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The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD

Part one: an institutional shell game.

One of the absurdities of the contemporary university is this: at the same time that those of us firmly held in the tight embrace of tenured institutional belong begin to really acknowledge that most of our PhD students are not going to become professors, we same tightly embraced tenured people are being actively pushed (“incentivized,” I think, is the jargon for this) to increase the numbers of graduate students we enrol.

The math here is complicated. Which is to say, I don’t quite understand it, but it tends to the effect that graduate students in all areas are profit-making for the institution. There’s a net gain to the university for each grad we enrol, and a bigger cumulative gain if we enrol a certain biggish ‘target’ number.

I begin to suspect that like the users of Facebook and like the audience of broadcast television, graduate students are the product of the institution rather than its consumers (forget apprentices). Facebook and TV sell their users for advertising revenue. And the university? From what I can tell, over and above the reputation points we gain for having PhD students around generally, and beyond whatever measure of glamour or power that accrues to individual supervisors for having acolytes, the university ‘sells’ graduate enrolments to the provincial government for incentive money. I think. Like I say, the math is complicated.

I am developing some ethical concerns here.

Part two: when do you break their hearts?

Many of us tell many others of us to stop admitting graduate students to our programs: there are already too many graduates without jobs! (By ‘jobs,’ we only ever really seem to mean ‘tenure-track professorships’.) The debt loads are crushing! You’ll be 40 and unemployed, living in a basement, teaching remedial composition to part time phys ed majors for approximately 40 cents an hour. Students, though, still clamour to come. They have big ideas (like I had) and dreams of the life of the mind (like I had).

We’ve already discussed here (and others have discussed elsewhere) what to do about this disjuncture. So you want to get a PhD in the humanities? Ha! But then, every one who sits in a chair in an office with SSHRC reference forms in hand and grad applications piling up can’t say that it’s impossible: we did it, right? I actually get to live my life of the mind with my big ideas and it’s pretty sweet. But no tenure for you!

Many of them–many of you–want to keep coming, regardless of the dire warnings. Many of us–me!–are uncomfortable either squashing the grad school dream or nurturing it. I mean, I love the big ideas the graduate students bring to the seminar table, the office hours, the committee meetings. But I don’t want to see anyone disenchanted, disillusioned, broke and in despair after they graduate. Or, God help us, dragging their degree out for a decade to hold on to the pittance of one teaching assignment per term, gripping the life of the mind by the fingernails.

What to do? I have yet more ethical concerns telling potential grad students not to follow their dreams and their interests.

Part three: a modest proposal

If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career. Think of the PhD like a 4-6 year chunk of time, a discrete part of your life, where you earn a salary, live a real life (of the mind, of course, but also without taking loans to pay for food), and enjoy the full range of adult experiences. Don’t put your life on hold for some future utopia: that ain’t how this works anymore. Treat your PhD like a job: maybe it’s a low paying job, but that’s okay, because you really enjoy it. If you’re not going to enjoy this time, if you’re not going to be satisfied with your life while you do it, then don’t do it holding your nose for the glorious reward of the coming professorship. Because that’s a recipe for misery, all round.

People change jobs a lot over their lifetimes. Consider the PhD as one more job: it’s a great job, so far as it goes, really. You get to follow your interests and your passions. You mostly set your own hours. Your colleagues are great fun, and really smart. You often get to travel. You’ll write a book-length study of your own devising. You’ll get opportunities to interact with the public through teaching. While in this job, you prepare for your next one, the next part of your career: sure, you’ll learn how to be a professor, but you should also hone your other professional skills, too, because you know the PhD doesn’t last forever.

The sticking point in my plan is that you have to make enough money to live on. The real tragedy of grad school, often, is that students are so invested in the idea that are apprenticing into a well-paid professorial gig that they consider grad school an investment in future earnings–so it’s okay to take on debt, sometimes a lot of it, like law students or medical students do.

That’s not okay, actually. Don’t go to grad school unless you can live on your stipend. It’s absolutely not worth taking on debt for. Debt will limit your options once the degree is done. Debt will embitter you. Debt will make you desperate. Let me be perfectly clear: if you consider the PhD a job (as I’m suggesting to) don’t go unless they pay you.

