of their complicity, and sometimes aware but do nothing about it, and there should be blame for that.

But it's not just professors who are to blame. I predict that universities themselves are in for a big change.

Even undergraduate education as it is today is unsustainable. We cannot expect undergraduates to borrow $20,000-30,000 per year from lending institutions, to be paid with their future opportunities. The fallout from this will be huge. Many jobs don't exist anymore for either PhDs or BAs, and the institution doesn't seem to comprehend this new reality, or how to prepare many of its students for it. In the meantime, it will take their money and let them party 3-4 nights a week.

Shawna said...

"Retrain and move on" may sound so simple and rational, but it strikes terror in to my heart. I'm at the end of my twenties, and I'm being told to find a new job and find new skill sets. But what does that mean?

Go back to a different school -- law or medical -- and stay on the poverty treadmill for five more years, trying to catch up with 22 year olds who had a major in that area? Go work at a bar or restaurant? Become a secretary? My friends with teachers' licenses and secondary ed degrees can't find jobs, so how could I go and teach at a high school?

I know that you can rattle off a list of jobs that you think should sound good enough to my cohort. But 1) are you willing to take one of those jobs?, 2) are these jobs available for English and philosophy students as much as for history students? and (most importantly) 3) those options don't recognize the psychological and material difficulty of deciding whether to push on or jump off -- the difficulty of considering to abandon something I've put so much time and effort into. And this difficult position is being trivialized by people saying that my cohort are irrational and imprudent.

I had many serious sit-down conversations with 3 different undergrad professors in which I asked them to tell me the truth about my prospects. All they said was that I was smart enough and just had to work hard. So, yes, I do feel defrauded. How was a 21 year old supposed to know that she couldn't trust these people's answers -- thirty, fifty, and sixty year olds with good jobs?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

TR, I love all these ideas. Number one especially would cut down on the half-cocked applications that come from not knowing what to do next, *and* would increase the emotional maturity of grad students (are most 22/23 year-olds really ready for grad school?). Students could use that time to have a job (and the responsibility that goes with it), pick up some languages, read for pleasure, volunteer in their communities, and generally complete the business of becoming adults before they dive into grad school.

Of course, some *professors* might be in for a shock at having grad seminars full of confident adults rather than easily cowed academic adolescents. But that would be good for us, too.

FrauTech said...

Katrina has a good point about the timing, which I think is a bigger issue for women (should be for men, but we live in a sexist society, whatever) who might have plans to start a family and find the lengthy PhD and TT tracks to be limiting.

Otherwise, I think it's an interesting idea. Especially when you think about what all these people would do after graduation. If they are serious about a PhD, then they aren't looking for long term careers. And so might be looking to fill lots of lower level jobs all around (depending on how useful their bachelor's degree is). Just wonder what affect this would have on the economy.

Jonathan-your degree experience in 1989 is 20 years outdated to what it is like for those with generally useless BAs now. Another problem of who is giving advice to young students, the whole "it worked for me to major in what i enjoyed studying" is no longer the norm much as "you don't need to go to college, i didn't even graduate high school and it worked for me" might have been the norm 50 years ago.

To anonymous who is "so tired of the smug elitism of academics." You need to move on. Plenty of people have gone through the same thing. Plenty of people got useless humanities BAs that don't qualify them for anything other than retail or fast food and nobody told them otherwise. Plenty of people bought houses four or five years ago and were told housing would always go up. Now they are several hundred thousand dollars underwater and just as bitter as you for shoving equity into something for a decade only to be more in debt than they thought possible. I'm one of the ones who got a useless BA, so I say this with some experience. Six years after graduating with the BA I'll graduate with a useful, career-oriented BS all the while working full time and supporting myself. Sometimes things don't work out like we think they will. Sometimes it requires years of sacrifice to see the kind of payoff we think we "deserve." Yes sometimes people in our lives misled us in ways that led to us making bad decisions. But in the end, you made the decision to get a PhD. You have to accept responsibility for that choice. When we choose things like that, you have to think reasonably what the worst case scenario might be and determine whether or not the experience was still worth it in the end.

Historiann said...

I sympathize with Ph.D. students who are despairing, but seriously: who held the gun to your head to force you to enroll in a Ph.D. program? Shawna wasn't served well by her professors if they indeed encouraged her to go to grad school in the humanities and guaranteed her that all it took was hard work, but the crap job market in these fields is nothing new. A lot of people have to reinvent themselves in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s because their training or job prospects turn out not to work for them. Where is the ownership for one's own decisions?

(I posted on this recently, with respect to Marc Bousquet's comments on Robert Townsend's recent report on the 2008 job scene: The "lost generation" of Ph.D.s from the 1970s were the inventors of professionalized public history.)

It seems like TR is urging historians training grad students to think bigger and more broadly about what a history career might encompass, and I think it's good advice. She's right on to encourage students to consider public history (as well as to consider whether their graduate programs are serving their students well otherwise.) But, students have to think bigger at the same time, too. None of us is entitled to anything--and people who 1) apply broadly for jobs, including jobs at CCs and jobs with 4-4 loads, not just research uni jobs; 2) apply nationally or internationally and are prepared to move wherever the job is; and 3) acquire skills outside of traditional teaching and research--in, for example, archives, museum studies, cultural resource management, etc.--these students will have more options than those who don't. There are all kinds of good reasons why someone might decide that limiting the geography or scope of their search makes sense for them in the broader context of their personal and professional lives, but in that case, you can't blame the profession or your training if you don't find a job.

One more thing: I've never heard a tenured or tenure-track faculty member say, "Hey, you know what would be great? Let's pull the ladder up now, and let most of the teaching be done by contingent faculty!" Universities have shifted to a bottom-line, corporate management style that squeezes workers and concentrates the goodies at the top. (They're the ones who decide that your university needs another Associate Vice Provost of Crippity-Crap for $130,000 a year, and then replace a retired tenured historian with an adjunct lecturer.) Tenured and tenure-track faculty very much want MORE rather than FEWER like them, because it spreads around all of that service work a little thinner and because there is strength in tenured numbers.

Just sign me "fogings," which is my verification word, and which sounds appropriately close to "fogey."

Anonymous said...

The topic of this post as I understood it was not only "what should grad schools do" but also addressed "why would anyone choose to get a PhD" and "what is wrong with all these bitter job-seekers." I'm sorry if my frustration made my explanation seem like an attack on you-- it really was an attempt to speak from the perspective of some who are in this position, and the advice and expectations we began with, and it has become extremely emotionally charged for many of us. My response attempted to convey what it is that so many of us are so frustrated at-- including frustration/anger at those in positions of privilege who look at those of us who are finishing now/recently as if our frustration, anger, and desperation are just self-centered whining and we should have expected this. This is not just a few people unable to find jobs-- it is overwhelming and defining a whole cohort of PhDs. So many tenured faculty admit that there is something wrong with the system but seem to have real contempt for those of us most impacted by it. It is incredibly easy for people with jobs and tenure to say "just retrain like everyone else" but it is not easy for us to do it at 30 years old with no savings and an abysmal job market-- and we are competing with all of those auto workers etc (who also often feel bitter and cheated by the system). For those of us who do manage to land the increasingly elusive TT positions, this experience will shape the decisions we make as faculty members.

And yes, I am aware that there WAS research before the internet, but as a 23-year-old college grad with no connections in business or academia I went to the sources I knew about-- my college's career center and the faculty at my school and those I was applying to. I THOUGHT I was doing the right thing and that those were the trusted sources, and the advice they gave me then was misguided at best, disingenuous at worst. Glibly saying an hour's research could have predicted the truly abysmal state of the market and the profession now when many of us went to grad school with the good-faith belief that we were working toward at least the possibility of a job-- any job!-- seems to show real contempt for those of us who are now left trying to find employment in an increasingly unstable and frightening job market. THIS is part of the anger on the part of many of us-- not just that there are no jobs, but that those with tenure-- and some measure of clout-- show so much disdain for us in almost every single discussion of the situation. It makes me wonder how this disdain shapes our prospects and the future of the profession.

Jonathan Dresner said...

my point about the "wait three years" shouldn't offend you, since it wasn't aimed at you.

I honestly can't see how it isn't. Nor can I see how an admissions committee would tell the difference, unless undergraduate recommenders take their job seriously and comment effectively on their advisees' readiness. (I had at least one recommender who wrote a one-line letter, while I was standing outside of his office. I don't know what it said, but I can't imagine that it was all that helpful to the committee.)

Jonathan-your degree experience in 1989 is 20 years outdated to what it is like for those with generally useless BAs now.

I know I was lucky: I stumbled into Japanese studies during the boom years. But I was also a little smart: I picked computer science as a minor because it was interesting and because I could see it as a career.

I have a problem with the "generally useless B.A." theme, though. A student who's a good candidate for graduate school should be fairly smart (and with solid grades to show for it), able to research and write effectively, use basic office technology, have a reasonably good store of cultural capital. That's not a specific credential, but the vast majority of white-collar jobs which utilize these capacities don't require a specific credential.

Shawna said...

I'm glad that Historiann brought up the bureaucracy issue. At the same time that administration has been ballooning in size and cost, TT lines have been disappearing. My personal wish for a solution is to fight back against the amount of money going to bureaucracy and put it back into teaching jobs. Pair that with cropping the benefits of tenure (for all of us) just a little: a few less sabbaticals, a few more classes, a few thousands less a year. After all, the problem is less about the lack of jobs than the lack of the right kind of jobs (ie, non-exploitative).

