Job-Market Advice — for Faculty

Let’s not be the sort of advisers who evade responsibility for our students’ career options

October 12, 2015


We’ve all heard the stories of how faculty members struggle to advise graduate students in a changing job market — one with fewer tenure-track positions and greater emphasis on the importance of alternative careers. In many cases, the struggle is a result of our own anxieties: How can we help students search for jobs different from the kind we pursued? How can we possibly respond to the constriction of the academic job market?

A whole industry of career counselors has arisen out of this perceived — and sometimes very real — failure of academics to guide our students’ career prospects. Karen Kelsky’s recent book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job, offers a searing critique of advisers who "are devastatingly ignorant of the conditions of the new university hiring economy" and condemns faculty "selfishness, laziness, and indifference" for producing graduate students ill-prepared for the rigors of the market.

Kelsky offers to fill that void and to give her clients the realistic perspective eschewed by faculty, "who, when confronted with anxious reports from the job hunt, offer the easy evasion ‘just focus on your dissertation,’ as far preferable … to a hard conversation about an academy in crisis, on the one hand, or flaws in a student’s record, on the other."

Let’s not be those advisers — or so easily give up the important work of mentoring our students. As my department’s first job-placement officer, I realized the many things that faculty members can do, not only to help their students find jobs, but also to change a culture that has long celebrated tenure-track positions above all other forms of career success for Ph.D.s.

Don’t go it alone. As faculty members, we vary widely in our approaches to the job market, and our students benefit from hearing different perspectives on graduate study and its outcomes. But no one benefits from the type of advising Kelsky describes, which is why we must come together to recognize and support the validity of preparing doctoral students for a range of careers.

If you don’t know much about nonfaculty career options, direct your Ph.D. students to a colleague or a career-services adviser who does. Above all, make it clear that career paths that differ from your own are not failures but choices that all students should explore. And make sure they have the support of their department in doing so.

Make it official. While the responsibility for our students’ success is collective and should be a focus of every faculty member teaching at the graduate level, it is nonetheless essential that one or two people serve as your department’s job placement officers.

If you don't know much about nonfaculty career options, direct your Ph.D. students to a colleague or a career-services adviser who does.

If the position doesn’t exist, create it. Volunteer for it. Make it an essential part of your graduate program. Demonstrate that you recognize students’ concerns about the job market and are taking concrete steps to respond.

Choose as placement officer a faculty member who is: (a) close enough to the market to recognize its pitfalls and pain, (b) flexible enough to embrace possibilities that were not a part of his or her own career trajectory, and (c) committed to remaining informed about all aspects of the job search.

Start advising them early. Talk frankly with graduate students and prospective ones about career possibilities, both within and outside academe. Do it early and often: The worst time to have those conversations is near the end of the degree, when students may think a conversation about pursuing multiple options reveals a lack of faith in their research — and, by extension, in them as individuals and scholars.

As job-placement officer, schedule group meetings to discuss the collective concerns of graduate students: What do they need from you? How can you meet their needs effectively, at every stage of the program? And what do graduate students — from first-year M.A.s to A.B.D.s — want to know about professionalization?

Ask them lots of questions. Begin one-on-one career-advising meetings with questions: What is your ideal career path? What appeals to you about that path? What have you enjoyed about graduate school? What have you disliked about it? What do you see as your strengths? Your weaknesses?

And the most important questions: What are your core values? How do you see a career relating to those values, if at all? Do you value family? Location? Time? Money? Structure? Freedom? Do you desire a career that provides the central orientation for your life, or are you looking for a career that fits into a certain kind of life?

Then listen. Really listen. And encourage students to listen to themselves. Listening carefully and asking graduate students to analyze what they value — rather than what they have been acculturated to value — can lead to the excavation of buried possibilities. It also offers a powerful antidote to our own acculturation.

I don’t have an expected outcome when I pose these questions to my students, but I do hope that their answers will prompt conversations about the multiple trajectories they might happily pursue. Those conversations have also helped me learn about the many different reasons people seek an advanced degree — reasons that suggest the need to create more flexible graduate programs.

Do your homework. If your department doesn’t track placements, make it part of your responsibility as job-placement officer. Obtain a list of all the students who graduated with an M.A. or Ph.D. in the last 10 (20, 30) years. Talk to faculty who worked with them, look them up on LinkedIn, use Facebook — whatever it takes to discover not only their initial placement but also their subsequent careers.

Use that information to calculate the percentage of graduates in tenure-track jobs, non-tenure-track academic jobs, careers outside academe, and adjunct positions, ideally in 10-year groups to control for variability in any one cohort. Have the proportions remained relatively steady, or have they varied? How did the 2008 recession affect your department’s graduates?

You need data, but you also need narratives. Are former students happy in their careers? And what do those careers actually look like? What are the teaching loads for academic jobs? The research expectations? The salaries? How did students working outside academe make the transition? What struggles and successes did they encounter? As you learn the answers to those questions, you’ll be better able to advise current students.

Recognize your niche. Unless your Ph.D. program is top ranked, it is likely that its graduates have found positions that reflect the department’s particular niche — whether that is a narrow field of specialization, a geographical region, or a specific type of job. Use the placement research you’ve done to identify that niche and communicate it clearly to colleagues and students.

Departmental trends need not be determinative for all students. But if your program’s long-term history is, for example, one of strong placements at regional institutions with a focus on teaching, it is important that your students understand that.

Embrace realism. Tenure-track jobs will never be the career outcome for all of your students, and likely not even for the majority of them.

Tell students the truth about their career prospects. Help them connect with former students who have found fulfillment outside academe as well as those who have been both happy and unhappy on the academic track. Be rigorously honest with them and with yourself that no matter how good their work is — no matter how good — the academic job market is not a meritocracy, and there are not as many jobs as there are good people.

Use your imagination. Preparing students for one career path — by focusing on the dissertation as the most important element of their graduate program, or communicating a preference for those who seem more likely to replicate your own trajectory — is a disservice to them and to the profession.

Help students imagine different possibilities. Explore how their courses, exams, dissertations, and teaching can open doors rather than close them. Help them pursue and create other opportunities while in graduate school. Above all, do not allow your own experiences to limit what you can imagine for your students or what they can imagine for themselves.

Network on their behalf. Create a national network of alumni who can offer advice, and a local network of people in fields your students might find interesting, even if those professionals do not have advanced degrees.

Plan events that start conversations about the job market: Invite speakers to have panel discussions about their work and how they found their jobs. Learn from alumni how the program supported their job searches — or how it failed to do so.

Remember: Even if you’ve never pursued a nonacademic job, you know plenty of people who have. Learn about their careers, and put your students in touch with people willing to talk. Invite people you admire, doing work you respect, and communicate that respect to your students.

Kelsky’s book offers a one-size-fits-all approach to the job market. Her book provides useful advice, but it cannot give individualized support to your students. You can.

Jenna Lay is an assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the English department at Lehigh University. Follow her on Twitter @jenna_lay.