Go if you think the PhD is a job you will enjoy for the amount of time you do it. Prepare for a number of different job scenarios that will arise when you finish. Maybe you will become a professor, but probably, you won’t: prepare for the next stage of your life, post-degree, accordingly. You don’t ‘waste’ your time in a job just because you ultimately change jobs. But we often think of the PhD as a waste if we don’t get a particular kind of next job, or if we’ve gone into catastrophic levels of debt to pursue it, or put off things in our lives (like having a family, or moving out of our parents’ homes) to get the degree. In those circumstances, a PhD might be a waste. Approach it like a low-paying, highly-rewarding, short-term job, though, and you can see more clearly to do a real cost-benefit analysis before you begin.

Is that offensive? I don’t think this kind of pragmatism is incompatible with ideals: please, follow your passion! But the reward for that passion and its pursuit is going to be a dissertation well-written–I can pretty much assure you the reward is not going to be a tenure-track job. Don’t let that reality stop you from coming if you really want a PhD, and I would absolutely encourage you to come if you’re happy to live on your stipend for five years and then move on to something else.

That, I think, is an ethical approach to graduate studies.

What do you think?

32 thoughts on “The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD

  1. A really good idea, and some excellent links, too.

    I think the most important line in the post is “By 'jobs,' we only ever really seem to mean 'tenure-track professorships'.” People with PhDs in humanities don't drive cabs or wait tables, by and large. They get good jobs, and once in them often flourish because, well, lots of them can think and communicate—discouragingly rare skills, it turns out.

    The math is complicated and the data hard to find, but grad school probably is not a bad investment in future earnings if you can manage to avoid the trap of hanging on to the life of the mind by your fingernails. The non-academic jobs people end up in are well compensated, and often interesting. So if *supervisors* can also adopt your way of looking at PhD time, and so not communicate the sense that someone falls short if they don't “make it” into a tenure track job, we can help reduce the disillusion and despair. (And, really, look up and down the hall … are we really all that special that people are falling short if they don't become one of us? My brother was also in grad school, until he went to his first professional philosophy conference. He came home asking himself “Do I really want to be one of these people?” He now has a great job with the federal government. But, of course, philosophers are different.)


  2. Aimee, you've articulated exactly how I feel about my PhD. It's my job, and I love it, but it's my job. It pays me enough to live on, comfortably and without debt, and to save a bit. It gives me opportunities to do what I love, to write, to travel, to spend time with a group of people I really enjoy. I'll be done when I'm 31-ish, which is still lots of time to figure out kids, retirement savings, what I want to do with the next part of my life. I will be sad–heartbroken, probably, for a good bit of time–if I don't get to keep doing this in some form, but there are other things I'm good at. Isn't it commonly thought now that people of my generation will change careers something like seven times? I'm on number three, and I'd love it if four was professor, but I'm pretty realistic about the chances of that happening.


  3. I heard the same thing as I was finishing 3rd year undergrad and contemplating grad school – I think it was fantastic advice and I continue to pass it on. Some weeks I spent as much time on searching for and filling out scholarship applications as I did on school work and it paid off. I was able to support myself and my three kids throughout my M.A. (and most of my undergrad), without any student loan.

    When it came to the PhD, I did well in funding again, but the rules of my would-be new school penalized me for acquiring outside funding: the GAship I was offered would be rescinded and they'd deduct what I'd earned from external sources from the amount they were offering me. The end-total wasn't enough to relocate my kids to a more expensive city so no PhD for me. I'm (mostly) over it and I've had a solid year of work as a sessional instructor without the PhD. Had I been a 20-something, childless person I probably could have done it, so I see this as another example of the system privileging a certain type of student.


  4. You articulate so clearly a viable response to the keen students who see our lives as possible models for their own. I teach in an English department limited to undergraduates, so I'm not advising re PhDs, but your advice also works for those considering the MA (with an even shorter time commitment to “the temporary job”). I recently had dinner with a young woman, a former student who had just completed her MA on SSHRC funding. She'd thrived on the experience, obviously grown through the two years' immersed in an environment of learning, but is taking time to decide what next. She's looking for a position with an NPO,knows it won't pay well, but has learned to live frugally yet with satisfaction during her grad student life.
    In fact, she now inspires me, reminding me of what's truly important. Not that I want to return to those days of low income, lots of beans, eternally recycled wardrobe, etc., and I hope for her that she someday finds work that rewards her fairly for her skills and smarts. But I admire the balance she's found. I think, in large part, she's got that precisely because she had no naive illusions about grad school, and she enjoyed it for exactly what it was worth, never thinking of it as an investment monetarily but rather as enriching her life in the ways we all know it can.

