A Plea to Graduate Advisors and Programs

Larry Cebula is yet another academic bemoaning the state of our discipline and telling his students to realize that they won’t be professors. Here’s one line that caught my attention:

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promise to make provide education with far fewer teachers–and whether you believe this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.

To be sure, academia has a lot to figure out in terms of adjunct instruction, the emergence of digital technology and its role in academic labor. And I am one of the first to agree that administrators tend to want to do things for the least amount of money, and currently adjunct teaching seems like the best way to do that.

Having said that, I’m making a plea for Professor Cebula and the rest of his colleagues to stop writing posts like this. Let me give you the reasons why.

  1. You aren’t helping your students by telling them that the odds are against them and that the situation is grim. Many of them will simply look at you like Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations and reply “Sounds like fun!”
  2. It almost seems like you take pleasure in crushing your students’ dreams. “After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.” Is there a reason to add that little rhetorical flourish at the end? I also remember this video that circulated about a year ago:

[youtube_sc url=”http://youtu.be/obTNwPJvOI8″]

I can’t help but feel that there is a sadistic and nihlistic tone in this video and in many of the blog posts telling students not to go to graduate school. They are nihilistic because they highlight a complete lack of faith in the future of the humanities. Just because tenure might not be tenable in the future, does this automatically mean that the humanities will collapse and everyone with a Ph.D. will be forced into a life of adjuncting? They are sadistic because, like I said above, the authors seem to enjoy taking out their anxieties on students who want to go to graduate school. I have to agree with Karen Kelsky, when she says that “many professors have used the abysmal job market as an alibi to entirely neglect career advising for their doctoral students.”

So, I’d like to list a few bits of advice for both graduate programs and graduate students on how to deal with the job market in a more positive, and dare I say it, optimistic way.

Graduate Students

  1. The job market for tenure-track professors is not only horrible, it is currently collapsing. This does not mean that you shouldn’t go into a graduate program, but that you need to cultivate transferrable skills above and beyond what’s taught in your graduate classes. And you need to have a plan for getting a job before you start your Master’s degree. Do not expect your program or your advisor to give you the complete picture about your job prospects because many either don’t know or do not care to spend time researching them.
  2. What are some of these skills?
    • Grant Writing: Completing a few grants during your graduate school tenure shows hiring committees that you have the ability to find and bring external funding to their program. Considering that many humanities departments are hurting for funding, this skill will give you an edge.
    • Administrative Experience: Many jobs are combinations of teaching and academic administration (scheduling, administering a program, fund-raising, etc.). Gain experience with these programs, and you will be able to apply for a broader swath of jobs. 
    • Coding and Project Management: More programs in the future will rely upon digital skills that are not formally taught in the majority of graduate programs. Learn HTML, CSS, and Python. Figure out what a SPARQL-query is, and why RDF and linked data are important to the future of the web. Further, learn how to manage and work on group and collaborative projects. Research Bethanie Nowviskie’s Praxis Program and learn how it is trying to change the culture of higher ed humanities instruction.  
    • Other transferrable skills: I know people with Ph.D.s who work as information design consultants, public relations professionals, and program administrators. Spend a good portion of your graduate program outside of the ivory tower learning what non-academic skills you have and figure out how you can communicate those skills to potential hirers. This blog post on non academic jobs is a good place to start.

Graduate Programs

  1. The job crisis in higher education requires that all of us change how we do things. In the long term, this might mean hiring a specialist in job training or academic labor. It might also mean restructuring the entire department to focus on the relationship between academic disciplines and practical skills. But the bigger question is what we can do for graduate students who are currently in the many humanities programs across the country.
  2. What are some short term solutions?
    • Form partnerships with businesses, cultural heritage societies, and public research institutions. Curriculum should be created with an eye to how it connects with issues that are important to the community outside of the academy. This doesn’t, by the way, mean that we should cater to those interests. Simply put, we should learn how to take theoretical and historical interests and engage the community around us. This may mean forming a partnership with a business that is related to your discipline and creating internship opportunities for your students. It may also mean working with a public research center on digitizing their collections and presenting them to the public.
    • Start writing, encouraging, and valuing research that is publicly accessible. Encourage your students to publish research that appears in public forums. Invite professional and academic bloggers to campus and talk about how to create and manage an online community around your research.
    • Create forums for non-academic and #alt-ac professionals to talk about their work. Too many students are taught that the tenure-track equates to “the life of the mind.” They need to realize that meaningful and rewarding work can, and often does, happen outside of academia. Get professionals who have learned how to apply their research to their current non-academic job to give talks. The #alt-academy collection recently published by MediaCommons and Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works should be required reading for any class introducing students to graduate school in the humanities.
    • Create committees where students, professors and administrators can brainstorm on ways to change the archaic infrastructure of graduate education. How, for example, can administrators show support for #alt-ac initiatives in departments and find a space for such professionals on college campuses? How should tenure and promotion change to reflect the current economic realities of higher education? These kinds of conversations need to be happening – the sooner the better.
    • And, on a related note, stop relying on adjunct labor and start hiring more non-tenured lecturers who actually have benefits. Adjunct labor might be cheap in the short-run, but it is clearly not sustainable in the long-term. It also gives no incentive for workers to care about either the campus they work at or the surrounding community. Replacing adjunct labor with non-tenured lecturers can both help retention rates and enrich the campus.

