Job Expectations Vs. Reality

The core of a lot of my thinking about academic hiring has been that graduate schools tend to (want to) produce candidates for a particular kind of job — one that to a large extent reproduces the faculty members of a doctoral university while the large majority of academic jobs are at institutions that only minimally resemble such places.

All four of the colleges and universities where I’ve worked as a faculty member and administrator have been relatively small, teaching-oriented institutions where research, while valued, was not at the top of the agenda. All four have been at least pretty good at their missions, and have provided excellent educational opportunities for undergraduates (and in a couple of cases, master’s students).

I’m struck, though, by the continuous disjunction experienced by new faculty members (most especially those fresh from doctoral programs) between the job expectations of graduate students, and the way things actually are at the institutions where they are beginning their careers. I personally suffered greatly through that transition at my first job, and that job was at the most prestigious and selective of the institutions where I have worked.

Graduate school is on one level a professional apprenticeship. It is where prospective faculty members learn not only the skills, but the values and worldview of academe. Doctoral education, rightly, occurs at universities whose priority is research and the creation of new knowledge, particularly through the ongoing revival of the profession through the generation of new Ph.D.’s.

However, a vast majority of people earning doctorates who are fortunate enough to get any kind of faculty job at all will land at institutions with high teaching loads, limited resources for research, and relatively minimal research expectations. They will be expected to be strong teachers and good campus citizens more than scholars and creators of new knowledge. I do not here intend to pose the false dichotomy of teaching vs. scholarship, but to point out that the weight placed on teaching is going to be much greater for most faculty members than the weight on scholarship.

Graduate education generally does not do an outstanding job of preparing job candidates for that reality. I am not exactly sure how it could be reformed to do better without distorting its value as a research apprenticeship. I also am not sure whether “tracking” graduate students to prepare them for different kinds of jobs is the right thing to do. But I do know that in my 20 years as a professor and administrator, the issue of how graduate school prepares faculty members, as opposed to scholars, has always been one of the biggest challenges we have faced.


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