Friday, August 23, 2019

Why go?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article (behind the paywall, natch) on the job prospects of doctoral students in English at Columbia University. The prospects are not good: in the last academic year, one Columbia student found a tenure-track position. And new students continue to enter the doctoral program — nineteen this academic year.

Alan Stewart, chair of Columbia’s English and comp-lit department, is paraphrased in the article:

Professors have to be honest from the minute students arrive on campus, or even the minute they turn up on visiting day, about the fact that this very likely won’t turn into a tenure-track job after six years, Stewart said.
I’d revise that: professors have to be honest from the minute undergrads begin talking about the dream of becoming a professor — a dream with less and less chance of realization. And why wait for students to show up to tell them how bleak the prospects are? And why have a “visiting day” if the prospects are so bleak?

And then there’s this:
The department will spend this year developing a course that will directly introduce graduate students to careers outside of academe, Stewart said. Faculty members are looking into bringing people to campus who have been part of its graduate program in the past, who currently work outside of academe, he said. The department wants to emphasize internships and help students spend summers working in galleries or museums and perhaps “find where else they might be happy.”
But here’s the thing: if you’re looking for a career outside academia, devoting five or six or more years to the pursuit of a doctoral degree in English is neither necessary nor wise. And to the best of my knowledge, those often-touted gallery and museum positions are typically the stuff of personal connections within ultra-privileged circles.

I’ll quote something I wrote in a previous post on these matters:
The very telos of doctoral study in the humanities is a life of teaching and scholarship on the tenure-track. That’s what grad school is supposed to be for.
If a tenure-track position is not likely to be in the offing, why go? So that senior professors can run graduate seminars, while you, a student in those seminars, teach the freshmen? There are better ways to be happy.

I’m all out of rhetorical questions, so I’ll link to a post that describes my fortunate stumble into a tenure-track position: Fluke life. Talk about contingency.

comments: 6

zzi said...

As long as you pay that 57K a year, they don't care.

Michael Leddy said...

In many grad programs, a student would have an assistantship, covering tuition and fees and paying a stipend. But it’s still not, to my mind, a good choice.

Anonymous said...

My MS included a paid position as a researcher but not covering of tuition and fees as I was at a state school.

I have always wanted to go back for a PhD but unless I win Mega-Millions or Powerball, that chance is getting less and less.

In a way this evolution to hiring few faculty is not a good one. A few months ago the Washington Post had an article about how almost 95% of the faculty at one of the local colleges were adjuncts. Nothing wrong with having adjuncts but if that is all a college is using, where is the loyalty and publishing and attracting of knowledge going to come from? It's hard to build a research/writing program with a name when all of your academics depend upon you each semester to hire them.

This is a topic that really hits home with me having been raised by a PhD and former head of a university department.

I do agree with zzi that as long as you pay, they don't care. Somewhat along the lines of law schools spitting out students every year when more and more of the legal industry is becoming automated.


Michael Leddy said...

As any number of people have suggested, parents on college tours should ask what percentage of classes are taught by adjuncts and grad students — who can be great teachers. But it’s really a question of where all that tuition is going.

Sean Crawford said...

I discovered the value of tenure after an idealistic rehabilitation professor criticized an institution for the mentally handicapped where the board of directors included prominent people. I presume the issue was their ego, not their monetary gain.

Those people went to the state governor, who then went to the campus dean, who then went to the faculty head, and maybe to the department head... (I forget) finally the answer was "I can't fire him, he has tenure."

By the way, something I liked about the prof was that instead of putting numbers on the screen, that I would have to translate in my head, he used bar graphs so that I was saved one step in translating: a good use of my time when he is talking away.

So I wonder about the health of American free thought if all those campuses have so many non-tenured adjuncts.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, adjunct faculty can find themselves in precarious situations. Situations can vary: in some schools, adjunct faculty members are typically long-serving and respected. But tenure is tenure, and it provides at least some protection against the vengeful.