Ex-Academics Still Aren’t Being Consulted on Graduate-Education Reform

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By Alexandra M. Lord

Fifteen years ago, frustrated by what I saw as academe’s failure to deal with a worsening job crisis, I created a website on alternate career paths for historians. As Beyond Academe went live, I worried about a backlash. After all, in 2003, it was very much taboo for graduate students and new Ph.D.s to talk openly about giving up on academe.

To my relief, I heard plenty of support. But because I was feeling exposed and vulnerable, it was the criticisms that hit me hardest. One came from a history professor who noted that, while my site did a good job of providing information about nonacademic careers, it let history departments and universities off the hook. By touting the idea that a doctorate in the humanities was an open door to almost any career, the professor said, I was providing universities with the excuse they needed to keep pumping out Ph.D.s.

The comment upset me, in large part because I had wondered the same thing. But I persisted in starting Beyond Academe because I wanted to help Ph.D.s like me. As I joked to friends, I made this site specifically for Lexi Lord, circa 2000 — the year I decided to change careers but couldn’t find much help. By 2003, safely ensconced in a paying job as a historian for a federal agency, I finally had the ability to create the website I had needed three years earlier.

Reading that professor’s criticism, I reminded myself that Beyond Academe was a triage site. I comforted myself with the belief that I was filling a void.

Now, all these years later — amid growing talk about the "versatility" of the doctoral degree — I’m worried that scholarly organizations and academic departments have embraced somewhat simplistic rhetoric about nonacademic career options for Ph.D.s.

Twice since quitting academe I’ve been surveyed by scholarly organizations about my career path. Each time I felt intense frustration because the questions were all clearly designed to promote the idea of nonacademic careers — as opposed to genuinely engaging with the issues raised by the overproduction of Ph.D.s.

One of the surveys explicitly declined to survey recent graduates — an omission which I cannot help but feel was calculated. Listening to Ph.D.s discuss the struggle to leave academe — as they are in the thick of that struggle — is difficult. Yet surveys that fail to do so will always result in a flawed understanding of the very real psychological and financial costs of pursuing a doctorate designed for a career that is, ultimately, unattainable for most degree recipients. Such surveys also will underestimate the difficulties of shifting careers.

Disturbing as these incomplete surveys have been, what has concerned me even more has been academe’s reluctance to see those of us who took our Ph.D.s into "the real world" as experts who should be a central part of any discussion of graduate-education reform.

Yes, many scholarly organizations and universities invite us to speak about our careers or give workshops on how to do a nonacademic job search. (In my experience, the scholarly organizations usually expect ex-academics to pay our own way to their conferences; at least the universities tend to cover our travel expenses.) Those campus workshops and conference talks are definitely necessary, but they’re still just triage.

Whenever I’m invited to a campus to offer advice on the nonacademic job search, I notice that faculty members rarely attend the event. I give great credit to those universities — such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor — where graduate professors did attend the workshop and even took careful notes. But they were very much the exception.

In most cases, the workshops are attended only by late-stage graduate students, many of whom still confess to feeling a sense of failure merely by attending this sort of event.

All of this indicates the obvious: Triage isn’t and never was sufficient to resolve the problems inherent in the overproduction of Ph.D.s.

What is needed is a much more comprehensive approach. Ph.D.s with nonacademic careers should have a seat at the table as universities and departments rethink graduate education. Why? Because we are the experts — on both nonacademic careers and on the very real difficulties doctoral candidates face when leaving the academy.

Oddly, there has been a curious reluctance to see us as experts on this subject. A case in point: A few years ago I reviewed grant proposals from universities seeking to reform graduate education. Only two of the 15 or so proposals included outreach to Ph.D.s in nonacademic careers. That stunned all of us who were reviewing the proposals (credit goes to the grant funders who brought in ex-academics as reviewers).

To this day, I wonder how academics — the vast majority of whom have spent a lifetime in the academy — can believe they know how a Ph.D. should be reframed for a nonacademic career.

Without a doubt, listening to the views of Ph.D.s outside higher education will complicate the picture that departments and institutions have of the successful nonacademic Ph.D. But complicate it we must.

I’m not atypical, I think, in my ambivalence about the six years I spent pursuing a doctorate (and I have serious regrets about the four unhappy years I spent as an academic). Yet I am more positive about my Ph.D. than most of the ex-academics I speak with. Our discussions have shone a light on what one close friend calls the "problematic promise of the nonacademic Ph.D. career path."

The bottom line: Pursuing a doctoral degree has tremendous costs, even when the degree is "fully funded." Doctoral students fall behind their peers with B.A.s and M.A.s in many significant ways, and not just financially. Because doctoral training is, by and large, not suited for most nonacademic careers, Ph.D.s who leave the academy must often learn radically new skills for jobs that do not — and never will — require a doctorate. Some of those new skills are antithetical to doctoral training.

On the financial front, Ph.D.s start their nonacademic careers significantly behind their peers, and the losses stretch out over a lifetime, affecting pensions and retirements, mortgage payments, and the ability to pay for a child’s education. Failing to acknowledge these realities — and what they mean for people in terms of their career trajectories — will only result in superficial changes, if that, to graduate education.

I’ve made this case before. In 2011, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle, arguing for the importance of inviting ex-academics back to campuses for a candid discussion about the challenges of the nonacademic career path for Ph.D.s.

In hindsight, I presented an overly rosy picture of postacademic life because I didn’t want to discourage and depress young Ph.D.s who were already under stress. I didn’t want to admit that many highly intelligent people outside the academy do not revere the doctoral degree, and that the job search would be much more difficult than they were being told. I didn’t want graduate students to be second-guessing their doctoral training at a time when they needed to be confident in justifying it to nonacademic employers.

Back then I was also optimistic about graduate-education reform. I expected the job crisis would lead to the public airing of hard questions about the Ph.D. and a real conversation about its value and limitations. That hasn’t happened.

Can there ever be real reform? It would be easy to be cynical and say no, based on the very limited cosmetic changes that have occurred in the past decade. But I consistently return to the belief that if there is one skill academics possess, it is the ability to conduct thorough research on a problem.

And surely, no problem in academe is more pressing than the overproduction of Ph.D.s over the last 40 years.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian for a federal agency in Washington. Since 2004, she has written and spoken about the need for graduate-education reform.

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