I attended a disturbing Zoom meeting of graduate-program administrators not long ago. Teresa Mangum, the indefatigable head of the Obermann research center at the University of Iowa, convened the group to share strategies on how to support graduate students during the Covid-19 pandemic. The aim was to collect our best practices and make them go, well, viral.
The trouble was that no one had any good practices to share on remote graduate advising and job-market strategies in a global crisis.
Excellent innovators in normal times, the people in that meeting admitted they were having trouble innovating because they were waiting. It's hard to plan damage control when we don't know how much damage — or even what kind of damage — we'll be facing. Across academe now, we're all sitting under the crest of a mammoth, slow-moving wave that hasn't broken on us yet.
So how do we figure out how to help doctoral students — and doctoral programs — get out of the surf and onto dry ground?
My first thought was that we should ask the students. We're talking about their lives, after all, and they're usually pretty good authorities on that subject. When I spoke with my own graduate students, for an April essay on "Graduate Advising in the Time of Covid-19," what they wanted more than anything in those first unsettling weeks of the pandemic was structure.
Yet when it came to suggesting long-term solutions, today's graduate students have the same limited vision as the people in that Zoom meeting. Students can articulate their short-term financial needs, but not their long-term prospects. They're not sure what their professional world will look like in the fall, let alone in 2021 or 2022.
So I looked to the past for clues, and specifically to the financial crash of 2008. Of course that crisis didn't result in campus lockdowns and remote courses — graduate advising then continued in much the same way it always had, except with fewer tenure-track jobs and, consequently, increased focus on nonacademic career options.
The biggest impact of the 2008 crash was on new and recent Ph.D.s who had the misfortune to be on the academic job market during the years of recession that followed. What types of support worked for them back then? I reached out by email to some of that era's graduate students. More than eyewitnesses, they had to navigate through economic disaster.
Consider the case of the Hayes-Conroy sisters. Allison Hayes-Conroy is an associate professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University. Her twin, Jessica Hayes-Conroy, also a geographer by training, is an associate professor of women's studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. When the 2008 crash hit, both were finishing their dissertations and entering the academic job market. Both climbed out of the wreckage on temporary bridges.
Allison got a visiting full-time position at Bryn Mawr College, thanks to the efforts of her undergraduate adviser there. "I considered myself very lucky," she recalled. She then got a non-tenure-track teaching job at Temple, which she kept for three years. After that she applied successfully at Temple for a tenure-track position — the job she still holds.
Like her sister, Jessica first went on the job market as the economy collapsed. "I applied to as many jobs as I could that year," she said, but many got canceled as college budgets quickly contracted. She landed in a two-year postdoc at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. In 2010, she went back on the market "full force," and got another visiting position, at Hobart and William Smith. Like her sister, she successfully applied for the tenure-track version of her own job a couple of years later, and that's where she remains.
Postdocs and temporary positions kept the Hayes-Conroy sisters from drowning. Austin Graham, an associate professor of English at Columbia University, also crossed the postdoctoral bridge to a job. Graham got his Ph.D. in English from University of California at Los Angeles in 2010. He made his first serious run at a faculty position in the fall of 2009, when the national and academic economies were both languishing. He didn't expect much, and was ready to fall back on his department's practice of hiring its own recent Ph.D.s as lecturers for a year.
As it turned out, Graham didn't have to cash in that insurance policy, as he got a one-year postdoc at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. "That was the only position that came through for me during that hiring cycle," he said, "and among other things it got me another shot at the market ... which then led to a second postdoc somewhere else."
Graham's second postdoc was in the American Council of Learned Societies' New Faculty Fellows program (which ended in 2013). It "was a godsend," he said. The ACLS "put up a big pot of money to fund two-year teaching positions" for humanities Ph.D.s stranded by the recession. Then it "invited research universities and liberal-arts colleges to take them on as temporary faculty, with ACLS paying almost all of the cost." After those two years, Graham got the job he now has.
"Postdocs rescued me," said Graham, "and I know that was the case for a lot of other scholars of my generation."
The economic consequences of 2020 will probably be worse than 2008: The demand for financial aid may be higher than ever, and it's unclear how much help will be forthcoming from the federal government.
Postdocs were the bridges that carried many new Ph.D.s across the abyss a decade ago, and they can play that role again. In planning for the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities must keep those bridges in mind as a necessary and worthwhile expense. At the same time, we need to figure out which kinds of postdoctoral positions and programs would best serve new Ph.D.s in the difficult years ahead.
Faculty and staff members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison organized a recent Zoom meet-up for their graduate students in the humanities to talk about just such issues. Russ Castronovo, a professor of English and director of the humanities center at Madison, said in that meeting that universities should formulate "a systemic response" that would extend health-care subsidies for graduate teaching assistants affected by the pandemic.
In addition, he said, institutions should extend graduate-student funding packages. So, for example, students who were admitted with five years of guaranteed funding would, at a minimum, have their financial support extended to six years. (A small step in the right direction: The graduate school at UW-Madison recently allocated $20,000 in relief summer scholarships for graduate students.)
Castronovo also advised students to rely on their own instincts, "build your networks," and "hone your online skills."
Other graduate-student advocates are making the same plea. This spring, Maren Wood wrote an essay ("For Would-Be Academics, Now Is the Time to Get Serious About Plan B") about her experiences on the academic-job market after earning a Ph.D. in history in 2009. She urged graduate students not to do what she did then and linger on the tenure-track market for years, waiting and hoping (in vain) for it to improve.
Wood finally shifted her sights and co-founded Beyond the Professoriate, a public-benefit company that offers career services for graduate students and Ph.D.s. Her advice for graduate students now is to take matters into their own hands: "You can seriously consider, explore, and prepare for a Plan B and still apply for academic jobs. This is not an either/or. This is about minimizing your losses while maximizing your opportunities for career success."
That's a lot of advice for graduate students to process at once, especially amid all the personal and financial anxieties caused by Covid-19. "There are so many things I wasn't doing that I suddenly have to do," said one student at the Wisconsin meeting. "How do I figure out what to prioritize?"
Wood's essay suggested a few strategies. Here's another: Plan backward. Think about the career outcomes you want (including academic jobs), and what they might look like. Learn about your options, and then decide how much time you're going to devote to pursuing each of them. Don't dash from one urgent priority to another. Be strategic with your time.
Graduate programs have a role to play in helping their students navigate a difficult job market. But students, too, need to start building their own bridges, and they shouldn't lead in just one direction. Ph.D. career diversity matters more now than it did even after the 2008 financial crash. Next month I'll share some stories of Ph.D.s from that era who took their doctorates on career paths outside the university walls.
Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes The Graduate Adviser column on graduate education. His latest book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter @LCassuto.
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