Bleak Career Prospects for New PhDs
When talking about publicly funded universities, governments in Ontario and elsewhere hope to garner public support by proclaiming that their education policies have led to increased graduate student enrollment. But for the expanding multitude of students wishing to get jobs upon graduation, and particularly for those who wish to pursue an academic career, the number of available full-time positions is stagnant or showing only modest growth. The situation is especially dire for recent PhD graduates in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Increasingly, graduate students and new PhDs are making use of social media to express their views, share resources, and build a sense of community inside and outside of academe. However, all it takes is a brief glance at the ongoing conversation for one to see how the situation that is currently unfolding should not only raise the alarm for the future of higher education but also set in motion much needed change, if any hope in a sustainable future is to be preserved.
New Scholars Seeking Jobs: Frustration and Demoralization
The Modern Language Association’s annual meeting—the largest gathering for academics working in language studies and for new PhD graduates seeking out interviews by hiring committees—will take place January 5-8, 2012 in Seattle. Stanley Fish recently drew attention to MLA panel discussions on the fate of the profession and a timely new focus on theorizing the digital humanities. While Fish’s withering satire provides a tableau vivant of conference panelists mumbling about the decay and looming death of the university, he has keenly detected what is promising about this year’s conference.
The digital humanities indeed appear to have imbued new life into MLA 2012. First there was the Open Letter issued by John Casey to the Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, about the exploitation and dysfunction associated with university hiring practices of adjunct faculty. Casey, who confronts elitism head on, states, “I am unable to obtain a tenure track job but I am not a loser,” and argues that the continued neglect of inequitable academic hiring practices will lead to the steady decline of academe and the eventual “destruction of higher education.”
In one response to the Open Letter, Lee Bessette suggests that Casey’s arguments, notably made without the protection of tenure, “are true because they remain unrefuted or so painful to face that we are shamed into silence.” Bessette offers a list of practical reforms that includes, for instance, providing more resources for contingent faculty to advance their academic careers, whether through accessing research and teaching fellowships, gaining organizational experience, or being supported to pursue alternative academic work.
Then there was a Twitter feed called OccupyMLA that received considerable notice in November and December. The self-labeled group of “disaffected preparing to dialogue about reform at #MLA12” decided to cancel a physical occupation at the annual meeting, but not without first expressing a range of grievances on behalf of adjunct faculty.
In addition to the dehumanizing effects of academe increasingly articulated by adjunct and part-time faculty, Lee Bessette also considered how academic freedom is impacted by the reduction in numbers of tenured or tenure-track faculty to approximately one quarter of the individuals working and teaching at universities. These faculty members “are outnumbered by administrators, who have the time and resources to create and implement policy, while faculty are increasingly over-worked and unable to advocate effectively and create changes in their own institutions.”
Earlier in November, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) subcommittee on contingent faculty released preliminary recommendations calling for voting privileges and leadership positions to be granted to all academic employees who do the work of tenured or tenure-track professors, including graduate teaching assistants. Debate ensued that pitted the desire for “vigorous democratic participation” within universities against the perceived “normalizing” of the institutional dependence on contingent employees.
The changes demanded by OccupyMLA and other online movements such as New Faculty Majority and Adjunct Nation seem to suggest that part-time and adjunct faculty are beginning to view themselves as members of a community, rather than as isolated individuals. They are beginning to express critical viewpoints (based on first-hand knowledge) of what is lacking in the system rather than internalizing a profound sense of personal lack.
The casualization of academic labour is a distressing situation. Unfortunately for graduate students aspiring to an academic career, too many universities persist in proffering an “It Gets Better” line.
Graduate Students: Isolation and Despair
The reality is that today, perhaps more than ever before, unwavering dedication to academe is required from those students who wish to be one of the mere 40% who end up with some kind of academic job.
For those who become adjuncts along with other 60% of students who never graduate or who graduate into the non-academic workforce, the “definition of success” that more often than not continues to be promoted by their academic mentors focuses on the tenure-track appointment. Faculty provide advice to students based on their own experiences (and struggles) as university appointed researchers, perhaps without realizing the many ways they are marginalizing those students who both enjoy intellectual engagement and are open and flexible to other kinds of job opportunities—including, but also extending beyond, the academic profession. With support, these students—many of whom will go on to assume roles in public policy, government, publishing, journalism, and other fields—could become the university’s best ambassadors and society’s greatest public intellectuals. Instead, they leave the institution feeling like they are traitors or failures, or, at best, that their intellect and passion for learning were diminished.
