Saturday, January 16, 2010

The PhD Job Market: Rethinking Retraining

As someone said, it is high time for another shitstorm to go down in the academic blogosphere. These things happen in semiannual cycles --- or maybe slightly more frequently.

Today's topic is the whole "well why do people go to grad school in the humanities and what can we do about it?" I actually find Dean Dad's theory persuasive --- that on the one hand, with the 90s and 00s the cultural narrative was that "you must love your job; it must be exhilarating and fulfilling" and at the same time there was a "loss of legibility" on how to get a solid middle class job that would support you comfortably. That is, all of the clearly understandable pathways that seemed to "guarantee" a job disappeared, as did the notion that you could stay at one company for your whole career without being downsized or having it vanish, Enronlike, right out from under you.

With humanities undergrad students having no clue how to do the basic steps of applying for jobs that weren't explicitly labeled with their majors or how to "sell" their major and skills to a wide range of employers, they tended to look to "the professions," which are still very hierarchical and strictly defined --- law school to lawyer, med school to doctor, and then, grad school to professor, the only one that applies directly to humanities majors and even has programs labeled with your own undergrad major program.

Now Tenured Radical and Historiann weighed in on this by talking about what schools and grad programs should be doing about the job crisis and really got a lot of shit for it in their comments. It reminded me of the famous NWSA conference where white feminist scholars were up at the front speaking and then there was a shouting match and the feminist scholars of color walked out ---- why would protesters attack the people who were trying to understand and help them, instead of, say, the Republicans or the religious right? I think part of it is that they can, that they feel the need to speak and will take an opening where they can vent their grievances, and that the "other side" --- whether university presidents and regents or Republican senators --- will not even give them that much of an opening. And I think there is something profoundly infuriating about being half listened to or only partly understood, that brings out the vitriol.

(As a further example I recently watched a black homeless guy randomly really get in the face of my friend, shouting and yelling profanities. My friend's personal history as a really solid anti-racist feminist who does a lot of good activist work didn't matter, as we were in a structural moment where this guy was responding to her race and class position, her place in the whole big structure. Yes, I understand that it's kind of ridiculous to compare unemployed grad students and homeless people.)

But what I really want to untangle are some threads here about retraining. Tenured Radical makes some suggestions about making sure grad students work before entering grad school (at my school it's trending the other way because our Cal State MA students generally had worked before the MA, and now we are able to pull undergrads directly from the Seven Sisters and places like Zenith, which our dept. thinks is somehow better or at least classier) and expanding the sorts of history training PhD students do to while in the program, and also makes this suggestion:
Ph.D. programs should consider devoting at least one year of graduate support to administrative labor.
it's an interesting suggestion, and I can see that having a working knowledge of the university and committee-type work would only be a benefit, but a commenter responds:
Positions in student affairs and enrollment services are not fall back jobs for those who could not fulfill their dreams elsewhere. These days people are choosing careers in higher education administration and assuming that our jobs can be performed in one year by a graduate student on his or her way to other things is offensive.
(In fairness, I was picturing something like a GA administship, if I can make up the term --- a permanent position that rotates a grad student in every year to work under a career administrator and do some grunt work while learning the ropes and getting the same pay as a TA. But then again, our grads do pretty much the same thing for free when we help our profs run our centers and journals and annual conferences, so that wouldn't really be adding anything to our program.)

But I really want to think about this idea of retraining and retooling for a new career after you've missed out on getting a tenure-track job.
Tenured Radical: And yes, to some extent, jobless academics need to do what jobless auto workers, telephone operators and bankers do: retrain and move on.
A while back Marc Bousquet made a comment about the then-president of MLA getting a lot of flack for suggesting that unemployed English PhDs get jobs as journalists, without realizing that there were already departments and degrees that trained people for exactly that. Adding this to the comment that it is "offensive" to treat administration as a fallback option when there are people who choose it as a career, I want to ask: what is retraining exactly? does it work? Do we have any evidence or statistics that these retrained/re-credentialed PhDs actually land jobs in the new field? After all, it's my understanding that in the Midwest, the middle-aged auto workers who are retraining aren't getting any jobs; they are just unemployed for so long that they fall out of the Bureau of Labor's records as no longer "really" looking.

Excuse me while I bring in Foucault. He claims that there is an ever-increasing proliferation of discourses that envelop and map the subject ever more closely. That is, when there is only one definition of subject, you are more likely to not identify with it and just waltz on your merry way. If we have twenty definitions of it, however, no matter what demographic group you are in, you spend the time and effort of matching yourself to all these definitions, scrutinizing where you fit, and will probably find something you do identify with pretty closely that binds you to the state. (Ok, terrible summary, and I should bring in Althusser and interpellation too. Moving on.)