    Still, it makes me a little sad that someone with her abilities is probably not going to choose to continue toward a PhD. But we'll see — as you suggest, compared to other low-paying, short-term jobs, the PhD (especially if completed in a timely fashion) is a highly-rewarding option.


  5. cn — Excellent point, about “certain type of student.” Certainly, universities don't think of PhD funding packages as salaries or living wages for their students/employees. The institution is invested in having everyone buy into the apprenticeship model: that means we don't have to address issues like 'compensation'. And the idea of 'compensating' a 'student' may well strike us as absurd, but what other sensible way might students approach it? If all the PhD 'trains' us for is the professoriate, then NO ONE should go to grad school. The system is broken. I can't believe you would be penalized for finding more money. On the other hand, a PhD is meant to be a full-time gig: so I can see restrictions on holding significant outside employment. But then only if we pay enough for people to do it full time.

    Melissa — I'm VERY impressed that you're even managing to save money. And thank you for your supportive comment — it seems like this idea of the PhD as a job is working out for you.

    DDVD — oh snap! It never occurred to me that, objectively speaking, professors are not really a group that sensible people would want to model themselves after. But of course!


  6. I agree with a lot of this, especially with the “don't go unless they pay you” part. But I guess before I quite sign on I need to see Part 4: Teaching and Supervising Someone whose PhD is Their First Job (not their professional academic training). Do I pressure them to publish articles in academic journals? Do I and my colleagues keep up the parade of professionalization seminars–applying for scholarships, applying for jobs, managing job interviews? That book-length project: is it a book-length academic-book-in-training? If not, what else is it, and how can we still get it past the Ph.D. defense and external examiner? How much is trying to help someone “hone” their other professional skills my job (and how do I get qualified to do it)? Do I expect the same amount of work from someone doing that other honing, because Ph.D. students already seem pretty busy to me (which also makes me wonder about the message that it is a chance to enjoy a full range of adult experiences). Etc.

    I'm also skeptical about the idea that doing the Ph.D. is “highly rewarding”–I suppose in part because of the increasing emphasis on [academic] professionalization, but also because of disenchantment about the landscape and priorities of contemporary scholarship, and because of having too much exposure (on my own part but also over years as an observer) to the angst, stress, competition, and grueling effort that goes into doing a Ph.D. I have a hard time imagining taking the line “do it if you think it will be fun.” I certainly don't think someone “falls short” if they don't end up in a TT job, but I can't really see why someone whose primary aim is *not* a TT job would want to do a Ph.D. (at least, as presently constituted).


  7. Rohan — Aha! Part 4 is part of the problem. I would say, first, that many of us professors are NO GOOD at even mentoring aspiring profs into that job. The enculturation is passive. Second, we need to work much more closely with career services people to figure out what and how to do professionalization beyond the academic culture. For myself, I think the PhD needs to remain a research-focused degree, much the same as it has always been (but with better supervision and better mentoring of students). However, I think that a lot of what we do in grad school is already relevant to the outside world, and also that many of us pass up a lot of opportunities to gain experiences that would be relevant. And we certainly don't know how to frame these experiences to make sense to non-academic employers.

    On the more fundamental issue of whether the PhD is a rewarding experience? This is exactly the kind of question we need to ask. I think it's the competitive-apprenticeship model that makes it so awful. I did my PhD in pleasant circumstances, with decent funding, over five and a bit years or largely enjoyable work. If others labour under different circumstances, we need to query the circumstances. It's absolutely NOT worth doing if its 4+ years of misery. I could not agree more.


  8. That was my attitude throughout my PhD and it definitely is the most sensible advice I've seen in a long time. The only thing I didn't do was start a family – which wouldn't have worked out for other life reasons, but which, at 38 weeks pregnant in my late 30s, I often regret!

    The only thing I would add is to treat your PhD like a job in other ways, too. Only work 9-5 (or 8-4 or whatever suits) and when you go home (or out of your office or away from your desk), leave your work behind. Don't work evenings or weekends except for the occasional 'overtime' (which happens in any job) – marking season, etc. You will avoid burn-out, you will be more efficient, you will be able to have a life, and, based on the people I saw around me in my PhD, you will finish more quickly than those who see their PhD as their 'life'.

    Thanks for this: I've already emailed the link to anyone I advised to go to grad school over the years.



  9. Aimee said:
    I did my PhD in pleasant circumstances, with decent funding, over five and a bit years or largely enjoyable work. If others labour under different circumstances, we need to query the circumstances. It's absolutely NOT worth doing if its 4+ years of misery. I could not agree more.

