Recommending Academe...or Not?

UVenus Responds.

October 4, 2016

Last week, Conditionally Accepted published a piece by a faculty member who no longer recommends that her students to go into academe. This opinion gives voice to very real concerns expressed by many working in higher education today. Here, University of Venus contributors give their perspectives on the issue.

Gwendolyn Beetham, Rutgers University, New Brunswick NJ

As someone with an administrative position in higher education who also does research and advocacy around contingent faculty in my home discipline (Women’s and Gender Studies), I have thought deeply about this issue. Last year (almost a year to the day in fact!) I wrote on our ethical obligation to graduate students in a piece titled Field Status. My opinion has not wavered much since that time:

I long-ago decided that I would stop advising people not to do a PhD (they don’t listen anyway!), I have started to offer the following advice to current graduate students: enjoy what you are doing now. Live in the present. Celebrate the gift that is the “life of the mind.” I truly believe that if you are going to graduate school with a tenure-track job as they only end-goal in mind, particularly in certain disciplines, you are seriously misguided. But if you are going to graduate school because you love to research and learn in community with others who love researching and learning, then brava.

The truth is this: graduate school and its aftermath was extremely difficult for me emotionally, as it is for many. And, although I decided not to go the tenure track route, I feel so fortunate for the time I spent in graduate school in community with others, living the “life of the mind.” It truly was a gift. So, while I will insist that it is ethically suspect to keep the realities of the job market from graduate students - or worse, not be informed about them as an academic yourself - I also think that it is important to allow graduate students to enjoy their time as graduate students.

Denise Horn, Simmons College, Boston MA

This is a tough one. I love academe (not all of it, but certainly the ideal of it), and I, like Gwendolyn, enjoyed my time as a graduate student. It was thrilling to have the time and space to think deeply, to have important discussions, and establish deep, long-lasting friendships.

That being said, the market is not what it was when I finished grad school, and it was bad even then. Too many of my friends spent years on the adjunct track, or accepting a series of visiting appointments. It is not an easy life--and add to that the amount of debt a student will likely take on, it may in fact be financial suicide. So I would advise grad students to consider other options, and take on experiences that will prepare them for careers other than academe.

Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, BC, Canada

I am brutally honest with my mentees. I explain that there are few jobs in academe and that they need to be prepared to work outside of higher education. I do them no favors by not being honest. All of us need to think about our options and do what is best. If I could go back, I would not have done anything differently. I learned lots being contingent faculty, then on the teaching track, and now as an academic administrator.

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, Lund University, Sweden

The situation is slightly different in Europe, I believe, where the pressures of the market are slightly less evident in comparison to North America. Thus, a career in the academia does not imply the same amount of risk as I have seen it is the case in the US. I have no problem recommending a PhD to my Master students who show aptitude for the job. Many of the PhD positions here are paid, and there are some reasonable chances for postdoctoral fellowships for young scholars who deliver well during their doctoral period. There are even some fair chances to get a job outside academia for those who choose to go that route. In my experience, few Master students want to become doctoral candidates, and those who express an interest already have the internal motivation to do so. I see my role as sketching the career paths available after the degree (including the uncertainties involved), so the interested students can make an informed decision.

Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island, PE, Canada

When I’m asked about a Ph.D - or, more often, in our small regional Faculty of Education, OUR Ph.D, one of the very few doctoral programs available locally - it’s not as a professor being approached by young undergraduates or Masters students. Rather, it’s as one of the first graduates of that Ph.D...and as a peer of sorts.

I’m sort of a living cautionary tale as regards these inquiries: I work and teach in our Faculty, but as staff and as an adjunct. To students, this status distinction and its limitations are seldom visible: few are particularly versed in academia’s systemic hierarchies. They know I teach and manage a program, and may be aware of the profile of my open scholarship, which affords the privilege of traveling and speaking. But the fact of how this differs from a tenure-track position or how few tenure-track positions come available in our small faculty is a reality I make very explicit, as most inquirers are, like me, mid-career professionals with embedded family ties in PEI. Few of us will ever have TT jobs here, and it’s important we know that going in.

But more than that, it’s important to me that potential Ph.D students understand the power relations and identity challenges and financial constraints of returning to full-time study with adult responsibilities. The program I graduated from has moved significantly towards increased flexibility in the years since I began, but funding is still minimal and the experience of becoming a student when one has spent years as the teacher can be confusing and destabilizing. I emphasize the importance of fit with advisors, particularly given the small size of our faculty and campus, and generally try to suss out how the person’s life and trajectory would be improved by a Ph.D, and by the Ph.D experience. This is a have-not region, with few professional opportunities generally, and a Ph.D can offer value outside the tenure-track framework. But an applicant needs an opportunity to work through those complexities in a frank and individual way. Occasionally, I give an enthusiastic recommendation of “you should absolutely apply!” But far more often, it’s a more complicated, nuanced picture, as it should be.

Lee Skallerup Bessette, University of Mary Washington, Virginia, USA

Working for a long time at a rural state university, where the majority of the students were first generation and largely career focuses, their interest in graduate school was limited: teaching, nursing, public administration, business. The idea wasn’t to become a professor or a scholar, but to get a credential that would help them secure stable employment at a higher salary.

Which is another issue for another day.

Having said that, I didn’t encounter many students that I needed to dissuade from going to graduate school in the humanities, and when I did, I was brutally honest. I have long struggled with advising students about graduate school weighing at once the economic realities of going with the lack of diversity within the ranks of graduate school and the professoriate (Tressie McMillan Cottom has written much more eloquently on this issue). I truly believe that many of my (former) students would make excellent researchers and professors, bringing their unique and important perspective and mentorship capabilities to an increasingly diverse group of students.

If only there were jobs and if they could just get hired.

I more recently had a student in a literature course I was teaching who asked me for a letter to get into the local Master’s program in English. It was an easy letter to write: she was the best student in the class, and showed a real passion and talent for the kind of work that would be required of her in graduate school. She was also older, and already had a degree in another subject. She was remaining local, one would image, for a variety of reasons I wasn’t privy to.

But I also knew that the program wasn’t a top-ranked program and didn’t offer much in terms of tuition remission and a stipend (topics of much debate and hand-wringing). She was, however, determined and excited; to be honest, so was I. Her assignments in my course were thoughtful and insightful, and I also saw how her face lit up when participating in class discussions. How do you say no to that? I couldn’t and I didn’t.

I wish I had had Tressie’s excellent and straight-forward advice for those who are interested in going to graduate school but might not have the cultural or economic capital that graduate school assumes (seriously, read it right now). From now on, when a student asks me about graduate school, I will send them this, and then sit down and talk to them. It’s the advice I wish someone had given me when I went to graduate school; it wouldn’t have dissuaded me in the least, but I would have been much less naive and much more prepared.



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