Just Look at the Data, if You Can Find Any

We need more openness about the job placements of Ph.D.'s

James Yang for The Chronicle

June 17, 2013

As a regular columnist for The Chronicle, I've been offering roughly the same advice about pursuing a Ph.D. in the humanities for at least 10 years now: A decision to go to graduate school should be weighed against the costs and the risks that are involved. Only you can make the decision. You are the only one who knows your level of commitment, your resources, and what you want from life. Graduate school is a leap of faith, since no one can know the future. And the experience may change you in ways that you can't predict.

Of course, I believe intellectual life is valuable in itself. I wouldn't be a professor if I didn't. But now there are more reasons than ever to investigate your choices carefully.

Graduate school in the humanities takes longer than ever (nearly a decade, on average), and it can be quite expensive. Even with a stipend, most Ph.D. graduates leave with substantial debt (to say nothing of the opportunity costs involved). Graduate school often socializes students into thinking that anything short of a tenure-track position, preferably at a major research university, means failure in a deep, personal way. At the same time, stable, modestly-paying teaching positions of any kind are harder and harder to get in academe, as the profession increasingly shifts toward an exploitative system of adjunct labor.

Contingent instructors are now 76 percent of the academic labor force, earning about $2,700 per course, on average, without job security, benefits, academic freedom, or any say in institutional governance. Academe is not uniquely exploitative, of course; it has mirrored larger patterns in the economy that have reduced the percentage of "good jobs." Unfortunately, there are few indications that this trend will reverse itself in higher education or anywhere else.

The Ph.D. Placement Project

For years, graduate students and professors have demanded reliable data, without success, on the job-placement rates of individual Ph.D. programs. The Chronicle would like to fill that gap. We're not sure yet what the Ph.D. Placement Project will look like, but we know we'll need your help.

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As professors, we like to believe that academe is a meritocracy. It affirms our self-esteem to do so. Undergraduate faculty members—and whole departments—often take pride in sending their students to graduate programs, often without paying much attention to what happens later. Meanwhile, professors who teach in graduate programs understand that their jobs exist, in part, because they continue to be able to attract doctoral students who will fill their seminars, grade their undergraduates' papers, and, ultimately, teach most of the low-level courses. Those realities undermine our impartiality as faculty members when it comes to advising students, and complicate our idealism when it comes to the "life of the mind."

New graduate students may not know how the system works, and, in most cases, they remain convinced that the odds don't apply to them; they will be the exception because they always have been good at school. They often envision graduate school as vocational fulfillment without giving as much attention to the practical considerations.

All of those factors make it difficult for anyone to criticize graduate education and the academic labor system. People who do so—even with irrefutable evidence—are dismissed reflexively as "embittered failures" or "anti-intellectuals."

I have known too many extraordinarily talented and productive long-term adjuncts to believe that academe is a meritocracy. And I have known too many long-suffering academic-labor activists to believe that such people are enemies of higher education. They are often the only friends that a demoralized job seeker can find, the only ones who acknowledge that the inability to land a tenure-track position is not entirely the fault of the individual alone, that it is a systemic problem.

To deflect criticism, we talk about the usefulness of the Ph.D. for a wide range of careers, but we generally do not prepare our students for alternative careers, and some professors reportedly disparage those students as "second-rate." Most programs don't keep track of the career paths of students who do not remain in traditional academic positions. And few students go to graduate school in the humanities with the intention of not becoming a professor. As one frustrated job seeker put it, "I didn't go $80,000 in debt to do anything else."

I am sure there are exceptional doctoral programs out there. They may have relatively strong tenure-track placement records (40 percent within three years of graduation is great these days), and they may even prepare graduates for alternative careers without treating that path as second-class. They may take less time to complete than other programs, and their Ph.D.'s may leave with smaller amounts of debt. Their students may look back on graduate school with gratitude, or at least they may have few regrets.

