Job Preparation and Placement:
Academic, Alternative-Academic, and Non-Academic Careers
As the Faculty Fellow for the Office of Graduate Studies, I am starting a new blog this semester meant to serve as a forum to share ideas about graduate student mentorship and job placement at KU. My position was created as part of the Provost’s Bold Aspirations Goal 2: Elevating Doctoral Education. I have picked four topics to cover this semester, and for each topic, I will look at the issue both nationally and at KU. I am also going to do my best to be as inclusive as I can, talking to people in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. One of my main goals is to try to make further connections between faculty and departments and the Office of Graduate Studies, and to look for ways that Graduate Studies can provide further support for faculty and departments.
For this first post, I traveled to Chicago at the beginning of January (on the tail end of the polar vortex) to attend the Modern Language Association Convention, the largest conference in my field (French Studies), bringing together as many as 10,000 people in English and modern foreign languages. Many colleges and universities conduct job interviews during the convention, either in hotel rooms or in a huge ballroom that has been set up with tables and chairs. I am glad that in my own experience, I never had to have one of these “holding pit” interviews. Still, it’s a fairly awkward experience to have an interview with several faculty members in a hotel room, sometimes with people sitting on beds.
I spent my time talking to graduate students who were there to interview for jobs and attended sessions that focused on topics such as job preparation and job placement, the crisis of humanities doctoral education, reform movements, and alternative-academic (so-called “alt-ac”) careers. I attended a session where recruiters from the national intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.) and the State Department talked about government career possibilities for those with experience and fluency with other languages. Russell Berman, from Stanford and who spoke at the Hall Center last year, is chairing the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature and organized an engaging session, “Reforming the Literature PhD,” where the primary issues afflicting humanities graduate education were addressed. These serious challenges include:
1. Far fewer tenure-track jobs than there are PhDs (this is also true for other disciplines)
2. Deplorable working conditions for adjunct faculty
3. Time-to-degree for humanities PhDs is too long, currently at more than 9 years nationally
4. Graduate programs need to adapt and change, while still maintaining a commitment to humanities scholarship
This session was followed by another equally stimulating discussion, “Graduate Student Perspectives on Reforming Doctoral Study.” One of the presenters for this session, Gregory Brennen from Duke University, has recently completed a study based on a national survey examining how graduate students feel about a number of issues (a summary of the findings is available at humanitiesphd.org).
One telling statistic is that, of respondents surveyed, 83% said that they started out in their PhD programs intending to become professors. That represents a tremendous discrepancy between expectations and outcomes, as nationally about 50% of humanities graduate students drop out before completing the degree -- and for those who make it to the end, about 50% of them will find jobs in the professoriate.
In these and other sessions, there is not only a real sense of crisis (after all, “crisis in the humanities” and “crisis in graduate education” have become veritable cottage industries, producing an endless stream of books and making it onto the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, as well as a huge on-line presence, from Slate to the blogosphere), but also a heightened understanding of the ethical considerations involved. Despite disagreements, I listened to people who were dedicating tremendous creativity and thought toward trying to improve a currently untenable situation. There are a variety of views about these issues and some rather pronounced disagreement. Those proposing reforms suggest such measures as radically shortening the time it takes to earn a PhD in the humanities, proposing alternatives to the traditional dissertation, creating new training possibilities for those going into alt-ac, including internships, and better tracking of what graduate students go on to do once they have completed their degree. It was at least heartening to see so many bright people working for possible solutions and refusing to accept the status quo.
The hardest part of the convention, and the main reason why I typically tend to avoid it, is the stress and anxiety of those trying to find jobs. When you enter the conference hotels, it is palpable. I talked with several graduate students and recent graduates who were in Chicago to interview for jobs. They did their best to remain positive and confident, but frustration and even despair were evident. There is such a tremendous gap between the number of jobs available and the number of highly qualified people who want those jobs. As we make decisions about our graduate programs, we need to keep these people front and center in our minds. One issue that was highlighted repeatedly at the conference is tracking: programs and universities need to do a better job of consistently tracking what happens to their graduates and share that information with new students. Another takeaway from this conference is that, in the humanities, we need to collaborate more and train our students not only to do individual research, but also provide them with more experiences that involve teamwork and collaboration, skills that are essential and highly valued in a variety of professions.
What do you think about possible reforms to doctoral education? What suggestions do you have? The problems I saw while at the MLA convention are not limited to language departments. Each department is different, but there are also many commonalities. In my next blog, I will be dealing with the same topic, but turning to KU and specifically the School of Pharmacy, in order to gain some insights into the various strategies they have used in order to help their graduate students find jobs.
Associate Professor, Department of French & Italian
Faculty Fellow, Office of Graduate Studies
If you have questions or comments, but prefer not to leave a public comment on my blog, please feel free to e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org