Friday, June 21, 2013

On changing the culture

Because the thread was getting unwieldy, I'm going to address Miss Self-Important's question, "[W]hat could grad programs concretely do to acknowledge the fact of non-academic employment?," in a post of its own. (In my initial response to her, I came up with a weak 'they could change the culture', but now I'm on my second coffee of the day.)

What they could do, at meetings for admitted students and at the beginning of grad school itself - perhaps even in materials sent out to prospective applicants - is offer up the facts about what those in the program do on the other end. How many have tenure-track jobs, and how does that compare to other departments. How many have jobs. What those jobs are, and whether they in any way relate to the training (or the credential). With, fine, whichever allowances for the fact that a certain number of people end up being stay-at-home parents, and that includes people with MBAs.

It wouldn't have to be some kind of tragic thing that would send everyone screaming in the other direction. It couldn't be, because otherwise programs wouldn't go in for it, but it also wouldn't need to be. Obviously lots of people do go to grad school knowing the odds of TT employment, and do so because they have a Plan B (or different Plan A) in mind. This is largely information people can - but often don't - seek out and get on their own. What this would bring would be transparency. It wouldn't be a dark secret that some graduates found meaningful work, but not as professors, or altogether outside academia.

What I remember of that period, though, was a great deal of attention paid to the fellowships themselves, some to opportunities to do research abroad, that sort of thing, but next to nothing about the other side. The moment of disillusion for me came when I looked up where someone who'd done a dissertation on a topic closely related to mine at one of the Euphemistic universities had ended up. And the answer seemed to be: unemployed. Was it nervous-breakdown-flameout unemployed? I couldn't tell, and thus didn't know how concerned to be. This is where transparency would be most appreciated.


Miss Self-Important said...

Don't many programs already give employment stats on their department websites? See, for example, (from my discipline): Harvard, Chicago (extremely detailed), Stanford. These are just examples; practically every department website has one of these. It's true that placement records alone don't say much about attrition before receiving the PhD, so I suppose they could include a note with an attrition rate.

But on the whole, I am skeptical that things could be more detailed without violating privacy. Incoming cohorts are usually small, fewer than 20 people per year. Everyone pretty much knows everyone. If programs started handing out information of the sort that would satisfy your curiosity about the unemployed person who wrote a diss on your topic - say, b/c his was a nervous breakdown-induced flameout - wouldn't that be questionable?

The second problem with charting all this out, unlike tracking high school graduation rates and college matriculation across the US, is that people's lives by the point they reach grad school are much more individually complex. It's not clear what it says about you, Phoebe, and your personal employment chances and opportunities, that someone who wrote on a similar topic, but was a man married with three kids, from the West Coast originally, already had a JD, did not get an academic job. A large number of factors could've intervened in his case that are wholly inapplicable in yours, most of them having nothing to do with the actual topic of his dissertation.

So I'm not sure that transparency in the sense of reams of detailed and public numerical data is as helpful under these circumstances as it is when you're dealing with more homogeneous or larger populations. On the other hand, more narrative explanations overstep privacy boundaries.

Phoebe said...


How about schools not in the few most elite? Not so sure that what you provide are "just examples," or that "practically every" website has this - they're not exactly representative schools, and they have more to sell themselves with to prospective students than is usual. And political science is awfully far from Medieval Tapestry - the Brookings Institute doesn't come up much in the humanities, in my experience.

What my own department (well, one of the two I'm in) provides: one learns that jobs, including very prestigious ones, are gotten, but not rates of placement, let alone anything about what the people who don't go into academia are doing. And it's a good department! People do get good jobs! But it's really not clear from that site what happens if you go to this program. You have to sort out from the website how many current grad students there are, and try to make some kind of estimate about percentages. Which is tough, given that the placement is of who gets a job in a particular year, and not when they graduated, which could well have been a while ago.

As for it being deeply overshare-ish to give more details, I'm not sure. It could be done without naming names, such that it would take some investigation to figure out the name of the one person from a class at Harvard who's working at Panera. Or it wouldn't have to be on the website - it could be, as I suggest, something that comes up at a meeting for admitted students. I think we could allow that a certain % lose their minds, or stay home with kids, and that this would be about the same everywhere, and thus that we could get somewhere without revealing any individual's personal circumstances.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, for lower ranked polisci programs, here is IU's placement page, BC's, and for humanities: stats from Harvard's English department and NYU's. It's true that I hadn't looked as closely at the websites of really low-ranked programs when I was applying to grad school, but every site I did look at did have some sort of placement info, to varying degrees of specificity.

