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Considering the Allure of the Tenure Track
July 15, 2012 - 10:20pm

Last May, Inside Higher Ed reported that Russell Berman, past president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) and Stanford University professor, has put forth a proposal together with five other Stanford colleagues to rethink the humanities PhD there. They tackled the question of whether and how to make the humanities PhD relevant today. In order to accomplish this, they posit that time to degree must be reduced and students should be trained for a diversity of career tracks, not limited to the traditional tenure track career path. In the brief proposal Berman and his colleagues developed, they stipulate that students will have to choose what career track they would like to embark upon by the end of the second year of PhD work, so that they can focus the rest of their PhD work on preparing for that track.

I agree that the humanities PhD needs retooling and that time to degree is a problem, but I wonder about the proposal’s second objective to prepare students for different career paths. I think this is a great idea, especially as someone who “discovered” alternative academic careers outside of my academic training. However, I am aware that many students start (and end) their humanities PhDs thinking they wanted to become a tenure-track professor at a research-oriented, doctoral-granting institution. Granted, not all do (and I know of several PhDs and lamented that they were trained to become professors when they never wanted to teach), but many still see that as the big reward at the end of their graduate careers. I know I did. It's the reason why we talk about a surplus of PhDs and why some like Leonard Cassuto worry that the answer does not lie in reducing time to degree because there are already so many PhDs and ABDs on the job market already. It is important to make humanities PhD students and PhDs aware of the range of career possibilities with a PhD. My concern is, will these parties be receptive? Or will they always see these options as second-best to the tenure-track? Even if later on they find themselves frustrated by the increasing demands on graduate students and tenure-track faculty, many who see the tenure track as their goal continue to flock to humanities graduate programs.

This leads me to wonder: what is the allure of the tenure track?

Last year I made a conscious decision not to apply for any teaching/tenure-track positions while I was finishing my PhD. I was focused on trying to finish and defend my dissertation, and in order to do that I had to put all my energy into that endeavor. Also, I didn't feel the pressure to do so, not immediately; last summer I obtained an alternative academic job that I enjoy at a doctorate-granting institution, and even though it is part time it has allowed me to stay in academia and earn a living wage.

However, once I defended and Commencement was just around the corner, I faced a question I hadn't heard in a while: "so, what are you going to do now?" I think having a job kept that question at bay--as did the fact that I was making progress on the dissertation. Once I made my way back to the East Coast for my hooding ceremony, this milestone opened up the door to the questions as well as to thinking about my academic future once again.

I found myself thinking about the plans I had when I first started my PhD. What about that tenure-track job I once wanted? Am I still in that frame of mind? As I move forward I have been thinking what stood out for me about becoming a professor. Was it the teaching? Was it the opportunity to research topics of my choosing? Was it being able to share my work with students? Was it the possibility of forming future scholars through my mentorship and research? Was it the guarantee of intellectual freedom as an academic? Now that I am in a better position academically and professionally, I wonder often: what is my track? In the meantime, as an alt-academic I find myself carving my own career track as I move forward.

I don't think the tenure track is bad. I also don't think all PhDs should run away from academia. Rather, my inclination as a scholar is to question the world around me. As such, I encourage PhD students to question the idea that the tenure track is the only place they can be employed and consider instead whether the tenure track is a good fit. Why do you want to be on the tenure track?

Kansas City, Kansas in the US.

Liana is a regular contributor at University of Venus. Follow her on Twitter @literarychica.


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