The most important step that you can take when considering graduate school is to ask yourself, what is the job that graduate school will prepare me for?
If you are not focused on your post-graduate school goal, then your process of choosing graduate programs, applying to them, picking an advisor, deciding on a dissertation topic, and everything else, will likely be unfocused and relatively ineffective. One unfortunate outcome for many of those who do not have a clear career goal in their graduate school plan is unemployment accompanied by debt.
The fact is, jobs for Ph.D.s have been evaporating for 40 years, and have now declined to crisis levels. The reasons for this are the overall disinvestment in higher education in America. Universities have less money to spend, and less of that reduced amount is spent on teaching per se. Instead it goes to athletics, student services, and bloated administration.
The quantity of actual permanent tenure-line faculty plummets, as these professors are replaced by short-term contingent instructors known as adjuncts. Currently the percentage of college instructors who are adjuncts is hovering at about 65%. Yes, that’s right. The majority of university faculty are now hired on a part-time basis, with no benefits or job security, and paid just a few thousand dollars a class. Visit the website of the organization New Faculty Majority to learn more.
In this context, newly minted Ph.D.s struggle to find permanent work–the kinds of full-time faculty positions with benefits that currently account for only about 35% of university teaching positions. There are vastly, vastly more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for them.
This is where your planning comes into play. If you are hoping to obtain one of these scarce positions upon completion of your Ph.D., then your strategizing for that outcome must start in your very first year of graduate school. Actually, the point of this blog post is to tell you that it should start before you enter graduate school. In fact, you should not choose a graduate program unless it has an excellent and well-publicized record of placement for its Ph.D.s in permanent, tenure-track positions. Don’t consider attending a graduate program that doesn’t.
In addition, the program must have abundant funding, and be prepared to offer you a multi-year funding package, so that your years of study in the Ph.D. do not leave you with substantial debt.
With a Ph.D. from such a program, you will be situated to be competitive for the few tenure-track jobs that are available when you finish, and you will embark on the next stage of your life without the burden of crushing debt.
This is not the typical path. The typical Ph.D. student does not know to look for these attributes in Ph.D. programs to which she applies. She enters the program, dedicates years to it, only to find out at the end that she has been given no meaningful preparation for actually obtaining a permanent, full-time, tenure-track position. She may have required years of loans to survive. Proudly submitting her dissertation, she discovers that her applications for tenure-track jobs are rejected one after another. She finds herself spending semester after semester doing part-time adjunct teaching that doesn’t pay the bills, or allow her time to do the research and writing that are required for a tenure-track job-worthy record. After some years, she is confronted with the painful choice whether or not to give up on her dreams of an academic career in order to right her financial ship.
I wish this story were the exception but it is not; it is currently the norm.
The way to avoid this outcome is to ensure, as I wrote above, that the doctoral program you enter is doing everything possible to train its graduate students in all of the skills necessary to obtain tenure-track positions. These include grant-writing, publishing, conferences, and networking, as well as generally keeping a close eye on the state of the job market in the field and evolving hiring priorities, and assisting their Ph.D.s to follow them.
It is not easy to discern whether a graduate program has a commitment to this kind of professionalization training. Clues to look for include a “placement” page on the website that is up to date, and shows the job placements of recent Ph.D.s. Also look for workshops dedicated to grant-writing and the job market, and an active brown-bag or seminar schedule that brings top scholars to visit (this promotes networking). Ask currently-enrolled graduate students whether they are encouraged (and funded) to attend national conferences, and whether the department offers an academic writing seminar and support for publication. Finally, ask current graduate students and faculty about recent Ph.D.s–where are they now? If they answer with some version of, “gosh….I don’t really know,” turn on your heel and run in the opposite direction. Only consider attending a department that has a strong institutional culture of tracking its Ph.D.s and identifying with their success.
It goes without saying that the individual advisor you choose should be looked at in a similar vein. How good is he at placing his Ph.D.s in tenure-track positions? If you can’t get a clear answer on that, or if the answer is, “not very,” don’t consider that individual as an advisor.
In all things related to graduate school, remember—you are in the driver’s seat. Protect yourself. Departments and advisors may assist you, but your success ultimately rests in your hands alone.