I think this stuff has been available for a long time, but I don't see how it changes the culture in the direction of encouraging non-academic employment. It's bad to be working at Panera 10 years out of a PhD program. Having a handout of statistics that informs incoming students that occasionally the graduates of this program will end up working at Panera is not going to make them think, "The world is brimming with opportunities!" It may well be that the person working at Panera himself has some good reason for it, but for incoming students simply looking at that statistic, it is bad. This highlights both the problem of overshare (if the Panera guy is recovering from his breakdown and slowly returning to the world, that's good for him, but we don't need to know that) and the problem of unclear applicability of such statistics (we don't plan to have breakdowns, so it's not clear how this guy's trajectory is instructive for us if we don't have one).

In general, I'm not quite sure how "encouragement" of non-academic employment can come out of statistical transparency. If we learn that 20% of graduates don't have academic employment their first year out, but only 15% don't after 10 years, are we encouraged to purse other things or no? If we learn that 3% of grads end up in academic admin, and 12% go on to law school, is that encouragement to follow these routes or no? The majority of grads do get academic jobs. What direction does that set us in? What does it mean for the culture?

Phoebe said...

What you've linked to, other than the Harvard site, are "recent placements include" lists. Which is quite common, it seems. The good info is provided. Not only are Mr. Panera's sensitive feelings spared the possible agony of his identity being inferred by process of elimination, but there's just no sense of how likely it is one will get a tenure-track job on the other end.

"The majority of grads do get academic jobs."

Of all grads in all fields, from all university? By "academic" do you mean tenure-track? In the sciences, from what I've seen, a lot of grad students get postdocs but not academic jobs. In the humanities, same deal, but adjunct positions are seem common.

The info that's out there really doesn't tell you your odds coming out of a specific program, unless that program happens to be one of the few most elite in the country, the schools with almost nothing to hide. And that's what I think there needs to be everywhere. Something like a pie chart saying how many to tenure-track, how many after X years of graduating, and what are some things those who don't get TT jobs (whether b/c they didn't get hired or b/c they never even looked) ended up doing.

Miss Self-Important said...

The majority of the Harvard English department page and the Chicago polisci page, which offers us such breakdowns. That was not a general statement of fact about the world, but a question about what such data indicates. You are an incoming student, and you see one of these records indicating that overall, 60-70% of all students who begin your PhD program end up with academic jobs. These offer no further breakdown into TT and not, but we can put in an imaginary one - let's say 55% of students come out w/ TT jobs, 10% w/ non-TT academic jobs, 30% leave while ABD, and 5% finish but go into non-academic jobs. What do these data tell you about what you should do, or try to do with your life as you are considering whether to matriculate? Do they encourage the pursuit of non-academic employment? Do they impact the department culture?

Flavia said...

Actually, in English, it's pretty UNcommon to provide detailed placement info. UTexas does an awesome job of it, and UPenn an okay job of it (they tend not to include anyone who's not in a traditional academic job, for example--even those in impressive and highly skilled alt-ac positions), but my alma mater decidedly does not share any such information--not publicly, and not (at least when I was there) even internally, with its own grad students.

Here's a very recent attempt to start collecting this information, but its very existence suggests the ad hoc and incomplete nature of the data that are out there.

Phoebe said...

Stats - at top schools, decent schools, and the rest - would indeed change the culture, I suspect. They'd encourage more rational decision-making on the part of prospective students (who can well read the 'don't-go' articles, few of which tell you anything useful about a specific department - what does someone applying in polisci at Harvard need to know how it goes in Tapestry at Outer Mongolia?).

But as for the culture experienced/perpetuated by existing students, it would just allow for a little bit more proactive (to use a word no one likes) pursuit of Plan B, or alternative Plan A, while still in a program. Someone who really takes to teaching but not writing, or vice versa, or who turns out to be best at organizing stuff, might try to take preliminary steps towards a career in whichever the appropriate area would be, and might do so without this being a) state secret, or b) something to be presented as the devastating consequence of a failed quest to get a TT job - a quest that may never have even begun.


What Pannapacker says - "a scattered helping of infrequently updated best-case scenarios" - indeed.

Miss Self-Important said...

But if the stats are already there, as they are in polisci, for example, then why does the culture persist? What kind of decision is rational, given these stats? It seems to me that a prospective student can look at these stats and say:
1) Most people from this department get TT jobs. Ergo, I will too. So this is what I will pursue, all else be damned.
2) I will try to get a TT job, but I see that many people are not successful, so I will make a Back-Up Plan B in case my Plan A doesn't work out.
3) Many people from this department don't even finish their degrees! What a waste of time! I will not even go to grad school.
4) These data look too risky, so I will try to start my career as a high school teacher while in this PhD program.
Is one of these the right view?