Clearly there is a lot of energy out there for humanistic inquiry: the soaring number of students who apply for graduate school is evidence of this energy. Instead of lamenting the changes that are occurring in the academy, let’s start talking about how to channel that energy in a more beneficial direction. Telling students that they are stupid for wanting to go to graduate school is not the answer. For these students aren’t stupid about wanting to study Nietzsche, factory work in the nineteenth century, or the culture of video games. Advisors and administrators are being stupid for not making their graduates hirable.


  1. Thanks, Roger, for this post. I’m also tired of only hearing the bitterness and bemoaning of the future of the humanities when no suggestions for improvement are offered. My personal bit of advice has been (for a while) “don’t get a PhD in the humanities because you think you’ll get a tenure track job. Get it because you feel like it will be an intellectually rewarding experience.” Facing the job(less) market and a dissertation is enough to land people in ABD land forever, which is why thinking more broadly about job opportunities and skills is important. So is a satisfaction in the journey and not necessarily thinking of graduate education as a means to an end. I’ll always be happy to have my PhD, even if it doesn’t matter once I open my wine/spice shop. (Kidding. Maybe.)

    1. Thanks Rachel! Andy Famiglietti mentioned the need for changing the infrastructure of education to give #alt-ac professionals more than 1 year contracts. I can’t agree more. The politics of the University have to change just as much as graduates need to learn new skills.

  2. thanks so much for writing this as I too was peeved by the tone of that piece (must better is Judith Brown’s take on Tenured Radical IMHO).

    However, the thing I keep coming back to is the structural issue, reliance on adjuncts, because most of my students who wish to pursue Ph.D.s want to be professors, not #alt-ac or public historians or musuem professionals or any of the other totally noble ways one can put a Ph.D. in the humanities to use. I can’t say I blame them. The life of the mind as a professor is a sweet sweet gig if you can get one. However, the reliance on adjuncts is effectively killing to professoriate (along with online for profit education). Until TT people realized that their economic status and professional existence is tied to the exploited adjuncts (and work to get them the same benefits and pay as full timers) it seems that we are all just colluding.

    1. Well, for me, this is b/c many students don’t have much exposure to public history or what museum professionals do on a daily basis. Like I said, I feel the reason so many students want to be professors is because colleges are basically structured to sell them the fantasy of what a professor is. I know I believed that I could basically extend the “utopia” of college life indefinitely if I just worked to become a professor. Of course, that isn’t the reality.

      And I totally agree with what you say about the fact that the fate of TTs and adjuncts are linked.

    2. I could only partly agree with the above statement.  Gov. jobs – that is, in the museums, libraries, cultural/historical societies – are also hard to get.  Lots of gov. places (I work at one) employ the so-called OPS (other people service) – with no benefits, job security, paid vacation/sick days et at – as compare to career service people with all the opposite.  In many instances for OPS to get a career service job is literally means that some in the career service position will die or move to another job.  Then, competition hits – as there are – just as in academia – far more applicants for a single career job then needed.  It is dreadful there as well – but a good place to make contacts and move on.

  3. good point and I think you are so correct that we have an obligation to acquaint them with the mutliple ways of being an intellectual in this world. I work hard to get mine into archives to do research, and I need to work as hard to get them into internships. I’d like to make one mandatory! My favored recommendation is library science combined with MA in history, which opens up a lot more jobs in academia and outside of it.

  4. I suppose it’s the fact that I make a living as an adjunct, but I rankle at the apocalyptic view of adjunct labor. While I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that benefits would make adjuncts invest more in their campus (and probably eliminate the need to work at multiple institutions, as I do), I just don’t know that there isn’t a place for adjuncts. I get a lot of sideways glances when I say that adjuncting really works for me–and I am a product of a Research I institution. Isn’t there a place for both? I feel like adjuncts are beginning to get a bad rap, as are instructors at for-profit institutions (doing both!), like somehow they are responsible for the problems in higher education and in the job market. It’s not us. I wish we weren’t always the recipients of the pointed fingers.