Shonda said...

The Tenured Radical says:

"Ph.D. programs should consider devoting at least one year of graduate support to administrative labor."

I've seen the sentiment around the web that those who cannot find tenure track jobs should seek administrative positions for a year or two and keep looking. The above quote from the TR is a twist on that idea, but no less annoying.

Just as administrators do not automatically know how to teach neither do those who are trained to teach necessarily understand how to manage, develop programs, draft a budget, and recruit new students.

Positions in student affairs and enrollment services are not fall back jobs for those who could not fulfill their dreams elsewhere. These days people are choosing careers in higher education administration and assuming that our jobs can be performed in one year by a graduate student on his or her way to other things is offensive.

Andrew said...

nor did I have to make a difficult decision about what to do if I were not employed as a university professor.

And yet you ask current grad students to make this decision? How can you possible say whether or not its easy to make a decision you've never made. By your own admission: who are you to talk?

I think Anonymous is right: the tenured are smug about the non-tenured. I'm so glad you think I can live on your table scraps. While you're right that this post is about suggesting changes to make graduate education less predatory, many of the blog posts on this subject by the tenured (including this one) are routed through a rhetoric of "how are these young people so stupid to not realize with no experience what I know after working in academia for decades." I think his anger is legitimate and legitimately directed at you.

Also, to Historiann: you're right that no held a gun to my head and said to go to graduate school, but how can you be so heartless as to see this as nothing but whining? Do you think that people who lost their homes (and their dreams of home ownership) to predatory loans shouldn't be angry? The situation is analogous. I had a dream of tenure track employment & was told that graduate school was the path to it. Now I find out that everyone, at every turn was lying to me (just like people who were victims of predatory home loans). So, yes, I should own my decisions. In fact, I do own them, and that's why I'm angry at people like you.

Mordant Espier said...

Yeah, FrauTech and Historiann, individual responsibility is totally what we're talking about here.

[I cannot believe the home loan argument in particular, especially when it was lenders, not homeowners, who engaged in deceptive lending practices because it was immensely profitable at the time, nor did they appraise their own homes.]

So many tenured faculty admit that there is something wrong with the system but seem to have real contempt for those of us most impacted by it.
Ding ding ding!

The problem I see with many of the suggestions is this: grad students who are "serious" aren't going to pursue the other opportunities you list because they aren't as valued by people the tenure track. To ask for them is to admit that you're uncertain or that you don't really believe in yourself as a scholar (and those people will hold you individually responsible for your reasonable doubt), and to do them is to take time away from writing those articles that you need to land a TT job. To require them is to add more years onto an already bloated course of study.

If the student does it and it pays off, I don't see why they had to be in a PhD program, and how it solves the problem of having to retrain and conduct a brand new job search with no nest egg.

I don't see how it's any less expolitative for the university to use cheap labor (grad students) to fill administrative positions. In fact, given that most of them didn't enter to be an administrator (they would have picked, say, higher ed or business administration) I would say it's more exploitative. If they wanted to try it, they should get an entry level job and a salary.

AFT said...

Long-time reader, first-time commenter here.

Allow me to out myself as an on-the-market ABD. I think it's great that TR is willing to offer some suggestions to improve the way graduate programs are structured, particularly practical ones that move beyond the supply-side v. demand-side arguments so prevalent of late. We may agree with the specifics or not, but some concrete ideas to respond to are long overdue.

That said, I'm horrified by the comments section. I understand the frustrations on both sides, but I also started the PhD after completing a professional MA and getting a few years in a non-academic job under my belt - the sort of thing TR recommends, actually. So, unlike most of my colleagues, I have a career to fall back on (or would have, if economic circumstances were different). I don't think ABDs are trying to *blame* faculty or programs, but a lot of us were indeed advised, by our esteemed undergraduate faculty, that a slew of boomers would be retiring, that if we got into a good enough program we'd have a good shot at a job, etc, etc. I understand that neither the students nor the advisors could have foreseen the recent economic meltdown, but professors far more than kids applying to grad school have a sophisticated understanding of the casualization of labor over the past twenty years - a process that can neither be researched, evaluated or understood in an hour, and which would have dramatically reduced the job opportunities available to those of us on the market this year even if the endowments weren't a mess.

This is not at all to say that many grad students, based on the many that I know, didn't give terribly serious consideration to these questions in advance of applying - a lot of students, frankly, DO just want to read and think and not have a "corporate" job, and that's a huge problem. To pick up the sub-prime analogy, yeah, those folks who thought they could get something for nothing (and maybe even make a profit on it) are culpable for their decisions, but so are the bankers who encouraged them to make those decisions. And the real problem, of course, is the structure of the financial system. (That got a little clumsy - sub "student" for home-buyer, "professor" for banker, and "university" for financial system).

Which brings me to my main point - we should not be attacking each other, when the bigger problem is the way the university functions in 2010. We are all getting screwed together.

And one last, slightly bitter, note re: Princeton - the reason Princeton and Harvard can get their PhDs out so quickly has everything to do with the funding available to the students, their low TA/GA responsibilities, and the fact that the top programs can send their students on the job market with less-polished dissertations than not-so-prestigious institutions. The Princeton model is just not feasible for every PhD program. (Not even Yale, last time I checked.)

Anonymous said...

Speaking from the UK, I always thought that if getting a humanities research council award to do a PhD was a stamp to say 'we think this person has what it takes to go forward in an academic career', then the degree programme ought to include a compulsory amount of work experience (eg guaranteed teaching hours, maybe shadowing course development and supervision of taught postgraduates) which will actually help them get one.

I would have *loved* a PhD programme thar included a placement at a university press, myself...

Bookbag said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellie said...

@AFT: the low TTD at Princeton has a lot to do with the lack of teaching, but there are structural reasons for this. First and foremost, the department is big (webpage currently lists c. 50 faculty), and the university is small (5000 undergrads total), so professors teach sections as part of their regular teaching load. With a university-wide faculty:student ratio of 5:1, they just don't have the need for graduate students in the classroom.

But from second-hand observation, it also seems to have to do with the structure of the program. First, the "master's thesis" that bogs many students down in other programs is a "first-year paper." In theory, the idea is the same (an article-length and quality piece of original research), but the psychological barrier is much lower. Second, Princeton students take fewer courses (required first-year course plus eight others), and then take comps at the end of their second year, rather than the third (or later). Comps fields tend to be much narrower, too, with fewer books than at similarly-ranked peer institutions.

There's not much other departments can do about the first of these (teaching) without major hiring of regular faculty, but is the comps model one that other departments could adopt? Is the two-year plan for coursework a luxury that Princeton can afford because its students are so well prepared coming in? Or could all departments live with narrower comps fields/lists?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm not saying that students who choose to go to Ph.D. programs don't bear any responsibility for their choices. But I also don't think people who have gone through grad school, gotten jobs, and never had to figure out what else to do quite get what it's like. (*I* don't quite get what it's like.) I say this because I'm part of an online community for people with advanced degrees planning to leave academia and transition to other fields, and over the break there was a discussion about the psychological toll on people of not getting jobs and leaving (or sometimes choosing to leave, not being forced out by lack of jobs). This toll is HUGE. Seriously, it was heartbreaking to hear people - grown, responsible, accomplished adults - talking about their feelings of inadequacy, their convictions that they were failures, and their despair about what to do next. (Obviously I'm not saying everyone with an advanced degree leaving academia feels this way, but it was still rather shocking. It's consistent enough that I have to chalk it up to academe, not individual neuroses, though of course those play a role.)

I know the "academia is a cult" think is exaggerated, but it's funny because it's true. For many people, there is tremendous pain involved in the process of leaving. This may get expressed in slightly exaggerated statements about being bamboozled, but I do think many PhD programs are still at the least disingenuous about their students' future prospects. And students who *don't* have any academics in their background, who don't know anything about how academia works, hell, who don't even know what tenure is (seriously. how many undergrads do you know who know how tenure works?), really aren't in a good position to evaluate such things. (Which supports your first suggestion, of course; which I do sympathize with, though I also sympathize with Jonathan, being one of those useless straight-from-undergrad types myself.)

Taking ten years to finish being ridiculous: maybe at Princeton. Not so much at many public research institutions. There's more variety in Ph.D.-awarding institutions than I think this post recognizes.

As for professions that guarantee employment: actually, if you make it into and through med school or vet school, you're probably going to get a job in your field. (They tightly control the numbers who enter the profession.)

But in any case, I think that criticism ("no field guarantees employment") is a little disingenuous. It's one thing to say "no field guarantees anyone a job," which is true, and it's something else entirely for depts to say candidly, up-front, that maybe 25% of all PhD students in that field will get jobs. There's a big gap between "guarantee" and 25%.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Yeah, this fraud crap is a frigging joke. You hear it in the sciences, too. Is it fraud that the vast majority of men who have dreamed of playing major league baseball all their lives and do manage to scrap their way to the minor leagues, never make it to the majors?

What you're really dealing with is that fact that everyone overestimates their own talent and, more importantly, their own luck: What, only 10% of PhDs end up with tenure-track faculty positions? Well, *I* am clearly well inside the top 10% of my cohorts, so *I'll* certainly get a position!

Janice said...

I would say that the reform needs to go back to the undergraduate level -- the number of undergrads that I speak to in my capacity as grad coordinator (for a modest M.A.-only program) who have no clue about what it takes to be a prof, let alone what else is out there? It's pretty sobering.

