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Lies, Damn Lies

May 6, 2009, 11:57 am

[Editor's note: Michael Elliot returns! Thanks, Michael, doing this.]

While I was a graduate student, I went to a meeting during which the Director of Graduate Studies was asked about the department’s “placement rate.” The DGS wanted to emphasize the positive, and so he stated that it was nearly one hundred percent: Everyone who had kept looking for a tenure-track position and not given up, he said, eventually found one.

Even I could see the fallacy of the argument: after two or three or four tries at landing a tenure-track professorship, most PhDs will find other kinds of paying work because, well, they need to be paid. (I didn’t bother to ask how such a badly managed department was actually keeping records to document this miraculous job placement.) I thought about this exchange when, in response to Mark Taylor’s antiestablishment polemic, Sunday’s New York Times published this letter:

Doctoral programs that fail to place their graduates in research positions should not respond by attempting to become M.B.A. or M.P.A. programs. Instead, they would better serve their prospective students by setting the right expectations through full disclosure of their recent graduate placement history. With this information, applicants could make informed decisions when choosing a graduate school.

I share the desire for transparency, and I probably would have said the same thing when I was a graduate student. But I am increasingly wary of focusing too much on “the placement rate” as the magic number that will make comparison shopping possible.

To start, “placement” turns out to be harder to measure than you might think. Most people, when talking about humanities, mean it to be the percentage of people who seek tenure-track jobs and find them. But what exactly does that mean? What about those people who seek tenure-track employment but limit their search to a handful of cities — do they get included? What about the people who land a job, but only after traveling the country for years on one-year temporary contracts? Is it the number of people who get a job in any given year? Or, as my old DGS claimed, the percentage of people who eventually get them?

At a pragmatic level, until there’s some shared definition of what “placement history” means, prospective doctoral students should be wary of putting too much stock in the information that they receive. The fact is that a substantial number of PhD’s will never conduct a national search for a tenure-track position. In my program, I often see graduating classes in which the majority are pursuing other options, including other forms of academic work, temporary teaching positions (that allow them to choose their geographic location), and jobs outside the academy. Our current DGS calculated recently that just over 60 percent of our graduates in the last five years are in tenure-track jobs. That is actually higher than I expected — and much higher than was true of my own graduate program when I was there — but it is hardly a “placement rate.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t keep pressing for disclosure about employment. And I think everyone who teaches in a PhD program should be forced to consider carefully the employment of its graduates. But we should be careful about what we are asking for. First, forget the term “placement.” No one gets placed any more. (Maybe they never did.) PhDs get hired for jobs that they have earned. Second, it’s crucial to ask what percentage of graduates end up teaching in the academy, what percentage of those are on the tenure-track, and what other kinds of positions graduates hold.

Finally, graduate programs should calculate the average time that it takes those who seek tenure-track positions to secure them. (The national average is that it takes just over ten years from the time that a student enters graduate study.) Programs should then ask what kind of financial resources — including temporary teaching employment — their universities can provide to cover that whole duration, including the period that extends beyond when the students actually receive their degrees. Those programs that cannot identify adequate resources to cover that full spread of time should take a hard look at themselves.

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