Don't Reform Graduate Education in a Vacuum

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

January 28, 2013

In a typical week I receive about seven e-mails from graduate students and recent Ph.D.'s asking for help finding a job outside the academy. Most of them are historians who have found me through a Web site I created, Beyond Academe, about leaving higher education for a nonfaculty career.

Each time I look at my e-mail inbox, I panic a little. Having left a tenure-track position and struggled to find a nonacademic career myself, I am eager to help others in that predicament. But I hold a full-time and somewhat demanding job, and the number of people contacting me seems to be growing each semester (and sometimes each month).

Many of the graduate students who reach out to me say they are reluctant to speak honestly with their advisers for fear of losing their support. Still others indicate that their advisers are unable to provide advice about nonacademic careers. While I am sympathetic to students who fear such conversations, I am puzzled as to how, and why, we are still at this impasse in 2013.

The academic job crisis in the humanities is more than 40 years old. It's had its ups and downs. Sometimes those ups have resulted in a year that was "not too bad" when compared with previous years that were disastrous. More often than not, the occasional glimmersof hope have proved to be false. Within my own career, the much-publicized "Bowen Report" led many to believe that the volume of faculty retirements would open up a plethora of tenure-track slots in the late 1990s. That didn't happen. Each doctoral cohort can point to its own job crisis, whether we are talking about the recent market crash, in 2008, or the first crash, in the 1970s.

It does not take a historian to know or understand that market history. Even faculty members whose careers may not reflect the poor job market have only to look at their own departments—with growing numbers of adjunct positions, visiting professorships, and postdoctoral "teaching" fellowships—to understand that tenure-track jobs are unlikely to return in large numbers. And yet, some departments not only continue to accept large numbers of students; they even create new Ph.D. and M.A. programs.

What puzzles me intensely is why so many faculty members seem to have little or no awareness, or even curiosity, about what happens to Ph.D.'s. and M.A.'s coming out of their programs. The failure to track students—to understand their post-Ph.D. career trajectories—is unfortunate, as it means that the proposals beginning to emerge for graduate-education reform are being created in a vacuum.

Reforms that fail to take into account where students landed are, I would argue, highly unlikely to resolve the very real challenges facing new and future Ph.D.'s, whether they remain in academe or leave.

It's been a relief, after decades of inaction,to see some academics begin to grapple seriously with the idea of graduate-education reform. But if they genuinely want to mentor students and produce graduates who will have real career options, we need to push the conversation further.

What does it mean to pursue a nonacademic career as a Ph.D.? What truly happens to graduate students when they leave academe? How do Ph.D.'s in nonprofessorial careers—especially those who work outside of a campus setting—use their training, or not? What do employers value, or not, in job candidates with Ph.D.'s, particularly those in the humanities? What factors mitigate against students' being candid about their career choices while in graduate school? How long does it take for Ph.D.'s to make the transition to their first nonacademic jobs, and what obstacles do they face? And most important, should some graduate programs be closed?

Answering those questions and doing in-depth research on graduate-student outcomes must take priority. And in that effort, faculty members must take the difficult step of looking beyond the campus and broadening the debate to include nonacademics—not just those who are Ph.D.'s but non-Ph.D.'s in positions that involve hiring.

It is wonderful that some departments have begun to invite Ph.D.'s in successful nonacademic careers to speak to their graduate students. But that's not enough. Departments have been taking steps to help job candidates search on the academic market, but they must also come to understand the struggle that Ph.D.'s face in seeking their first nonacademic position.

The many worried graduate students and underemployed Ph.D.'s who write me at Beyond Academe do so in the expectation that their stories will be kept private, and I will not betray those confidences. Yet their voices must be heard.

I am uncertain how to create a safe setting for graduate students to speak openly with their advisers about nonacademic careers, but I see a few things we can do. It's time for professional organizations and faculty members who are genuinely interested in graduate-­education reform to create a true and continuing dialogue with those of us who have left the academy. We can speak candidly without fear of repercussions. And we have an in-depth and nuanced understanding of the real career obstacles that Ph.D.'s face in leaving higher education.

Many of us former academics are still active in our fields of study and eager to help young colleagues as they embark on their nonacademic careers. But when we are shut out of the discussion about graduate-education reform and brought in with an expectation that a one-hour workshop is all that is needed to ensure a student's transition into a nonacademic career, our ability to make a significant contribution is sharply compromised.

Help us to help your students by inviting us in—not just for an hour or a day, but for a long-term discussion about what an academic colleague once called "the secrets you know about my graduate students."

Alexandra M. Lord is historian who works for a federal agency. She also runs both Beyond Academe, a Web site about careers for historians, and the Ultimate History Project, an online journal written by professional historians and intended for a general audience.