Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post II

Following up on the article From Graduate School to Welfare in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I am featuring stories of Ph.D. poverty here on the blog, contributed by readers. I will post them on Thursdays over the next month or so. I believe that one of the most important tasks before us is to publicize the poverty associated with graduate school and adjuncting for so many, to break through the denial of Ph.D. programs, and to expose the conditions of labor in the academy to the public at large and in particular to tuition-paying parents.


Although not on welfare, I empathize and have said on more than one occasion, “I would rather be unemployed than work here.” I am contemplating quitting my job in the middle of nowhere, moving somewhere I want to live and looking for work when I get there. But the “always prepare” part of me prevents me from taking such drastic measures.

I got my PhD Renaissance Literature in 2006 from a “red brick” research university in the U.K.  I received no job market training or advice throughout my studies. When I finished I was awarded a part-time post doctoral fellowship (9,000 pounds per year) and taught classes at two universities to make enough to live on. Every few months I had to ask my generous grandfather to lend me some money – that I promised to pay back when I got a full time job. This was embarrassing – I knew he would always say yes but I hated asking and always waited until the back account was in the overdraft allowance. I was lucky to have his support. I also received 35 British pounds per week from the government to supplement my income (called income support). He passed away shortly after I received my tt job offer after 2  ½ years on the job market. During those years the university where I worked hired a young academic eager to help people in my position. She helped me to edit my cover letter, and my C.V. and when I landed interviews she and her partner gave me mock interviews. I had seven interviews offered and I went to five of them. Two I cancelled because I was offered a tt job that I accepted (those two were for 2 year non-renewable positions).

My cohort has done terribly – I would say. One person has a great job at University-we-all-want-to-work-at; one went into community college teaching English as a second language; one works at a less-than-desirable-University; one went into university admin; one opted out and went into a fun art career; one became a stay-at-home mother; I work somewhere I hate with every fiber of my being; one married me and as a result is an adjunct in the middle of nowhere without any colleges nearby.

I always said I would get the PhD and I doubt that I would not do it if I was given the chance to go back in time. What I wish was in place – and should be in place – for every single PhD program is some career workshops that show us what we should be doing for that academic job AND what we can do for non-academic jobs. Whenever I decide “this is it, I am leaving academia,” I look at job adverts and begin to write cover letters for jobs I have no idea how to apply for. Universities should not have PhD programs to attract more students or to bring in more revenue. They should not be profitable in the way they are – there should be a component to the degree that is aimed at employability. There should be a Dr. Karen on every PhD program – or at least at every university that offers a PhD program.  Candidates should be required to attend a workshop and meet with such a person to fulfill the requirements of the degree. Universities that aren’t willing to offer such support should not grant the degree.

My hope is that as a new generation of academics begins employment as full-time faculty, we will bring with us the wisdom learned from our experiences on the job market. I always hoped that one day I could give back to a graduate student in the way the young academic who helped me had but I have not been given that opportunity yet and I am not sure I will stick it out long enough to have that chance.

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Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post II — 10 Comments

  1. My concern is- if every program really had a Dr. Karen, then wouldn’t we be right back where we started with not enough full-time jobs offered for the number of candidates out there? Everyone’s materials would be great, but they’d still have to pick from among us to make job offers, leaving the majority still under/un/alternately employed.

    • absolutely correct. Well, let me edit that. Correct in that individual solutions cannot intervene in a macro-economic collapse of our sector of the economy. However. Targeted professionalization training would include a larger confrontation of jobs and the job market writ large, shaking people out of delusion that somehow the academy and Ph.D. research is beyond or above economic considerations. People have to make a living, and a responsible program will include an element of training in that truth.

