In "We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities," Peter Conn argues that we have mistaken a "bubble" in PhD employment, much like the subprime bubble, for the normal state of affairs. He sees a combination of long-term trends that are only going to get worse, from the casualization of the workforce, to declining support for public higher ed, to the rise in for-profit online instruction. He also makes the following important point about "perpetual ABDs," as I call them:
In addition, attrition in humanities Ph.D. programs amounts to academic carnage. According to estimates from the Council of Graduate Schools, something like 43 percent of the nation's graduate matriculants never earn Ph.D.'s. To be sure, attrition requires more interpretation than job placement: It is not self-defining as a quality indicator. Not all attrition is bad. We should encourage programs to make judgments about students who are not making satisfactory progress. However, that sort of attrition is exceptionally rare, at least at Penn and the other places I know something about. Most attrition represents a vast group of unsupervised students who spend as long as a decade enrolled in doctoral programs before resigning (or simply disappearing). In the years before their eventual departure, these students provide a pool of cheap and disposable labor that administrators at all levels can use to subsidize the salaries of more-expensive, long-term staff members.He goes on to consider that doctoral programs should limit their sizes despite arguments that having lots of PhD students are necessary to the functioning of the university, the profession, or the egos of professors.
From a different perspective, Frank Donoghue writes about the difficulty of determining "what is our placement rate" in "An Open Letter From a Director of Graduate Admissions." I disagree with most of his article about how difficult it is to determine placement rates and the implication that prospective students are somehow being carreerist or annoying by asking the question ever more frequently. Elsewhere, people are constantly writing in the chronicle fora about how stupid and clueless prospective PhD students are: didn't they even ask about the placement rates? Well, the answer is when we did ask about placement rates, we often got misleading answers, cherry-picked data, or a fuzzy "sell" to get us to choose that program. All of Donoghue's equivocating can't hide the fact that his model year of placement, 11 ABD students getting 2 tenure-track jobs (no word of how many PhD-in-hand candidates from his dept. went out and tried again that year) --- this model year of placement is both an utterly shitty placement rate and par for the course for departments.
He also has this gem in his article: "No one spends eight or nine years getting a Ph.D. simply to take any job available," which leads me to think he hasn't been talking very closely with recent grads going on the market from his program.
However, near the end of the article Donoghue starts to make some interesting suggestions. He also notes the staggering attrition rates for the PhD and connects them to the low-wage labor we do, particularly once we run out of the "guaranteed funding":
Steward counts a total of 6,457 students in English Ph.D. programs in their first year through their fourth year and beyond who were supported by various teaching assignments: composition instructor, literature instructor, discussion leader, paper grader. His companion "Report on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2004," however, notes that 933 Ph.D.'s in English and American language and literature were awarded that year (a typical number in recent years). That means roughly 5,500 Ph.D. students who were reported as holding teaching assignments during their first four years did not complete, or had yet to complete, their Ph.D.'s—and were thus stuck in professional limbo.
Any student who doesn't proceed nimbly through a Ph.D. program eventually runs out of funds, whether it be after four, five, or six years. If that happens, the student (and I'm speaking here from extensive anecdotal evidence) is less and less likely to complete the Ph.D. as the years go by. The abundance of A.B.D.'s bears directly on the problems of recording job place-ment in a responsible, accurate way, because so many A.B.D.'s end up working indefinitely as adjuncts.And here is the money quote, where he points out that structurally, departments kick their "old" grads to the side to bring in a constant supply of "fresh blood" for the comp classroom:
Sadly, one of our profession's near universal practices is to use fresh graduate students to teach first-year writing courses. In other words, however much we debate the qualifications for faculty appointments, we've already established that the qualifications for a postsecondary teaching appointment need be no more than a B.A., a summer vacation, participation in a graduate program, and a teacher-training workshop. We can exhort our institutions to provide research support for the tenure-ineligible, and to include them in departmental governance, but so long as we set the qualifications for teaching as low as we do, we will guarantee a surplus of minimally qualified teachers, and we'll continue to make career placement in English a difficult struggle.Yup. Why is it that untrained, inexperienced new grad students who have possibly never taken a comp class are preferable to the "old fogies" who have been teaching there for several years and become experienced and have a slate of syllabi already broken in?
Donoghue makes the interesting suggestion that we change admissions to a "space out, space in" model --- that is, you can't take in a new grad student until someone has filed and "opened up" that space. I like it:
What if Ph.D.-granting English departments across the country took a systematic inventory of those Ph.D. students who fall between the cracks that Steward's surveys revealed—those past the fifth year, probably out of funds, but not yet finished—and then tied those findings to admissions quotas?Of course, part of the problem with graduation rates is that we, the grad students, are not stupid. If we go on the market and can't get a job, we're going to stay in school and try to scrape up funding of some sort rather than file. I did that a couple times before finally deciding I needed the degree (turning off the trickle of ta support also edged me out). That's the basic point in a social science postdoc's column, "Just Stay There": "I took another swig of chardonnay, looked my A.B.D. friend in the eye, and said: "You're better off in graduate school. If I were you, I'd hang out there as long as I could."
Let me elaborate. I suspect that seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-year graduate students suffer most from lack of mentoring and advising, indeed from lack of connection with their home departments. Yet those departments all continue to admit new students. That is, we perpetuate the system that brings in fresh recruits, even as it tolerates the disappearance of advanced graduate students at rates comparable to that of casualties during the Gallipoli campaign. My rationale for tying admissions to placement is simple: If we can't keep track of the students who have been in our programs for years, we have no business admitting new ones. We'd all be better mentors if we capped admissions.
Why haul ass on your dissertation if there are no jobs out there to apply for? Why move across the fucking country to a VAP or adjunct position as long as you have pretty much the same shitty prospect at your home institution? I know many of my friends who got offers for something, whether it be a postdoc, fellowship, or tenure-track position, were able to pump out that dissertation in a fraction of the time it had taken them until then. I think a lot of us get beaten down by the market and figure we'll just stick it out forever in our programs, and then get shoved out of the program abruptly. What starts out as "I'll just adjunct these few courses now while I get back on my feet" can easily turn into a treadmill of debt and low pay and time-consuming work and no visible means of escape.