A Possible Pathway to the Profession

Brian Taylor

March 23, 2011

Last month, Leonard Cassuto informed us that Ph.D. candidates and recent graduates facing a bleak job market are "mad as hell." Most of the 181 comments that followed his essay reinforced the point.

But what I want to know is: Are they gonna take it anymore?

The short answer is yes. For at least four reasons, students will continue flocking to Ph.D. programs—even in the humanities—no matter what anyone says to discourage them.

First, many of the bright undergraduates who are both capable of doing graduate work and inclined toward the academic life are completely oblivious to the state of the profession and, in particular, the job market. Perhaps they're a bit bookish by nature and, as they observe their own professors, think to themselves, "that seems like a nice life." It never occurs to them that such a life may now be nearly as unobtainable as a slot in the American Idol finals.

I know I was certainly oblivious at their age. When the recession hit in the fall of 2008, I remember hearing commentators comparing it with the recession of the early 1980s. "The early 1980s?" I thought to myself. "That's when I was in college. There was a recession then?" If today's undergraduates are as unaware of reality as I was, no wonder they keep applying to graduate school.

Second, even among those students who may have some inkling of what's going on outside their personal bubbles, many are in denial.

I've recently become friends with a young man who moved to my area last year to enter a doctoral program at a highly regarded university. When I first met him, he said, "Oh, you're that guy who writes those articles in The Chronicle. I bet you're going to tell me I'm crazy to be working on a Ph.D. and that I'll never get a job."

I acknowledged that yes, I am that guy (of course, he may also be confusing me with Thomas H. Benton) but hastened to assure him that I had no intention of attempting to talk him out of his career choice—at least, not right then. In later conversations, he insisted that he understood how bad the job market was. But he believes he's doing the right thing and will get a good job anyway.

I hope he's right. But I think his mind-set is typical of a lot of graduate students these days: They know the odds are long but continue to believe they'll be among the lucky ones.

Third, whether or not they understand what's going on in the profession, most graduate students (especially in the humanities) tend to be idealists. They are not, as they will quickly tell you, "in it for the money." They love their disciplines and they love academic life—or at least the idea of it—and simply can't imagine doing anything else. They acknowledge that they might have to live in "genteel poverty" for a while, but they think that will be OK. And if you try to tell them any different, their response will be, essentially, "I don't care."

And finally, doctoral programs will continue to be full because professors, departments, and institutions prefer them that way.

Consider: Many tenured professors at universities teach primarily graduate courses. If enrollment in those courses were to dip significantly, they might just find themselves unemployed—or worse, having to teach undergraduates, exclusively. Meanwhile the institutions themselves, as Gary Olson's recent column on this site reminded us, are highly sensitive to Carnegie rankings that take into account, among other things, enrollment in doctoral programs and numbers of Ph.D.'s awarded.

So graduate schools will continue to market themselves, professors will continue to recruit bright students from their upper-division courses, and the system will continue its efforts to perpetuate itself—as systems always do.

The upshot is that no one, with the possible exception of a few voices in the blogosphere and on this site, is seriously trying to talk students out of getting a Ph.D., and they probably wouldn't listen even if someone tried. At the same time, the present system, which essentially prepares students for jobs that no longer exist, at least not in sufficient numbers, is unsustainable. Something's got to give.

Allow me to offer a suggestion, from my perspective as a longtime faculty member and a former administrator at community colleges. It involves graduate schools and two-year colleges working together to provide one possible pathway into the profession, at least for students who may be interested in teaching careers.

When I was a department chair struggling to find qualified adjuncts, I often gazed longingly at the three large Ph.D. programs within easy driving distance of my campus. Those programs constituted a large pool of well-qualified potential part-time instructors, many of whom, I'm sure, would have been happy to gain the experience, not to mention the paycheck.

There was just one problem: Those students were actively discouraged by their advisers and program administrators—and in some cases prevented by contract—from teaching anywhere but at their own universities, as graduate assistants. My sense at the time was that this practice was fairly widespread.

I understand, to some extent. Getting a Ph.D. is an all-consuming pursuit, and no doubt departments are afraid that students might overextend themselves and ultimately drop out. Also, departments are probably a bit protective of the students' time, wanting them to teach for the university, not for the two-year college down the street. And the bias against community colleges that I've written about before, no doubt plays a role.

But what if graduate-school administrators loosened the strings just a bit and allowed students to pick up a course or two at a nearby community college? In fact, what if community colleges and universities formed partnerships to provide opportunities for Ph.D. candidates to gain teaching experience and earn extra money—a sort of high-level internship program for future college professors?

Such an arrangement would require an attitude change on the part of graduate-program leaders. They would have to give up some control, become less possessive and protective of their students, more willing to let them overextend themselves and, perhaps, fail. It would also require a great deal of haggling over details, such as how courses would be assigned, how many courses students would be allowed to teach outside of their home universities, and how much they would be paid.

But there's no reason that higher-education leaders across the spectrum, working together in good faith, can't overcome those obstacles. Graduate-program administrators, in particular, have to recognize that the world is not the same as it was when they finished their Ph.D.'s, and neither is the profession. Many of the traditional pathways to well-paying, secure jobs are no longer open to most students. For their students' sake, they have to set aside old biases and think creatively to construct new pathways.

Clearly, an internship program like the one I propose would have tremendous benefits for students. Not only could they gain valuable teaching experience—which might make all the difference when they begin applying for full-time jobs, especially at community colleges—but they could also earn a little extra money and perhaps not have to choose between living in abject poverty or taking out excessive student loans.

Internships could also benefit universities, as any program forward-thinking enough to offer them would be sure to attract students looking for ways to defray expenses or improve their CV's before going on the job market. Moreover, if the added experience actually translates into full-time jobs for some graduates, as I believe it would, those departments would be able to boast higher placement rates.

And, of course, an internship program would benefit community colleges by providing us with a large pool of qualified part-time instructors, eager to teach undergraduates.

This idea won't be attractive to everyone. Some will point out that it doesn't solve the root problem, which is that there are too many Ph.D.'s and not enough tenure-track jobs to go around—even at community colleges. That's true. But decisions to create more tenure lines lie in the hands of upper-level administrators and, ultimately, state legislators. As professors, we have little control over institutional budgets, much less state ones, beyond exercising our right to vote, campaigning for academe-friendly candidates, joining faculty unions and associations, and perhaps engaging in organized protests.

What university professors and departments do have some control over, however, is how well they prepare their students, not just for professional life but for the job market. If they neglect to explore every possible pathway, students have a right to be mad as hell.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes monthly for our community-college column and our On Hiring blog. His book, "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges," has just been published by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Press.