Trained for Nothing

By Heathcott, Joseph | Academe, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

Trained for Nothing

Heathcott, Joseph, Academe

Why do we still structure doctoral training around tenure-track positions in universities? The PhD can lead to so many other places.

Dreams deferred and hopes dashed make for heart-wrenching personal narratives, as we see weekly in the Chronicle of Higher Education. No other trade publication reveals such pathos in the industry it watches. Stories abound of tenure cases capriciously and unfairly decided, budgets shredded owing to fiscal austerity, departments rent by raging canon wars, and burdens borne unequally by faculty members. Few topics, however, elicit as much anxiety as the crisis in the academic job market.

Week after week, graduate students, adjunct instructors, and recently hired tenure-track professors recount harrowing stories of applicants who go in search of tenure-track jobs only to find themselves locked into a series of low-wage temporary positions. I have been moved many times by the witness of the talented men and women who spill their guts to the paper of record for higher education. Yet the time for witness is past; it is now time to act. The tenacity of the job crisis means that it is time to rethink the nature of graduate training in America.

Dimensions of the Crisis

The numerical mismatch between seekers and jobs in academe is now well known, and it cannot be explained through anecdotes about behavior. For most applicants to any given tenure-track position, rejection has little to do with biography; it is rarely the result of inadequacy, poor preparation, personal defects, or wearing a bow tie to your interview (which I was warned against doing by well-meaning advisers).

Rather, the job crisis is a structural problem, produced by the introduction of scarcity through real, identifiable, and thus reversible policy decisions. The contour and durability of the crisis are shaped by state legislative priorities, tanking endowments, declining endowment payout rates, and blockbuster investments in campus plant that divert funds from classroom instruction. Within these parameters, university and college administrators seek to balance budgets on the backs of a growing casual labor pool. With high levels of PhD production and a shrinking number of tenure lines in American universities, academe has settled in for a long period of struggle over the terms of intellectual labor. It will take sustained pressure from multiple stakeholders to redress employment grievances in today's university.

Still, just and equitable employment policies will mitigate only half of the problem. The number of positions available in higher education might rise slightly, but the number of applicants will remain high. A fundamental problem will remain: departments continue to run doctoral programs on an outdated guild model in which professors and matriculants tacitly agree that the only worthy outcome for the apprentice is to land a journeyman position in academia, eventually becoming a tenured master. No amount of restructuring can address this problem. It is time we reevaluate our system of doctoral training to exorcise the guild model once and for all.

I am not suggesting that we replace the guild model with a bland careerism that reduces graduate education to an exercise in job training. Graduate programs must not aim to produce workers alone; they must also help shape students into balanced, well-adjusted colleagues capable of living good lives. A sense of passionate vocation once called all of us to be historians or anthropologists or theologians. It is around this sense of vocation that we should reorient graduate education. After all, there are many places to practice our disciplines-many potential vocations-and the academy is not necessarily the best. We need to root out the assumptions embedded within the guild system that make the tenure-track academic job the central trajectory of doctoral training.

Purpose of the PhD

Dismantling the guild system requires that we unravel the underlying correspondence between the PhD and the professoriate. …

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