Graduate students

A Ph.D. should result in a tenure-track job, not an alt-ac one (essay)

What’s the measure of a successful doctoral program? In many fields, placement in tenure-track positions used to be enough. Today, however, many Ph.D. programs are claiming other kinds of success, particularly placement in what is being described as alt-ac (short for alternative academic) employment. Alt-ac positions are often in administration on a campus, in museums or in libraries. Others are in government or nonprofit organizations. Typically these alt- or nonacademic jobs involve research, analysis and writing -- skills that many people hone in graduate school -- though few require completing a doctorate.

Some people believe that in competitive hiring between individuals who have some degree of postgraduate education, actually holding the terminal degree can offer an advantage. But is that theoretical edge in nonprofessorial employment a good reason to run a graduate program?

One explanation for the changing metric is that graduate faculty members are being more respectful of the actual career pathways of their students. As Bethany Nowviskie, the director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and a research associate professor of digital humanities at the university, puts it, “That our culture for many years has labeled these people ‘failed academics’ is a failure of imagination.” Her complaint is fair enough, particularly for those with nonfaculty positions on campus: professors do sometimes inflict status injury on nonfaculty staff members, even those with advanced degrees.

A more cynical explanation is that faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes.

Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification. One of the four major correlates of research activity used to measure aggregate institutional performance is Ph.D. conferrals. The hundred or so universities in the Very High Research Activity (VHRA) class push out a median of 35 humanities doctorates annually, 900 percent more than the hundred or so institutions in the merely High Research Activity group, whose median production is just four per year.

So long as continuing high levels of doctorate production are part of the price of admission to the most exclusive club in American higher ed, it’s hard not to imagine that many universities will continue to run a menu of smallish graduate programs even at a financial loss -- and find ever more elaborate rationales to keep them running.

With the support of influential graduate faculty and staff members at academic associations, the alt-ac brand of hashtag activism has won a tidal wave of big-dollar institutional support. While serving as president of the American Historical Association in 2011, Anthony T. Grafton issued a manifesto saying graduate curricula and culture should value and target alt-ac and nonacademic jobs and stop treating them as plan B to professorial appointment.

Today, the AHA actively sponsors “value-added” changes to graduate curricula in support of what it has called “The Malleable Ph.D.,” a vision of next-generation degree holders who respond flexibly to job-market opportunities other than their first-choice professorial careers. The association and its funding partners want prospective degree holders to know they are 100 percent behind those who, as 2015 AHA President Vicki L. Ruiz puts it, refuse to dismiss “a career outside the classroom as some sort of consolation prize.”

Armed with a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of “Career Diversity for Historians,” Ruiz is using her presidential year to whip up rationales for Ph.D. programs to value “service to multiple publics” -- i.e., beyond the faltering mission of reproducing tenure-stream faculty. Similarly, the University of Miami has attempted to brand itself as a “national leader” in graduate education by launching a program of internships in alt-ac careers alongside traditional forms of apprenticeship training such as teaching.

In short, suddenly a lot of money is being spent proving something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics could have told us for free: people who have earned doctorates have extremely low unemployment and generally have good jobs. The Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) have each run expensive surveys to this effect.

The Council of Graduate Schools has the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Mellon Foundation to extend those survey efforts to other disciplines. The explicit intention is to articulate new rationales for Ph.D. production and new metrics appropriate to those rationales. CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega says the goal of acquiring better data about the alt-ac and nonacademic careers that previous degree holders have already found for themselves is to “develop curricula and professional development opportunities that better prepare graduate students for the full range of careers they are likely to follow.”

Put plainly, CGS and other big institutional players want to move the goalposts from a difficult challenge -- placing Ph.D. holders in tenure-track positions -- to a far simpler one -- taking credit for positions degree holders are already finding for themselves. They’re responding to programs desperate to find measures justifying Ph.D. production at a time when they can no longer pretend that the “market” in tenure track jobs is going to turn around.

