Doctoral Training Should Meet the Equity Moment

While academe helped create the theoretical groundswell that mainstreamed inequity as a problem, it must now ready the next crop of Ph.D.s to lead the social-change charge, Yulia Chuvileva and Sarah Lyon argue.

July 27, 2021
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Inequity is on everyone’s lips. The disproportionate toll on people of color during the pandemic from both COVID-19 and police violence brought into laser-sharp focus the unjust obstacles many people face in our society. This moment has elevated the language and concepts of critical social theories to the status of everyday conversations, public conflicts and policy backlashes. It has also elevated ending racial injustice and achieving equity as stated goals of many universities, nonprofits, corporations, neighborhood initiatives and even the federal government. In many professions, the world of post-pandemic work will be deeply shaped by the equity enterprise for, at the very least, the three to seven years of the Biden-Harris administration yet to come.

But how can an equitable and just society, sector, organization or even initiative be achieved? What does equity look like in practice? These are the questions currently occupying center stage in Zoom meetings all around the country. While the social sciences and humanities (SSH) helped create the theoretical groundswell that mainstreamed inequity as a problem, they must now contribute to solutions.

SSH scholars should do so not just through producing more social theory but also by readying the next crop of SSH Ph.D.s to lead the social-change charge. We need an SSH workforce that can move from asking what has gone wrong to asking what it can do about it and how it can do that well. This crucial contribution should start with doctoral training that meets the current historic moment. In turn, that training and its accompanying reorientation of post-Ph.D. career purpose and prospects can help turn the tide on the mental health crisis of our doctoral SSH workforce.

In their theoretical training, graduates of SSH doctoral programs are well equipped to transition to applied equity-related work. Clearly articulating and defining complex concepts is the bread and butter of the social sciences and humanities; words are our trade. As such, many SSH Ph.D.s bring a well-honed skill of challenging conceptual assumptions, being fastidious about the definitions of words under use and considering concepts in their historical trajectories.

These abilities are vital to an important step on the road of change in organizational policies and everyday practices: to clearly define and operationalize critical concepts. What does it mean to have antiracist government policies? How can business research teams think about equity in social data collection and analysis? How do you train managers and supervisors to act with cultural humility toward a diverse workforce? SSH Ph.D.s are well placed to help answer these types of questions.

While current theoretical training in SSH doctoral programs translates well into addressing conceptual challenges facing equity-oriented groups, many SSH students graduate inadequately equipped with the practical skills they need to contribute to this work. Most SSH programs still prepare doctoral students primarily for professoriate paths, where they would research and teach as tenure-track and eventually tenured academics. Such positions differ from other career paths in the types and sizes of collaborations they entail, the kinds of questions they ask and for what purpose, and the type and style of writing they produce and for whom.

Doctoral experience in teamwork and writing varies by discipline and often by department. Many psychology students conduct experimental lab work that is closely guided by a supervisor (although such students still tend to work largely alone on their studies) and aim to publish a few journal articles as their doctoral output. Most cultural anthropology students, in contrast, work alone through long-term fieldwork, living alongside and interviewing in depth the people they study, to produce book-length theses. History students might, for months, consult records, artifacts and other sources in the bowels of archival libraries, also producing great tomes to earn their degrees. Most SSH disciplines choose some combination of these working and writing styles, graduating requirements, and some mix of research and teaching components.

Despite disciplinary diversity in approaches, on the whole, as is true of any professional education, doctoral training elevates some competencies and minimizes others. It hones independence and self-motivation, but it focuses much less on cultivating abilities to work as part of a team. It prepares students to write in named-author, peer-reviewed long form for other academics, but it does not grow their abilities to communicate with a broader range of audiences in different written genres -- like internal organizational reports or external public communications. It builds student abilities to work on a single large research project that aims to further theory, without training them on methods for carrying out more rapid assessments of problems that require a quick turnaround of recommendations for action. Training graduate students to contribute to the post-pandemic equity moment will mean developing the transferable skills they need to work in teams, prepare different kinds of products for different audiences and apply the best of SSH approaches and methodologies to solve practical problems.

Perhaps the biggest change required, though, is to reframe nonacademic paths in the glowing light of desirability. Current training of SSH doctoral students primarily for academic jobs is not value-free. It is, instead, accompanied by the enculturation of SSH Ph.D. trainees into seeing the academic path as the most valuable one and everything else as “less than.” Practical training for work outside the professoriate will be inadequate without psychological preparation that gets doctoral students excited about nonacademic careers as their first choice -- not as an alternative to, something beyond or a last resort to academe.

This is not just a practical call to action. Teaching SSH Ph.D.s in training to value nonfaculty careers highly has become an equity issue for higher ed in general.

Doctoral students face depressing prospects for securing jobs in academe; fewer than half of Ph.D. holders across all fields find positions in academe, and fewer than a quarter secure tenure-track appointments. The academic job market collapse is well documented in books, peer-reviewed publications and public articles (see, for example, here, here and here), and it has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially affecting junior researchers.