    I agree with this, both on the personal (and I know how lucky I am) and more general level.

    One thing I want to add is that “professionalization” need not be the kind of painful process done only for the sake of the future that it appears to be in Rohan's comment. Participating in conferences etc, building professional community, is *part of the job* of a PhD, not just apprentice preparation for future employment. I think I've been as professionally active as I have in part *because* I've thought of my PhD as my job. I entered not hoping for a TT job so much as for certain experiences (to teach, to publish and have my work taught, to meet people, to participate in certain interdisciplinary conversations); I've achieved all of those goals during my PhD. Admittedly, this is probably easier to carry out within the digital humanities/digital media spheres that are working on developing new modes of scholarly communication, but it still feels worth saying. A TT job is absolutely my ambition now––I love this work and I want to do more of it––and I'm doing all I can to work toward it, but if it doesn't happen, those achievements aren't going away.

    I know I've been lucky in a variety of ways, from my funding to my fields' tendencies to welcome new scholars and take their work seriously. But if I get a position where I will be advising PhD students in the future, I will encourage them to find ways to do any and all of the professional academic activities *for their own sake* as well as in a way that might be worthwhile for more than one possible future. One of my committee members often talks about the PhD as a “fundamentally selfish endeavour,” ie a time when you pursue your own intellectual interests for their own sake; I (and she) would add to that by saying that a PhD may also be something people engage in for the sake of an intellectual and political commitment beyond themselves, and publishing and going to conferences can be part of that commitment (or that selfishness) too.


  10. this is what my Ph.D is turning out to be, thanks to SSHRC funding and the mad coursework rush of first year being completed. and even as a nearly-forty-year-old embarking with family & financial responsibilities, it's working out quite nicely: for where i live, my renumeration is reasonable, and i've never before had such time for research or writing (and never will again, likely.) it's rewarding because of how i get to spend my days.

    so as ethical advice, i think yours is solid…though had i followed it to the letter i wouldn't be here. i'm in a tiny program that had very little funding to offer, and chose it largely on the basis of location, because uprooting my family to study was more daunting than taking the financial risk. for those of us who aren't what cn calls a “certain type of student,” i think the risk is unavoidable. and like cn, i'm penalized what limited support i got from inside my program by the fact that i now have external funding. still, worth it for these few years, for me.

    however, the challenge is trying to find ways to scaffold what i'm doing now into something that will NOT require a huge stability/income when i finish. like Alexis, i'm able to build professional opportunities because of my field of study, and i enjoy the writing and the conferencing and publishing that come with the Ph.D and am making the most i can out of them. still, the chance of a solid TT job becoming available where i am? slim. which is perhaps an argument against taking the path even when the short-term financials DO pay like a job, unless one wants to continue living with the kind of flexibility/contingency more associated with students than professionals.


  11. What a great post Aimee, and what excellent commentary!

    I'll add my voice to those who say that they did treat their PhD as a job. That was advice given to my by my mentors, and it was advice that got me through.

    I too loved the professionalizing part of the job even when I hated it. In other words, even when I was feeling inundated, or provoked, or just not good enough, there was always a part of me that worked to remember that professionalization is training. I'd rather be trained in the early days than be playing catch-up later.

    Finally, my (still very important) mentor reminded me early on that hardly anyone loves any job all of the time. That is *still* a really important point for me to remember. Sometimes all jobs stink. But not all the time (unless they do always stink. Then it may be time to change the job or change your job…)


  12. THANK YOU. Im currently completing a MA in NZ, with the intention of going on to do a PhD in the States, and people have been telling me a) Dont do a PhD unless you ONLY want an academic career at the end of it, and b) there are hardly any academic careers out there, so Im screwed.
    But I want to do a PhD because I am passionate about what I study, I feel fulfilled through research, and it excites me. Right now, I treat my MA like a job. I support both my husband (also a student) and I on a teeny wedge of scholarship money, and try to save a bit too, and it works. Yeah, sometimes at the end of the month the cupboard is looking a bit bare, but we manage, I enjoy what Im doing, and we have little debt. Living like this has (I think) taught me many lessons in frugality for the future and Im grateful for that.
    I am not naive enough to assume that I will become a professor after my PhD, but I do think I will grow during the degree, and that there are other careers that I will be prepared for afterwards. Thank you for pointing out that a PhD is not a “waste” if you treat it like a first job…that really puts it into perspective.


