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Playing The Blame Game: Or; How Should Graduate Schools Respond To The Bad Job Market?

January 14, 2010, 2:50 pm

Over at ConfessionsOf A Community College Dean your favorite administrator and mine, Dean Dad, asks: “Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts?”

Good question. Although I have no former undergraduates making the leap into a Ph.D. program this year, the bigger picture is quite different. As Dean Dad notes, “the adjunct trend is so well-established at this point, and the economic irrationality of grad school so screamingly obvious, that it’s fair to wonder why many departments are actually experiencing record applications.” While he explores various irrational explanations — love for learning, self-delusion, and hiding out until the recession is over — there is, he argues, some rationality to the choice:

academia still offers a surface legibility. Yes, the odds are daunting, but good students have spent years rising to the top of academic competitions. There’s still a path, there are still hoops, there are still rules. They don’t really work very often anymore, but they’re there. As the rest of the economy has become less legible, this holds real (if misguided) appeal.

I think this explains some of the wounded indignation people express when they can’t get the tenure-track jobs they wanted. In many other lines of work, it’s simply understood that the climate of opportunity fluctuates, and you’ll get both good breaks and bad. But academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility. When you follow the rules for twenty years, only to find nothing waiting for you at the end, it’s easy to move to angry disbelief. Academia likes to tell itself that it’s immune to economics, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It’s supposed to be clear and fair, economics be damned. So some people hang on for years on end, waiting to redeem what they think they’re owed.

I find this very persuasive, particularly since I am not a huge fan of rational choice arguments, and Dean Dad’s explanation addresses the rational and the irrational. I speak as someone whose success as an academic was relatively unplanned, and in fact, a great surprise. My original decision to go to graduate school was both wildly irrational (I had a very hazy idea of what the outcome would be) and pretty rational (I knew I was good at school.) I believed that becoming more knowledgeable would push my plan of being some kind of intellectual ahead, but I just wasn’t sure what kind of intellectual that would be. What I now consider in retrospect to have been wildly good luck on a really bad job market (the year I got the job at Zenith there were exactly four tenure-track openings advertised in my field in the entire nation) meant that I never committed emotionally to having a tenure-track job prior to getting one; nor did I have to make a difficult decision about what to do if I were not employed as a university professor.

Furthermore, I went to a graduate school that had many flaws but at least one signal virtue: it supported us by putting us to work in a surprising variety of ways. When I first matriculated we had an entrepeneurial chair, a historian of the Jacksonian period, who believed in and operated by the spoils system. Whenever financial aid allotments to the department were insufficient, he called in favors and found ways of stashing us in jobs all over the university that gave us stipends and whatever degree of tuition remission we required. As a result, my graduate school cohort includes people who now work in film, archives, libraries, labor organizing, museums and administration as well as in full-time tenure track lines. It wasn’t just that no work was beneath us, but that many of us found that we actually preferred and chose intellectual labor that occurred outside the classroom. Why? Well the reasons differ from person to person, and the job market was terrible in the 1980s — but the fact is we had the chance to try out many ways of using a history degree.

Because this happens to be my own experience, and because I work with a lot of intelligent, intellectual people at Zenith who are employed in IT, athletics, arts administration, academic administration and whatnot, I must be honest about one thing. While I am deeply sympathetic to those whose dreams of a teaching life are discouraged and perhaps dashed by a foul job market that gets only fouler, I am entirely unsympathetic to claims by disappointed job seekers that they have been lied to and bamboozled by the schools that admitted them to the Ph.D. because they were not cautioned at the very beginning of their education that they might not succeed in finding a tenure-track job.

In fact, I don’t know a single form of professional education that guarantees its graduates a job, whether the market is good or bad, and why Ph.D. granting programs have a special moral responsibility to do this is unclear. But on the job wikis and the blogs there is an emerging consensus that the jobless should have received a waiver of liability with the letter of admission (which Brown University actually used to send its graduate students in English back in the sad old 1980s, and most of us who knew someone who received one were horrified by the practice.) Resentful job seekers , in other words, speak in the language of fraud rather than regret. This I find astonishing, given that an hour of research prior to applying, or accepting an offer of admission, could tell any prospective graduate student what their academic job prospects might look like six to seven years hence.

The only thing that makes this phenomenon less astonishing is that today’s prospective graduate students were yesterday’s undergraduates, and undergraduate education has been trending towards nanny-ism and false guarantees for several decades. But what is it that graduate programs and professional associations could do to intervene in this situation? I have three suggestions.

Ph.D. programs should not allow graduate students to matriculate within three years of having attained the bachelor’s degree. This would significantly reduce the number of young people who use a Ph.D. program to prolong a love affair with books and ideas, or who are bored by the ill-paid, entry level jobs they are eligible for immediately following graduation. My students who go on to graduate school in history or American Studies usually contact me for a recommendation within four or five months of graduation, when they have barely had time to think about work at all or how they might make an intellectual life without an advanced degree. Interestingly, and perhaps because of the greater financial investment involved, my students who go on to a professional school in the law, business, or the health professions average a 2-4 year gap between the B.A. and matriculating for a graduate degree.

Ph.D. programs should consider devoting at least one year of graduate support to administrative labor. This would have several advantages, the primary one being that everyone with a Ph.D. would have some idea of how a university actually functions and how to participate in faculty governance in a responsible, business-like way. O
ver time, it could reduce the mutual contempt that often exists between faculty and non-faculty laborers. But a third advantage would be that administrative work would become a viable option for Ph.D.’s who cannot find a tenure track job, who need to work in a particular region because of family responsibilities, or who find that teaching and writing are not all they were cracked up to be. Plenty of administrative jobs require the Ph.D. now, and there are in all universities talented administrators who have hit the ceiling because they lack the degree, or are not tenurable. University presses would also be an outstanding place to spend this fellowship year, since becoming a book editor, a writer or a literary agent is a viable (and often more vital) way to perpetuate an intellectual life.

Professional associations, particularly in history and literary studies, need to think about accreditation of graduate programs. More surveillance is not necessarily a good thing, I know, but there are too many Ph.D. programs that are perpetuated, not because they are a path to a career, but because the faculty in the department want to teach graduate classes and have teaching assistants. I’m not saying that all programs with poor placement records should close, but many of them (including some very prestigious ones) might want to retain their accreditation by creating multiple career paths within the Ph.D. One of the reasons my cohort at Potemkin University was as successful as it was in finding employment for everyone was that we had thriving Public History and Archives programs. A program might consider certificate programs in oral history, publishing, museum studies, public policy, speechwriting, journalism — be creative! Ph.D. students could enroll; other students might matriculate for an M.A. and be full payers. This would acomplish three things simultaneously: create tenure-track jobs, generate the money to pay for them, and expand opportunities for post-graduate employment and consultancy.

While I don’t think Ph.D, programs are responsible for unemployed graduates, they could do a better job of imagining what an intellectual life in the twenty-first century looks like and how the university can connect to the public sphere is more vital ways. While the vast majority of Ph.D. candidates are clear they want an academic job, it is simply a fact — and not a secret — that fewer than half of them will be able to get teaching jobs for the foreseeable future. But one might also add the following: not everyone should be teaching, not everyone wants to become good at it, and there are few people who are brave enough to admit that in an atmosphere where the teaching career is the only stamp of approval for an intellectual. This is the world that graduate schools may not have made, but it is the one to which they must respond.

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