Pragmatic Advising

April 15, 2013

My students, especially soon-to-be master’s-degree recipients, frequently ask about whether Ph.D. programs are a good career path. Given the difficulties of this job market, even for students in a professional program who have experience in the field, the prospect of a Ph.D. can seem like a permanent safe harbor. Appearances deceive, though, as a tight academic job market and a deepening reliance on adjuncts make even employment after the Ph.D. a difficult proposition. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s been an increasingly strident pushback to the idea that Ph.D.s are necessary. Numerous examples exist in the humanities, sciences and social sciences.

Rather than restate themes that have already been covered better by others, I offer recommendations for how faculty mentors should answer these sorts of questions from students. We are always going to be asked about whether students should follow our career paths, and the days of faculty blindly endorsing Ph.D. programs as if they were a universal solution for all students are over. Doing our job as advisers well requires that we take a pragmatic approach that gives students a clear understanding of the challenges currently confronted by academe. This will require many who advise Ph.D. students to take a more hands-on role in preparing their students for the challenges of an increasingly difficult job market. This pragmatic approach has three elements: honesty, professionalization, and options.

Our first responsibility to students interested in these questions is to be honest. This is not the easy road, but faculty members should be willing to decline student requests for letters of recommendation for Ph.D. programs. Doctoral work is not for everyone, and recommendations are not a birthright. Preparing for comprehensive exams and writing a dissertation can be an unforgiving process. If a student has not performed well in my class, how can I in good conscience recommend him or her for advanced study in another program? This is also a matter that goes beyond grades; students need a frank discussion of their strengths and weaknesses and how their skillsets meet with those that are necessary for doctoral study. Even for promising students, this discussion can help them to see areas on which they can improve, which can only help them moving forward in a new department.

We need to not only be honest about a student’s fit with doctoral study, we also need to be honest about how our profession works. I’ve talked a great deal with students about the downsides of an academic career. My dissertation adviser was in the office on weekends and late at night, and he taught me that success in this business is not about working 40 hours a week. Students need to be aware of trends in the growth of adjunct faculty and in hiring. Students also need to know about the search process before they start doctoral study. Someone has to take the "locationally challenged" first job, even if they have to move from their preferred locales in San Francisco or the Upper West Side to take it.

Faculty mentors have an obligation to professionalize the students that are applying to doctoral programs. This means that we need to stress their scholarly identity, which is much more than coursework. Students applying to Ph.D. programs need to have an independent identity as a researcher, which puts a premium on conference presentations and published works. Op-eds and blogging, if done right, can help students by marking them as emerging scholars asking important questions. After all, if students don’t have a strong research presence, the mere act of completing a dissertation will not be enough to make a search committee pay attention . One might argue that this is investing energies designed to make other departments’ students better, but their placement undeniably reflects your effort as well as theirs.

A place where professionalization comes into play is in developing the list of potential graduate programs to which the student will apply. This is a case where faculty members should use their knowledge to develop a list of potential programs that are good fits with the student’s interests and also have faculty members who are committed to mentoring. In areas where one might feel less certain about a department, a preliminary e-mail sent to the director of graduate studies can help clarify some matters. I’ve done this for students, and when I haven’t received replies, I’ve recommended removing that school from the list. The application process can get expensive for the student, and it’s important to get it right.

Letters of recommendation are also crucial. If we’re willing to sign our names to an endorsement of a student for a graduate program, then it’s incumbent that we actually write letters that sell students. If we have nothing to say about a student’s performance that bodes well for their future, then that’s a problem. We would certainly discount letters of recommendations for applicants for tenure-track positions that were tepid or had typos. We should treat our students no differently and write persuasive letters.

Our final responsibility to students is to discuss options. Students can hope than an improvement in state budgets will lead to a wave of hiring, but a history lesson is in order. In an earlier age, a cohort of job applicants was assured that their prospects were bright because a wave of faculty was certain to retire. This wave never really materialized. Students need to prepare for a job in the academy, but also explore and understand alternative career paths. The so-called alt-ac movement understands this far too well.

Preparing students for alternative career paths, however, requires some additional learning by faculty mentors. Many career academics might not even be aware of such career paths, and it’s important that they learn not only how to best position students for these careers, but also how to access their hiring processes, since jobs in nonacademic positions aren’t listed in the usual places. The days of students getting jobs just because an adviser can make a phone call are over.

These are big challenges that reach across discrete departments and fields. Universities need to prepare graduate students for nonacademic careers. Professional associations should also play a role here by disseminating information about best practices. Most importantly, faculty need to be aware of these long-term challenges and approach mentoring very differently. Barring some of the changes noted above, our graduate students are only going to learn a harsh truth: that the academy is an enterprise built on increasingly disposable labor. Good faculty mentors can’t change that reality, but they can give their students a better chance at beating the odds and making better choices.


Martin S. Edwards is an associate professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University.

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