  13. We're having a vigorous conversation/debate about funding over on my Facebook wall. Brooklin Schneider informs me that your institution is generous with funding, and gives you more if you get a grant. That sounds lovely. Mine is not generous. Almost all of our funding is tied to teaching (which, admittedly, we do get paid reasonably well to do as far as TAships go), we don't get tuition wavers, our funding gets clawed back if we get grants, and the cost of living in Toronto is obviously high. The only reason I'm in reasonably decent financial circumstances is that a) I lived at home for my undergrad and graduated from a B.A., B.Ed., and M.A. debt free, b) I'm frugal, and c) I've got other sources of funding (grants, stipends, research assistantships) from outside of my institution. Your advice to do a PhD only if you can live on your stipend would mean that no one should ever do a PhD at my institution, or in my city. I don't disagree that people shouldn't go into debt, but considering that I worked part-time to fund my other degrees, I'm okay with doing the same now in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Doesn't mean I don't wish things were different, though.

    I also think we need to maintain a distinction between treating the PhD like a job and actually taking it on as a job. I think of the PhD as my job because that state of mind is useful to me. It keeps me from getting invested to a degree that is damaging to my work-life balance and to my sense of identity, because let's face it, it's going to be much harder to give this up if I've convinced myself that being an academic is who I am, rather than what I do. That doesn't mean that I don't want the TT job, or that I'm not working hard to put myself in the running for one. Quite the opposite, but thinking of it as my job will (I hope) make moving on, should I need to do so, less awful.


  14. Bonnie Joy — Hooray! I'm glad this post helps you articulate a way into grad school, on terms that work for you!

    Melissa — ha! Brooklin took a class with me. A long time ago, god, I was hugely pregnant and teaching The Handmaid's Tale. Good times! Perhaps we will someday be able to pressure some of these less generous schools to do better. When I was offered admission to U of T, they told me that if I had got any funding, I'd find out after I started the program. That's the apprenticeship model thinking right there. As if it doesn't matter whether or what the funding package is! Yikes!

    And I totally agree about thinking of the PhD as a job rather than an identity is essential, for all the reasons you note. Man, there's a whole other post in there, too, and it's gonna involve me saying that I usually only work 35-37 hours a week (so I agree with you, too, Kathy!!)


  15. Thanks for this post, Aimée. When my undergraduate students ask me about grad studies, especially studying abroad, I give them two main pieces of advice. First, do not study overseas unless you are funded, because it can be an incredible experience but fees for foreign students are utterly prohibitive. Second, before each major new step, think carefully about why you want the graduate degree, what your options might be when you finish, and how it fits in with who you are. We've had good conversations about their goals and hopes, etc.


  16. I always looked at my Ph.D. as a job. I completed my B.A. in 1993, during a recession, so most of my peers were working at call centres, and the funding I got for grad school was close to what I could realistically expect to make as a newly minted B.A. with a degree in English. I received plenty of warnings about the tight job market for Ph.D.s, and my decision to pursue the degree was based in part on the fact that I found it, as you described, to be a pretty good job – I was very happy during my five years of Ph.D. study. Being on the job market was miserable, but writing the thesis was not.

    What affected me most negatively was the culture you describe, where there are two possible outcomes to Ph.D. study: (1) a tenure-track job, and (2) failure. Ironically, I think this opposition was heightened by all the talk about the rigours of the job market. All that did was reinforce the sense that as elite students pursuing elite jobs, we measure our success (and that of our peers) by that benchmark. If tenure-track jobs were easier to find, I think grad students would more readily grasp that some people might actively prefer other options.


  17. A very provocative post, Aimee! You raise really important ethical issues about the implications of continuing to admit students to doctoral programs when there are so few tenure-track positions, now and in the foreseeable future, and you provide helpful guidelines for how to manage that situation ethically. But your analysis largely focuses on the interpersonal: how we advise prospective students, how we mentor them, how they individually manage their careers, etc. This is all really important stuff, and your proposals are clearheaded and enabling.

    But I think there is a larger societal issue that also raises ethical questions. That is the fact that the PhD is heavily subsidized, by taxpayers but also by departments and universities. Here’s one small example of how the degree is subsidized: in my university (as in most, I expect) graduate student teaching assistants/instructors are paid significantly more than contract instructors (most of whom, at my university, already hold PhDs) at least during the first four years of the doctoral program. This is because their remuneration is part salary, part award.

