Probably the last in this series of posts surrounding the MLA silly season. While senior grad students, recent phds, and others prepare for their job interviews, another crop of potential graduate students are entering the pipeline. A recent post from The Little Professor responding to some Facebook comments from Michael Berube, suggests that graduate programs should cover the expenses of their students’ job searches (e.g. going to MLA). It’s not really a practical suggestion, but I think her more general point was that doctoral programs should take more responsibility for the relationship between the size of their programs and the job market.
This raises a different question for me though: who has responsibility to whom and for what when it comes to graduate programs?
As many have quickly pointed out, departments do not typically set their own enrollment targets. Now if one wants to make the argument that it is unethical for there to be English majors or graduate programs because they do not lead to jobs, then I suppose we can make that argument. However this applies as equally to the BA or MA as it does to the Phd. It’s just that there is zero expectation of a specific career coming out of the BA or MA. If we want to make an ethical argument to defy institutional enrollment targets for doctoral programs and accept the consequences, then why are we ok with BA or MA programs? Maybe we should shut the whole thing down on ethical grounds. Of course we don’t because we believe that the study of English is good unto itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a particular job.
Why does that change when we get to the doctoral program? The answer is that it doesn’t, at least not at first. You get into graduate school on the basis of your success as an English BA, you submit your best undergrad essay, and you write about your interest in some literary topic. Typically you don’t write about your desire to do the job of a professor: working with students, sitting on committees, responding to student writing, etc. In other words, entering graduate school in English isn’t about pursuing a professional goal; it’s about pursuing an intellectual interest. And then the first two years of graduate school are just a super-charged version of undergraduate life (plus teaching if you’re a TA). One takes classes, reads books, sits in seminars, and writes seminar papers. There’s more reading and longer papers. There’s a higher quality expectation, probably, and also probably more theory. The content shifts a little, but the practices are much the same. How many graduate students pick a field based upon an analysis of the demands of the job market? How many pick courses based upon some understanding of the expertise valued on the job list? I would say the answer is not many.
My point is that typically there is little professional turn in the first two years of an English doctoral program. Students continue to pursue their intellectual interests without giving much thought to how those connect to a professional life, just as they did as undergraduates, and graduate programs and faculty facilitate this through the curriculum they offer. Then we get to the qualifying examinations where students really need to decide on an area of specialization. This is clearly a professionalizing decision as the exams should launch the dissertation project which will in turn define one’s job qualifications. Again though, how many students look at the market and select a specialization based on job trends? And do we even recommend that they do? I would say that we don’t. Instead, the commonplace wisdom is that one must select a field that one truly loves if one expects to complete the dissertation and do well.
It’s a strange piece of advice despite its common sense appeal. As this Chronicle piece from last summer reports, only 50% of entering graduate students complete their doctoral degrees (you can also look at this quantitative data from the PhD Completion Project). Furthermore, even looking at the long-term data, only 50% of those phds get tenure track jobs, and then one would have to ask what percentage of those get tenure. So, given the 7-10 years it takes to finish a dissertation and land a tenure-track job, and add to that the six years before coming up for tenure, we might say of the class of 2014 that somewhere by 2030 hopefully 1 in 5 will have tenure. That’s assuming the job market rights itself, undergrads keep majoring in English, tenure doesn’t disappear, etc., etc. Now those chances may not seem promising, but given that completion rates have never been much better than 50%, the chance of an entering grad student getting tenure at some point has probably never been much better than 1 in 3. So that’s the other part of the argument for pursing what you love, because if you’ll be spending 10-15 years on something that has a very good chance of leading nowhere professionally then you better love it.
It would be interesting to see a survey of incoming graduate students in English to see what they know about their chances on the job market. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t have some sense of the challenges of the job market, but maybe I’m wrong. My guess is that they aren’t making these kinds of economic, cost/benefit decisions. I know I didn’t. I was making a clearly anti-careerist move in going to grad school. I was consciously rejecting the idea of pursuing a corporate job. When I got married (to another grad student), neither of us ever thought we’d be able to buy a home. To that point, we’d both lived slacker, GenX lives as temp employees and students; we weren’t thinking about some other kind of life. Now of course we have that other life. (My wife never completed that program though she has had a successful academic career and is now in pursuit of a different phd, so I suppose the two of us reflect the statistics fairly well.)
On university/department end though, the decisions are all economic. Admissions decisions reflect the demand of applicants, the enrollment priorities of institutions, and the way universities are ranked. If you really wanted to change the way graduate school functioned, then you’d pressure the American Association of Universities to make retention, completion, and placement rates for graduate programs a significant criteria for membership. I know AAU and Middle States pressures for retention and time-to-degree at the undergrad level have made my university sit up and pay attention. What if instead of admitting 10, graduating 5, and placing 2 or 3 I said you have to take those 10, graduate 8 and place 5? You could try admitting fewer students, but only if you really knew which 2 or 3 to cut (which isn’t that easy). Would you change your tactics from pursuing what you love to something more strategic? Would you alter the curriculum to reduce the shock of moving from course-taking to dissertating?
My point is that if there were top-down pressures from the AAU or federal granting agencies to improve performance on the graduate level then this would eventually result in changes in graduate curriculum and the culminating activity we call the dissertation. I don’t know if such pressures will ever arise. And I’m not sure how they would affect incoming graduate students who would enter far more pragmatic programs than they do right now. Or even if such pressures would shape undergraduate programs at least for those who want to pursue graduate degrees.
I even wonder if this is what we really want (and by we I mean both graduate students and faculty). Would we want to create programs were 1 in 2 students ended up getting tenure someday (instead of 1:4 or 1:5) if it meant creating more lock-step programs, restricting the fields and methods students enter, requiring students develop skills demanded by the job market and so on? And if we don’t want to do what is necessary to get better results, then should be stop complaining about the results we do get?