The Chronicle Review

An Open Letter From a Director of Graduate Admissions

Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review

April 04, 2010

I'm the director of graduate admissions in the English department at Ohio State University, and in that capacity I have found one question, posed by prospective applicants to our Ph.D. program, both increasingly popular and utterly exasperating: "What is your department's placement rate?" I haven't yet answered, "May I send you an 8,000-word essay on that subject?" But I'm always tempted to do so. The reason for my exasperation is that I do not believe the current job system can ever lend itself to statistical analysis. The notion of a measurable "placement rate" is always a misleading fiction, though it's so often bandied about by English-department graduate-admissions directors (the ones more duplicitous and unscrupulous than myself, of course). Placement rates, like all outcome assessments, like the No Child Left Behind Act, provide individual departments and our professional organizations—in my case, the Modern Language Association and the Association of Departments of English—with unlimited opportunities to lie.

Let me give you a concrete example that illustrates my doubts about placement statistics. It's not really a hypothetical, but rather a thinly veiled description of a typical year in the placement annals of my own department. In that recent year, we graduated 11 Ph.D.'s; four did nationwide job searches, and two of them got tenure-track jobs. The third of those four Ph.D.'s got a two-year appointment as a visiting assistant professor that may possibly be converted to a tenure-track job, and the fourth got a one-year postdoctoral fellowship. Of the seven other Ph.D.'s, five did limited searches for personal reasons, and none got job offers. They will try again next year and in the meantime will work as adjuncts. One received a tenure-track offer but turned it down so that he could accompany his partner, who has a tenure-track job at a better institution. The one remaining Ph.D. did not go on the job market at all, but instead accepted a position as an English teacher at a private high school, which from early on in his graduate career had been his professional ambition. Now, what was our placement rate? Any answer to that question can't be quantified, because so many factors besides the availability of tenure-track jobs are in play. And these are not unusual scenarios, but representative ones. So what am I supposed to tell applicants to our Ph.D. program, mostly new B.A.'s who could not possibly envision the professional and personal changes that await them?

The path to understanding job placement in English is found, I believe, in asking fewer questions, not more, and in monitoring simpler statistical categories, not more-elaborate ones.

We should start by doing everything possible to answer two essential questions as accurately as possible: How many English Ph.D.'s have tenure-track jobs five years after graduation? And what happens to our A.B.D.'s?

We know from the 2006 "Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion" that well over 20 percent of tenure-track professors leave the departments that originally hire them before they come up for tenure. That makes for a tremendous amount of movement among Ph.D.'s from one college to another in the first few years after earning degrees, movement that is almost always driven by changes in status or by personal factors: from adjunct to assistant professor; from visiting assistant professor to tenure-track assistant professor; from assistant professor at a teaching-intensive institution to assistant professor at a more research-friendly institution; from assistant professor at a college in the middle of nowhere to assistant professor at the same institution as one's partner—the possibilities are too varied to categorize.

What if we grant all new Ph.D.'s a five-year period of (sadly) normal professional turmoil, and figure out where they are once the dust has settled? That would allow us to take stock of the health of our profession in a realistic way. No one spends eight or nine years getting a Ph.D. simply to take any job available. People earn Ph.D's. in order to establish academic careers. Given the current spectrum of employment practices and job-seeking patterns, we can't be sure that a Ph.D. has embarked on a career until well after graduation. We need to devote more effort to figuring out not where our Ph.D.'s start out, but rather where they ultimately land. Five years isn't a magic number, but it does take into account not only the mass migration of the untenured but also multiyear job searches.

The second central question we need to ask—What's happening to our A.B.D.'s?—bears directly on placement but is typically approached only obliquely. Empirical literature on attrition from Ph.D. programs has been slow to materialize, and it's a slippery subject. Specifically, we can never be sure how to distinguish students who have "stopped out" (left graduate school but plan to return) from students who have dropped out (left permanently), even though arriving at accurate attrition rates hinges on precisely that distinction. With that caveat, though, Barbara E. Lovitts, in her book on Ph.D. attrition, Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure From Doctoral Study (2001), estimates that the attrition rate for Ph.D.'s in the humanities is well over 50 percent. I suspect that figure is low, because it is so hard to track students who are no longer in course work. A survey compiled by Doug Steward, associate director of the Association of Departments of English, goes a long way toward explaining how attrition in English reaches such a percentage. In his "Report on Data From the 2004-05 MLA Guide to Doctoral Programs in English and Other Modern Languages," Steward counts a total of 6,457 students in English Ph.D. programs in their first year through their fourth year and beyond who were supported by various teaching assignments: composition instructor, literature instructor, discussion leader, paper grader. His companion "Report on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2004," however, notes that 933 Ph.D.'s in English and American language and literature were awarded that year (a typical number in recent years). That means roughly 5,500 Ph.D. students who were reported as holding teaching assignments during their first four years did not complete, or had yet to complete, their Ph.D.'s—and were thus stuck in professional limbo.

Almost everyone in our profession is familiar with the pattern that leads to that staggering late-stage attrition rate. Any student who doesn't proceed nimbly through a Ph.D. program eventually runs out of funds, whether it be after four, five, or six years. If that happens, the student (and I'm speaking here from extensive anecdotal evidence) is less and less likely to complete the Ph.D. as the years go by. The abundance of A.B.D.'s bears directly on the problems of recording job place-ment in a responsible, accurate way, because so many A.B.D.'s end up working indefinitely as adjuncts. They are more attractive than Ph.D.'s

to prospective employers because, as Marc Bousquet, an associate professor at Santa Clara University, argues convincingly in his book How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (2008), universities prefer to hire not the best or most-experienced professors, but the cheapest.