The job market shifts affect already-marginalized scholars the most. The recent structural transformations within higher education have disproportionately impacted women academics and academics of color. Research also demonstrates that Ph.D. students from underrepresented minority groups are more likely to follow nonacademic career pathways than those from well-represented groups.

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Some established academics predict that, for many reasons, more jobs in academe are not likely to appear any time soon. At the same time, doctoral programs are unlikely to reduce their typical Ph.D. student intakes (although they have done so during the pandemic). Nor should they do so. We certainly subscribe to the view that we need more doctoral-trained social scientists and humanists out in the world, not fewer.

All in all, nonacademic paths are now the norm, not an aberration, especially for SSH Ph.D. graduates from marginalized groups. Meanwhile, lack of professional development support from faculty mentors in how to navigate future career prospects plays a big part in the mental health crisis engulfing the graduate student workforce. Knowing that they likely won't succeed in securing a faculty position, many SSH Ph.D.s move through graduate school increasingly dreading their impending run at the academic job market.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Research already shows that Ph.D.s outside academe are happier than their academic colleagues. They shouldn’t be unhappy in graduate school, either.

The reorientation of doctoral SSH pedagogy primarily toward training a workforce that can contribute solutions to the world’s biggest challenges could also help move the needle on the interconnected collapses of the academic job market and doctoral student mental health. Such reorientation sets graduate students’ sights on making positive contributions to equity and other social change, no matter which sector, company or organization they choose as their employer, valuing and critiquing all fields equally. And it gives graduates more of the transferable skills they need to work with others to rapidly solve problems using cutting-edge social theory and methods.

Many campuses now feature “alt-ac and “beyond the professoriate” initiatives that aim to address the mismatch between graduate student numbers and the numbers of available tenure-track jobs. These initiatives respectively expose students to alternative tracks within academe (such as in administration) and paths entirely outside it.

Such programs do a great deal to expand narrow definitions of possible post-Ph.D. careers. Yet they often remain supplemental programs -- administrative initiatives run on the fringes of the larger ecosystem that produces SSH Ph.D.s. To move forward, the core principles of training a doctoral workforce to meet the equity moment will need to be centrally woven into the curriculum and the everyday practices of faculty, departments and professional organizations.

To make that happen, it is not primarily the students who need their ideas of possible career paths expanded. While many enter SSH Ph.D. programs with vague ideas of becoming professors, it is during their doctoral training that they come to covet tenure-track research positions in top research institutions above all others. Some, including we who wrote this article, begin graduate school with no dreams of becoming faculty yet emerge fully enculturated into narrowly desiring professorial positions. The job prestige hierarchy is usually learned during graduate school, not before, so it is not the students’ minds that need changing.

As other observers have also argued, the deeper shift required is among academic advisers, departments, schools and professional bodies, all of whom play a role in propagating the myth of academe’s superiority over all other sectors and tenured professorships at prestigious universities above all other higher ed jobs. Together, we need to honestly rechart the career paths of SSH Ph.D.s and intentionally redesign curricula and professional rewards to match.

Faculty can start by mentoring students in examining their values and strengths early and often in their training to pick the right career paths for them. Departments can mindfully shift curricula and graduation requirements to more applied and team-based work, and cultivate recruitment networks with potential employers. Professional disciplinary organizations, such as anthropology’s American Anthropological Association or history’s American Historical Association, can create more new prizes, internships and other professional rewards for rigorously researched work and products not aimed at an academic audience, as well as confer more prestige on the thousands of practicing SSH Ph.D.s already in successful careers outside academe.

Government and nongovernment funding bodies of the social sciences and humanities, like the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Wenner Gren Foundation, can borrow innovations from other applied fields, like public health, to create workforce development plans for an applied SSH labor pool, laying out its tiers, domains and core competencies, as well as expand funding for team-based and practical efforts. For their part, current doctoral students can support a shift in this direction by asking their senior colleagues to make changes and by seeking out courses, student group projects, internships and paid roles that can build their skills for nonfaculty work.

This effort will be worth it. It promises to cultivate a healthier relationship of graduate students to their job and career prospects while expanding the public footprint of social sciences and humanities by working toward a more just and equitable world. It is possible to design SSH doctoral training to focus on solving social problems while, at the same time, achieving better career and mental health outcomes for more of its graduates.

The call to meet the post-pandemic equity moment could help push academe toward equity, too. The question now is: Will we answer it?


Yulia Chuvileva is an ORISE Fellow in the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a visiting faculty member at Emory University. For 10 years, she has taught professional development, provided one-on-one career consultations and written about applying and interviewing for jobs in academic, private and nonprofit sectors. Sarah Lyon, professor of anthropology, is the former associate dean of graduate studies and current associate dean of faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Next Gen Ph.D. Program, she developed Careers Beyond the Professoriate to help prepare Ph.D. students for diverse careers, and she teaches courses on business and economic anthropology.

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