    That is as it should be. As you point out, Aimee, and as many of the commenters have pointed out, universities have an obligation to the graduate students they admit and especially to doctoral students. But there are consequences. Paying graduate student teachers more means fewer course sections overall. That, in turn, means larger class sizes. Paying more to graduate student teachers also means there is less money for other things (telephones, letterhead, visiting speakers, support for conferences, support for undergraduate student initiatives, etc., etc.).

    This is just one very small example, and I want to be clear that I am not arguing against any of your fine and enabling proposals, Aimee.

    But I do worry about what it means to continue to put enormous social and institutional resources into doctoral programs at a time when undergraduate tuition continues to skyrocket, students from less advantaged backgrounds are finding it harder to afford an undergraduate degree, programs are being cut, support staff are being laid off, etc., etc. And these consequences don’t even begin to address the ongoing starvation of social programs in our communities. And I worry that we continue to pour money into doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences — and we continue to rejig the ratio of undergraduate to graduate students — NOT because our Presidents and Vice-Presidents, our Boards of Governors, and our governments believe that the PhD is a fulfilling five years in an individual's life, or that our communities benefit (intellectually, financially, ethically) from more PhDs, but mostly in order to climb higher in external rankings.

    I guess what I’m saying is: Aimee’s proposals provide a helpful way of handling the current situation, and like the other commenters I am grateful for them, but I also see them as interim strategies.


  18. I really don't view the higher education system any differently than I do athletics. We all start out in gym class, a select few play in college, only a few go pro. Just because you are a graduate student does not mean you would make a capable professor. Honestly, just because you are a graduate student does not mean you are a GOOD graduate student. Maybe you bring nothing new to a subject. Maybe you have bad taste in research subject matter. Maybe your writing needs work. Maybe you do not have the discipline to churn out the pages. Maybe you are too scared to take a risk.

    Also, no one said that your life as a grad student needs to be this enjoyable, fulfilling experience. You are poor, you are criticized, you are underpaid… but it isn't the army and it isn't prison. You can leave anytime you like. Lots of people do. The author is right in that you will get the most out of graduate school if you view it as professional training. You are learning to research, write, teach, give conference papers, and sit on committees. You get to do these things as a professor too so get used to them. If you don't like the alpaca, you aren't going to like the llama.

    No one is entitled to a career of their choosing. Sure, it's nice if you want to be a pharmacist or orthodontist or something else that pays well and is in demand, but no one is making you be the world's expert on Faust and just because you know a lot about Faust, you don't automatically get a job based on that.

    I'm currently finishing up a PhD. There are about a dozen tenure-track jobs for which I am qualified. Yes, there is a huge glut of people on the market with beefier CVs, but I'm applying and I'll see what happens. I didn't want to get a PhD only to be a professor. I wanted a PhD to be the person I would be after the process. The writers and thinkers I most admire all went through the same process. If I end up greeting people in Wal-Mart, well, at least I'll use proper diction. On the plus side, my intellectual training in the humanities has made me more creative than leaving myself only the choices of tenure track professorship or greeter at Wal-Mart. I'll find something that I will find rewarding. There's seven billion people on the planet; I'll make a connection somewhere.


  19. Kathryn, that's excellent advice: to really ask people to articulate where they're going is essential. I've had more than one senior undergrad come ask for a letter for grad school because 'I missed the deadline for the LSAT, so …'

    Bea, that culture is HUGELY disempowering, isn't it? That you can create a life for yourself that is satisfying and balanced, and have that construed as a failure? I've actually heard a professor say, at a conference, to a roomful of graduate students 'if you don't want to become a prof, don't tell me, because I won't supervise you — you don't count for anything to me professionally unless you become a professor.'

    ARM, the bit about the alpacas and the llamas made me snort. You've written a highly readable, very lively, much more fun version of what I was trying to get across. And oh yes, your intellectual training in the humanities means you have choices. I'm glad you've chosen to exercise your hilarious rage-y diction here!


  20. And Joanne, your detailed and humongous comment deserves a response of its own: you're absolutely right about the structural nature of the problem, and the structural nature of the problems that result from our increasing emphasis on grad education over undergrad. I personally think it's shameful.

    For me, right now, I can try to hold the system to account, but it moves pretty slowly. My more immediate concern is harm reduction, and hence the interpersonal emphasis in this post: I want to save whatever individual potential and current graduate students from being run over by the tank of graduate education, because it's easier to do that than get the tank to turn around.