Many students fall into our major because it has no math/stats requirement, they like the subject and they need a major to graduate. It also helps that history's a teachable in the College of Education so they can pair it with a B.Ed. and try for a K-12 teaching post. Beyond that, though, students are often clueless about what else you can do with a history degree except to be an academic historian.

That failure of imagination is a failure of information and it there, with our undergraduates, from the moment they declare a major, that we have to begin our campaign. All at the same time trying to hold onto and rebuild the full-time positions for academics in higher education where adjunctification has, ironically, made it even less likely that students get good counselling (who's around to advise them?).

Shane in SLC said...

I wish I could remember when and where I saw a comment recently (Historiann's place, maybe?) that compared the desirability of professor jobs to the arts. Thousands of people every year move to New York to become writers, or to Los Angeles to become actors, or to Nashville to become songwriters. The vast majority of them have their hearts broken and their spirits crushed. But I can't really fault people for pursuing their dreams, retirement accounts be damned.

When I was thinking of applying to grad school circa 1994, my professors warned me about the wretched job market, and tried to dissuade me. I got a PhD in English anyway. I was one of the lucky ones, and it's worked out well for me. But I like to think that even if I hadn't found a TT job, I wouldn't have considered those 6 years wasted.

My bottom line? The bottom line isn't everything. What bugged me about Dean Dad's post was the implication that pursuing any path but one likely to result in material riches is foolhardy. Screw that.

Anonymous said...

The adjunct system is eroding higher education. It has created a caste society in academia and literally separates those who can own property from those who cannot.

What I find curious in the blame game, however, is the paradoxical beliefs I find in tenured faculty. While on the one hand they seem to recognize that there are no jobs and blame grad students for not having realized that before enrolling, tenured faculty also look at adjuncts with contempt and treat them as though they deserve to be adjuncts, as though they just weren't good enough to be tenure-track (and, by extention, that they, the few tenured, truly deserve their pay/security/insurance/self-designed courses).

I never thought I would be in an abusive relationship, much less in one with a university.

Tenured Radical said...

Well, the point of being a blogger is being provocative, and I think I succeeded. I also think many of the commenters have done my work for me, so I will rest my case. Some of you need to think about resolving your anger issues, though -- you may feel you have aright to be angry, but how long is it going to work out for you to stay in the same place emotionally and yell at other people?

That said, part of what I see as the problem in academia today is an unwillingness by any player to alter the system in any way -- and those who are posting as graduate students seem particularly unwilling to look at the reforms I suggest in the post. You cannot simultaneously maintain that the system is f**ked, and that the only thing that would un-f**k it would be if it were more inclusive. Yes, there would be more jobs and less distress if the US had not inexorably moved into a market model for education. But it has, and I am no more responsible for that than any other individual. Nor is there anything any one department can do to change that --but they can respond to it by moving off the career model that is so narrowly focused on teaching/scholarship. And graduate students could profitably lose their own not so hidden contempt for Ph.D.'s who don't have tenure track jobs.

Let me just emphasize: I don't think it is risible to go to graduate school, and a sensible reading of the post does not suggest that unemployed or underemployed academics (young or old) should be *blamed.* I think a number of people other than myself have made that point. But it does suggest that sitting around blaming others for what is the outcome of much larger forces is not a viable alternative to blaming one's self. Thinking imaginatively might be, and thinking about how to realize one's dream in a more expansive way might be as well.

As to whether I can *know* things I haven't experienced -- that's what it means to be an intellectual guys -- you study, learn, know and inhabit other selves. But that aside, those of you intent on vilifying me missed the actual content of much of the post, which is that my crappy, second rate graduate school (which is now a first rate graduate school) in all its crappiness, provided training and work opportunities in a variety of practical fields that allowed all of us -- including me -- to have the creative intellectual lives we wanted off the tenure track. I worked as an administrator for two years while finishing my degree (and actually finished because I was fired and went on unemployment, perhaps the best fellowship I ever had.)

But fewer than 1/4 of the wonderful, smart people I went to school with are tenured professors now, but the others have built wonderful careers that were a first -- not a second -- choice. They are deans, filmmakers, archivists, editors, curators, TV producers -- you name it, they do it. And you know what? That is actually how the most history gets to the most people, and how most people are "taught" for the many decades they don't spend in school. For that reason, I believe on many days that these friends are far more successful -- and certainly useful -- than many of us who won the job lottery.

Widgeon said...

I agree with nearly everything TR says in this post. But in my own institution many faculty look down on efforts to "professionalize" graduate students (e.g. encouraging them to publish and present at conferences) as crass divergence from the intellectual life. Given the market this is both unfair and naive, and younger faculty (myself included) have pushed back fairly hard.
Having just returned from the AHA I can also report that "elitist" tenured faculty are deeply pained by the job market. Those doing the interviews remark on the quality and quantity of applicants, and those advising students on the market struggle to support them. Obviously I'm not asking for sympathy for tenured faculty. But I just don't see the level of disdain expressed in some of the comments here.

Anonymous2 said...

Princeton grad student here (I'm anonymous for the obvious reasons). I think it's really dangerous to use Princeton as a model for what graduate education should be.

Someone mentioned the coursework model: I know first hand that students come in with radically different levels of preparation. I came in on the low end and the three semesters of coursework simply wasn't enough. For what its worth, course offerings are often fairly slim and the generous leave schedules faculty have mean that roughly 25% of faculty are gone in any one year. That has big consequences for the kinds of courses one takes if a professor in their field is gone for 2 out of the 3 semesters of coursework. If a student comes in really prepared, it's probably not a big deal. If not, it's really a struggle. And taking generals at the end of second year is brutal.

On the issue of teaching, yes, it's freeing not to have to teach. It also makes for a mighty thin cv and I've heard it makes some students less marketable.

And on the issue of finishing a dissertation quickly: there's a tradeoff. I'm pretty sure we spend less time in the field on average and write either shorter or sometimes less polished dissertations. The program has its merits, money being the chief of them. I also think people with MAs or a very clear sense of what they want to do from the outset (as in well-thought-out dissertation topics) can really take advantage of the schedule. But I've yet to be convinced that a Princeton PhD with the Princeton rush is better than a Johns Hopkins, Stanford, or Berkeley degree.

Shawna said...

I wish you would have answered my earlier question about whether such alternate jobs were available for other humanities students (such as English and philosophy).

But here are my other reactions to your suggestions.

A three-year waiting period would merely throw the problems three years down the road, not do anything to materially change the issue. Plus, your suggestions for what we should do in the meantime struck me as ridiculous. With my passion for literature, analysis, and teaching, you want me to go find a dead-end job in order to "mature?" I don't have the family money to go around "traveling." I earned a BA in English, which would make me fit for no job but Starbucks, essentially. You basically are asking us to move back with our parents and sit there twiddling our thumbs -- to do nothing by DELAY the problem, not solve it. Waiting three more years would just make my already-ridiculous-seeming dream to have children even more impossible.

As for maturity, maturity does not arrive through the mere passage of time, but rather through the experience of becoming by ACTING the identity you want to be. The only way to become a great candidate for being a graduate student is by acting out the life of being a graduate student. You learn by doing. Sure, the path is shaky, but it won't be achieved by living in my parents' basement because no remunerative jobs are open to me.

Administrative labor is just another way of giving us jobs that we have clearly demonstrated that we don't want. And if you think that doing jobs we don't like is good training or a way towards "maturity," well, I think the number of composition courses I have taught (by myself), on the way to being able to teach lit classes, shows that I am quite capable of doing the dirty work -- if it will rationally, naturally lead to my goal of teaching college students literature.

Third, graduate programs actively helping their students look towards other jobs by providing directed instruction geared towards non-academic work. This sounds pretty cool. I'm all for it. Bring it on.

One more point about our bitterness/anger. Part of it is that no one is giving credit to the emotional distress we're experiencing. We're shouting into a vacuum. This is your next generation of workers, and you are ignoring our basic feelings. Is this culture of ignoring or berating us for being nervous and scared a good way to create continuity among generations for our disciplines? The last two tenured professors I sat down with to discuss my feelings merely channeled the conversation into ways to change my dissertation. Yeah, thanks for the academic advice, but it's actually (in this luck-based climate) not making me feel any better.

Tim Lacy said...

TR: I'm not going to read all the comments here. Nevertheless, I'm going to say Hear! Hear! to your post. And I want to add that I really believe that all history PhD programs should admit 20-30% percent less students for the next 5 years to constrain the supply side of the market ~while~ those same programs lobby their own school administrations (as well as their peers) to increase t-t and f-t lines. This suggestion would accidentally implement part of your first point and address some of the issues in your third point. Anyway, keep up your insightful commentary! I can't read everything you write, but I appreciate everything I do read when I get the chance. - TL

Tim Lacy said...

I just read all the comments. Wow.

Only someone who has lived in a hole the past 15-20 years could've sincerely believed that jobs would just be there for them upon completion of their doctorate. I speak from the perspective of a historian (thankfully currently employed as a historian, non t-t), but I knew all along that I'd have to have Plans B-Z. Indeed, seeking plan A (t-t job) was not something I believed could happen going in. It occurred to me as a possible dream/hope in the midst of my doctoral studies, and then receded. The length of doctoral studies allows several dreams to come and go, sadly. It's a kind of escapism that occurs during the long journey of classes, papers, exams, research, and writing.