My point? Just as there has been an explosion in the grad populations, there has been an explosion in the kinds of grad degrees and certificates. Having bought the 90s mantra of "more degrees = more success," tons of people have flocked to grad school and universities have happily capitalized on that, offering tons of unfunded master's and even PhDs in every topic you can possibly imagine. Interested in administration? Did you want a degree in educational leadership or administrative management? Want to write things? Do you want the MA in publishing, writing, technical writing, grant writing, or comp/rhet? (to say nothing of the MFA juggernaut.) There are tons more, for everything from librarianship and information management to all the public history stuff Tenured Radical talks about. Plus, all the other majors and areas of the humanities have also been busy proliferating, so there are a variety of journalism and linguistics and communications type programs out there that I am less familiar with.

I see most of these as ads on my facebook page, in case you're wondering. No need to be savvy enough to check out the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed websites to have the idea of these programs put in your mind.

So I see two important developments here: 1) this growth of specialized degree names contributes to the idea of "credentialing" at both the undergrad and the grad level; As students see programs in Social Work and Technical Writing and Hospitality Management, that claim good job placement in careers with the same name as the degree, they are going to be even more confused about why they should get a job in something like "history" or "English" or "philosophy," in terms of how it will translate into a career or how one goes about getting a job afterwards. And no, to disagree with TR, I see tons of credentials and majors and fields touting their great earning potential and placement rates, so those of us who do go on to grad school in a PhD program start to wonder why these programs are falling down on the job. (It may be that the other programs are doing a massive snow job, but we can't exactly assess this. Which is why it works as a marketing strategy.)

2) All this does have a credentialling effect. Or does it --- here is where I turn it around and ask for research. What is our data on retraining PhDs into other fields? If there are PhDs trying to spin their resumes as apt for administration and grant writing, and then there are also a lot of programs in these fields producing brand new graduates who have been expressly trained for them, do the "retraining" PhDs lose out to the "credentialed" grads? And all this brings up the question, if you can't get any jobs with a history or English degree and will have to "retrain" into one of these other fields, why even bother going? Why not matriculate directly into the administration PhD or Comp/Rhet or whatever instead?

Which brings me to my last point, that in all this hand-wringing about undergrads who didn't take our sage advice and who went to grad school anyway, we are forgetting about the people who did. They haven't disappeared. They are off in these alternate programs or breaking into these "fallback," "retraining" fields working away, to later show up as competition for those aforementioned bitter, poor, and deluded PhD adjuncts who finally decide to retrain.

What I want to know is, when the retraining PhDs go up against the credentialed PhDs and MAs and new graduates from these other fields, what happens? And do we have any data that would let us know?


Unknown said...

I've been following this discussion in various places (because, really, it beats finishing my syllabi), and I think that you bring up a really good point about "retraining." I did administrative work while working on my PhD (and for about 2 years after undergrad), and now that I have a PhD, I'm looking in that direction more so than tenure-track positions because the academic job market is, well, you know. But it turns out all the other jobs are overcrowded, too, and with people who have certificates and degrees specific to them, so my fallback is, well, not so useful anymore. I'm hoping that I can "spin" the PhD into that extra spark that gets me a job, but it's a real long shot right now. A few other friends who left careers in other fields to get PhDs are now fruitlessly looking to return to their original careers and it just isn't looking good for them, either. My new plan, if I don't get a job in the next year or so? ANOTHER freakin' MA/Certificate, in a field that will hopefully give me the credentials to get a job. How will I pay for it? I. have. no. idea. Ha!

I also like your comparison to the NSWA conference. The people in the audience seem to feel that they are being talked AT and ABOUT and resent those doing the talking- loudly, in some cases, then those doing the talking feel, I guess, almost betrayed by those they were trying to help. And then everyone talks around each other and there's no real communication between groups when really they have the same basic goals.

Bardiac said...

My last dean was really good at talking about the skills people get through a liberal arts education and teaching students to think of their job potentials in terms of skills they've learned rather than credentialing or majors. (For nursing, yes, you need the credential, to sell insurance, you don't.)

I think he taught me a lot about thinking about how to advise students to see themselves and how to think about my own potentials should I choose to leave academics (which, believe me, when it's below 0 for a bit, comes to my mind).

I wonder if we can't learn to first value other sorts of jobs, and then to think about how we can do them, rather than thinking of ourselves as having a narrow skillset. Seriously, I have a hell of a lot more skills post PhD than I did before.