And with so many A.B.D.'s—on-demand, college-level teachers—available, and concentrated employee pools in university towns and urban areas, that hiring tendency is hardly a surprise. The National Center for Educational Statistics found that, in 2005, there was a 2.3-percent increase from 2003 in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members hired at colleges that receive federal financial aid, but a 7.2-percent increase in the number of non-tenure-track faculty members hired. So long as that trend continues, with adjunct hiring outpacing tenure-track hiring by a ratio of more than three to one, the ADE and MLA framework for measuring job placement—based on the ratio of new Ph.D.'s, on the one hand, and advertisements for tenure-track appointments on the Job Information List, on the other—will drift farther away from the realities of the academic workplace.

In 1975 more than half of the teaching work force in higher education was tenured or tenure-track; by 1995 the proportion had dropped to 49 percent; by 2005 it was down to 32 percent; and it will certainly continue to drop. Eventually anyone landing a tenure-track job within a year of earning a Ph.D. will be an anomaly. Unlike information about Ph.D. placement, the overproduction of A.B.D.'s cannot be solved by better record keeping, but getting more information and acting on it might make a change for the better. The preliminary data released last summer by the Council of Graduate Schools as part of its Ph.D. Completion Project provide a good start. Two of the council's findings strike me as especially important. First, the data on cumulative completion rates, measured across various fields over a 10-year period, reveal that it takes longer to complete a Ph.D. in English than it does in engineering, math, the social sciences, and even another humanities field, like philosophy. The second finding is that, while financial support is obviously the most important factor in Ph.D. completion, the students surveyed also rated the importance of mentoring and advising extremely highly.

We need to take that information as an occasion for further inquiry and, ultimately, reform. Let me offer a couple of speculations that, admittedly, point in different directions. One: The fact that English (along with history) trails all other disciplines in time-to-degree has, I believe, one compelling underlying cause. It is the requirement that the Ph.D. dissertation be the first draft of a monograph. That is the single biggest feature of "preprofessionalism" in English graduate school, to use the New York University professor of English John Guillory's term, and it often slows progress toward the Ph.D. to a crawl.

That should prompt us to rethink our particular version of the research model, especially when we recognize that university presses and university libraries have been in precarious financial health for some time, and that the thousands of monographs go largely unread. Deborah L. Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford University, in her book In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture, notes a study showing that only 2 percent of published scholarship in the humanities is ever cited. It's hopelessly utopian to think that we'll scrap the dissertation-to-monograph model of our own volition. It is possible, though, that the economics of university publishing will force such a change upon us. If it comes, and the Ph.D. requirements take a different form (possibly a sequence of connected essays, as proposed by the Harvard University literary critic Louis Menand in an opinion essay in The New York Times), one consequence would be a much shorter time-to-degree, and a shrinking of the vast pool of A.B.D.'s who now make up the adjunct work force.

Two, the importance of mentors and advisers, identified as crucial to Ph.D. completion by Chris M. Golde, associate vice provost at Stanford, in a series of compelling case studies, and confirmed by the Ph.D. Completion Project, has received untold amount of lip service over the years but has never been translated into policy. What if Ph.D.-granting English departments across the country took a systematic inventory of those Ph.D. students who fall between the cracks that Steward's surveys revealed—those past the fifth year, probably out of funds, but not yet finished—and then tied those findings to admissions quotas?

Let me elaborate. I suspect that seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-year graduate students suffer most from lack of mentoring and advising, indeed from lack of connection with their home departments. Yet those departments all continue to admit new students. That is, we perpetuate the system that brings in fresh recruits, even as it tolerates the disappearance of advanced graduate students at rates comparable to that of casualties during the Gallipoli campaign. My rationale for tying admissions to placement is simple: If we can't keep track of the students who have been in our programs for years, we have no business admitting new ones. We'd all be better mentors if we capped admissions.

Such a proposal is, in fact, even more utopian than the idea of revamping the Ph.D., and it's not a reform we could carry out on our own. It would require cooperation from university administrations, and it would also require the MLA to function as a regulatory agency, rather than as the professional association it is set up to be. In the end, the central dilemma is how we provide teachers and teaching assistants for our courses. It may prove too deeply ingrained in our institutional history to solve. Sadly, one of our profession's near universal practices is to use fresh graduate students to teach first-year writing courses. In other words, however much we debate the qualifications for faculty appointments, we've already established that the qualifications for a postsecondary teaching appointment need be no more than a B.A., a summer vacation, participation in a graduate program, and a teacher-training workshop. We can exhort our institutions to provide research support for the tenure-ineligible, and to include them in departmental governance, but so long as we set the qualifications for teaching as low as we do, we will guarantee a surplus of minimally qualified teachers, and we'll continue to make career placement in English a difficult struggle.

All of which makes my job as chair of a Ph.D. admissions committee that much more difficult. The realities would make an honest answer to the question "What is your department's placement rate?" especially brutal. At the entry point, departments across the country grossly overadmit new students to their Ph.D. programs because they need to provide teachers for their lower-division courses (particularly first-year writing sections) as cheaply as possible. At the exit point—to the extent that we can identify it—English departments treat their long-term A.B.D.'s with shocking indifference. As for those students who finish their Ph.D.'s while still being financed by their departments, and who get tenure-track jobs, we should stop using them in our propaganda about job-placement success and start calling them what they are: lottery winners.

Frank Donoghue is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University. His most recent book is The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008).