But this is why I especially agree with TR's points 1 and 2. Both provide built-in reality checks on along the way. It's okay to make the already-ready and enthusiastic crowd, as well as the immature/unprepared crowd, to wait so that they establish bona fides in another field. And then TR's admin requirement provides another check on your dreams, maybe midway through your apprenticeship. These kinds of built-in delays must, of course, be compensated by some kind of speed up in the credential system (i.e. limit exams, provide more research accountability, give more funding to help students speed along). But both the three years and the admin experience will help people stay in touch with the world outside of the history profession. - TL

Anonymous said...

I live in Michigan where unemployment is well over the 10% national average. Unemployment in Detroit is well over 25%. I have no sympathy for people in their late 20s (OMG!!!!! The wasted time!!) who have to retrain because of the economy.

To borrow from Bill Clinton: it's the economy, stupid. Given the current economic state of your chosen field, railing against TR or anybody else, is wholly beside the point. Yes, you have to retrain and move on. But that's not TR's fault. Get over it.

Kathie said...

I wish I had kept the letter I received from the University of Wisconsin History Dept when they accepted me as a new grad student in the mid 1970s - it explicitly stated that they could not guarantee a job when I was done, and that in fact the job market for historians was pretty bleak. At the time I was somewhat amused that they would accept me and then send a discouraging letter. I went to a different school (not in reaction to that letter!), took a long long time to finish my PhD, never did get a tenure-track job, and made a career as an independent historian; we each make our own way somehow.

Anonymous said...

One more point about our bitterness/anger. Part of it is that no one is giving credit to the emotional distress we're experiencing. We're shouting into a vacuum. This is your next generation of workers, and you are ignoring our basic feelings.

You're right. Nobody cares about your feelings. Get used to it, it doesn't get any better. Because nobody has to care about your feelings and nobody wants to care about your feelings and nobody has time to care about your feelings. Everybody has their own feelings to take care of and that pretty much takes up all their time.

You're not shouting into a vacuum, you're shouting into the same space that every other unemployed person in the US is shouting into. Nobody cares about the feelings of the 50 year old autoworker laid off from GM 5 years ago, who's been unemployed ever since, who has kids to support, and whose unemployment compensation has run out and whose health and pension benefits are being reduced to zero. Nobody care about his feelings, why should anybody care about your?

The "next generation" of workers is going to occupy the same draining, precarious, scary, unfulfilling space that the current generation and the umpteen thousand generations before them occupied. Welcome to it!

new phd said...

I've read through the original post and the comments, and I think that this whole discussion really highlights a number of problems that we're facing here.

I got my PhD a a little over a year ago, and I've decided to go in a different direction from a "traditional" t-t job. Sometimes I think getting a PhD was the dumbest thing I've ever done, since my new direction could easily have been done with an M.A., but at the same time I would not have been as well-prepared or as good at it if I hadn't had the extra (if not necessary) training and time.

But even though I am very happy with my decision, discussions like these bring out my frustration and anger about the whole system and the attitudes of tenured faculty. I did not expect to be handed a tenure track job when I graduated (this is why I decided to explore other options) but that doesn't mean I'm not annoyed about the bad advice I was given along the way, or the about the general culture of PhD programs and the adjunctification of higher ed. And that anger and annoyance doesn't mean I'm not taking responsibility for my own choices- it's just that my choices were not made in a vacuum, and the whole system, including those who are settled and have some say in what direction it takes do have some responsibility for the advice and training we were given and should take into account the experience of people who have been through this when attempting to make changes. If you dismiss the voices of recent PhDs and graduate students who have experienced this and whose fear and anger are part of what is driving the whole move toward change, it seems like you are missing an opportunity. Because while reading and researching and studying a topic will give you an intellectual knowledge of it, REALLY experiencing it gives a much fuller understanding of the issues involved. That's part of why I'm so surprised that the tenured faculty in comments have so quickly and contemptuously dismissed what new PhDs and grad students have to say. Intellectual knowledge is just not the same as the real thing, and the less emotional perspective of tenured faculty could (theoretically) balance with the real-world experience, including panic and bitterness, of new PhDs and students to give a better sense of what is happening and what is needed.

I agree that PhD programs need to give students more options (I was lucky that mine sortof did, although my job prospects in this economic climate are still awful), but this discussion has brought to light some of the problems with how this will be accomplished. Faculty who have been employed/tenured for 10 or 20 years have a good understanding of the system, but there are also a lot of issues that they've lost touch with, and listening without defensiveness on both sides might be able to bring about the possibility for real change.

how_history_feels said...

I don't always agree with what you write here, TR, but i do always appreciate your thoughtfulness. And I think that in this post, you're raising some really important questions and offering some sensible solutions. I can't say I'm surprised by the vitriol of some of the comments posted here, but I am disappointed, again, by the narrowmindedness of humanities PhDs (and PhD students). I can't think of another kind of graduate school where students all expect to get the exact same sort of job-- there are innumerable ways to "use"/get a job with a JD, an MPH, an MLIS, an MBA, an MSW, a Masters in Public Service. And you would be hard pressed to find an MFA who thought that getting THAT degree would lead directly to fruitful employment. Likewise, humanists who think that the only "use" of a PhD is to teach in an academic institution have always puzzled and frustrated me. You're right that there are lots of ways to use the knowledge a person can get from graduate studies in History. Indeed, you might say that people with PhDs in humanities have the potential to play a really important role in our world. I for one would rather have humanists in charge of things than MBAs. MBAs are doing and, usually have done, a f-ing HORRIFIC job of running things, I'd say.

I personally would love to see more History departments do a better job of making links to other areas of paying labor, and of preparing their students to work in a range of political, legal, cultural, and social arenas-- in ways akin to that of your alma mater. I'm afraid that this idea faces enormous resistance from senior scholars and faculty at most universities. But you're right-- there are a lot of institutions that have thriving public history and other programs. So maybe there's hope yet.

Thanks for provoking and framing such urgent questions.

Susan said...

Shawna, of course alternate jobs are available for other humanities graduates. And here I think Janice is right that we need to do a better job at the undergraduate level helping students imagine what they can do with their degree. I've heard that an English BA will only fit you for work at Starbucks (it used to be taxi drivers)from hardboiled business types, but it's sad to hear it from someone who studies English.

What the humanities do, at their best, is teach people to read carefully and critically, express themselves clearly and perhaps even with imagination, organize ideas, understand other societies etc. There are many many jobs where these skills are engaged.

I think the big problem, and one that TR's graduate program helped deal with, is that most of us graduate from college knowing school (so we can teach) or whatever our parents & their friends do. Sometimes I meet people and I think, "Oh, you can do that?" And we don't know all the things we do well (or that give us pleasure) because most of what we've done is school and whatever jobs we got to work through school. (And I didn't need a cafeteria job to know that that was not my dream job.) For instance, I was well into my career when I realized that I enjoy working collaboratively, which was why I did well at committee work. I may be particularly clueless, but I don't think so.

I think the notion of not letting people go to grad school for three years is a way of signaling that it's useful to have a fuller sense of your talents, skills, than most people get in 16 years of school. Not everyone can do it (and I'd never make it a requirement) but it's a good idea.

Someday_phd said...

I'm skipping the comments, so sorry if I repeat something, but this post is fabulous.

AFT said...

A few points based on the last round of comments. First, I second every line of new phd's post. For those of us poised to finish in the next few years, I think the bigger problem, highlighted by Shawna's experience with trying to talk to her advisors about her distress, is that programs aren't presently structured in a way that helps or encourages us to find other options. That's not the faculty's fault - they know how to prepare us to do their jobs, not work for the NPS or the national archives. However, and again I can only speak from the experience of my (highly ranked East Coast ivy wanna-be) program, very few of the faculty or grad school staff have expressed an interest in helping students figure out alternatives to the TT, and in fact some seem likely to withdraw their advisorly attentions at the first hint their advisee might not reproduce their careers. (what history feels like makes this point well.)

Do I think TT faculty are obligated to help us find outside jobs, or responsible for the decisions we make, good or bad? Of course not. I think what grad students like the first anonymous and Shawna are asking for is some compassion - the same we probably all have or should) for laid-off auto workers in Detroit (I'm from Michigan, too). I absolutely don't mean to glibly elide the distress of late-career laid-off manufacturing workers with that of humanities ABDs; rather, I would merely suggest that because PhD students are perceived to be (and some truly are) quite privileged, it's a little too easy to dismiss their employment concerns as some sense of entitlement. And whichever anonymous claims that no one care as about anyone else's "feelings" - either students or auto workers - it's not about "feelings," it's about social citizenship.

Again, I think TR's suggestions are great. I hope to hell my department starts to implement something like them. I wish I was finishing my program with a certificate in archives management, or academic administration, to go along with the PhD. But for me, and Shawna, and anonymous 1&2, it's too late for that, and while it is absolutely not useful to blame TT faculty for our situation, professors are in a far more privileged position here, and could perhaps be a little more compassionate. We don't need our hands held, but we need some practical advice that I think a lot of us just aren't getting, even when we ask for it.

I'm glad I do have a professional MA that offers some history-related employment options outside of the academy. I do not feel sorry for myself, or regret my decisions to go to grad school, or feel "entitled" to a TT job, but I am concerned for my future (and for my health insurance). I don't mean this to be an aggressive comment, but I doubt TR would tell someone just laid off from GM to "retrain and move on" - not in those words, not with palpable irritation, even though that's what she might advise them to do.

