How We Reached This Point, Part 1

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 18, 2013

Editor's Note: After spending more than 25 years as a graduate-career counselor at the University of Pennsylvania, Julie Miller Vick retired in the summer. In Part 1 of this column, she and her co-author look back at the trends that have created the crisis that academe now faces in graduate education. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Jenny: Much of what's being discussed today regarding the weak job market for Ph.D.'s has been a matter of concern for doctoral students, postdocs, their advisers, and their departments for many years. You were involved early on in creating the first career services for doctoral students. How did that movement get started? And what kind of progress has been made?

Julie: On most university campuses, career services had been offered to undergraduates for many years. (Penn, for example, opened its career office in 1926.) But it wasn't until the mid- to late 1970s and into the early 1980s that career centers at a few institutions—including Berkeley, MIT, Penn, and UCLA—started to offer services to graduate students. Other universities started providing career guidance through the graduate dean's office. Before that, career advising for Ph.D.'s was done entirely by the student's adviser.

The first programs on career options for Ph.D.'s were offered in the early 80s. The tenure-track market for Ph.D.'s wasn't strong at the time, but in addition, some Ph.D.'s were letting it be known that they didn't want to pursue academic jobs. Some of them were women with doctorates who wanted a career that felt more family friendly than faculty life. Another factor: Faculty jobs at universities, particularly in the sciences, were changing; scientists were spending more time on grant writing than on research, and many graduate students didn't want that kind of career. It was in that environment that I was hired at Penn by the late Mary Morris Heiberger (and my former colleague in writing the Career Talk column for The Chronicle), to work with her on creating career services for doctoral students.

Jenny: You were hired at about the time that graduate students began to organize in more formal ways. When I was a graduate student, I was very surprised to find that taxes were taken out of my already small stipend. I learned that Congress had eliminated the tax-exempt status of graduate stipends in 1986. That action, I am told, was the catalyst for graduate students from four universities to form the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students in the same year.

Julie: Yes. The association held its first conference in 1988. Graduate students were mobilizing and wanted more of a say in their education. In the summer of 1987, April Hamel, associate dean of the graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, visited Penn to talk with us about services for graduate students, with the main focus being on professional students.

However, we decided to find out what kinds of resources and services were available for doctoral students at our peer institutions and ended up founding an organization that soon became known as the Graduate Career Consortium. Our first meeting was held in October of 1988 at Penn and attended by career counselors who worked with doctoral students from Brown, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Princeton, University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Jenny: In 1989, the now infamous Bowen report ("Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987 to 2012" by William G. Bowen, then president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Julie Ann Sosa) was released. News reports like this one in The Chronicle"Big Faculty Shortages Seen in Humanities and Social Sciences" (a link to that story was recently rediscovered and tweeted by William Pannapacker, a Chronicle columnist who has written quite extensively on graduate-education reform)—predicted a hiring boom. The Bowen study said that "only seven candidates will be available for every 10 positions open"—a prediction that soon proved painfully off the mark.

In that same year, the Modern Language Association published its "Surveys of Ph.D. Placement: Most Recent Findings and Decade-Long Trends." The 1989 report included the findings from a 1986-87 survey of recent graduates of doctoral programs in English and foreign languages, linguistics, and comparative literature. The report was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of increased tenure-track openings for Ph.D.'s in foreign languages, comparative literature, and linguistics, noting, "it seems fair to conclude, therefore, that the 21-percent increase in the total number of ads between 1985 and 1987 has been fueled in part by growth in the number of junior-level, tenure-track positions."

Such optimism melted away fairly quickly. By, 1996, The MLA Guide to the Job Search reported: "Unfortunately, as those seeking faculty positions in English and foreign language departments must realize, since the early 1970s there have been more candidates than teaching positions, a situation that has worsened since 1990." That publication acknowledged the need to broaden career options for Ph.D.'s in the humanities and included an article on "Succeeding in the Nonacademic Job Market," by Howard Figler, a career-development expert.

The goal of raising the issue of nonacademic careers was ostensibly to help students, but the suggestion wasn't always well received. As William Pannapacker points out, graduate students in 1998 did not welcome the discussion of broader career options at the MLA convention. As he, Mark R. Kelley, and Ed Wiltse wrote in an essay for The Chronicle Review in 1998, "In particular, we want scholarly groups to stop telling us that we should look for nonacademic jobs. We want them to get serious about prodding colleges and universities to end their heavy reliance on part-timers and adjuncts."

Many of those who entered graduate school in 1998, as I did, already knew that obtaining a tenure-track position would be something of a crapshoot. In 1995, when I was talking to my undergraduate faculty advisers about doctoral programs in French, at least two of them told me, "just don't go." Like many optimistic young people, I ignored their advice.

Julie: The 1990s, when you were in college, was a transformational period for much of Ph.D. education. In 1992, a national report entitled In Pursuit of the Ph.D., by the aforementioned Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine, then president of Harvard, was published by Princeton University Press. Their study looked at reducing attrition and time-to-degree in doctoral programs, as well as at improving quality. In subsequent years many universities cut the number of students accepted to some doctoral programs, increased financial support for them, and took measures to shorten the time to degree.

Nineteen ninety-three was the first year of Preparing Future Faculty, a national movement to transform the way future faculty members were trained for their careers, developed by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Preparing Future Faculty programs were created at more than 45 doctoral universities and supported by major foundations. (When the grant money came to an end, many institutions continued the program and paid for it themselves.)

In that same year, the law that had for years set a mandatory retirement age of 65 for faculty members expired, allowing tenured professors to continue working indefinitely—a factor that many observers cite as one of the reasons for the current job-market crunch. It was quite a time.

Jenny: When I began my graduate program at Penn in 1998, my financial-aid package was structured to help me to finish my Ph.D. in five years—a goal that I did not quite meet—but that support most likely came out of many of the discussions in the early 1990s on preparing future faculty members. Also, in 1992, you and Mary Heiberger wrote The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), which is now in its fourth edition (with me as co-author). The guide has been used by thousands of faculty job seekers for more than 20 years. A year later, Margaret Newhouse published her excellent work on Ph.D. career options, Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers (Harvard University).

That career-services professionals on campus, who had long focused on undergraduates, were inserting themselves into the discussion of Ph.D. careers would prove a significant shift. (Part 2 of this column, published tomorrow, will explore how an increasingly tough job market sparked calls for improved career services and for graduate-education reform that continue to reverberate.)

Julie Miller Vick recently retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and is now working part-time as a senior career adviser. Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Send in your career questions to, or post your question in the comments section below.