    1. I agree with so much of Roger’s piece here. I am also tired of the “don’t go to graduate school” meme, and I think Roger offers a really refreshing perspective. I do, however, also agree with Carrie Lamkin’s remarks about adjuncting being perfectly suitable for some individuals. There are many industries where short-term contract work is very very common. People that do this kind of work have to build their own careers (and benefits packages) piecemeal. There are pros and cons to this. So, I think we need to approach the problem from both sides, creating more full-time (whether tenure-track or not) positions, while also making adjunct work more equitable and respectable.

    2. @Carrie: I don’t mean to belittle adjuncts, and I don’t feel it is at all their fault for the job crisis in Higher Ed. Certainly short and part-time work should have a place in the academy. I’m not entirely sure that the adjunct system (as it is currently practiced) is the answer to that question. But my take on adjuncting has nothing to do with current adjuncts, just the system that keeps them casualized and without benefits. You do have a good point, though, Carrie. And I should think more about the POV you bring to this conversation.

  5. I was happy to read this blog entry. It is quite disheartening to work hard on a degree only for your professor, to which you highly regard as your hero, to tell you that you’re wasting your time, and hard earned tuition money. A professor should have a one on one with their students to get an idea of what their students’ plans are and then perhaps have a conversation on the possibilities. I would hope that if I’m in a graduate program, then I probably should have researched the job market I’m trying to get in to and maybe even made some connections with people/professors who are in my field of study to get some sort of guidance. As a finishing grad student, networking and research have much to do with where you will end up as far as securing teaching gigs, at least that’s what I’m noticing.

    Thanks for posting this!

    1. Thanks! Certainly networking is very important. I do know that I thought very little about my employment opportunities when I started grad school. I was too excited about satisfying my intellectual curiosity. But hopefully people will be more careful than I was. 🙂

  6. Terrific piece, Roger–the best I’ve read so far (and I don’t say this just because you mention me! Although, thanks for that!) The time has come to get specific, like you do in this post. Sweeping and grandiose pronouncements were valuable as a wake up call, but a lot of us are awake now. And those who are still stupidly asleep about the collapse of the academic economy are unlikely to be swayed in any case.

  7. Yes, some value here.

    Business is always interested in certain kind of research if somebody else were willing to do it inexpensively. That would create exposure for the grad students (a) to demonstrate their potential value in a work context, and (b) to learn what kinds of non-telegenic business are out there that might, one you discover it, become wildly interesting to you.

    Redefine what research means – it shouldn’t be limited to investigating what is of interest to the grad student or to academia, but what is of interest and value to potentially scalable moneymaking enterprises. Curiously enough, it’s much more valuable to the world to research what people who live in informal housing could and would pay for home improvement than to research the multicultural origins of their exclusion.

    1. That’s an interesting proposition. I wonder if a project that embraced the history of informal housing, the amount people are and would pay for such housing, and the reasons why (i.e. exclusion) wouldn’t do the same thing. That is, I’m not sure that you couldn’t talk about issues that you raise through traditional forms of cultural inquiry.

  8. As a PhD In philosophy I too attended graduate school knowing the odds and believing in those supposed retirements.  However, I am with Larry and Thomas Benton (aka William Pennapacker).  Graduate school in the humanities is a suicide mission if you are not independently wealthy and decidedly unattached to anyone or any location. 

    If you would like to choose where you’ll reside or believe you will be a lottery winner with the coveted TT job, you are either already a TT faculty member who believes there was no luck involved or one of the few elite Baby Boomers who got in before the job market completely collapsed.  

    Although I learned lots of interesting things in grad school, I wish I had gone to law school instead as I would have graduated into a prosperous economy in the mid-90s and had a much better life than I do as an unwilling adjunct who is leaving the profession today.  I had a FT non-TT job for a long time waiting and applying to TT lines where searches were cancelled due to budgetary constraints.  Not one TT person has been hired in my dept at a major state university in 17 years.   The game is over….   

    1. @uberliberal:disqus: Thanks so much for your comment. But I have to disagree. “The game is over…” only if you believe that the only or even best prize is a TT position. There are many other options out there, and my post is arguing that both graduate students and programs need to reconfigure themselves to find those options. BTW, Pannapacker has changed his mind about this topic (http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/commentary-alt-ac-is-the-future-of-the-academy/42871).

      “it seems that academe’s “angry generation” is being replaced by academe’s “service generation.” That can be seen as a positive development. I don’t see the same kind of intellectual hauteur and one-upmanship; there’s a stronger ethic of collaboration as opposed to the myth of solitary genius: a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together: teachers, librarians, and technologists, among others.’ ‘Things might get better, eventualy, but let’s not get all utopian and revolutionary.”

  9. I think your blog just convinced me that what I was doing before was wrong…. Now, I’ll try to remedy my mistakes and your blog gave me excellent ideas.  Many thanks!

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