Anonymous said...

And whichever anonymous claims that no one care as about anyone else's "feelings" - either students or auto workers - it's not about "feelings," it's about social citizenship.

That was me, and FTR, I was responding to someone who DID make it about "feelings". I agree with YOU that it's about social citizenship, but that's not what the other poster was talking about.

So don't take it up with me, take it up with the "nobody cares about my feelings" poster.

Flavia said...

I was going to say to Shawna exactly what Susan did: that it's depressing to hear someone who actually has a B.A. in English--and who is teaching or preparing to teach successive generations of English majors!--claim that the degree isn't good for anything.

Practically speaking, here are some things that people I know with English B.A.s did after college, none of which I'd characterize as dead-end, even if they were entry-level or didn't lead immediately or obviously to their next job:

-Paralegal (I did this, at a big NYC law firm, and I learned an incredible amount)

-Editorial assistant (in book publishing or magazine publishing--LOTS of people I know did this, and I did it myself while in grad school)

-Worked in at a museum-exhibits design firm

-Worked in career services at a major university (not the one she'd graduated from)

-Worked for an auction house (think Christie's or Soetheby's)

-Became a personal assistant to a corporate exec

-worked for an arts/humanities nonprofit

-went into advertising

-went into HR

Most of those are viable paths for someone with an M.A. or a Ph.D., too (although these days the popular post-Ph.D. path among my friends/acquaintances who didn't go on the academic job market seems to be academic librarianship).

But I think your insistence on having a list misses the point. The point isn't that there's a sure-fire career path for everyone; the point is that there are a TON of jobs that smart, analytical people are qualified for--and/but not every job or degree leads in an intuitively or logical fashion to the next. That's how most people, including well-educated, smart, interesting people, find their careers. Exploration and trial and error.

Anonymous said...

I like your suggestions, although I can easily name 10 recent History graduates (Ph.D) who would wash your car for a year if you could name a University press that is hiring! I think a big problem for many of us disgruntled graduate students is threefold:

1. I cannot bring up the idea of any career other than the R1 research track within my department. As soon as I did, I would be viewed as not serious about academia, and would lose the opportunity for perks, extra funding, and strong job market support. Seen it happen. So I cannot ask my mentors, committee, etc for help unless I am on the tenure-track at an R1 plan. I can ask anonymous people on the internet for help, but I cannot ask the people who would be my references for help. Its a difficult situation.

2. Luckily, it doesn't matter anyway, since there are no intellectually stimulating jobs out there that are actually hiring. Presses? No. Other publishing? No. Museums? No. Art Galleries? No. Libraries? hahahahahahahahaha! No. All the 'co-curricular' jobs to academia are losing funding, too. I am not on the market, but my friends are, and they are casting wide, wide nets, with no response.

3. Many of us disgruntled grad students are disgruntled because we were romanced into a Ph.D. by well-meaning undergraduate Profs. Mine were a nice cohort of older men who I now know graduated at a really great time for tenure-track hiring. They taught me, and others, how it works, and used themselves as the example. I did not have the cultural capital to understand that their experience would not be mine. Even older profs in my department cannot understand why we are not getting jobs, and assume the blame lies with us. That is super-fun. Then they tell us how they got 5 job offers in one day and used them to negotiate a huge starting salary. My program also tells students that we are positioned well for tenure track jobs. They all do. That is how they got me to come here. And it turned out to be a lie.

I am not bitter, but I understand why some people are. Many of us aren't following our dreams, with the understanding that the odds are against us - we are here because our professors told us about this great career that we would be perfect for, that was rock-solid, and post-tenure, guaranteed for life. Am I stupid for not having the cultural capital and precognition necessary to understand that that would not the case for my cohort?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

TR, I love this post. And I've got mixed feelings about the comments. Part of this is because I teach at a SLAC where a couple of my colleagues can think of nothing better than to have a program that regularly sends graduates to postgrad programs. Their experience of life outside academia seems to be fairly limited, and honestly, I think it's far more about them than it is about whether or not the student should go to grad school. And you know? when you have an overachieving student from a non-traditional background, being told you should go to grad school totally validates all the crap you go through about 'getting above yourself' and being the smart kid who never fits in.

Or maybe that's just me?

Anyway, can I just say that, as that kid from the non-university, working class, "why the hell are you going to do that, when you could get a nice job as a secretary like your sister and find a man," background, I'm calling bullshit on the, "but I've been lied to and now can't get a job," thing.

Yeah, I was the dumb kid who went to grad school by way of a summer program in the UK, where the prof told me I'd do just fine. I was more worried about getting through alive than I was in getting a job. I did have a full ride -- five years of funding plus a 6th year fellowship I won, and then adjuncting and waitressing till I went off on another fellowship. The full ride was not actually enough for me to live on, though, and I worked in the library for a good bit of my first few years. And waitressed. Because it never occurred to me to borrow or not work if I needed to make ends meet. That's what we do.

And when I had no more funding and family need kept me from being resident at my grad school, I went back to work full-time. I temped at first, and couldn't get more than $7-$10 an hour (this was in the late 1990s). It sucks to be ABD and making that little, especially when the BBAs are making twice that. But part of my problem was that I had no idea how to market myself. As it happens, it didn't matter much. I worked as a unit clerk in a hospital, and they tried to get me to get a nursing degree (and offered to hook me up with funding) because there was a shortage of administrators with nursing degrees.

Got another low-paying admin assistant job, and a month later I was an exec assistant in a medical manufacturing company, liaising with the foreign sales department and occasionally running meetings of the management team (my boss was second in command at the company). Had I stayed, I was due to train for a job in regulatory affairs, which pays about double what I make now. Again, History skills and the ABD.

More temping, and jobs in telecom sales and training and at a dotcom. Both times again, I had to start at a comparatively low wage -- $35k for the first, back in 1999 -- and I was given a $5k raise after 6 months. Somewhere in there I finished, and I went back to teaching as an adjunct after 9/11 and the dotcom crash. Yes, I have tenure now, but at times I was pretty sure I'd never have an academic job. Oh yeah, and I also waitressed some more!

To me, the only waste would have been not finishing the PhD. My grad school training and experiences are intrinsically valuable, and my academic self, employed in the field or not, has always been part of who I am. But then, I never stopped thinking about myself as a medievalist or historian. I just happened to work at something else for a living.

So I'm sorry -- I have been working my butt off for well over 20 years since I left college. The only advice about grad school that really made a difference for me was the bit about having someone else pay for it. And you know? if I had never got a job, I'd still have a PhD in a field that I love and a free education. I am incredibly lucky, but there has been a lot of hard and good work involved.

Anonymous said...

i've got agree with 'new phd.' and i think the representation of grad students and recent phds, both from TR and from the comments, as basically whiny, imbecilic morons is clearly disingenuous. you all know, while a few might be like this, most of us work hard and realize the situation we've put ourselves, and we see it as a sacrifice. and i think we're all allowed to feel pissed, nonetheless, about the terrible market in general, and the even more terrible market those of us finishing now couldn't have predicted 5-6-7 yrs ago.

clearly, grad students need to be responsible for their situations, and for the most part, in my experience, we are. very few of us are sitting around, moping, bitching about our departments while doing nothing to further their career prospects. instead, we're bitching about the system and pushing forward -- the two can go hand in hand. in fact, it's sort of a progressive tradition to do so.

i'm a bit let down by TR's tone toward grad students, and the expectation that grad students are the ones who need to sit down and listen and change our ways -- quite simply, it's paternalistic and not really so radical at all. to expect the people in the position of least privilege in this system to be the ones who need to shut up and deal? come on, we can do better than that. and we need to work together. last time i checked, we're all on the same side.

also, grad students are people, too: i know that's hard to remember sometimes, but it's no less true.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 12:43 --

You don't need to feel let down if you actually *read* the post, which only has a single critique of graduate students -- that pinning your hopes for a career on a single job market is flawed, regardless of your intelligence and training, and that blaming other people for your predicament isn't going to change it. The bulk of the post is about structural changes that need to be made by your predecessors to alter what it means to be a professional intellectual.

And just a note: while last year's bust destroyed the job market, it has been precarious to bad for almost forty years now. This isn't recent history, guys. I think Anonymous 7:53, who talks about those well-meaning guys who have just as much of a romance about their students as undergrads have about the life of the prof is getting to something quite important. There is a lot of transference in the teaching relationship, and I think it speaks to a variety of forms of irrational behavior that can be both important in figuring out how to make a meaningful working life (as Dean Dad and Jon Dresner point out quite differently), and it is an important way to think of the continual reappearance of blame and self-righteous rage against authority figures.

I would also just comment that I do not doubt that the search for alternative careers -- which several commenters have pointed out is an internal problem within prestigious programs -- would be addressed by two of my proposals for reforming graduate education. Furthermore, it is one thing to struggle with this reality -- it is another to reproduce that contempt by being dismissive of alternative careers as meaningful intellectual labor, which a number of the outraged commenters have done.

Finally, I would like to echo at least one commenter by agreeing that the notion that one's life is over at 30 if one has a Ph.D. and no tenure-track teaching job is, from my vantage, the product of a more recent history where people get into elite schools in the first place by being made frantic about making every second of their life be full of documentable achievements. Part of what bothers me about blame is that it is a very effective defense against self blame, which is in turn a potent way of not figuring out why one feels what one feels, and devising out an effective way to move past those emotions to a new self.