Moreover, 5-7 years later, many personal circumstances will have changed, and then what? Position #2 seems like the most common and most outwardly rational position a person could take, and it doesn't require much in the way of detailed stats, but it can still easily lead into a scenario in which you've diligently pursued Plan A, finished your degree, gone on the job market once, twice, and...nothing. Then what? Well, you might say 'time to activate Plan B' and apply to law school or go into academic admin, but you'll still have to leave a profession you've sunk seven years of your life into, and that will never feel other than disappointing, no matter how clear the statistics were about its likelihood when you started out. You never went in for the sake of your Plan B.

On the other hand, if you are in Position #4 and you do go in for the sake of a Plan B that you turn into a Plan A, then you can perhaps avoid the disappointment of having to change careers later on. However, it will never be clear what on earth you're doing in a humanities PhD program in the first place. All the credentials and experience you need are to be found elsewhere, so you'll be splitting your time b/w a M.Ed or a JD or whatever, and your PhD, which is a major time-suck that you already know will contribute little to your future career. So how is that rational?

I understand the calls for more data transparency to alleviate the problem of programs that actively mislead students into believing that they will all get academic jobs just so they will enroll and serve as TAs for a few years before reality hits and they leave, while in the meantime the department has already recruited four new cohorts of TA-replacements. But the problem you seem to want the data to solve - that people need to know in advance what will become of them personally - is impossible to solve by means of data. You can tell people exactly how many TT jobs are available nationally each year, how many applicants for each, how many years to degree, how many Panera cashiers, etc., but none of this will reveal their own futures to them. Nor will it provide normative guidance about what they should do, either as first-year grad students or fifth-years, or post-post-post-docs. Or, perhaps another way to frame the question: what would you have done differently had you known at prospective student stage what you know now about placement?

Independent of data entirely, departments can try to set up pathways to other careers - for example, by allowing PhD students to cross-enroll in a teaching credential program at the ed school, or a JD program at the law school, but in most cases, this is the kind of scenario that I originally thought would create two tracks of grad students - those who were pursuing a PhD seriously, and those doing it for decoration. Someone seriously training to be a high school English teacher does not need to publish in scholarly journals, and his time is probably not best spent at the British Library for a year, so maybe we ought to give the grant for that to a student who's made his intention to be an academic clear... Well, you can see how this will go.

Phoebe said...


This gets complicated, because the programs that provide stats are (unsurprisingly) also the ones where virtually everyone ends up just fine. So indeed, the remote chance that one might end up a consultant or think-tank employee isn't going to scare off too many from a prestigious polisci department.

My own case is kind of particular (I mean, as they all are, but even so - it's unclear what field I'm in, or if it's a field that even exists - what's a French-Jewish-Studies-ist to do?), and I don't think my angst about this has as much to do with me as it does with what I've observed more generally. I really did go into grad school with two co-Plan As in mind, am pursuing both, have been for a good long while, and have yet to rule out either. So I never had a moment of 'if I don't get a TT job, my life is over.' Nor, however, has anything in grad school made me think academia isn't for me. There are people who find either the teaching or the writing a living hell and that kind of answers that. Not my situation.

So in my case, stats wouldn't have made a huge difference in my decision to go to grad school. That said, if I'd known that I could safely assume a TT job was on the other end, that might have tilted me more towards assuming that would be the end result.

But my case? Not normal. Most people really do go in assuming they're going to become TT profs.

And I'm not sure why you're referring to cases of people being "misled" as if they're some kind of aberration. Misled specifically for the purposes of TAing, or misled with malice, these may be less common than simply, lots of people enter without stats, and don't know whether becoming a prof is near-certain, likely, or unlikely. They may be operating under the wrong assumption.

I'm also confused by why you think the idiosyncrasies and malleabilities of individual cases (which, well, yes) mean that stats aren't important. I mean, you want to know, how big of a long-shot is a TT job, all things equal, from a certain program. Which will then inform how you look at grad school if you do attend.

I suppose what it does come down to is, I just find it bizarre that we have a system in which becoming TT faculty is this wild long shot in most cases, yet mentioning so much of the existence of a Plan B while in grad school (thereby furthering said plan, strengthening that network/those experiences through connections you might make in school) is seen as basically treason.

Jena said...

I'm seeing in a lot of this discussion echoes of the very assumption that I think you are both trying to escape - the idea that a TT job is the only thing that makes getting a Ph.D. a worthwhile pursuit, rather than "decoration." I took my degree damn seriously even though I knew I was unlikely to pursue a TT job as my only option, and it's incredibly problematic - and, frankly, insulting - to suggest that those with other ambitions don't take their work every bit as seriously.

