Posts Tagged ‘academic job market’


Who’s Responsible For Informing Grad Students About Their Career Prospects?

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic Life

If you’re planning on staying in academia, a sometimes-reliable source of good information is the Deans’ Weblog. If you’re planning on leaving, there is an occasional post there that might pertain to you. I’ve learned a lot from this blog, including how compassionate deans can be towards the plight of graduate students. But I was kind of agitated when I came across this post:

In bureaucratic and academic circles, HQP is the acronym for Highly Qualified People (or Personnel if you like). According to Statistics Canada, the definition of an HQP is a person with at least a bachelor’s degree from a university…

The employment record for PhD graduates is also mixed. Fewer than 50% of them will go on to academic jobs of any kind, never mind tenure track positions in research intensive universities, the position for which they are Highly Qualified… In summary, we are training people for careers that don’t have have anywhere near enough capacity to absorb the graduates at the same time as we are unable to attract and retain students for careers that are crying out for people.

As a society, it does not seem like we are doing a very good job of allocating our scarce development resources in a way that is going to get the right mix of HQP. I don’t know what the answer to this might be. But it is clear that we share responsibility with the students themselves. Somewhere, somehow, we have got to do a better job of teaching them how to do their own “due diligence” prior to starting down a path that is going to end with huge debt and poor prospects in their career of choice.

Well, yes and no. Faculty and administrators do need to do a better job of making it clear to prospective and current doctoral students what their job prospects in academia really are. And sure, it is up to students to make sure they have investigated their career options at some point on the way to getting a Ph.D.

But I kind of bristle at the idea that faculty have to teach students how to do that “due diligence,”as though the current problem was that students don’t know how to investigate their career options. To put it like that entirely misses the point by misplacing the burden onto students. The problem is not with the students–it’s with programs (faculty, administrators, institutional inertia) that do nothing but groom students for lives in academia, completely complicit in the fabrication that if you just work hard enough, you will get a tenure-track position.

The fact is, most faculty a) don’t, b) won’t and c) can’t teach students how to do their “due dilligence” regarding the students careers because they haven’t a clue themselves how transportable academic skills are to other industries. Many faculty are also heavily invested in building up their own field of work by grooming their proteges; it would not at all be worth their while to emphasize the difficulties of the academic job market with their students.


Alternate Angles

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I sometimes get mail from readers who are at the very beginning of their academic careers. They’re looking for advice about how they can situate their research to make themselves as employable as possible when they’re finished. This is, of course, a very smart and practical question — but makes the liberal arts lovers among us sigh a little bit. The thing is, these days, it’s the students with the greatest passion for the liberal arts who find themselves having to ask the question.

I recently heard from someone who is currently in a master’s program and is being groomed for a spot in the Ph.D. program. “I enjoy my classes,” he wrote, “and I’m thrilled by thinking about what I might do for a thesis project, but at the same time I feel a bit torn between pursuing my intellectual interests, and focusing on developing the skills I need for the ideal job I want.”

Testify! Now, this person did recognize that a thesis project and developing job skills don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, the problem is that once you are immersed in a doctoral program of research, your focus has absolutely nothing to do with your transferable skills; in fact, the higher up you climb on the academic ladder, the more you feel you don’t have any skills at all. The work, then, of convincing yourself that you’re not totally useless once you exit a Ph.D. program is exhausting and emotional. And re-packaging yourself and putting yourself onto the non-academic job market is just plain hard.

Young Academics

I see two solutions for the young academics who think they might want to pursue a Ph.D. program but also want to be realistic about their academic job prospects.

The first has to do with making the process of skills-building during graduate school a transparent one. This involves the kind of regular maintenance and upkeep that most scholars do with their academic CVs. As you move through the different steps of your graduate program — coursework, writing the dissertation proposal, serving on committees, teaching, and so on — keep track of the skills you used to get each of those things done. These are skills that may be invisible to you before doing this exercise, but are quite essential on the non-academic job market. Won a $5,000 scholarship? Mark that down under fund-raising and grant writing skills. Served for a year on the tenure and promotions committee? Tick the make-believe box next to administrative and teamwork skills. Taught an introductory course? Check, check and check for project planning skills, doing oral presentations/public speaking and conducting evaluations.

By keeping track not just of the outcomes of your academic success but the actual skills you used to produce those outcomes, you’re well on your way to combating the all-too-common feelings of simultaneous overqualification and underqualification that plague newly minted Ph.D.’s. Moreover, when you go to write your two-page employment résumé, your skills won’t be invisible to you. You’ll be just that much more prepared to speak fluently about what you did in school and what you can offer to prospective employers.

Anyone who wants to pursue a life of the mind and yet also feel confident about their employability at the end of the Ph.D. experience should make the job of tracking their skills a crucial and vital component of their time in graduate school. Any time you update your CV, update your skills inventory. Update it, too, whenever you jump over a fresh academic hurdle.