As to my, and other tenured faculty's insensitivity to your feelings because "we" are o successful and we can;t possibly feel your pain: *bullshit.* None of us has been uniformly successful, all of us suffer defeat and frustration (long time readers of this blog know that is particularly true of the Tenured Radical.) Those of us who appear to be successful are able to maintain that appearance often because we have come to terms with more shame, fear and anger than we wish to talk about.

GayProf said...

Wow -- It's interesting to see how some sensible suggestions about institutional changes that might make a Ph.D. more valuable has been interpreted as personal assaults on one's basic entitlement to a job of one's choosing. I'm also surprised by the lack of memory of earlier posts in which you were quite critical of tenure (even as a tenured person).

But, when I think about it, you really are personally to blame for my life not being as fabulous as it should be. How do you sleep at night?

Tenured Radical said...


At my age, using others like kleenex is the only sensible path to self esteem.

Anonymous said...

I went to NYU, which does, to some extent, offer some of the options you suggest. There is a concentration in public history and a certificate in archival management and documentary editing. The department also houses two documentary editing projects, which offer an assistantships. I first enrolled as a masters student in the archival program in the mid-1990s. I did end up staying for Ph.D. because I had a project I wanted to keep working on and was offered funding. I was always very happy that I had the archival certification and experience with public history, as I knew I would be able to find a way to support myself. (Although I actually ended up teaching at community college, after working on a documentary editing project) But I have to say, while I was always treated with respect by my professors, a great number of Ph.D. students were horrible to the masters students in the archival and public history programs. Condescending, rude, openly complaining about having to have students not committed to getting Ph.Ds in their classes, arguing it lowered the intellectual climate of the department. Anyway, I guess I am writing this to say that I think the suggestions in the post are very good--but attitudes need to change at all levels of history departments for those changes to be embraced.

Anonymous said...

gayprof and TR -- i don't see how mockery and snarkiness are helpful. you both (TR a bit less, but it's heavy in the comments) keep contributing to this image of grad students and recent phds as illogical, whiny, overprivileged babies who need to get a grip. it's a common view of grad students, who get hated on quite a bit in academia.

in my opinion, that's neither an empirically accurate assessment of most grad students i know, nor a useful or progressive approach to the problem.

it's sort of like taking the rhetoric of the welfare queen to disqualify the needs of all people on welfare, or to say that such people just need to get over their bad luck and get jobs at mcdonald's. (why is it again that detroit auto workers deserve more sympathy than grad students? oh yeah, because i obviously have a trust fund that i can fall back on. yes, that and the 100 million i have coming in from my latest duet with lady gaga).

a lot of the commenters here are taking an inaccurate and unfair depiction of grad students and perpetuating it with this 'oh, we all had it hard so screw you and stop whining' mentality. which is funny considering the number of TT faculty i know who constantly complain about the horrors of teaching a 2-2.

i just think there are better, more progressive responses to this issue that avoid mischaracterizing, stereo-typing, or flat out bashing grad students, EVEN the ones who knowingly entered into the fray with the info that jobs were scarce. that is, unless you want to take up a ridiculous, conservative, rational choice argument about how they made their choices and now just have to shut up and suffer the consequences. because that's so radical and queer.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 3.21:

keep contributing to this image of grad students and recent phds as illogical, whiny, overprivileged babies who need to get a grip.

I refuse to relinquish my right to banter wittily with Gayprof, and I would defend his right to banter wittily with me to the death.

Other than that, I reiterate what I have said to others -- only a superficial and paranoid reading of my post or my replies to the commenters could produce this interpretation I quote above.

Why the insistence on being the victim of my contempt? It simply isn't so, and I don't see any evidence in the post -- which is 99% about reforming graduate programs in the humanities -- that could be interpreted that way.

GayProf said...

Anon 3.21: Why is there more sympathy for auto workers than grad students? Probably because many grad students often don't recognize that they are in a remarkably privileged positions even without a coveted tenure track position. They might not be able to teach at a college or a univeristy, but their job possibilies are still much greater than a person who was only able to attain a high-school diploma (or less).

What institutional mechanisms allowed you to pursue higher education that were closed to the majority of people in this nation? Regardless of whatever racial/ethnic/class/gender background you came from prior to graduate school, the option to attend graduate school put you firmly into the elite of the nation. Do you imagine that most auto workers dreamed of working in the industry? Maybe some did, but most probably took the job because they needed a job and enjoyed living indoors. So also Ph.D.'s are probably going to have to take jobs that aren't their dream job. Unless you are arguing that universities have done you a disservice by providing you a graduate education and that you would have been much better off just going to work on an assembly line?

And, as a footnote, one of my academic programs recently made the decision to shrink our enrollment for graduate admission. Partly this was a budget saving measure and partly this was an ethical question about training students who had bleak prospects for a job.

And, you're wrong, snark and mockery are always helpful.

Anonymous said...

i'm really not insisting i'm the victim of contempt, and i'd never challenge your right to witty banter -- i'd just wish the witty banter were not in the service of demeaning the feelings job seekers who, unlike you, likely live in immediate economic and geographic instability and quite likely live without health insurance or on the brink of losing it. it's a hard situation, and they have to right to bitch and moan just as you have the right to banter wittily along. and bitching and moaning doesn't preclude positive action.

i probably do overstate the extent to which you grad student bash -- this really comes out more in the comments from others, but i do think your original argument sets up a problematic approach to the questions you want to contribute to:

" . . . I am entirely unsympathetic to claims by disappointed job seekers that they have been lied to and bamboozled by the schools that admitted them to the Ph.D. because they were not cautioned at the very beginning of their education that they might not succeed in finding a tenure-track job."

This is a 'you made your bed now lie in it response' -- it is also a conservative response. do you have the same advice for people who entered into subprime mortgages? i'm not saying anyone should shirk personal responsibility, but i think in many cases -- including in higher ed -- we need to highlight the structural problems more than personal responsibility. but i also think people who made bad choices still deserve sympathy and compassion.

"Resentful job seekers , in other words, speak in the language of fraud rather than regret."

I understand you draw this from a blog, but it's an overstatement, and somehow the fact that a few dismayed job seekers made crazy (i admit) demands, has become, in the comments, cause to indict basically all grad students, or at least grad students in general.

that being said, i really do appreciate your concrete suggestions. i probably lean more toward menand's take on the phd, which ought to be shorter and require less economic sacrifice for what one ends up with:

how_history_feels said...

and... in other news: coincidentally, NPR's On The Media did a story today on similar questions vis a vis J-School. In case anyone's interested in thinking about these questions cross-disciplinarily, check it at

Anonymous said...

gradprof -- the point is that there need not be a competition for sympathy. it's not a finite resource. and to play auto workers against grad students is a dangerous game for both.

Anonymous said...

do you have the same advice for people who entered into subprime mortgages?

I would say it depends on who holds the mortgage and what they bothered to do before they got it and what they were told by the people who sold it to them.

I'd also advise anybody who, because of market forces, owes more on their house than it is presently worth to simply walk away. Stop paying the mortgage, start renting, and let the bank take the house.

Also, to gayprof: some people, lots of people I'd bet, did aspire to work on the line at GM or Ford. Steady job, good pay, good benefits, work indoors, unionized, and a good middle class life with nothing more than a HS diploma. I don't say this to harsh on you, but to make this point: that type of job is all but gone now. Again, pointing up the relative privilege of somebody with a PhD who is in a much better position to find a job he/she can live on, even if it's not their dream job, than the person who actually did aspire to work in the auto industry.

Options, it's all about options. A new PhD might not like that the most attractive option is foreclosed by things beyond their control. But there are plenty of pretty good options still out there. Not so much for the guy for whom working on the line was the good job.

GayProf said...

Anon 5.17:Also, to gayprof: some people, lots of people I'd bet, did aspire to work on the line at GM or Ford. Steady job, good pay, good benefits, work indoors, unionized, and a good middle class life with nothing more than a HS diploma. I don't say this to harsh on you, but to make this point: that type of job is all but gone now. Again, pointing up the relative privilege of somebody with a PhD who is in a much better position to find a job he/she can live on, even if it's not their dream job, than the person who actually did aspire to work in the auto industry.

I don't see this as contrary to what I wrote earlier. . . Indeed, my point was that people sought auto jobs because they paid the bills (not because the actual work itself was necessarily stimulating or what they longed to do all day long (which, by most accounts, working on the line was not a ton of fun)). And you are right that people with Ph.D.'s have many more options for jobs that will pay their bills than the former auto workers, even if they aren't the jobs they necessarily imagined doing. And, wasn't that TR's original point?

Anonymous said...


It seems we're agreeing all the way around.

Anonymous Jobseeker in American Lit said...

I appreciate TR's opening of this conversation. I am a Spring '09 PhD from a highly ranked public university. I am on the job market right now, hence my anonymity.

I agree with point #3, that we need to reform the accreditation systems regarding the production of PhD programs and the flood of new PhDs in the market. However, points #1 and #2 are flawed.