Ruiz is up front about this, frankly adopting the approach articulated by advice columnist Leonard Cassuto earlier this year: “Instead of thinking wishfully about how great it would be to have a better system, let’s focus on what can be done with the bad system that we have.” What Cassuto and Ruiz mean by a bad system is one that trains people for positions that don’t exist because the jobs have been converted into temp work.

As responsible analysts have understood since the mid-1990s, this isn’t because of an oversupply of Ph.D.s but an intentionally created undersupply of tenure-stream positions. Beginning in 1970, administrators began systematically turning teaching-intensive jobs into part-time or nontenurable positions that -- they claim -- don’t require a Ph.D. As a result, many teaching-intensive appointments are filled with students, staff members and other people who don’t have doctorates -- while those with doctorates quit the academy or take alternative academic jobs.

So from at least one informed, activist perspective, keeping Ph.D. programs running makes sense. There’s actually plenty of faculty work for everyone with a doctorate. The real solution is turning temp work back into tenurable positions, just as the American Association of University Professors has long maintained, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has recently proposed with a bill to make federal education aid contingent upon states restoring a 75 percent tenure ratio in publicly employed college faculty. If the Sanders plan succeeded in restoring that ratio in even two large states, many disciplines would soon see an undersupply of persons with terminal degrees.

However, what Ruiz and Cassuto want is to keep programs running without changing the labor system. That’s a far less ethically tenable posture. Unlike the AAUP and Sanders, they prefer to believe the system is fundamentally unfixable, and dismiss meaningful change as “wishful thinking.” They think people studying for doctorates should actively plan on jobs in filmmaking, government or nonprofits. Cassuto’s new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, reiterates this thesis, claiming that graduate schools in the humanities with a “realistic” approach must alter curricula to emphasize “practical, transferable skills” that prepare Ph.D. students for a “wide range” of work entirely outside the academy.

Even while people without doctorates make up an ever-larger fraction of college teachers, Cassuto and his supporters dismiss as “utopian” such straightforward Sanders-style fixes to the system as employing those with Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions. Although Cassuto occasionally lauds examples of Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions -- including one of his own students whose admission he might have blocked if he’d known she wanted to teach at a community college (gasp!) -- over all, he assumes that graduate students have little interest in pursuing careers in what he airily dubs “low-caste teaching.”

Apart from the distasteful confusion of curricular location with caste, there are at least two big factual mistakes here. First, grad students and nontenurable faculty members teach the full range of courses at many institutions, from the first year to disciplinary seminars, including at the graduate level. Second, most faculty positions, tenured or not, involve teaching courses at different locations in the curriculum.

Dismissing lower-division teaching as “low caste” isn’t just offensive; it paints a false picture, dismissing from consideration the majority circumstances of the professoriate. The superficial pragmatism of Ruiz and Cassuto conceals how foundations, associations and much of the academic chattering class continue to evade the real problems of contemporary faculty.

For people with doctorates, by far the most common “alternative” to professorship is a nontenurable appointment. Ditto for persons who went to graduate school but didn’t complete the degree requirements. Those with these part-time or nontenurable appointments have long outnumbered the tenured minority. They too are treated like “failed academics.” What is really needed is much more aggressive support for the nontenurable majority faculty.

While no one is going to argue against supporting degree holders who search for nonprofessorial employment, there’s little evidence that they actually need more of this help. My cohort of graduate school activists in the mid-1990s was already perfectly aware that folks with doctorates who went the nonprofessorial route generally had low unemployment and good jobs. According to the MLA and AHA surveys, that hasn’t changed. These folks have consistently found excellent employment without placement help from their professional associations.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for foundations and associations to actually address the more substantial question -- raised by activists, the AAUP and Sanders -- of whether persons with doctorates should hold teaching-intensive positions as they did in 1970, and on what terms, with what preparation?

Sure, that would require sustained civic engagement and serious political effort. It would raise further tough questions -- such as how to safeguard the workplace rights of current faculty without doctorates while recreating teaching-intensive tenure-stream positions. But that would be in the best interests of graduate students, for many of whom the goal of getting a doctorate remains quite straightforward: a tenure-track job.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor in the department of film and media studies at Emory University.

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