Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Expectations, meet reality.

A powerful essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education traces the evolution of the career expectations engendered by studying at an R1 institution, trained by faculty who themselves come from R1 and elite institutions, and the dangers of having no career development training in the meantime. Most doctoral students are exposed only to that research intensive setting and their primary models are faculty who have experienced only that research intensive setting.

"Virtually all graduate students receive their Ph.D.'s from a research university. They get their first classroom experience there, and their dissertations are mainly guided by professors whose research occupies a prominent place in their work lives. We should hardly be surprised that dissertation advisers become the first role models for graduate students....
But most academic jobs aren't at research universities, and those other jobs look jarringly different to graduate students than the positions held by their role models."

So the die is cast - that's the culturally appropriate career path. The reality is that there are far fewer of these R1 positions available then there are new PhDs to fill them. There are of course many other models of higher education careers. Many doctoral students envision a life as a teaching-focused professor at a liberal arts college, perhaps like the one they attended as an undergraduate. But we don't learn how to pursue that and other options (community colleges, private high schools, industry, NGOs, etc.) while we're still in graduate school, largely because our mentors are incapable or unwilling to teach us about them (how many advisors do you know have talked their students out of applying for certain jobs because "they could do better"? I've seen it done, and have seen students just accept this as "wisdom." It gives me a pretty big sad.) We start applying for jobs with a model in mind and create heirarchies of acceptable positions, and many of us are caught blinking when we're left with a list of crossed-off job applications and no job. I've been called out by blog readers before as being a pessimist for pointing out that it's tough to make the transition from lecturer to tenure-track, but that really is the general reality. Why are we not discussing this WHILE we're still in school, before we hit the market and find out how hard the market hits back?

"It amounts to this: Graduate school is professional school, but most Ph.D programs badly neglect graduate students' professional development. We spend years of their training ignoring that development, and then, only at the last moment when students are about to hit the job market, do we attend to their immediate professional needs. By neglecting their career goals, we allow their desires to coalesce from their immediate surroundings—the research university—and to harden over time. We teach graduate students to want the kinds of jobs that most of them won't ever get."

A potential solution is to develop professional development seminars as integrated requirements for a doctoral degree. They exist in some places:

"For example, the University of Michigan's "Introduction to Graduate Studies" requires that beginning graduate students in English and modern languages interview a senior professor in the department, thereby offering a look upward at a role model's career. But the course also requires an outward-looking "Alternative Careers Workshop."

Graduate students in a seminar offered by the geography department at the University of Minnesota are visited by a series of professors who discuss not only conferences, research, and publishing but also the choice of a career path, as well as gender and class issues that occur in some workplaces and family circumstances that affect students' progress to the degree and often past it."

These programs sound like a great idea and I would have jumped at the chance to take a seminar like this when I was a student just as new faculty I go to workshops on grant writing, teaching, tenure, and publishing tips whenever I can. However, I think graduate students need to empower themselves now, rather than wait for their departments or advisors to initiate this kind of change. You should research job prospects in your discipline, even if you are years from entering the market. Talk to senior students and postdocs and find out what they've experienced - how many jobs have they applied for? Do they know how many people applied for each job? Were they open to lots of different kinds of jobs or were only R1 slots "acceptable", and why? How and why did they rank positions in a certain way? You should interview your advisors to get their take on hiring trends over the years. If you have an active graduate association, you could organize a series of symposia with alums who have landed tenure-track and other teaching and administrative positions to find out how they did it. Contact local community colleges to find out if they have faculty in your research area and ask to visit them, or invite them to speak to the grad students in your department.*

As I've said on this blog and as I myself seem to learn over and over again, grad school does feel like it takes forever and the dissertation feels like the end-all, be-all, but you just might be at this academic thing the rest of your life. It is how you hope to earn your living. Preparing for a full career, not just doing research, is essential to your well-being.

*Full disclosure: I didn't do any of this, but I really wish I had. But now that I have a PhD and a job, I've earned the right to tell you to do as I say, not as I do. Hurray!


  1. I agree that graduate training overemphasizes the big research university model over the small teaching-focused model. A number of years ago I participated in an AAPA career development panel to talk to graduate students about what different institutions were looking for. Panel members were selected to represent large research universities, private research foundations, museums, etc., along with a representative from the small undergraduate college (me). Everyone else stressed papers, grants, post-docs, etc. I told the students such things were fine, but the most important things to me were enthusiasm about teaching (rather than talking about the teaching 'load') and experience. Since then, my kids have grown and gone off to college, and I am even more adamant about a need to focus on teaching. Don't get me wrong - I do want my kid's faculty to be involved in research and scholarship but not if they are disinterested in teaching. And, after 30 years of teaching at an undergraduate institution, I can also state that you CAN do both.

  2. I agree whole heartedly with John here. I would say research is actually less than half of your real work load. Teaching has to come first for several reasons, first and foremost, the purpose of the university or college is to educate and it is the students who are paying our salaries. In job searches, my first questions to candidates are about teaching, what they've done or what the are prepared to do. Their teaching affects me and my colleagues each and every day. Their research is something interesting to talk about over lunch or beers. I don't care how stellar a candidates research record or how interesting their area is, if they can't teach a large introductory class and engage with students in smaller settings, I'm not interested in carrying them for years and years.