#1 - I've never worked in grad school admissions, of course, but at my institution--and in my experience of talking with other recent PhDs from peer institutions--PhD programs already self-select along this metric, and students coming straight from the BA are often disadvantaged in the admissions process. Of the 13 in my entering cohort in literature, 3 of us came straight from a BA program. I entered straight from my BA program (highly ranked SLAC), but had written a 150-page honors thesis, spent a summer on a research project with a faculty member in philosophy, and read all I could about the job prospects in the humanities. I was by no means unaware of the bleak situation and I knew what I was getting myself into. Three years working as an editorial assistant or a private tutor or in retail or as an intern or WHATEVER would not have changed the fact that I, like you, "was good at school" and knew that the intellectual life was the only life I would find satisfying. You can be 20 years old and know this, or 30 years old and know this, or whatever--to put a timeframe on it denies the diversity of human experience. The onus is on existing faculty to be honest with their undergraduates about whether or not they can cut it, and about what the job market for PhDs looks like. My UG faculty were honest with me, and I'm trying to return that favor today, even (and especially, most poignantly) as an adjunct.

#2. Putting graduate students to work in administrative positions might work in fields like history, and if grad student historians are interested, great. But where are you going to put all of those literature/classics/philosophy/religion/modern thought/American Studies/Women's Studies/Ethnic Studies/etc. people? In many cases, the universities rely upon us for undergraduate teaching, for better or for worse. Moreover, I agree with one of the commenters who noted that it demeans those people in administrative positions to assume that graduate students can take over their jobs with little training (or even passion) for them.

To be continued below...

Anonymous Jobseeker in American Lit said...

In closing I just wanted to say that as a job seeker I'm not angry, and I'm not blaming anyone, but I am certainly scared. I am an academic. That is my identity. The post you linked to ("Should I Go to Graduate School?") articulates this work-life identification well when it says that graduate school is a totalizing culture. I am currently working an adjunct position with no benefits (including no health care). I am 30 years old with a PhD in English from a top institution. I do not regret the decision I made to get the degree, and I never "expected" a job to be there. But I did expect that if I worked HARD and played the game, that I would be able to find something. And you know what? When I started grad school, an "abysmal" job market meant 50 postings in my field in a year. Last year, there were 25. This year, there were 12. These numbers are not an exaggeration.

By your own admission, you wrote that you did not plan your own academic career carefully:
"I speak as someone whose success as an academic was relatively unplanned, and in fact, a great surprise. My original decision to go to graduate school was both wildly irrational (I had a very hazy idea of what the outcome would be) and pretty rational (I knew I was good at school.)"

My decision to go to grad school was similarly both rational and irrational, but my outcome will likely not be as lucky as yours. Most of us planned to work our butts off in order to get one of these diminishing jobs. I certainly did. But there are only 12 jobs to be had. And apparently there are people who worked even harder than I did. So what are my options? I can work harder. I can continue adjuncting. I can "leave academia." Which do you think I'm going to take? Which would you take?

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion. I am in a STEM field, and recently joined the TT after many years at a National Lab.

It is really surprising to me how many people(seemingly) expected a specific job to be available upon graduation. In my science (as in history from what TR says) there are opportunities outside academia. This was in the late 90's, and most of the people in my cohort knew full well they would never get a TT job even if they wanted one, and so kept eyes open just in case.

We were also told all kinds of nonsense ("There will be a wave of retirements", "You aren't serious if you are considering a non-research position", "You don't need a backup plan", etc), but none of us really believed it (and we discussed this stuff all the time). And that was during a "normal" job market.

I really feel for people on the market now, but the market is no better in most other fields. This recession is a problem for job seekers everywhere. I have friends finishing up law school who are in major debt who can't find work. Ditto for MBAs and even MDs. But none of them seem to exude this sense of betrayal seen here.

The world has always been unfair. It is nothing personal.

Torie said...

Great post, TR.

As a current graduate student in a top R1 history program, I fully agree with not accepting students straight from undergrad and requiring a peek into admin life. It helps that I took 5 years off and worked in higher ed admin in that time. Looking around at my cohort, those of who took time off and worked (in a variety of careers) are the ones who are progressing through the program at a reasonable rate, are able to deal with snafus, can make our way through admin hurdles, and are less susceptible to collapsing when criticized for [anything]. While some who came straight from undergrad are fine, many are hamstrung by not knowing how universities work, by being surprised at critique, and by being uncomfortable with teaching and/or working the system. Moreover, those of us with other job experiences would like to become professors but have fallback plans and experiences. Two of the profs writing my recs forced me to sit down and look at stats for careers in academe; I came into this with my eyes wide open, and I think I'm better situated as a result. Keep up the fight!

davidjhemmer said...

Your idea for a 3-year delay would be ridiculous in mathematics, there is a vast amount of mathematics, material and techniques that needs to be mastered for successful research and one needs constant immersion in mathematics to keep sharp and build on these skills. Doing something else for 3 years would be a dramatic setback before starting one's PhD.

Tenured Radical said...


Don't doubt it -- this job post was addressing education and the job crisis in the liberal arts. One of the advantages of math and science are the many career options, most of which are far more lucrative (and perhaps open to innovation?) than the academy.

Anonymous said...

I am currently in the proccess of applying to PhD programs and before today, have never thought about not pursuing a graduate degree. I curretnly work in a non-profit art museum (yes, I was lucky to find an entry-level curatorial job). And after being in the "real world" for several years now, there is no way that I will not try my hardest to get into a PhD program. And I plan to apply that same determination when I apply to jobs in 6-10 years- tenure track, museum, whatever. My supervisor, who does not have a higher degree, 10 years my senior, is only making a few thousand more than I am- which my salary is barely above minimun wage. There is no way that anyone can scrape by not pursuing graduate degrees today. So, no matter the risk of a failing job market and jobless Universities and museums, I plan to work hard to successfully complete my degree, regardless of the lack of potential academic jobs. It just makes sense.

Shane Landrum said...

TR, thanks for this. I'm reminded of the women's studies Ph.D.s I once heard chatting over lunch in Boston, all of whom were teaching in non-TT, annually renewable positions. To a woman, they agreed that they'd rather have stable employment at a decent wage than submit to the conservative effects of pre-tenure work within a TT position. I was surprised to hear that at the time, but I'm less surprised now.

It's obvious to me that the critical thinking skills of a Ph.D. in history are useful outside the academy, but I'm also hard-pressed to think of any job other than college-level teaching for which a Ph.D. is the initial requirement. (Although subject-expertise librarians are one notable exception: Ph.D. in a specialty, MLIS as professional training.)

If you're so inclined, I'd be interested in a series of guest posts from your former Potemkin classmates who haven't gone TT— on what they're doing and how the Ph.D. prepared them to do work that changes the world. (And by "changes the world" I mean "pursues a social-justice agenda effectively," at whatever scale. It doesn't have to be, e.g., foreign policy work.)

Mikenjane said...

I think that professional organizations such as the MLA and the AHA need to be more responsible in accrediting graduate programs and trying to curb some of the reliance on adjuncts rampant in most institutions. Their lack of response to the worst abuses in the profession is inevitably going to lead to practices that are not sustainable, diminishing the reputation and usefulness of the disciplines themselves.

As for grad. school --the graduate program that I attended in the 1980's was very reputable, but was marred by cut-throat competition among the graduate students and regular unprofessional behavior by some faculty (failure to teach classes, grade papers, direct dissertations, etc.). When I last checked one of the reputable ratings of grad. programs, I noticed that it had fallen 12 places in standing in the last decade (despite its stated ambition to be first in the country), now barely ranking in the top 20. Since most grad. level faculty work with no real accountability, I really wonder what could be done to put pressure on tenured faculty at supposedly elite institutions to act more professionally.

By the way, I attended this grad. school b/c it supposedly had a great placement record. And many of my classmates did get very good jobs. Unfortunately, relatively few of them got tenure. Some moved on to second-tier institutions; some dropped out of academia; some became permanent adjuncts. The grad. school's placement data only covered the initial placement, not the eventual tenure decision, which seemed a bit short-sighted.

thebluestocking said...

I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of what you've written here TR, but telling disappointed tenure-track job seekers to get over themselves and move on misses the point entirely. The problem lies not in people thinking they're automatically entitled to a tenure-track job, but rather in their being brainwashed to believe that anything else is an abject failure, because that's the way most graduate programs work. This is at the root of the dynamic New Kid mentioned above: the cultish tendencies of the mindset in higher education from which one has to deprogram.

Not coincidentally, my standard spiel to students who ask me about going into grad school is to warn them about the economics of higher ed and to then tell them not to drink the Kool-Aid: that they should go into their programs realizing that they should explore possibilities other than tenure-track academia as a matter of self-preservation--while also not talking about those explorations as a matter of self-preservation. It's advice I sorely wish I had gotten when I started.

GayProf, I'm a fan from way back, seriously. But arguing that grad students have loads of cultural capital is a bit optimistic. Ideally, yes, we should have loads of cultural capital. But, in reality, thanks to the way the academic labor market works and the tremendous debt load most of us take on, we actually have relatively little. This is why we are now having to unionize with organizations that traditionally protected the very blue-collar workers you mention.

Am I saying that my prospects are the same as a Detroit auto worker who's 50 and got laid off through no fault of her own, but can't get a job? No. What I _am_ saying is that graduate students now have a lot more in common with auto workers than they used to. I'm also saying that we're being encouraged to keep our skill set narrow enough that we could easily end up in situations much like that of the laid-off auto worker and that there's very little way for most currently graduating Ph.D.s to regain cultural capital without deciding to leave academia. And that's a decision that is much, much harder to make than I think some of the folks commenting here realize.

Has a question said...

Is not the trend toward the use of adjunct labor for lower-level university courses something that is fueled simply by supply and demand?

That is, there is demand for part-time teaching work?

Otherwise --

Why are so many people willing to work for adjunct wages?

