The Ph.D. Isn’t Working Right Now

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By Leonard Cassuto and Robert A. Weisbuch

Imagine an entering cohort of eight doctoral students sitting around a table in a seminar room or a laboratory conference room. They’ve just arrived at graduate school, and they’re eager to see what their new adventure will hold. They all know that the academic job market is depressed, but most are hoping for a college or university teaching job of some kind.

Now let’s flash-forward in time. According to recent statistics, four of the eight (50 percent!) will not complete the Ph.D. — and those are pre-Covid-19 numbers. Of the four who do finish, two will not get academic positions and will seek jobs elsewhere. The remaining pair will get full-time faculty jobs, most likely at teaching-intensive institutions. Perhaps they’ll get tenure-track assistant professorships, though the chances for those positions have been shrinking. And maybe one of the two will get a tenure-track position at a research university like the one where those eight students assembled years earlier.

Yet all eight of the first-year students at the table will be trained according to the professional needs of that single one who might snag a job at a research university. The curriculum of most graduate programs in the arts and sciences emphasizes research, above all, and is contoured to prepare students to compete for the rarest and most competitive jobs that sit atop the academic status pyramid.

This status quo presents a picture of incoherence of process and goals. The Ph.D. simply isn’t working right now. The degree is taking longer and longer; graduate-student cohorts are less diverse than in most social sectors; the curriculum is frequently haphazard, and so, too, is the way doctoral students are advised and trained to teach. No one is really in charge, and assessment is almost entirely lacking.

But above all, this most prestigious of degrees isn’t serving students because it doesn’t prepare them for the realities that they will face in their professional lives. We should expect holders of the highest academic degree not simply to know a great deal but to know what to do with it, both within academe (teaching, for instance, is one enactment of knowledge) and beyond it.

The price paid by our society is higher still. We waste human resources — and human beings — when we channel them in only one direction.

We need a Ph.D. that looks outside the walls of the university, not one that turns inward. There’s nothing new about a public-facing Ph.D. Its roots lie in the American academic past, before the Cold War expansion of academe created a temporary demand for professors, along with the illusion that this demand would endure forever. Engagement of multiple and diverse publics is a much older aim of American education than the model of pure scholarly replication.

Such an emphasis on public use and usefulness is coiled into the DNA of American higher education. Most private colleges and universities were founded by religious groups seeking to improve society through learning and the good works of their educated students. And the public good was a prime tenet in the founding of state universities beginning in the 19th century.

This idea of usefulness explicitly included the arts and sciences. Public universities fulfilled the language of the 1862 Morrill Act, which calls for both “liberal and practical education.” As John Dewey put it in 1917, a discipline “recovers itself … when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method cultivated by philosophers for dealing with the problems of men” (and women, we would add). That’s a worthy credo for the tradition of American higher education.

And it is one that the Ph.D. can fulfill splendidly — if we let it. Graduate students and Ph.D.s are highly resourceful people, but we don’t see their resourcefulness often or broadly enough. Doctoral students learn to work with information in sophisticated ways and to communicate to different kinds of audiences. But too many can get stuck because they aren’t aware that they possess those skills.

If students or their teachers would realize it, doctoral graduates are valuable in myriad ways. But we don’t typically help our students perceive their own versatility — and with it their many potential means for success and happiness. Most Ph.D.s don’t become professors, but that’s only a problem if we teach them to feel like failures when that happens. It’s much more than ironic that, when Ph.D.s leave academe, most are happy with their choice.

Good graduate teaching should unlock and direct students’ creativity. Instead of narrowing their vision, we should broaden it, practically as well as intellectually. That doesn’t mean encouraging graduate students to abandon scholarly pursuits — the Ph.D. is a scholarly degree — but it does mean integrating other skills into the curriculum that students will need outside of the university as well as within it.

After more than 45 years of shortages of academic positions for Ph.D.s in all fields, we have reached a tipping point. Speaking of the humanistic disciplines, Sidonie Smith wrote emphatically that “the model of success narrowly focused on one outcome — completion of the long-form proto-monograph and then a tenure-track position at an R-1 institution” [that is, a high-status research university] has run its course. It is exhausted; it is exhausting; it is no longer tenable in terms of student interests and prospects.”

We see much the same in the sciences. In the bench sciences, more students enter their programs with nonprofessorial career expectations, but their programs again train them as if they all will become professorial researchers. In most bench sciences, fewer than half of graduate students anticipate an academic career, and fewer still end up in one. The number of professorial positions in these fields is scarce as well, and doctoral study in science similarly neglects preparation for diverse career options.

“The real crisis in American science education,” according to an essay in Scientific American, “is a distorted job market’s inability to provide careers” for young scientists “worthy of their abilities.” In “Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century,” a recent major report by the National Academies, the authors write that the graduate student’s “mind-set” needs to be “readjusted to recognize that some of the better students will not pursue academic research but will enter careers in other sectors, such as business or government.”

Given all this exhortation, the literary scholar David Damrosch rightly noted (as quoted in a collection of essays on doctoral education), “If everybody knows what needs to be done, why are so few programs doing it?” He quoted Clark Kerr’s observation that in “areas under faculty control,” movements toward “academic reform” were “mostly overwhelmed by faculty conservatism.” And no other level of education is as fully under faculty control as the Ph.D.

Even when we want to change, we frequently can’t manage to do it. That isn’t because we academics are uniquely poor agents of change — sometimes the opposite is true. The failure begins with responsibility: We need to bring the responsibility to change together with the power to effect change.

We must change the process by which we change if we are to effect the reforms we need. Right now the graduate-school-industrial complex has a leadership vacuum that disperses academic responsibility. But we have to take on that responsibility — to the university, to our fields of study, and especially to the professional lives and futures of our doctoral students. A well-resourced graduate dean with a clear mission to encourage student-centered practices would speed this necessary revolution. But today, underequipped graduate deans are better equipped to serve tea than they are to serve the student interest — and with it, society’s interest.

Improvements in the range of outcomes should strengthen rather than compromise students’ motives for pursuing the degree. “I love to read and interpret,” “I’m a total lab rat,” “I want to understand the world better” — these desires continue to motivate college graduates to enter doctoral programs. You don’t have to become a professor to fulfill them. Now and more than ever, these life-affirming pursuits are undermined by a closed professorial economy — and they benefit only from a sense of multiple possibility.

Today, more programs than ever before are initiating changes. Julia Kent, who directs communications at the Council of Graduate Schools, and Maureen Terese McCarthy, who was the council’s director of best practices, remarked in 2018 that, “compared to 10 or 20 or even five years ago, this is a new moment.”

The Covid-19 pandemic should hasten its onset. The pandemic has gutted the academic job market, and changed the outlook of students and faculty members together. At the same time, areas of concern not directly associated with career outcomes — admissions, say, or teacher training — remain worthy of bold innovation. They matter in themselves for the sake of the students’ experience, but we need to rethink them in relation to a student-centered, public-facing, career-diverse Ph.D.

Changing Ph.D. programs to meet current realities is not to let the tail wag the dog. It is to let the dog out of a shrinking cage.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a new book, to be published in January, The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University who writes regularly for The Chronicle about graduate education. Read his previous columns here. His latest book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, was published by Harvard University Press in 2015.

Robert A. Weisbuch, former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University, now leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, a consultancy for liberal-arts colleges and universities.

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