On Responsibility

“It’s not our responsibility,” said the Director of Graduate Studies, “to train you for anything other than an academic job. If we started doing that, we might as well shut down and close the door.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this assertion lately, trying to push through the false dichotomy between the tenure track or closing down graduate programs to see what’s at stake and why. But more immediately, this question looms: Well then whose responsibility is it?

Granted, graduate students do need to take responsibility for their decisions, past and present. And even when they’re told not to go to graduate school, they do. We do. I did. In defense of my younger self, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I probably came to grad school for not the best of reasons: I wasn’t sure what else to do, I loved reading, I loved writing, and I was good at school. I had no conception that graduate training was actually professionalization or what was at stake in pursuing an academic career. But I’m also not sure that my choice would have been any different had I been told these things.

That said, however, graduate programs should be responsible for informing their students about graduate life, the process of professionalization, the academic job market, and tenure track alternatives. In “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities” (April 2010), Peter Conn argues that graduate programs need to be more transparent about graduate life and academic careers; they need to share attrition rates and job placement records with students. Introductory seminars (or orientations or websites) could “review local and national information on attrition, time-to-degree, placement, prospects for tenure-accruing jobs, salaries, and the workings of professional organizations.” Program websites shouldrecord the name of each student who has completed the doctorate, the year of completion, the date, type, and year of first placement and each subsequent placement, and the percentage of each cohort that has completed the degree within 10 years.” As he points out, many program websites, if they do include job placement information, “do not distinguish clearly between tenure-track and non-tenure-track placements. And most do not include nonacademic employment.”

In this age of information, such program-specific data should not be so difficult (or even impossible) to access. (National data also seems unreliable and hard to come by; the recent release of the National Research Council Rankings of Graduate Programs has sparked lots of discussion: critics are pointing out that the data is now outdated and filled with errors, the methodology questionable, and the rankings themselves are difficult to understand.)

At the very least, the culture of graduate study needs to change — to become more open and inclusive, though no less intellectually rigorous. As Conn points out in his final recommendation to graduate programs:

At a minimum, even if graduate faculty members themselves refuse to engage in training or advising students toward alternatives, they should destigmatize such decisions on the part of students and should support those who choose to explore careers outside the academy. Information about nonacademic careers should be included on placement Web sites. Among other outcomes, broadening postdoctoral career opportunities would serve the interest of departments eager to maintain higher rather than lower levels of graduate-student enrollments.

Perhaps when programs take this kind of responsibility, providing facts and fostering transparency and support, then graduate students can take back responsibility and make informed decisions about their graduate lives and careers.

Until then, however, a final question still lingers: what’s our responsibility for making these departmental changes happen?

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4 Responses to “On Responsibility”


  1. 1 WorstProfEver November 10, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Ha, this so-called ignorance is actually deliberate denial.
    Any program that doesn’t take responsibility for getting its graduates jobs — and I mean decent jobs, in any sector that has ’em — should be forced to admit that it exists merely to provide the university with convenient slave labor. Personally I’d shut them down, no questions asked. And you can quote me on that.

    Perhaps you should direct your Grad Advisor to the multiple blogs by jobless MAs and PhDs wondering what the hell to do now? And remind them how unattractive an “I’ve got mine” attitude is?

  2. 2 Michael November 10, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    I don’t really have a lot to add except that the opening quote of this post makes me pretty angry. Like the above poster wrote, it’s denial. There is definitely an ideology within academia that does not allow one to think of things outside of the Ivory Tower. It’s sad how people who pride themselves on their intellectual capacity are so limited in their thinking.

  3. 3 alternativephd November 10, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    @WorstProfEver: Good point — denial at its finest. Someone else recently pointed out that even if the “goal” of graduate programs is to train T-T faculty, they don’t even do that very well: no real training in effective teaching (our pedagogy class and teaching practicum is through the writing program, which is separate from the English dept.), oral presentations, grant writing, negotiating the world of publishing & peer review, etc.

    Re: blogged evidence of the job crisis: When faced with statistical analysis of PhD/MA unemployment, she counters with anecdotal evidence of her own: it’s just not true, according to the people she knows. (ARGH)

    @Michael: That’s what gets me, too — *such* limited thinking! And in my view, some amount of self-loathing. I mean, I cannot imagine a world-view where having highly trained people in the humanities in every sector of society is a remotely bad thing.

    Needless to say, this meeting didn’t go well. =)


  1. 1 20 to 200 Pages « alternative phd Trackback on November 13, 2010 at 1:36 pm

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