NACE Journal, February 2016
Academia is conservative with a small "c," meaning that it's suspicious of change. There's nothing wrong with that—we would not want universities to be carried away by fads. But graduate school is conservative even by academic standards. Study for the Ph.D. in the arts and sciences looks a lot like it did when research universities were first founded in the United States during the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.
The result today is a deeply irrational workplace. Put simply, we're preparing graduate students for jobs that don't exist—or more precisely, for positions that only a sliver of them will ever compete for, let alone get.
Attrition from doctoral programs stands at a startling 50 percent, with half of those non-completers leaving not right away, but after years in their programs. According to statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation, time to degree has reached staggering levels—up to nine years in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, by some estimates.
In those graduate students who do finish, we instill a destructive sense of the prestige hierarchy that governs the academic profession. They learn to look down on the teaching-centered jobs that make up most of the professorships out there—and the jobs outside of academia receive even less respect. Yet about half of all Ph.D.s will work outside of the academy.
I speak to audiences of graduate students around the country, and not surprisingly, they know what the weather is like out there. They understand that most of them won't become professors. They know that their professors can't change that, at least not by themselves. Graduate students want an education that matches the reality that they are confronting.
What might we do to help all of our graduate students, not just the few who will work at research universities?
To begin with, we need to see the disjunction between graduate student education and outcomes as a teaching problem. We have to teach graduate students differently if their education is to make sense—and we have to teach ourselves, too. We have to honor the full range of choices that graduate students will make, and that includes the decision to work outside the professoriate. That requires a change in attitude.
It also requires a change in policy and practice. I recommend that all graduate programs in the arts and sciences reach out and forge partnerships with the career services office on campus. We need to place the idea of alternate careers before graduate students from the beginning of their graduate education, starting at orientation, not when they're about to hit the market.
If we acquaint graduate students with the full range of their choices, we can begin to destigmatize the alternatives to the professors' jobs that most of them understandably privilege. But continuous exposure to the whole job market—not just the academic one—also shapes their educations. Graduate students make choices all the time that shape their professional identities. If we broaden the world for them through workshops and presentations by graduates in a range of careers--to name just two possibilities—we we will give them a chance to make more informed choices about the opportunities they'll later pursue.
These partnerships require commitment, but not a wealth of resources. The two best examples I know of, in fact, are at Michigan State University and University of Louisville, large public universities not known for their deep pockets. These institutions have developed fully integrated professionalization programs that offer a wealth of choices to their students. They are role models for the rest of us.
There's a growing awareness that we need to change graduate school. We have to take better care of our students. Let's start simple: They need jobs—so let's help them go after the ones that they can get.