The Crucial Conversation Academics are not Having, but Should Be

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

According to a recent study by The Conference Board of Canada, the number of PhDs granted by Canadian universities increased by 68% between 2002 and 2011, while the number of students enrolled in PhD programs increased by 73% over the same period.  Yet only 18.6% of employed PhDs in Canada become full-time professors on the tenure track.  More than 80% will not, therefore, end up in the professoriate.  This is highly problematic because most PhD programs neglect the professional development of their graduate students until the last moment, when they are about to finish their degree and hit the job market, and even then these efforts are almost entirely geared toward the academic job market.

By doing this graduate programs leave their students’ professional aspirations to be shaped by their immediate surroundings—the research university—and these desires then harden over the long years to completion.  Thus, graduate students are taught by their cultural milieu to covet the jobs that are most scarce and that the vast majority will never get. The result, often, is a sense of personal disillusionment and professional disappointment so deep many actually see joining the badly exploited ranks of the growing academic proletariat as their most viable professional option.  Though one must not overlook the powerful influence love of discipline can also have in this regard.

Nor are the repercussions of this trend confined to those in the PhD stream.  It also has important implications for Masters programs.  The swelling number of PhDs has led to the further marginalization of Master’s Degrees, which in many subject areas, though certainly not all, have long lacked a clear professional identity and purpose (which is not, it should be stressed, a statement on their actual value).  In light of both these trends in graduate education, it perhaps comes as little surprise to see that governments and university administrators have been placing increasing pressure on graduate programs to demonstrate their value and relevance, and thus justify their existence.

Typically, however, such demands are narrowly conceived, punitive, and seemingly oblivious to the complex politics of “relevance”.  How do we know relevance when we see it?  Who decides, and for whom do they decide it?  Questions of relevance may be motivated by solid practical considerations but they are also clearly, perhaps even primarily, political.    This point is neatly reinforced by the fact that utility-driven arguments about the usefulness of certain fields of study always confront the arts and humanities disciplines first—they are “the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” the front line for debates about the purpose of universities and the value of advanced study.  This is because these debates, and the utilitarian valuations that underpin them, are defined almost exclusively in narrow financial terms, and because ostensibly the humanities do not pay.  This persistent claim, however, points to a complex problem for another time.

For now, let us note that the implications of these value and relevance debates affect everyone, and we at the U of M should all, regardless of faculty or disciplinary allegiance, pay close attention to them because this a university, a term, of course, deriving from the Latin universitas, or “the whole”.  Therefore, to adapt Donne’s famous passage to this etymological point, no faculty or department “is an island entire of itself,” but is rather “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  What is more, and to return specifically to the matter of graduate study, the future of the PhD is the future of the academy; where goes the former, so goes the latter.

Still, it cannot be denied that the pressures created by these debates and challenges are most immediately felt by Arts faculties.  The most conspicuous part of the group of discontented graduate students and recent PhDs come from the Arts and Humanities disciplines, which calls their value into question.  Certainly many are underemployed and under-utilized, but then again this is an experience shared by PhDs from across all disciplines.  That this is a problem is clear.  However, it is not at all clear that a PhD is therefore a waste of time, or that the number produced should be reduced, as some argue.  In fact, if we look beyond financial and career gains in our assessment of the value of PhDs – which we should – and consider the human capital accumulated through education, together with the personal benefits routinely claimed by PhDs themselves, such as problem solving, critical reasoning, deep thinking, appreciation for nuance and context, and empathy, we might well find that we want more PhDs as we confront the many vexed challenges of the twenty first century.

But this may be a song that only moves those in the choir.  To those outside, I can imagine, it only sounds like more liberal academic whinging and special pleading. It is not, of course, but allow me to switch tacks all the same, because it has, in fact, been suggested that “Canada may need as many as 17,000 PhD-holding job-seekers annually to fill key positions across the economy.”  In which case, “the current supply and demand of PhDs may be in close equilibrium.”  Now, this suggestion is based on evidence that has significant blind spots making it far from definitive, but that is precisely my point.  Let’s not burry the body before the patient is dead.   Why should we be so quick to cut our losses when we haven’t even come close to identifying all the potential gains?  Is it really so pointless to try and understand the problem and resolve it?

The plight of PhDs in Canada is a complicated one with many moving pieces, to be sure, but we can begin to tackle it by simply dispelling some of the misconceptions held by both PhDs entering the job market and their prospective employers.  Weak employer demand for PhDs is often based on a lack of awareness about what PhDs can bring to the organization.  Those employers with little experience working with PhDs seem to view them as too highly specialized, and are often unfamiliar with the full suite of skills PhDs come with and their direct applicability to the workplace.  This is unfortunate, because they come with an eminently transferrable skill set that includes excellent reading, writing and analytical skills, well developed public presentations skills, crucial social or so-called “soft” skills (enhanced by teaching, seminars, and collaboration), independent initiative, and project design and management experience.  Generally, there seems to be a concern with how PhDs will fit into non-academic environments and relate to non-specialists.  In my experience, there is also a suspicion that PhDs will depart for greener academic pastures at the first opportunity, and are therefore regarded as a risky or temporary hire.

On the other hand, not surprisingly those employers who actually hire and work with PhDs have positive views about their skills and contributions.  A survey of U.S. employers who hire PhD and Masters graduates clearly indicates “that graduate degree holders bring value to their organization.  Employees with graduate degrees are viewed as having the advanced knowledge and, frequently, real work experience that allows them to quickly lead and design projects.” A separate study of the European context presents similar findings. So, firsthand experience seems to counter many of the common misconceptions and apprehensions related to hiring PhDs.  The challenge, then, is how to convince those employers without this firsthand experience to get some by hiring PhDs.  This could be tricky, but it seems like something universities, graduate programs, and faculty advisors, not to mention graduate students themselves, can work with.  Perhaps some professional exchange program where PhDs work within a particular company for a period of time or on a particular project, one like that found in David Lodge’s book, Nice Work.  While Lodge explored the humorous side of such an arrangement, I think there is a serious and practical side too.

There is, of course, another more immediate way we might help PhDs align themselves with the non-academic job market, and that is by changing, or rather, expanding the conversation.  Advisors should sit their PhD students down and have a frank, “eyes wide open” conversation with them.  The purpose here is not to discourage them, or to crush their dreams.  Rather to inform them that a non-academic career is the norm, not the exception, and that they should therefore get really comfortable with that idea.  While they are at it, Advisors might also do the decent thing and detonate the pernicious fiction that universities are meritocracies; that good people get (academic) jobs, because about the best that can be said for that is that some good people get (academic) jobs.  Most do not, and in many cases it is not because they don’t have the juice.   It is simply because there are not enough jobs, and securing one has much to do with fortune and timing.  This has long been the case and it is not likely to change any time soon.  But that does not mean one should not do a PhD.  Certainly the academy does not hold a monopoly on exciting, intellectually stimulating and rigorous work, to say nothing of all the human capital and personal benefits accumulated through advanced study.  So, let’s help graduate students figure what else they might like to do.  Let’s begin to prepare them both emotionally and professionally for their futures.

Admittedly, this is rather new territory and we do not yet have many strategies or relevant university resources to draw on.  Nevertheless, it is time to roll up our sleeves and get started.  Join us in room 409 Tier on Monday January 30th for UMIH’s Roundtable discussion on “Careers Outside Academia”.

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