Advisers Should Ban the Word 'Placement'

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

January 07, 2013

'Twas the season to be jolly, but at this time of year, jolliness quickly turns to disappointment, despair, and guilt.

The holiday season, of course, is over. I'm talking about the annual academic-job-search season, which begins sometime in the early fall, kicks into high gear in December, and doesn't really end until about April.

As faculty members, we write letters of recommendation, send heads-up e-mails to colleagues who might be looking at our students' dossiers, and prepare for the guilt when the interviews or jobs don't come through. We all know that the market is oversaturated with qualified applicants, and yet we scheme to figure out how to land a job or postdoc for our advisees.

And now the long season of worry and guilt has begun to spill into the rest of the year, as administrators, prospective students, and the National Research Council ask the dreaded question: "Where do you place your Ph.D.'s?"

It rankles. Somehow professors always feel guilty or angry that one or more of their Ph.D. students did not grab the golden ring and land that tenure-track position, or that they gave up the search, or that they did not choose to pursue an academic career at all. When we hear the placement question, we have a hard time resisting the desire to highlight that one alum who landed an assistant professorship at Yale. Sometime in the mid-70s.

For the past year I have been working with an Ohio State University Graduate School program on new directions in graduate education. This entails learning where our Ph.D. graduates find employment when they leave Ohio State; encouraging departments to report data to us, to track their graduates, and to post their job outcomes on their Web sites; and having conversations with university colleagues about topics such as career-development needs, support for job searches, managing attrition, and time to degree.

When the department of horticulture and crop science invited me to give a lunchtime seminar on my work this past spring, my 12-year-old son pointed out that I don't know anything about plants. True enough. What I do know, though, is how to create a climate conducive to graduate education and to discussions of postacademic employment, as well as how to delineate a set of priorities and requirements that permit students to move through a degree program in a timely fashion while picking up the skills and experience they need for postgraduate employment.

Those skills and experiences are adaptable and transferable beyond academe: the abilities to write and speak about their work to specialists and nonspecialists; teaching experience, including learning how to organize course material, plan and execute a syllabus, lecture and lead small group discussions, and evaluate student work; the experience of writing papers, articles, and grant applications; practice at "selling" themselves and their work using vitae, résumés, and application materials as well as conversational and other interviewing skills, including etiquette and contract negotiation; and so on.

In conversations with colleagues and students at my institution, I heard many descriptions of "career outcomes," very few of which involved the ideal tenure-track position at a top research university. One colleague pointed out that if we all "reproduce" ourselves over the course of 30-plus-year careers, there will never be enough faculty positions for all our academic "children." My own experience as an adviser conforms to both national and Ohio State patterns in the humanities: Half of all students who start do not finish, and half of those who finish do not get positions in academe.

I have heard all sorts of stories this year about Ph.D. graduates and their career paths. Whispered under the breath: "She had three children and stayed in the area." Indignantly: "She was in a perfectly good renewable lectureship and suddenly jumped ship to work for a cellphone company in Boston." Confused: "I don't know why he took that job teaching high school. I cashed in all my chits with my colleague in Iowa to get him that visiting position with a full course load. Now he'll never have time to spend on his own research." And strangest of all: "Oh, the placement record on our Web site is correct. We only list the career outcomes of students we placed ourselves. Our Ph.D. alums who work as professors internationally all got their positions on their own, so we don't include them." Or the nonacademic placements either.

The problem is the word "placement." Colleagues: We must take responsibility for graduate admissions; for graduate finance packages; for educating students and preparing them for the job market—both academic and alternative. We must teach seminars, read dissertation drafts, and write letters of recommendation. But we do not have to place our graduates. Indeed, we can't, given the dynamics of the academic job market. So we should not talk about job placements at all anymore.

If we talk about career outcomes instead of placements, then all of a sudden my former student who took a job at an animation company becomes a success story. She's employed in a geographic area where she wants to live, in the same ZIP code as her partner, and she's not on the adjunct circuit being exploited for little pay and less prestige. She has health insurance, and she likes the work she's doing. I am thrilled. Did she need her Ph.D. to obtain her current position? Probably not. Was it worth her while to complete her degree? Absolutely.

Most important, as a gainfully employed adult for the first time in more than a decade, she feels like a professional, not a protégée waiting for her adviser to deliver the goods.

If we talk about outcomes instead of placements, and if we are open, honest, and transparent about what the job market looks like, then our students can take pride in their own talents and accomplishments, and faculty members can focus on what we do on the campus to nurture and educate our current students, rather than what we do (or fail to do) after our students graduate.

If we talk about outcomes instead of placements, we can work toward enhancing the value of the Ph.D. outside of academe, including educating ourselves about what "alternative career" preparation might mean.

If we remind ourselves where our responsibility really lies, we will spend more time communicating with the general public about the value of what we study and the methods we use to pursue our work. Which might help them look more kindly on institutions of higher learning and their graduates.

We might even realize that part of our responsibility includes communicating with university administrators about the need to create more real jobs for Ph.D.'s, instead of cutting budgetary corners with adjuncts and part-timers. We might argue that our own institutions need to recognize and value the professional nature of higher education, which requires full-time positions and professional salaries. We might even have some energy left to talk with state-government officials about increasing financial support for higher education.

The old boys' network is dead—or at least terminally ill. You cannot "get" your students jobs anymore. But what you can do is help them think more broadly and effectively about their post-Ph.D. career outcomes.

Angela Brintlinger is an associate professor and graduate-studies chair in the department of Slavic and East European languages and cultures at Ohio State University.