The second way to broach the quandary of wanting to conduct academic research and not be stuck jobless at the end of the academic road is by taking a more mercenary approach with your work. So far, I have not met a single former academic who was able to apply their research directly into a non-academic job. However, I have met lots of former academics who realized in retrospect how their research happened to intersect with their post-academic work.

But if I were going to go back and be really strategic about my research, this is what I would do. I would take time to think about an organization that I’d really love to work for. It could be an organization that uses research (like a non-profit or health care agency, for example), conducts research (like a corporation or think tank) or commissions research (like the federal government). I would try to develop contacts inside of that organization and do some information interviews. I would let them know what I loved about the organization and how I could see myself working there in a research capacity. And then I would ask them about what their needs were. I would find out about their problems, their stumbling blocks, the issues that they face. And then I would dedicate my research to solving their problem.

I would keep in touch with them over the years, through staff turnovers, office politics and, perhaps, through their own internal solving of their problems. I would accept the risk that my research itself may be outdated by the time I finish, or that the solution I had developed was not workable or consistent with their organizational culture.

But the point of the exercise — other than getting a Ph.D. — would be to demonstrate my deep knowledge of the organization, my commitment to the organization’s cause/mission, my strategic thinking skills, and my savvy at attempting to keep one foot in the academic camp and the other foot in the “real world.” At the end, even if the organization didn’t hire me, I’d still be able to display those attributes (knowledge, commitment, strategic thinking, savvy) to another employer who would value that kind of worker.

Those are two totally different approaches that young researchers could take if they’re concerned about life after the Ph.D. Are you a young researcher working some kind of post-academic angle? Do you know anyone who chose their research with a job in mind? Or someone who turned their research project into a career? I’d love to hear about it.


Being Post Academic

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Finished my PhD in English in 2010. Now I’m trying to get a life, post-academic style. I volunteer, I work part-time in PR, and I read the internet. I also complain vigorously about people who tell me “not to give up” and about those who say, “the good people who do everything right will get jobs in academia.” I hate those people. Don’t be one of those people.

If you are in any way connected with the sad, sad story of the academic job market, you are no doubt aware that the JIL came out recently. The storied MLA Job Information List informs academics about the few (and rapidly dwindling) job openings for fall 2011. A lot of people are depressed about the state of things. Lives completely upended, plans dashed, marriages ended, professors working at Starbucks. And there will be more depression to come. In fact, though last year was widely touted as the Worst Academic Job Market Ever, this year might actually be worse, if worse is possible.

This year, there are about forty job openings in my field. Forty. That is all. Yes, a few other jobs will pop up this fall, and some of them will be good. But these numbers are just not going to change things for the many hundreds of people with new, newish, and rapidly rotting PhDs who desperately want a job they will never get.

This realization is not as depressing for me as you might imagine because I am honestly not sure that I even want one of those jobs anymore. This feeling is, no doubt, partly a psychological mechanism against the pain of certain disappointment. I prefer to think of it as an example of what French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction, described as a class-based response to denial and rejection. “Objective limits,” Bourdieu wrote, “become a sense of limits, a practical anticipation of objective limits acquired by experience of objective limits, a ‘sense of one’s place’ which leads one to exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded.”

I know this sounds like French nonsense. But, though some academic theory is French nonsense, this most certainly is not. Bourdieu just means that, when you keep getting the message that you can’t have something over and over again, you eventually decide that you do not really want (or deserve?) that thing anyway. In fact, the thing that you might have originally thought you wanted becomes “stupid” and “boring” and “not for me.” Bourdieu is not really talking about a psychological response to disappointment. Rather, he is theorizing how structural determinants in society create “hidden forms of elimination” that make the world seem fair and meritocratic when it is not. The basic idea is that people cultivate the identities that are assigned to them.

And so I have cultivated the identity of the person who used to want to be a professor but now doesn’t. And the job market is a convenient excuse that allows me to easily reject what I don’t want anymore.

The worst thing is having to face these facts in spite of all the cockeyed optimism and ill-informed enthusiasm I get from former supervisors and colleagues (especially those who haven’t had to find a job in thirty years) who say, as one said to me yesterday, “Don’t give up! You’ll get something!”

To those advice-givers: Just stop. Stop telling me that. I know you want to be encouraging, but your advice is eerily reminiscent of the American myth that the world is fair and that smart people who work hard will always see their efforts rewarded. This is not a helpful way to talk about poverty and unemployment in society at large, and it is not a helpful way to talk about the academic job market. So just stop. Really. Let’s agree to dispense with our delusions and move on.

Volunteering is a one way I am moving on. I got a call yesterday from Mary at one of the social service agencies where I helped distribute food to low-income folks. I was going to do some “job readiness” workshops for their clients. But things fell apart after two of their interns left, and the workshops never happened. She called to see if I am still interested. She said, “Are you the one with the PhD?”