My department doesn't keep records, which is a big problem - and a bunch of students have started seeking out graduates from the last 40 or so years to try to make a point that a lot of people have ended up in applied positions, including some very interesting and very high level positions, and that we shouldn't take that as a bad thing.

This is also getting some bigger recognition from my discipline as a whole, which I think is a big step. In the 12/2012 issue of American Anthropologist there's an article called "Career Subjectivities in US Anthropology: Gender, Practice, and Resistance" which is mostly about the other options and the need to take them seriously and recognize them as equally valid career choices that are an equally good use of the degree.

Plus - fuck it, even if you do the degree for the value of knowledge and go work in a totally different field afterwards, that doesn't mean you didn't take it seriously. I really, really, really, really fucking hate the idea that the end somehow defines the value of your work.

Miss Self-Important said...

But my case? Not normal. Most people really do go in assuming they're going to become TT profs
But even lacking precise stats, almost everyone goes in knowing vaguely that "the market is terrible," having read the Pannapacker essays and talked to grad students, faculty, etc. If this ominous warning has not reached them, they have done insufficient research. Of course, the doom is partially counteracted by irrational optimism - "I will be the one who beats the odds. Cuz I'm brilliant!" - but stats don't crush that as effectively as a couple years of grad school experience. I certainly know people who went to grad school b/c they can only imagine being academics, as against people who think they'd be ok in other fields, but even this is different than being certain that they'll get these jobs. The heart-set are aware that jobs are hard to get; they just want them more. I think the awareness of low odds is pervasive, even if the precise stats are missing. Stats could make that awareness more specific for a given department, which is fine, but I still don't really see how they will mitigate the disappointment for anyone who wanted an academic job and didn't get one. You can know that the job is not guaranteed from the outset, that precisely 65% of graduates get one, but it's still disappointing to have worked for so long in the hope of one and then not to get it, right?

This stuff about being viewed as a traitor if you express desire or take some steps towards non-academic employment seems different from your original complaint about the culture, which I took to be about being shamed (by fellow grad students) if you don't end up with an academic job. Is it other grad students who accuse people of such treason, or faculty? I have to admit that, unlike the shaming, I;ve never come across accusations of treason. In my department, people sometimes work as consultants and journalists while in grad school. I've continued to do non-academic freelancing. I can't really report any negative responses to these activities, although it may be that people are sniffing at them out of my hearing.

Also, I think we're discussing different stages of grad school indiscriminately when in fact the expectations and realities are different at different points. The shaming of non-academic outcomes is not the same problem as not having good info on arrival, is it? There is the question of having good info when you're admitted, then deciding what attitude you ought to take towards other career options once there, deciding what concrete steps you might take to an alternate career, deciding when to give up if you aren't having luck on the academic job market and where else to look at that point. Departmental responses or "the culture" would probably differ according to the stage in question.

One reason I emphasize idiosyncrasy is b/c of this - all kinds of factors will impact your personal decisions at each of these points. You may come in entirely sure you want to be a professor, but then marriage, kids, sickness, outside job offers, loss of interest, etc. But it's hard to count on or assume these things from the outset. That's why I keep asking how statistics can actually point you to the right choices rather than just showing you which choices people have made over the years, or how they can change the culture of a department into one that encourages all these alternatives rather than simply one that acknowledges that people typically do things like get married, have babies, and get other jobs. It just doesn't seem to be in the interest of grad programs to generally discourage students from trying for academia, whereas accepting that some will leave it and helping them when they make that decision is something that gets done personally - in discussion w/ your advisor and your friends.

Miss Self-Important said...

Jena: I don't think I've said anything either way about students taking their work seriously. I assume they mostly do. The question is, what attitude should they and their departments be adopting towards the pursuit of non-academic employment? I don't think a PhD must lead to an academic job b/c that expectation is obviously unrealistic, but I do think the opposite view - that a PhD will make you better at any job - is problematic. If a PhD makes you a better high school teacher or lawyer or journalist, then maybe we should expect high school teachers and lawyers and journalists to get them?

i said...

Miss Self-Important:

Where I come from (Ontario), if a public school teacher has or gets an MA or PhD, they also get a considerable boost in salary. Those degrees will also serve in a lot of places as entry to private school teaching. A lot of elite private schools like their instructors to have PhDs. So no, not necessary, but definitely a strong plus that translates into money. (Often, into more money than university instructors make!)

Where I am now (Germany), a lot of lawyers and journalists do get PhDs, to say nothing of editors. Even politicians, though those often cheat on theirs. So... not so crazy.