Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Will Covid Finally Force Us to Fix Our Broken Doctoral Advising?

Full vitae the graduate adviser

Image: Kevin Van Aelst For The Chronicle

Let’s turn back the clock to 2019. If you had asked me then about the state of the academic-job market, I would have said that it hadn’t recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, a financial crash that reduced the flow of faculty jobs in the arts and sciences to a trickle. Even a decade later, tenure-track pickings remained meager.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on doctoral education has been worse, and it’s not close to being over. How long will it take for a job market that clearly hadn’t rebounded from 2008 to struggle back from this new catastrophe? In November, I offered some advice to graduate students on “How to Write a Dissertation During a Pandemic.” Now let me turn to their professors: How do you advise a doctoral candidate or during a pandemic?

I hear professors advising graduate students to be patient for a year or two, and let the post-Covid economy right itself. Their hope for a “V-shaped recovery” looks wildly optimistic to me. Recover to what? Faculty hiring surely will pick up once this lurching Tilt-a-Whirl ride ends, but will it return even to pre-Covid levels? I have my doubts. And let’s remember that the 2019 academic-job market was hardly something to get nostalgic about.

There’s precedent for Panglossian optimism about doctoral programs. For literally decades, professors hoped that the academic-job market would somehow return to the unprecedented heights it reached in the 1960s when there were — briefly — more academic jobs than Ph.D.s to fill them.

We should know better than to repeat such a disastrous holding pattern. Yes, there are some tenure-track jobs up for grabs in 2020-21, but in many fields, the numbers are pitiably low. In history, for example, Emily L. Swafford, director of academic and professional affairs at the American Historical Association, said in an email that “the number of academic jobs advertised for historians in 2020-21 appears to be on track for a historic low.” Other fields are witnessing similar drop-offs.

For professors and students, this changed environment raises questions of purpose. If the experience of 2008 offers any guide to 2020, there isn’t going to be much of a tenure-track job market for years to come. In the meantime, the question is: What, exactly, are we preparing our doctoral students to do?

And here’s the answer: whatever they want. That has always been the answer, in fact.

Doctoral students are a smart bunch, and they already know how to count. They can see whether the professoriate is, or is not, an available career option right now in their field or subfield. Some recent Ph.D.s may still want to compete for the scant tenure-track offerings that lie out there. Others may want to keep their academic options open and reserve that possibility while exploring nonfaculty career paths. But most will do what most of our undergraduates already do: They’ll seek career opportunities where they can find them.

No matter which path they choose, it’s our job to help them.

That prescription may sound obvious, but graduate advising hasn’t worked that way in practice. The goal of guiding students toward nonacademic careers usually runs into practical obstacles that we’ve set in our own way. The obstructions arise from a lack of ongoing reflection on our part.

One of the most important such obstacles is requirements we’ve set for the dissertation. We need to think about what a dissertation is — and what it can be — before we can decide whether a particular thesis is worthy of the degree it’s being submitted to earn. Historically, the dissertation requirement has always evolved to fit its time. When professorships abounded in the 1960s, dissertations were generally much less substantial than they are now. Back then, some universities even offered a type of doctorate — the doctor-of-arts degree — that didn’t require the recipient to produce a dissertation at all.

The goal then was for Ph.D. students to demonstrate their competency in order to qualify for the credential. Instead of having to write a proto-book (as we expect many graduate students to do now), they would write a portion of one to get the degree. They could then finish the project as an assistant professor, while receiving a real salary.

In the 1960s, time to degree hovered around the five-year mark for a doctorate, and still some observers (particularly administrators) complained that that was too long. Here again, context tells the tale: Dissertation requirements increased only when professorships became harder to come by. The two rose in tandem: Students stayed in graduate school longer to bolster their credentials and improve their chances of landing a tenure-track position, while professors started requiring more of students before they could exit with a Ph.D. in hand.

Such changes were gradual. We don’t need to view them all today as improvements. And we certainly should not regard them as permanent. As professors, we have to think about what to require of graduate students at this moment in time. The answer will differ from discipline to discipline, and from program to program.

A good starting point would be for faculty members, meeting together, to reconsider the requirements of their Ph.D. program. Professors don’t gather to discuss those requirements very often. It’s even more rare for us to collectively reconsider dissertation requirements. That’s because doctoral students typically write a dissertation under the guidance of a single adviser, so they’re effectively working in private. Why bother regulating a practice that’s governed by only one professor?

It shouldn’t be this way. I’ve already written about how advising should be opened outward so that students can benefit from the expertise of more people. In these times, it takes a village to advise a Ph.D. student.

In any case, dissertation requirements don’t belong to an individual professor — they are owned collectively by the program faculty. Our expectations of doctoral students need to be shared. We should set rational benchmarks for the dissertation and periodically assess them — together. Professional organizations may provide helpful guidelines, but they don’t legislate. Final responsibility belongs to us.

The severe extramural demands that our advisees are facing right now may produce different intramural dissertation requirements. “For students considering careers beyond the classroom, the traditional model of the dissertation may feel limiting,” writes Katina L. Rogers in her new book, Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work (she outlined her recommendations on graduate-education reform in a Chronicle essay last month). Digital dissertations may lead more smoothly to jobs in digital workplaces, for instance.

Advisers need to raise and discuss such questions openly. But while accepting new dissertation formats is necessary, it isn’t enough. We also need to:

  • Help doctoral students design their dissertation project to fit their preferred career path. A student interested in public-policy work may need a dissertation centered on U.S. sources. Another who’s eying the teaching-intensive college market (or public schools) may want to incorporate pedagogical theory.
  • Teach all Ph.D.s to communicate their research — and its implications — to wider audiences, not just disciplinary specialists.
  • Collaborate with our students as they design their futures. The pandemic has upended many students’ plans. Some may question why they should bother to write their dissertation at all. Advisers should invite such questions, and assist students as they answer those questions for themselves. We need to help them figure out how to stay — or how to leave.
  • Share the advising job. The conversations I just described easily segue to career plans. If the scope of a student’s career choices exceed your expertise, remember that it takes a village, and invite other people to join in. If a student already talks to her adviser and also to a graduate career specialist at the office of career services, why shouldn’t all three talk together? Why not invite the student’s whole dissertation committee?

In the process, don’t lose sight of the dissertation. Our students won’t. We need to help them write dissertations that fit the needs of these times. We’ve always needed to do that, actually, but never more than now.

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