Graduate students make up a share of the population of teachers who will work for a few K per section, but not all of that share. (What percentage of all adjuncts are graduate students who think this is (a) resume-building [would do it for free if necessary, as an intern] and/or (b) funding for school?

Still there are people who are out of school teaching sections for not much money, every semester.

If the pay is not enough, why are so many people willing to do this job?

My hunch is that teaching college is a pretty good *part-time* job for some people. And the country has too many highly-educated people looking for part-time work (as a first job, because they married a better breadwinner, or as a second job, because the first job does not pay enough).

If you make 2K to teach a 3-credit 15 week course, what is the hourly? At 3 hours in the classroom and 2 hours of prep each week (not as underestimated as some will insist, I think, I am thinking not about novice teachers but about people who have taught part-time for years now), that would be 2K for 75 (15x5) hours of work. That's $26 an hour.

Minimum wage is what these days?

Even if the part-timer is unusually responsible and works 7 hours a week on that 3 hour course, 2K for 150 (15x10) hours is $13 hour.

What other seasonal jobs pay that much for those low hours? And let the worker speak about his favorite things at the center of a group of (potentially) adoring 18 year olds?

A big problem w/ the academic life is that it offers part-time work that is too appealing to support arguments for the creation of better-paying full-time work. Sure they could stop putting PhD students in the classroom, but would that solve the problem? Would the people willing to do this job for this pay not be enough?

Seriously that is my question. Is adjuncting really that awful as a part-time job? Seems better than two nights a weekend at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

And if everyone would stop teaching individual courses for 2K, wouldn't there would be more demand for people to fill full-time teaching positions?

I am not suggesting that part-time university teachers have a great thing going. I am just wondering if maybe the demand for these part-time jobs suggests they are not all that bad.

thebluestocking said...

@ Has a question:

At the risk of becoming annoying, I'm going to go back to the point I made in my previous comment: people are simply brainwashed into believing that to leave academia altogether is to admit to failure. A lot of people are sticking it out as adjuncts in the hope that "keeping their hands in" will eventually help them land a tenure-track job, precisely because they've been told that the only way to stick it out is to get more teaching experience by adjuncting until the market turns around. This line of thinking, of course, ignores the likelihood that the academic job market is not going to "turn around" at all. This is a good portion of the reason why adjunct positions still have so many applicants.

And I'm sorry, but your portrait of adjuncting is incredibly skewed. There is no way that anybody teaching a three-hour course is putting in only two hours of prep time per week--at least, not if they ever want to get hired again. The grading load alone would be easily twice that figure per week. And your characterization of the students adjuncts teach as adoring 18-year-olds really couldn't be further off the mark. College and community college students are a far more diverse group of learners than that, for one thing. For another, for better or for worse, they tend to think of themselves as savvy educational consumers, and very few of them would put up with being taught by someone who was that vastly under-prepared.

There are a million different resources available on the Intertubes for learning about what adjuncting is actually like: I sincerely and utterly without sarcasm suggest having a look at some of them. Here are some links to just a couple of articles:,

Anonymous said...

I'm gobsmacked that someone who labels herself "radical" (or indeed an historian) could publish such a reactionary post.

No discussion of the dearth of tenure track positions in the humanities and social sciences can be decontextualized from the emergence of a two-tier labor market which has effectively produced a reserve army of cheap labor which frees the comfortably tenured from the onerous duties of teaching 101 so they may carry out research and publishing - nor from the broader framework of a national political economy in which critical social analysis is not only unprofitable but threatening, particularly to a nation which has decided that perpetual war is the righteous order of the day.

The three proffered "solutions" frame the problem in the (neo)liberal jargon of supply and demand and a moralizing personal responsibility shtick worthy of Newt Gingrich.

How will recruiting more mature graduates change the availablility of decent jobs? How on earth are PhDs supposed to "participate in faculty governance in a responsible, business-like way" when they can't acquire positions which remotely approach the level of "governance?" Is that an endorsement of the commodification of higher education? How can people who have never been hired be blamed for irresponsible governance in the first place? I suppose shutting down graduate programs is one way to go, but wouldn't fighting to defend the value of disciplines like history to the functioning of a progressive and democratic society be a more worthy, and indeed radical pursuit?

I honestly don't mean to transgress your reasonable posting rules about egregious venom, but I'm genuinely perplexed at the bizarro "radicalism" on display in this analysis.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I know this is a dead thread, but I have to share: yesterday a student, undergrad senior who'd applied to our MA program, came up to me in a panic because sie'd heard a rumor that we were imposing a minimum one-semester hiatus between undergrad and grad. Nothing like that's been discussed that I know of, either in the department or grad council, nor would there be much, if any, support for it. Not sure where it started....

Unknown said...

This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

get academic

Anonymous said...

Dear Tenured Radical,

Thank you for an amusing article and set of comments. As a Phd who has worked successfully without ever relying on the degree, I have two identical stories to share:

1) In a train station, a young man with a button which read, "fuck work," asked me for money. Being male and well over six feet tall, I did not worry about asking him the simple question, "Why?" He was shocked, as no one asked him that. The bluster was most amusing, and it reduces down to -- because I want money.

2) I came across a student demonstration protesting cuts in a university's musicology budget, and this young musicology student asked me to support them, and I asked "Why?" She blustered a bit because she has assumed I would, and the reduction of that conversation comes to much the same as the example above. "...because I want it."

Being a professional musician myself, I asked if she thought there might be too many musicologists for the available positions "out there," and her response was that we should make more positions for students like her. Without once arguing for musicology's merits or considering the likelihood of positions available, her thinking was so naive though sweet, I wished her luck, but said she'd have better luck studying something else. If such youth could more than growl, I would have been bitten.

The question is the same for us all: where and how big is our market? I fortunately make a living in music without begging for money, and it disturbs me that many musicians feel the
competition between musicians for positions can somehow be done away with. Music is a competitive art form, and we should be teaching young musicians to be prepared, more prepared and so completley skilled that their "win" over less prepared musicians will grant them work. Without that music becomes civil service. Oy.

Best wishes for a marvelous blog.

Iolanthe said...

As an undergrad (a youngish one at that), I wonder what could be done at the undergraduate level to educate those who dream of becoming professors about all this. Many of my friends who share my academic ambitions often seem utterly unaware that one might not find a 'good' university job after graduate school; I only know about the difficulties because I read blogs.

Undergraduates at my university are practically spammed with internship opportunities for scientists, engineers, business/econ majors and political types. However, it is difficult for us undergraduate majors to know how best to broaden our educations. Usually we're pushed towards political activism - something that isn't everyone's cup of tea. Consequently, we think we can avoid the 'real world', which seems horribly dull to some (myself included) by becoming professors. Introducing such students to non-academic, intellectual careers early on might be helpful.

Most of your suggestions do sound pretty good (though I agree with some others that the three-year gap could pose serious logistical problems for many). Integrating intellectual but non-academic experiences into a graduate degree seems like a stellar idea.

Also, perhaps I am too idealistic, but it seems as though a great number of the 'great books' we read were written by people outside of universities, and that an outside job shouldn't prevent a well-educated person from leading a rich intellectual life for his own satisfaction. It is unfortunate that so many apparently believe that they will become mindless, unphilosophical drones if they leave academia.

Iolanthe said...

Oops - by 'undergraduate majors', I meant 'humanities majors'! Wow...

Lee said...

Thanks for your share! I think this information is helpful for everyone. I'm doing practice GRE here: . I hope it's useful for GRE test takers.

Alan W. Moore said...

Only this at the end -- I'm 59, can't adjunct in NYC (it's a ticket to eviction), and have had only 2 years fulltime since PhD in 2000. (Wow!) Still, I love my work and won't quit it. ("No ISBN, no problem!") WHAT CAN Schools DO? Work on helping people get jobs, all kinds of job... when I finished in 2000, my school dropped their placement office to save money. They should have expanded it into a full function department.

Unknown said...

Wouldn't it be easier to mandate that universities collect and report real statistics on the number of graduating Ph.D. students who have landed: (a) tenure-track positions, (b) non-tenure or adjunct positions, and (c) no positions? Let the Department of Education publish the stats over - say - 5 years. Transparency is the best decision aid for aspiring Ph.D. candidates and might actually shed some light on where the jobs are likely to be.

Anonymous said...

Late to post again. I went straight from BA to PhD program and it was good for me. Other things could have been good, too, but it was good for me and I do not regret it.

They always said, don't expect to get a professor job and I didn't. I was ready to retrain at 30 when I finished, would not have minded, would not mind now if I could afford it. 30 is definitely not too old.

The only thing I regret about it is that as I advanced in program, which was an intense program, I lost sight of my original career goal which was to work somewhere like UNESCO. As people started to flunk out or quit, and I was oddly among the few left standing from my entering year, it started to be expected one would go on the academic market. With all the dissertation pressure and so on, and the job market to deal with, I didn't get a chance to think about options ... and then on the tenure track, was too busy for that also.

So my suggestion would just be, PhD programs and professional associations should put more emphasis on planning for a variety of careers.

Anonymous said...

And I know this is a dead thread too, but I have to underline this that the Bluestocking said:

"People are simply brainwashed into believing that to leave academia altogether is to admit to failure."

YES. This is the problem. Nonacademics don't think that way but I've been vulnerable to the pressure to stay for that reason. It took me a long time to understand that the reason people were pressuring me to stay was that they didn't want to see me "fail."