For those graduate students who realize despite what they may be told that academic appointments are few and far between, The Versatile PhD and SellOutYourSoul.com offer career and professional development advice for transitioning into non-academic fields. The latter website notes that many people find the site using the search phrase: “PhD in English Useless Destroyed My Life.”
Some students feel they cannot disclose to faculty supervisors their intent to leave academe when they are still active graduate students, while many academic departments provide little in-program support. Are university administration and faculty attuned to the pervasive climate of isolation and despair being articulated by recent grads?
A powerful poetic manifesto by an anonymous recent PhD grad explains why s/he has decided to leave academe: “Because I am prevented from doing the work that I was trained and prepared to do…” Universities are increasingly loosing the best and brightest graduates to other fields.
Melonie Fullick’s insightful post discusses grad student burn-out and several systemic elements that contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues—which appear to be growing among students, both graduate and undergraduate. In a climate of increasing competition for faculty supervision and funding, she asks, “why is no one discussing it?”
Kathryn Allan, a PhD grad now working as an independent scholar, describes how students’ self-confidence in graduate school can falter when they experience isolation, and it becomes difficult to share work with others or even to appreciate one’s own small successes.
For years, universities have known about the need to reform graduate education and hiring practices. But what has actually been done to improve the graduate experience and job market for new PhDs?
Very little research is being undertaken into why and how graduate educational experiences and their aftermath are doing a disservice to so many bright and ambitious students.
But there is hope in the prospect that, finally, people’s stories are making their way into public discourse. There is hope in the acts that bring to light the narratives of despair—acts which reject what Melonie Fullick calls the “thickly oppressive silence” surrounding mental health issues in academe.
There is hope in the narratives of satisfaction expressed by those who have “escaped the ivory tower” and found a welcoming home in another field.
And there is also hope in heeding those who have been inside academia, have left, and are willing to advise universities on how to support students in positive ways.
MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal has previously stated, “It breaks my heart to see people with life passions for the study of language and literature have to struggle so much to find a position that allows them a living wage.”
One of Feal’s practical suggestions is to better prepare students for teaching roles, rather than research positions. For example, as suggested by Sidonie Smith, this might mean faculty support for innovative student dissertations that involve collaborative work, public education and scholarship, or the creation of digital projects to engage students.
In response to unemployment and underemployment of new PhDs, few academics would deny that broad systemic changes are required. But where is the leadership for reform going to come from?
It is doubtful that university administrators will provide funds for new hires if student interest in specific subject areas, such as Religious Studies, cannot be sustained. As neoliberal values continue to infiltrate higher education, faculty are under pressure to prove there is “consumer demand for their services.”
Conscientious faculty, such as Christopher Newfield, continue to believe in the non-commodified values (e.g., “human development”) inherent in teaching and learning, whereby people become thoughtful decision-makers with self-determining capacities. However, in trying to articulate the public mission of the university and the role of a broad-based education , it increasingly appears that these faculty have been abandoned by university administrators.
How realistic is it to expect non-tenured faculty, new faculty, and graduate students (some of whom carry the baggage of years of frustration and despair) to be the ones responsible for promoting the joy and pleasure associated with critical thinking and scholarship in undergraduate classes?
The Role of Public Outreach
Established scholars and teachers need to celebrate cultural diversity and the diversification of research interests (rather than retreat into a narrow specialization) with an eye to engaging a broader public. Public support for university education in general and liberal arts education in particular is no longer an option, but a necessity.
It appears faculty are increasingly left to their own devices in order to engage the public interest on matters of higher education. Fortunately, the ways through which this can be done have proliferated through the use of digital media, both inside and outside of classrooms.
As the Twitter debate sparked by OccupyMLA recently suggested, small individual contributions have the potential to produce resounding collective energy, or at least enough to engage academic and university leadership in these conversations.
While undoubtedly, as Tamson Pietsch has suggested, “universities need to get better at telling their stories,” they also need to get better at asking themselves, What kind of stories can we legitimately tell (given things as they are)? Perhaps more importantly, What kind of stories do we want to be able to tell?
While everyone seems willing to relinquish the romantic ideals (and patriarchal privilege) that once imbued academic life, surely we need not first take the plunge into a much prophesied gothic nightmare before carefully considering and instituting much needed reforms.