    But more on that later …


  21. Jo-Ann is right to mention that there are all kinds of related issues here. We just upended our undergraduate curriculum in order to “protect graduate student funding.” Whether that should be our priority was never really on the table–and no wonder, as it's a very hard thing to bring up with the students who depend on that funding sitting AT the table. Graduate supervision is also a major workload issue: that many people find it stimulating does not mean it doesn't have costs.


  22. What a wonderful post and commentary. Thank you, Aimee, for taking the time to address this issue. I completed a PhD in the humanities and have since moved into the corporate world. From this vantage point, I would just like to add that Part Three still feels somewhat overly optimistic.

    A graduate with a PhD in the humanities typically takes 8-10 years (at least in the U.S.), not 5-6. That puts the average graduate in their very late twenties or early thirties, a very difficult age to be striking out into a new role “in the real world.” (It can be challenging to one's ego to work alongside the 22 year old you were teaching last semester and be treated and paid as their equal…) Also, outside the university, “short-term” typically means 1.5-3 years, averaging in around 2. Anything more, and it will become more difficult to convince employers that you weren't fully invested in the pursuit of a TT role (the subtext being, you're applying for their job because you couldn't get the one you really wanted.)

    The other thing I've always noticed about these discussions is that they are firmly rooted in the academic frame of mind. A critical component of the discussion is how the world outside of academe views the academic, whether ABD or PhD. And while I would agree that one acquires excellent skills that are fully transferable, the graduate's ability to demonstrate those skills in both communications and interpersonal capabilities is typically lacking. In fact, academic training can actually be counterproductive to developing strong working relationships in the corporate world, for example.

    In any case, I want to thank you again for addressing this topic. It is something I have felt strongly about for some time now. I recently began my own blog with the express intent of advising graduate students on ways to make the transition out of academe. I know that there are those who will take strong opposition to my efforts, but I truly believe the academic system is doing a terrible disservice to graduate students–no matter whether they “choose” to stay or leave.
    The How-To Guide for Recovering Academics


  23. Michelle — thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, and for the link to your own blog!

    First, the difference between the Canadian and the American systems is VAST. I think in the US the crisis is much worse, both because of the funding / tuition structure, and the truly outrageous time-to-completion stats. Why does it take so long in the US? I honestly ask, because I have no idea. Is it because you mostly don't do a separate MA first? 8-10 years in Canada would be very unusual–not unheard of, but definitely not the norm.

    Second, it's very true that there's either something about people who take a PhD or something about the program itself that sometimes renders candidates incapable of functioning outside the academy: this is a very, very bad thing, and it's something I'm trying to think of ways to alleviate. Ideas?


  24. Something sort of turns in my stomach when I read and hear so much about tenured professors talking to their MA and potential PhD students about the complications of the PhD program, but without the same consideration coming from the institution as a whole.

    If we are going to take on the PhD as a 5-year job, then the compensation structure for this job needs to change. Obviously all institutions are different and so handle compensation, tuition, and scholarships differently. If a University funds PhD candidates on an apprenticeship paradigm, however, then shouldn't they have the opportunities of an apprentice?

    I'm all for pragmatism and having honest conversations between tenured professors and PhD candidates about the job prospects. This is helping the situation and the people in it, but even if both faculty and PhD student have reconfigured their roles to reflect the reality of the job market, the University hasn't, which to me feels like exploitation.


  25. CPW — well, in some ways, we tenured profs ARE the University, and so responsibility falls with us. But in other ways, the university is somehow more than the simple sum of its faculty/personnel and also servant to a bunch of other masters: public opinion, external funders of research, government agencies, accrediting bodies, and popular rankings systems like US News and World Report, MacLeans, the Globe and Mail and number of other rankers.

    So we might say that the question of grad studies is about: external rankings, grant money, government money, donor money, research capacity, student training. Pretty much all of these fields benefit from MORE graduate students: more grads means higher rankings, more grant money, higher prestige and thus more donor money, more research capacity because of the teaching and RA work that grads do. What's the fail? There's nothing academic for these students once they graduate.

    So the whole system tilts towards MORE graduate students. The only way I can see right now to make a dent in the personal tragedies that result is to take it one on one, between me and the students.

    I can try to change how external rankings are done, how much universities count their own self-worth in terms of graduate student acquired and deployed to support funded research, how much funded research is based on having grad students around to do RA work and demonstrate that you're a 'real' research department, how much government operating money disproportionately favours graduate over undergraduate enrolment.

