They're Mad as Hell

Brian Taylor

February 06, 2011

When I wrote last month about the need for professional-development seminars for graduate students, my only intention was to offer some straightforward advice to the profession. Instead, I tapped a vein—no, an artery—and released a lot of pent-up emotion in readers that went way beyond the subject at hand.

Foremost among those emotions was anger. In the comments section of my column, one reader lashed out at tenured professors who have "seemingly no clue about the realities of the current higher-ed job market." Another complained that "the system wouldn't be in such a bad state as it is if faculty didn't blatantly mislead students, whether through their own ignorance or lying intentionally, about the actual value of a graduate degree."

I will venture to say, backed by common sense if not not by quantitative data, that such comments represent the views of many current and former graduate students nowadays. Unemployed, or fearful of becoming so, they are feeling more than a little enraged at their advisers and their institutions for failing to hold up our end of the deal. Have we?

No doubt it varies from professor to professor, and from campus to campus. But collectively, at the very least, we have failed to help graduate students in the ways that they have expected us to. There is a yawning gap between what we've been doing and what many of our graduate students believe we can and should do. That gap points to a failure of understanding. How many of us sit down with our graduate students and ask them what they want from us? The default assumption is that they want to be like us—but some do not, and most will not. One of the fundamental problems in graduate teaching right now is a failure of communication, and the results are hot to the touch.

That failure rests absolutely on us. We're the teachers, and the initiative is ours. The communication gap between graduate teachers and graduate students is an intramural version of the crisis facing academe writ large: Professors are only lately waking up to the need to take their assigned part in the continuing and necessary discussion of the role of the university in society today.

We need likewise to rethink our role in the education of our graduate students. Professional-development seminars, which I discussed last month, help stake out common understanding between professors and graduate students, but communication only starts there. Advisers need to advance it. We shouldn't wait for students to ask what's out there careerwise. It's part of our job to tell them. To mend the gap, we must mind the gap—or else corrosive anger will widen it.

Last month's column provoked more than anger. I also got a hatful of personal e-mails from graduate students asking me for guidance: "Here's my situation," one wrote. "Should I get a Ph.D.?" Or: "I have a Ph.D., and now what? What should I do?"

Their questions made me wonder what I should do. They also provoked some survivor's guilt—as well as the recollection that the job market was a lot better for my own teachers than it was for me. Ultimately, I resolved to advise the people asking me for help as a teacher would.

Such advice is unavoidably personal. In last month's column I told the story of a frustrated Ph.D. named Jack who imagined himself as a tenure-track professor but never reached his goal. This month I'll speak of a different Ph.D.: myself. Everyone comes from somewhere, and my background and goals contrast with Jack's in some important ways.

I went to graduate school for its own sake, not necessarily to get a tenure-track job. Academe certainly looked attractive to me when I enrolled in the early 1980s, but the job market wasn't very good then, either. Moreover, I wasn't sure that I would be willing to relocate to wherever a job was, so I concluded before I began that I might well wind up taking my degree, whether M.A. or Ph.D., in search of nonacademic employment.

I had spent a year working as a computer programmer before entering graduate school, and was confident that I could find interesting work someplace, somehow, eventually. That confidence later helped to sustain me. But before all that, I thought that graduate study might be fun.

Every year that I was in graduate school I asked myself, "Is this still what I want to be doing?" And it was. I loved teaching, and I found a dissertation topic that I enjoyed working on (or perhaps I should say that it found me). After a few years it became clear to me that I would certainly finish the Ph.D.

Like so many graduate students, I didn't start thinking carefully about the job market until it was upon me. When I got a good job, it felt less like an achievement than an improbable success in the lottery. (I recall my father saying soon afterward that if he had known how horrendous the academic job market was, he would have tried harder than he did to talk me out of going to graduate school.) My professional life lacks the arc of a heroic narrative but it does offer an example of thinking outside the library carrel.

One of the readers of last month's column refused to blame professors or the academic workplace for the diminished employment prospects of graduate students. It's "absurd," that reader wrote, "to expect our advisors—who are already overworked and underpaid—to continue to baby-sit us." Their job, the reader continued, is "not getting us a job. That is up to us to figure out."

I'm not sure I'd let the teachers off the hook so easily, but we should pay attention to the reader's larger point, namely: Graduate students, as well as their professors, have responsibility for the choices they make.

School is a place where teachers tell students what to do. At the same time, school is supposed to prepare students to make choices for themselves. In between those two realities lie a lot of teaching and learning—and professional development. Both professors and students have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions before us: We both must learn how to work together so that our students can leave us with every possible advantage. We all need to keep our eyes open.

A Ph.D. may not prepare a student explicitly for any one profession, but it remains a credential that people respect, and it frees its holder to live creatively outside as well as inside the university walls. There is good counsel to be had about how to do that, but all graduate students—like all lawyers and business executives—must enter the world on their own terms, whether inside or outside the usual workplace that corresponds to their training. It's a personal journey. Store some patience for the trip, and watch the view change with every step you take.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments and suggestions from readers to