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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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International Student Precarity in the Humanities Academy

Career preparation challenges and suggestions.

April 21, 2020
 
 

In higher education classrooms in the United States, from the undergraduate to the doctoral level, there are sizable numbers of international students. Of course, this is desirable in terms of diversity -- but is recruiting a diverse student body enough if universities do not have the infrastructure to adequately accommodate their career goals?

In her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed writes, “A genealogy of the term ‘diversity’ allows us to think about the appeal of the term as an institutional appeal. We might want to be cautious about the appealing nature of diversity and ask whether the ease of its incorporation by institutions is a sign of the loss of its critical edge.” Most universities in the U.S. are no longer keen on hiring international candidates (i.e., foreign nationals with U.S. graduate degrees) for tenure-track positions due to visa-related complications. When U.S. employers hire foreign nationals, they usually have to justify why their choice of candidate is more qualified for that job than an American citizen; due to the oversaturation of Ph.D.s and the shrinking job market, the chances of hiring such international candidates have become considerably lower.

However, most of these universities also consider it inessential to train their doctoral candidates for the academic job market outside the U.S. The question then is -- why recruit new international doctoral students every academic year? After all, diversity that does not cater to the needs of the diverse people is performative at best and exploitative at worst. I am not questioning the quality of doctoral education, nor am I discounting the practical skills my doctoral training has helped me hone over the span of three years and counting. However, a significant number of graduate students cannot afford to embark on higher education for the pursuit of knowledge alone. Even the most passionately academic among us need jobs at the end of our tenure at graduate school. That is to say, to be truly inclusive, marginalized bodies in academia should not merely be represented quantitatively but must also be supported qualitatively.

In an increasingly diminished job market that demands grad students be as competitive as possible to have a remote chance of a tenure-track or even a full-time, noncontingent position, international students are often locked out of opportunities due to their residency status and limited work authorizations. A brief overview of the pressing issues the international community in academia face are:

  1. They do not qualify for work-study opportunities that are available to citizens/residents during the summer and winter sessions. Therefore, they not only suffer on the funding front, but also in terms of valuable research experience that work-study positions facilitate.
  2. They do not qualify for the majority of internal and external dissertation grants. As a result, they have to teach multiple undergraduate classes to support themselves through their dissertation research and writing stage, which causes delay in graduation. It also affects the quality and rigor of research due to the lack of funds to conduct off-campus fieldwork in the social sciences. Lack of dissertation fellowships and additional teaching appointments also takes away valuable time that candidates could instead spend on important professional development such as publishing, networking and conferencing. These factors hurt their CVs due to circumstances beyond their control.
  3. The inequity also extends to the job market, as the pool of jobs for which international students are eligible to apply is considerably smaller. This is a twofold problem. Firstly, they are not eligible to apply to positions that do not offer work visas. But currently, contingent positions make up a sizable percentage of academic jobs, and most jobs in this category do not offer work visas.
  4. F-1 visa holders also have a 20-hour-per-week work restriction and are not allowed to work noncampus jobs. Not only does this add to financial stress (since most graduate students are underpaid by their institutions) but it also limits the opportunity to build a career outside academia. Speaking of industry careers, to make academia and career opportunities more equitable, it is imperative for institutions to lay more emphasis on training outside the traditional curriculum. We are often told that humanities Ph.D.s are good for a range of careers, but outside the professoriate, we are not told how to access those other career options.

So what can universities do to make a difference? To simplify, let me take the aid of yet another list:

  1. First, they should have career counselors dedicated to or at least familiar with dealing with the unique challenges faced by the international community.
  2. Universities should work around internal funding for dissertation fellowships so that they do not exclude international Ph.D. candidates. They should also lobby for an increase in the number of OPT (optional practical training, a program through which students on F-1 visas are allowed to work in the U.S. following their degree) years. For perspective, STEM students are allowed up to three years. In contrast, humanities students are allowed only 12 months. The additional 24 months gives the former a far higher chance of securing a long-term job in the U.S.
  3. Universities should recognize that there is an international job market, and that candidates considering a career abroad need country-specific training. Long-term goals for this would include custom advising for students seeking employment in academia outside the United States. Short-term solutions are to curate international academic job listings and make them available widely.
  4. Transparency. I believe that if institutions were more open about the challenges in the job market and academia at large for international as well as resident students, we would be, as individuals and as a community, better equipped to deal with or bypass the job market crisis. Additionally, universities perhaps have an ethical obligation to make clear to incoming cohorts the enormity of the crisis instead of tiptoeing around the issue. Being unambiguous about this would also eventually open avenues for preparation in industry careers.
  5. Despite the shrinking job market, there is still a considerable stigma against industry careers. If doctoral programs reframe their professional development training, not only would jobs outside academia be considered legitimate career options for humanities doctorates, but it would also give candidates the necessary skills required to compete and succeed in a wide range of fields pertaining to their interests. In some master's programs, and especially in M.F.A. programs, there is a strong emphasis on internships as a part of the curriculum. Maybe Ph.D. programs hoping to train their students for the industry can adopt that practice and even reserve some budget for unpaid internships. Speaking of which, the language we use to describe careers outside the professoriate in itself is exclusionary in nature: the very term “alt-ac” centers academia by default. As humanities scholars, we should not discount the effect and affect of the language we use.

In sum, if universities hope to address international student precarity as well as aim for a more equitable future for all in academia, diversifying career options should be the way forward. Much of the traditional training we receive during our graduate study, be it academic publishing, conference presenting or teaching, unfortunately does not directly count for much outside academia. However, in participating in these academic endeavors, we develop valuable critical, analytical and research skills. If universities focus on helping students transfer these valuable skills to industry positions for which they are eligible, their graduates will leave with a more marketable CV and their international students will have a higher chance of securing employment. Considering that there is an alarming rise of overall discontent as well as mental health issues in academia, is it not time to reimagine the humanities doctorate? To build a more sustainable and versatile system both for residents and for foreign national students?

Kay Sohini Kumar is a comics maker based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University. Follow her at @KaySohini on Twitter, or check out her website.

Illustration by author.

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