  2. Agree with the first commenter. The problem is systemic, well beyond lack of training for recent PhDs and graduate students. The problem includes (but it is not limited to):
    – Shrinking funding for universities (something that only governments can deal with, unless the university becomes a for-profit endeavour, and that’s probably the case with private universities that don’t have to rely on government subsidies).
    – Not enough professors retiring – simultaneously coupled with – not enough positions for newly minted PhDs.
    – Overproduction of PhDs without an alternative-to-academia training (at least if we were training PhDs to have OTHER skills that were employable, beyond research and data analysis). Simultaneously coupled with long-term stigma (“you’re not on a tenure-track? what’s wrong with you”) and little-to-no-desire to change the system (which includes the tenure system; publications only in closed journals, rather than open access, overproduction of irrelevant AND closed journals).
    – And the list continues…

    I wish somebody had done an influence diagram of all the different systemic forces and elements at play in the MUCH NEEDED renewal of the higher education system. I just listed a few of the issues, and highlighted that they are systemic rather than something that can be dealt with on an individual basis. Having this systemic, panoramic landscape overview of the issue would help us grapple with the question rather than just address or discuss one problem of the higher education system at a time.

  3. Kudos to Dr. Karen for shining a light on this important issue. The poster’s story is a tragedy at the individual level but also at the level of public policy. If many of our best minds spend years training for a profession for which there are not enough jobs to go around, then that represents a significant waste of society’s productive resources. U.S. law schools have been taken to task recently for admitting too many students and for providing skewed information regarding employment prospects upon graduation. It’s time Ph.D. programs had their feet held to that same fire.

  4. This post reminds me of old complaints about the tenure system. Many new professors were given no guidance on tenure and when they reached year six were told that they hadn’t done, served, or published enough. Now most schools have yearly reviews or at least a 4-year review of pre-tenure faculty. Graduate school programs need to institute the same kind of process to ensure their students make progress toward a job (not just the dissertation). I recently had many ABD students answer a CFP, and I was appalled at how skimpy their CVs looked. I wouldn’t have hired any of them. A review process for grad students is very important because people often don’t have an interview for graduate school. These students have never been vetted in person. My own advisor was super sweet but jaded by years of seeing grad students slink into oblivion. So I had to be my own career advisor. Read the Chronicle, Kathryn Hume, Gregory Semenza, and this blog for career advice. The Chronicle has years and years of advice on job expectations. For your research subscribe to a major journal in your field and read the articles over and over examining their structure and looking up sources cited. I never told my advisor what I was doing regarding publications or conferences but I made sure to have him visit me teaching so the recommendation letter would be specific enough. Then on your own look through faculty web pages. Note where most faculty published their first articles. Note which grants they received. Use the same research and analytical skills you use in scholarly research for finding a job. Smart grad students can use the peer-review process at journals for the real “dissertation advising.” Believe me outside, anonymous reviewers will not play nice. Be scrappy and persistent.

    • I agree with almost all of your comments except the one referring to “skimpy” CVs.

      Part of the dysfunction of the system. as many have acknowledged, is that quantity and not quality of publications etc. have become the major criterion for getting tenure or even a non-tenure-track job. The result is not an oversupply of PhDs but rather an oversupply of mediocre publications, the vast majority of which will never be read. Shouldn’t departments be more interested in hiring thoughtful academics than prolific ones? Sure, some can be both thoughtful and prolific, but statistically they are going to be a minority rather than a majority.

      Interested in your thoughts on this.

  5. Do the humanities profs lie to their students? I thought about pursuing a PhD in business, after I got my MBA, just because I like school so much and I’m good at it. (I knew that getting a PhD in English, my undergrad major, was a no-go after spending just one semester in a master’s program in English. What a stupid, boring waste of time THAT was.)

    But when I asked a few of my profs what they thought, they warned me away, telling me that it was years and years of drudgery for just a small shot at a tenure-track position.

    Don’t the humanities professors warn their students of the reality that awaits them?

    • The trouble is the self-delusion level of so many junior graduate students. They just don’t get serious about how awful thigns are until they are staring them in the face.

  6. I think you all might have just saved me from a communications PhD. I think I’ll go get the professional master’s now, so that some day I could conceivably work.

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