Thoughts on life after the PhD
The Chronicle’s new project got me thinking (and I put some of those thoughts in an email to the PhD Placement Project) about what grad students, prospective grad students, and anyone working in academia might want from placement data. Or at least what I might want.
A common response to “just don’t go” articles is that prospective grad students are perfectly capable of doing their own research on the academic job market. But when it comes to certain questions about what happens to PhD’s after they get their diplomas, hard data can be hard to find.
Why is this? I have a few theories. One is that an emphasis on job placement looks like an emphasis on money, and humanities PhD programs are NOT ABOUT MONEY, YOU MONEY-GRUBBING MONEY-LOVER. It’s interesting to remember that when I was in grad school very few people even used the word “job.” They talked about “positions,” which always sounded a lot more important and meaningful.
Another theory is that it’s simply hard to keep track of what everyone’s up to, and humanities departments are fairly strapped for cash these days. And if the numbers won’t make the university as a whole look good, it’s doubtful that anyone will go to a lot of trouble to gather and publish them.
I wasn’t completely in the dark when it came to data about the job market, but most of the information I received was anecdotal–so-and-so just got a job here, did you hear that so-and-so just accepted a postdoctoral fellowship. Some departments at my university would send out an email every time one of their PhD’s got a tenure-track job, but not when they got any other kind of job.
I also remember a lot of secrecy and uncertainty surrounding the announcement of jobs, which makes sense, given how secretive the hiring process can be. Some people never announced their new jobs in public, maybe out of respect for their friends who’d been searching for a while but hadn’t found anything. Or they might have even been competing with those friends for the same job.
So, if there were a great big massive database of placement data (which I really hope the Chronicle’s project will become), what questions would I want it to answer? Here are a few.
1. What percentage of PhD’s received tenure-track positions within two years of defending their dissertations? I could give or take a year on that number, but this is one area where numbers often get fudged–a university may claim that a certain percentage of graduates are now in tenure-track positions, but they won’t mention that it took ten or fifteen years to get them. More data on the average time from diploma to full-time employment would also be welcome.
2. Across the board, how are current PhD’s supporting themselves? Do they have adjunct positions? Tenure-track or tenured positions? Non-academic jobs that pay above / below minimum wage? Fellowships? Visiting professorships? Academic publishing or editing? I’d like to go beyond “employed” or “unemployed” and find out what people are actually doing. I’d also be curious about average salaries, length of job contract, and how many people have health insurance.
3. How many people didn’t finish their PhD’s, and why? Attrition rates are another number that can be hard to come by, and one that prospective grad students should REALLY have access to.
4. How would current PhD’s rate their current job / overall life satisfaction? This might seem silly, but I really want to know: are people happy? In whatever way they define happiness? I’m not talking sunshine and rainbows, I’m just wondering if people lean more towards wanting to get out of bed in the morning or wanting to stay curled up under the covers indefinitely. Do they like their current jobs, or are these just the jobs they could get, not the jobs they wanted? Overall, are they happy with their lives, and if not, what are the major sources of that unhappiness?
5. Do PhD’s regret going to grad school, or do they feel that they benefited from the experience? Another one that I think prospective grad students should know about.
6. What percentage of PhD’s are currently working in non-academic jobs? And how did they get there? Did they actively seek out non-academic jobs, or did they drift into the private sector because there was nothing available in academia? Are they happy in the private sector, or do they wish they were working in academia?
7. What percentage of PhD’s saw a tenure-track job as their ultimate goal? This is one number I would really like to see, because I’m getting tired of the “But there are so many other things you can do with a humanities PhD” defense. Maybe there are–but if the vast majority of grad students invest up to ten years of their life toward one very specific goal and receive little to no guidance in how to pursue any other goals, then there’s a problem.
8. What kinds of professionalization workshops or courses were offered at the subjects’ universities? Did those workshops focus solely on the tenure-track job search, or did they offer guidance on seeking non-academic jobs? If students mentioned to advisers or professors that they were interested in non-academic jobs, what was the reaction?
That’s a start. What kind of data would you like to see? If you have suggestions, please send them to the Chronicle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hopefully we can turn this into a wide-ranging database that will bring a little clarity to some of the murkier corners of academia.
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