The PhD Glut and What to Do About It

A new book cheerfully argues that we can find jobs for all those doctoral candidates outside the academy. Don’t be too sure.

My doctoral students used to get jobs teaching at colleges and universities. That was their goal, coming into graduate school. And most of them got there.

Over the past few years, however, their luck has turned. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with my students, who are as brilliant as ever (if I may say so myself). It’s because there simply aren’t enough teaching jobs in higher education, at least not the kind that give you health insurance and a living wage. Recognizing this, about half of Ph.D. students drop out before getting their doctorate. Those who finish take adjunct-instructor gigs and other part-time work, waiting for the tenure-track position that will probably never come. The situation is especially dismal in the humanities, as might be expected, but students in the social and natural sciences also struggle to find the academic jobs they had envisioned. The jobs themselves have disappeared, snuffed out by the larger economic challenges and contractions of higher education.

It’s a grim picture, but it’s also changing. Or so say Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch, in their forthcoming and surprisingly optimistic book The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 408 pp. Cloth, $32.95.)

Cassuto and Weisbuch acknowledge that the current system is unsustainable. Yet they also celebrate an embryonic movement towards “career diversity,” which aims to alter the doctorate, so it prepares students for jobs that actually exist. Seeded by some big grants from foundations like Mellon (which, it should be noted, also funded this book), the reform campaign is revising coursework, advising, and research requirements to ready graduates for positions in museums, journalism, government agencies, and industry. When the transformation is complete, Cassuto and Weisbuch predict, my future students will once again obtain good jobs. It’s just that most of these jobs won’t be in academia.

I hope they’re right. But I wonder how many employers in the so-called real world are just itching to hire young PhD’s in English or history, even those who have learned how to teach (a longstanding deficiency in doctoral training) and to write for public audiences (ditto). And, most of all, I wonder whether—and why—the faculty will get with the new program. As Cassuto and Weisbuch admit, the old system served us rather well. We wrote long dissertations that turned into equally turgid books; we worked our way up the tenure ladder; and our own students got academic jobs, too, until schools stopped hiring. But Cassuto and Weisbuch are convinced that you can teach an old dog new tricks, provided that you also pay for lunch. Their book is replete with descriptions of catered seminars and conferences where administrators, faculty, and students dine together and reframe doctoral training for the world as it is, not as it was. Everyone walks away happy, or at least not hungry.

Count me a skeptic, at least for now. Of course, our doctoral programs need to take teaching much more seriously, as Cassuto and Weisbuch repeatedly urge. But critics of universities have been saying that for over a century, decrying recycled lectures by lazy professors and aimless discussion groups led by overworked graduate students. Part of the problem is the poor reputation of schools of education, which aren’t mentioned by Cassuto and Weisbuch. They’re professors of English, focused firmly upon their colleagues in the arts and sciences. But surely, the low status of ed-schools in the university world has inhibited real reform of teaching because nobody wants their name associated with the subject. Why should we expect this moment to yield a different outcome? Likewise, exposés of impenetrable academic prose date to the founding of the modern academy itself. Yes, we should train our students to write in actual English. But who, exactly, will provide that training? The same faculty members who moved up the totem pole by publishing jargon-laded tracts read only by fellow specialists? Don’t bet on it.

Cassuto and Weisbuch have their hearts in exactly the right place. And if their book revitalizes doctoral training, I’ll be the first to applaud. But they have much more faith in the professoriate than I do. After reading their book, I called a few friends around the country to ask them how “career diversity” was taking shape in their own departments. All of them had heard the phrase, which is a sign of some small progress in its own right. And they were supportive—in theory—of the idea of preparing doctoral students for jobs outside the academy. But they also said that most professors—and most students—remained committed to the traditional goal of tenure-track-or-bust, reality notwithstanding. We know the system is broken. But we can’t help ourselves. That’s why I suspect that change will come from outside the academy, not from within it. We’re living in a delicate political moment for higher education: Republicans don’t like us because we’re too liberal, and Democrats don’t like us because we’re too expensive. What if both sides threatened to reduce or cut off our state and federal funding if we don’t alter our doctoral programs to meet the real needs of students? I agree with the diagnosis that Cassuto and Weisbuch put forth in their earnest and spirited book. But I fear that the treatment might require more heroic medicine than any of us have imagined.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.