As a professor at a liberal-arts college, I know that my assessment of graduate programs is unavoidably impressionistic. How much harder is it, then, for students considering graduate school to make decisions about those programs? Some departments provide seemingly comprehensive data about the placements of their Ph.D.'s; other departments provide sketchy, arguably misleading information, describing all of their graduates as "placed in academe" without distinguishing between visiting positions, postdocs, adjunct jobs, and tenure-track positions at different kinds of institutions.

Prospective graduate students should be skeptical about what programs—even reputedly top ones—say about their placement rates.

It would be useful to know a program's attrition rate, too. We know that at least half of graduate students, over all, do not complete their doctoral degrees. And, I would argue, the career paths of those "dropouts" are as interesting as those of the graduates. It is often said, "the smart ones leave." But where do they go? Do they benefit from their years in graduate school, even if they don't complete their degrees?

Advisers and prospective students need something more than a scattered helping of infrequently updated best-case scenarios. We need externally verified, reasonably comprehensive data about individual programs and maybe even individual advisers.

Aggregated data about graduate schools have limited usefulness when individual programs have such variability in their placement outcomes. Also, aggregated data place little pressure on individual universities to reform themselves. I suspect that many top-100 programs have better placement records than some top-10 departments. And individual faculty members can produce results for their own advisees that are wildly different from those of their colleagues and far better than their overall institutional reputations. Finally, what if some programs had strong histories of placing students in good positions outside of academe?

The graduates of individual programs are a matter of public record, as are the names of their advisers. It might not be possible in every case to track down the job placements of those graduates, but the information that could be found, over time, would be revealing and useful. The better programs might be motivated to provide that information, and—plausibly—to work even harder to make sure their outcomes are relatively favorable. They might even begin to lobby against the excessive use of contingent faculty members, because departments whose placement records were public information would have a stronger stake in the success of their graduates.

Over time, the data gathered could become richer, and include attrition rates, time-to-degree, financial-support levels, and maybe even subjective evaluations of the experience. For example, I'd like to know how many graduates of a given program experienced feelings of depression, isolation, and hopelessness. We know that negative experiences are common in doctoral programs; where are students having strongly positive experiences?

Such a database could be crowdsourced, like The Chronicle's Adjunct Project, but it is likely that the results would skew toward extreme positions, much like the evaluations on sites such as RateMyProfessors. Another option is for a neutral third party to undertake the project, starting with a representative sampling of institutions and doctoral programs. It has been tried before, but the project was not large enough to do more than hint at its potential value.

A "Graduate School Placement Project" could bring market forces to bear on programs that are failing their students. The project might also cultivate better fits between prospective students and programs that really deliver on the outcomes those students desire. Helping prospective graduate students and their advisers to be better informed about the academic labor system would be a substantial accomplishment in itself.

More needs to be done, of course. In addition to providing more-reliable information, we need to create new pathways for students in the humanities so that graduate school does not seem like the only place where they can pursue the things they "loved" as undergraduates.

In many ways, the choice to go to graduate school is not simply an attraction to a field but a drive toward something that almost everyone wants—a feeling of belonging, living up to one's full potential, and not wasting one's life in meaningless drudgery.

For me, as a teacher at a liberal-arts college, the larger challenge is building a program that, on the one hand, can adequately prepare students for graduate education, and, on the other, can make graduate school just one of many options for students who believe they have that calling toward "the life of the mind."

I think the "Just don't go" argument has a continuing role to play, not because it validates my experience—as a tenured professor, I am, arguably one of the winners in the system—but because it highlights the continuing need for us to reimagine both graduate and undergraduate education in the humanities.

Nothing would please me more than being able to say to a talented undergraduate who is also considering a variety of nonacademic career paths: "Here is a wonderful graduate program. It takes only four years, students are fully funded, most of the admitted students have verified placements—many in academe, some not—and nearly all of their alumni report high levels of satisfaction with the program. It's worth considering."

I would love to be able to affirm a student's well-researched choice, to say, "Just go." In the absence of better information, all I can say in the majority of cases is "Good luck."

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.