Valuing other jobs is sometimes hard for academics, most of whom (in my experience) went from SLAC to grad school (to adjuncting) to a tt job. Most have never worked really outside academics, so they have no clue. I think that's a huge weakness in our profession. But, those other jobs? My brother manages transportation for a food product. It's not glamorous, but people eat because he does his job. And that's every bit as meaningful as people reading Shakespeare because I do my job.

I don't know. The economy sucks. Life sucks. Winter is too long.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

When I was in residence at my PhD program, I was the editorial assistant for a scholarly journal, and I basically did eveything -- copyediting, layout, distribution, etc. I thought that going into publishing would be a good backup plan for me, but now I'm not sure. Mainly I worry about moving to New York and being just as broke as we are here in California, but with worse weather. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough for publishing jobs in the bay area, but there don't seem to be as many opportunities here for book publishing as there are in NY. But the competition for the NY jobs seems to be pretty high too. I feel a little trapped on both sides -- teaching and editing. I wish something would fall in my lap. He'll, don't we all?

Ha! My word verification is "covet." Perfect.

Anonymous said...

Sisyphus, you hit on a critical point when you say "if you can't get any jobs with a history or English degree and will have to 'retrain' into one of these other fields, why even bother going? Why not matriculate directly into the administration PhD or Comp/Rhet or whatever instead?"

Right on. I was extremely bothered by the implication that it's okay to go through graduate school for 6-8 years, not find a job and then train in something else, because hey you've learned. That might be fine for some people but I think you're right. If at the end of 8 years of work, you're going to find yourself in law school or some other field, shouldn't you have just gone there to begin with?

If a humanities PhD is just a degree you get because of your deep love of a discipline in the humanities but not to get a job in academia (something akin to an MFA), then it should be marketed as such, not as the one way to get this one particular job: professor.

Feminist Avatar said...

With our u/grads now, we have this careers-thingy that is now compulsary, where at the end of each semester they have to translate what they have learned into 'skills' and fill it into a careers-plan type document. This is to encourage students to think, not I have done a course of the Russian Revolution, so I know about Russia, but I have written to X standard, I have used a computor, learned how to use X database system (and we give them advice on what they have learned!). The idea being that when they come to applying for jobs with a humanities degree, they know what their degree is worth in the job market (and how to frame their skills for employers). A PhD gives you lots of skills beyond a knowledge of your subject area; it is learning how to give it spin in the job market that is the tricky part.

Rohan Maitzen said...

These are interesting and, of course, troubling threads to read through as someone who recently spent two years heading her department's (admittedly tiny) graduate program, and thus engaged in recruiting, but who also is routinely asked for reference letters by bright and eager undergrads, and who is, finally, teaching a graduate seminar this term. I haven't yet reached the point of refusing to write letters of recommendation, but (partly because of what I've learned from reading blogs like yours and those you link to) I do try to emphasize very strongly that past the MA level, graduate school in English is currently structured as professional training, but for a profession it is increasingly unlikely a graduate will be able to enter, at least on the terms s/he would like. I say over and over that while you might do an MA for further enrichment, it no longer makes sense to consider a PhD in that light, because all the program requirements are really structured to prepare you to be a "productive" and successful academic. I don't think I have ever dissuaded anyone from applying, perhaps because they are being prompted more positively by other mentors, but also because they are strong A students whose self-esteem is already bound up in academic success, and who have enough youthful optimism to expect that they will be among the lucky ones.

One element of the comments thread that really interested me (I think at Historiann's site though it may have been at TR) was how much the professionalization workshops we have all diligently been adding to our programs actually increase the focus on a specific kind of job market and thus, at least implicitly, the impression that only tenure-track academic positions are good end results or the point of the whole process. For instance, we now have workshops on grant applications and scholarship/fellowship applications, on preparing your cv, on submitting for publication, and so on. We have tried to bring in some perspectives on non-academic jobs, but here's where the idea of building different kind of training into PhD programs really runs up against our limitations, right? Because really, with very few exceptions, professors only know how to do one job. Our naivete about other options is reflected in lots of the comments we make trying to be helpful to people who have to, or want to, look for something different. We don't actually know what the real qualifications are. We overstimate the charm of our own qualifications, and risk insulting those who have actually trained in editing or publishing or administration when we blithely recommend those as "fall back" options for our students. How much we know about non-academic options depends on what experience we happen to have had, or who we happen to know outside the ivory tower. I'm not saying we should not be trying to shift our emphasis from training up clones to something broader or more flexiblt, but it's going to be very difficult to do--especially when most departments have few resources for bringing in outside experts.

dance said...

If I manage to successfully retrain as whatever (and I'm sure I'll be chronicling it over the next few years), I will try to remember to go back and talk to grad students about it.