    I'll try. But that's a lot of changing on a lot of fronts. It's important work, but I'm not going to wait until pigs fly to help grad students and potential grad students know how the game works … and decide whether they want to play it.

    Right now,


  26. I agree with this post on most, if not all points. I deliberately chose not to apply to American or British Schools because I would not receive funding unless I started my applications extremely early, and applied for additional grants(which are notoriously hard to receive). Even with the pittance of funding that those grants or scholarships could provide, it would not be enough to live on, in England especially. I decided that, despite the prestige, I could receive an equally excellent education at a Canadian University while also receiving funding. Treating the PhD like a job is also important for other reasons: as a lesbian who is getting married to her same-sex partner and planning on starting a family, I wanted to stay in a country where my rights will be respected, and where I cannot be so easily discriminated against (the laws differ from state to state in the U.S.). And some of the universities to which I have applied (in fact 2/3 of my preferred schools) have parental leave plans for Graduate Students, and one has a good day care. These are all important factors that have gone into my decisions about where to apply, and will ultimately effect what offer I accept.

    I think that there is too much of an emphasis on 'breaking' potential graduate students rather than simply 'opening their eyes'. Graduate officers especially should let us know about the job market and the negative realities; however, perhaps we could incorporate advice about other job opportunities aside from tenure-track positions, or even other strictly university teaching positions. There will always be students who want to earn a PhD for themselves, but know (like I do) that tenure track positions are hard to find. So why not open up the discussion about alternate careers we would be qualified for with an advanced degree in the humanities (since people with degrees in science and technology have been transitioning into private sector more easily for decades now). There is no shame in deciding to teach at a college, or a private school, etc . . . And instead of refusing to talk about it, or framing it as a failure, perhaps we do need to discuss these other, more realistic, options more openly.


  27. Late to the party but wanted to chime in in support of the general propositon and also comment on some of Rohan's very pertinent concerns.

    Publishing: yes. Because the work being done for the phd deserves a wider audience, if it is a contribution to knowledge it has to be made. No one reads a dissertation that doesn't have to ( or that should be the working assumption). If the student is definitely not going on to an academic career it might be a good idea to consider joint publication with the supervisor (probably not a book but an article or two)

    Other professional development: I agree with Aimee that this should not just be the role of the department. Work with careers services. Bring in alumni currently employed in other types of jobs. Be creative.


  28. @Jove: re: being more creative about professional development. I completely agree. My housemate and I were just talking about that last night. One of the mistakes certain graduate departments make is to include a lecture on professional development for their research methods, or professionalization courses, but then to only have a professor from the department give career advice. The lecturer is not necessarily qualified to give adequate advice beyond scaring the students and making value judgments about failure vs success. It would be better for everyone if they included people from career services, or had alumni employed in other areas come into give guest talks. Love the suggestions, let's hope people start implementing them lol


  29. S.B Orphee

    Exactly right about alumni. There are many humanities PhDs out there who attribute their success in other careers to the research and communication skills they learned as PhD students. Bring them in and give people some perspective (what did the alum have to do to wind up in jobs where these skills were relevant?) and reasons for optimism, in case academic dreams don't pan out (or whatever). Stop counting such people as doing work “unconnected with their training”. (Is that how we count people with engineering degrees who wind up working as managers?) Share some statistics about where people with PhDs end up, if not in universities.

    Hey, that other sort of doctor has to get informed consent before doing anything radical to a person. We academics should, too, before we set to work on their brains. And all the information ain't gloomy.


  30. @Aimee, a little late but I do want to respond to your questions!

    It is nice to hear that the Canadian system is much more civilized. Though that seems to be a common theme in comparisons between the two countries…

    I'm not sure why it takes so long here. I don't think it has to do with the MA (not all programs wrap them up in the PhD program). I think it would be interesting to examine time-to-completion rates of universities in major (read: expensive) cities vs. smaller towns or cities with a lower cost of living. For me at least, it was sheer poverty and exhaustion. I taught more courses as the instructor of record than some of the actual faculty. And I think we can all appreciate how hard it is to make progress on research when teaching a full load. And when not teaching, I would spend half my time looking for funding or ways to pay my rent. That takes up a lot of mental energy. There's just not that much left over for complex thinking.

    As for training that will ready the candidate for working outside academe, I think one could devote an entire course to it. I would recommend including many of the same types of training corporations use for their high potentials. This would provide early acclimation. It might even make a candidate seem more viable in a job interview….


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