Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Start Career Advising for Ph.D. Students in Year 1

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Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

A simple fact drives the movement to prepare doctoral students for diverse careers: Most of them won’t become professors. Given that reality, when should departments and professors start offering graduate students practical advice on their career options?

The answer is: very early.

Despite more than a decade of news coverage and social-media warnings about too few tenure-track positions and too many job candidates, most people who apply to graduate school still do so because they hope to teach at the college level. They usually have some idea that the academic job market is forbidding — but they don’t necessarily appreciate what that means, or what they should do about it. And many simply believe they will beat the odds.

Most graduate advisers know, in theory, that doctoral students need advice on nonfaculty career paths. But in practice, professors often aren’t very confident in their ability to provide that sort of guidance. I speak regularly to audiences of faculty members, administrators, and students around the country, and the professors often ask, "How can I help students get jobs outside of academe when I’ve never done that myself?"

That’s a sensible question, and it points to another fact: It takes a village to advise a graduate student in the arts and sciences. In a way, that has long been true, but it’s unavoidably true today.

In an extension of a tradition borrowed from European research universities, we socialize graduate students to think of their dissertation adviser as the exclusive fount of all wisdom. If we don’t provide honest and thoughtful advice on career diversity, our graduate students simply default into that damaging way of thinking. Yet they need professional-development advice that we aren’t necessarily equipped to give — and they need it sooner in their doctoral training, rather than later.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, called for a new approach in an essay — "How to Dislodge Outdated Notions of Advising" — that urged academe to move beyond the closed adviser-student dyad that has prevailed for so long. Departments and dissertation advisers, he argued, should adopt a more holistic style of career guidance and professional development for Ph.D.s — working in concert with campus career services and alumni networks. Career counselors can provide the kind of concrete advice on nonacademic jobs that professors can’t. Alumni can help point doctoral students toward internships, part-time jobs, and other opportunities to test different professions.

Learning such an integrative approach to advising takes time for everyone, starting with the students. That’s another reason why it has to begin early in graduate school. An increasing number of doctoral programs offer career-diversity programs, but too many of them do it too late.

At a minimum, graduate students need to know what to expect. John Guillory, an English professor at New York University who has long studied the ways of the academic profession, suggests that we enlighten them right away.

In a talk at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, Guillory urged academics to meet the problem directly. If we can’t conjure up academic jobs for our students, he said, we have to teach them what they’re facing as soon as possible: "The moment to prepare them is when they arrive to begin their studies." They need a workshop on the job market — not just the academic job market — as soon as they walk in the door.

The need is immediate because we start socializing graduate students immediately. Honest career counseling needs to be part of that socialization. Usually, Guillory said, "career counseling for graduate students is something that is left to the end of doctoral education, when the student is approaching the market. By that time, students have been thoroughly set in their ways."

Consider, said Guillory, "how difficult it is to disabuse prospective or incoming graduate students of the notion that they will be the exception, that they will be one who gets a job." And the longer we wait, the harder it gets — because meeting with their dissertation advisers naturally reinforces the focus on the academic path that the advisers know best.

What results is not so much determination as rigidity. "It does not serve students well," said Guillory, when they "are inadequately prepared for the most probable outcome" of their Ph.D. studies. In fact, they can become permanently embittered: "They become our enemies in their later careers rather than our friends."

Guillory proposes a professional-development workshop run by the graduate school, not by each individual program. Every incoming graduate student would get the same information from the same source.

Centralization would create consistency at this important early moment. It would also send a caretaking message that the concern — and the responsibility! — for graduate students’ professional development extends beyond the adviser and the program, to the whole graduate school.

Depending on cohort sizes, a graduate school might distribute its incoming humanists, social scientists, and scientists into their own separate workshops. In later semesters, of course, each department would offer career guidance specific to its discipline. But at this initial stage, the goal would be to establish a broad — not field-specific — orientation to the professional realities of graduate study. Here is how Guillory envisioned the workshop:

  • First it would lay out the bald truth for students, speaking "honestly and fully about their prospects upon completion of the Ph.D."
  • Second, it would "begin to instruct students about the types of jobs that Ph.D.s do attain," and the job satisfaction that comes with them.
  • Those assessments of job satisfaction should come from the source: Ph.D. alumni employed outside of academe. The graduate school should, Guillory said, "invite them to campus to speak with new doctoral students, pay them for their services, and take the opportunity in the meantime to reconnect them" with the university. Ph.D. alumni from nonfaculty professions "should be feted and celebrated, invited to speak about their scholarly work and the work they currently do. They are, quite literally, our future."

I think Guillory has this just right. The idea of bringing Ph.D. alumni back to talk about their careers isn’t new, but Guillory’s emphasis on celebration recognizes not only the alumni themselves but also the work they do now. If the university honors diverse career paths from the beginning, graduate students will be far less likely to feel stigmatized — as so many now do — if they decide to look for such jobs themselves.

After that initial graduate-school-centered moment, the responsibility would fall to departments. I’ve written elsewhere in these pages about how each program should design and run a professional-development seminar to socialize students into the culture of the discipline, and spell out the specific and diverse career outcomes of its graduates — including, but not limited to, professorships. That seminar also should come earlier, not later, in a student’s career.

Programs should also regularly invite their own alumni who work outside of academe to come back and tell their stories. Such events resonate at every stage of a doctoral student’s training.

Guillory’s proposal reminds us that professional development has always been part of graduate school. It may be tougher to advise graduate students at a time when the academic job market has withered, but it remains part of graduate education. As professors, we have a responsibility to take part in this work — and to show our students how to take charge of their professional lives. It’s our job to help them get jobs. We have to do our work so our students can do theirs.

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