Teaching in the Postdoc Space

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

April 17, 2011

Anyone who's finished graduate school knows that the student-adviser relationship doesn't end when you get your degree. Most advisers continue to give advice to—that is, to teach—fledgling degree-holders as they test their wings.

That teaching has gained particular importance as more and more Ph.D.'s take temporary postdoctoral jobs. Some of those positions are CV builders, but many are just stopgaps that keep new graduates in the game so that they can try the job market—with our help—for another round or two. The market has been sickly for a long time, but the sudden seizure that it underwent in 2008 created a critical situation that we've been reacting to ever since.

What kind of graduate teaching should we do after our students get their doctorates? The 2008 employment crisis has provoked some institutional reactions that spotlight that question. I want to look this month at two programs designed by the American Council of Learned Societies.

The first is a temporizing measure called the New Faculty Fellows Program. Begun in 2009, it creates a "minimarket" for recent Ph.D.'s in the humanities and in certain "interpretive" social sciences by subsidizing their employment for two years at colleges and universities. Described by Steven C. Wheatley, the council's vice president, as a "bridge across a market failure," the program is designed to keep academic-career prospects alive for promising young Ph.D.'s.

The program will help only 60 people, and it's not a permanent measure. But let's consider its role in the larger scheme—what Wheatley calls "an ongoing effort to work constructively in the postdoc space."

The "postdoc space" in the humanities and social sciences results from a long-term oversupply of qualified candidates for faculty positions. (I'm drawing a deliberate distinction from the sciences, where postdoctoral work long ago became an institutionalized leg of a scientist's career path.)

In the humanities, the postdoc space is inhabited by a few who have chosen it—perhaps by winning a fellowship or an award. But that fortunate group accounts for only a small part of the postdoc population. More numerous are the recent Ph.D.'s whose departments try to extend their job-seeking lives for an extra year or two by calling them "lecturers" or "preceptors." And then there are those who do adjunct work—for adjuncting also amounts to a low-rent, teaching-intensive postdoctoral "fellowship" for those who still seek full-time academic jobs.

If many Ph.D.'s are bound to be temporarily employed, they should be in positions that give them hope and orient them toward future goals—as opposed to adjunct jobs, which promise neither. So to start with, let's acknowledge that our lecturers and preceptors are still our graduate students. That means we should give them the kinds of teaching assignments (and other work) that will enhance their credentials and help them continue to learn. And we should give that work to our Ph.D.'s even if it means that they get the "good" courses and we teach more of the introductory-level and survey courses ourselves.

The ACLS is also trying to create alternatives to the sagging academic job market. The most notable is a Public Fellows Program that was unveiled this month.

The public-fellows program will place recent Ph.D.'s at select government and nonprofit organizations. Wheatley stresses that the program is not a consolation prize or an eddy within which to wait for the worst wave of the academic job market to flow past. Instead it's for those who make "an affirmative decision to commit their abilities and energy outside the classroom." Fellows will apply for specific positions—"a job, not a grant," he says—and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will subsidize their salaries for the first two years to smooth their touchdown into the nonacademic sector.

The experience of public fellows, says Wheatley, will "expand the idea of what is an appropriate destination for a Ph.D." and will show "the value of employing people with that background." It's meant, he says, to expand the possibilities of work beyond the core of postsecondary education.

The success of the program—which the council hopes will grow—depends on the creation of two related feedback loops. One points forward, toward the government and nonprofit groups, which will have the opportunity to adjust their hiring and training practices to take particular advantage of the assets that Ph.D.'s bring. That means more than just alerting employers to the employability of Ph.D.'s; it's also a matter of showing the agencies the special things that Ph.D.'s can do. Employers can start planning projects around the skills of Ph.D.'s; for example, Wheatley describes scholarship as an "information science" that affords special advantages. The hope is that when employers see those advantages in action, they'll want to hire young Ph.D.'s on their own nickel.

The second feedback loop reaches back toward graduate schools. Here is where we can do useful work within the postdoc space ourselves. The council's public-fellows program is not going to loosen the economic vise choking academe, but it may help organize the postdoc space. Students and faculty members—but especially faculty members—need to attend to the example that the program represents.

If we as professors know that our graduate students may head toward public administration, government, or some similar nonacademic direction, we can adjust our own teaching to embrace those possibilities.

How to do that depends greatly on the discipline, of course, but here's one overarching pedagogical guideline: We need to promote more collaboration in the graduate classroom.

That's because work outside of academe requires certain kinds of collaboration that pure scholarship does not. To encourage such collaboration, seminar leaders could require graduate students to design a wiki (a private Web site) together, or create a digital archive based on shared research on a common topic. Such projects develop skills that transfer easily outside of the university.

The public-fellows program is only the latest official confirmation that our graduate students need not stay in academe. Pauline Yu, the council's president, sees the program as a way to mark nonacademic alternatives for Ph.D.'s as a "positive option"—legitimized by a prestigious fellowship—and not a "career failure."

The program will begin immediately as a pilot at six agencies, including federal outfits like the U.S. State Department, municipal organizations like the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and nonprofits such as the Council on Foundations and the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. Applicants will apply directly for positions this spring, and those selected will start work as soon as this summer.

The public-fellows program is moving quickly for obvious reasons: The academic job market may never recover its vigor. The sooner that graduate teachers and advisers face that reality, the better. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt's adviser Harry Hopkins said during the Great Depression, "People don't eat in the long run—they eat every day." Graduate students need to start planning right now for all of their possible futures—and it's our job as their teachers to help.

There's no one solution to the problems facing higher education's employment crisis, and government and cultural institutions—to say nothing of universities—can't employ everybody. But we should not undersell the value of the example of the public-fellows program. It's simply this: There is no single brass ring for advisers to train their Ph.D.'s to grab. The world of work benefits when we prepare talented scholars to enter it.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments and suggestions from readers to