Graduate Student Shrimps on the Doctoral Barbie: The View from Tenure (A Guest Post)

Kathleen Lowrey, a recently tenured prof at the University of Alberta, got in touch with thoughts on the contradictions of the tenured subject position, inspired by my post on Tenured Privilege.  I asked her to consider contributing a guest post, and she has.  A candid view from tenure, this post explains one of the key reasons that tenured faculty cannot easily reduce graduate admissions*–not from a lack of sympathy to the plight of unemployed Ph.D.s, but from structural pressures on them to maintain a stable of Ph.D. advisees for their own promotion to Full. Everything she writes reflects my own experience as a tenured prof. in two different R1 departments. You absolutely lost status and standing, and promotability if you did not actively recruit and maintain a set of Ph.D. advisees.

Thank you, Professor Lowrey, for contributing this honest examination of your own subject position, and especially for contributing it under your own name.


Many thanks to Karen for the invitation to guest post about this, something I’d like to be discussing with colleagues somewhere but would find difficult to do with my immediate colleagues, for reasons that will become clear in the course of the post.

I’m a relatively recently tenured faculty member at an R1 university.  After finishing the PhD I had a couple of years crying in the wilderness – a year as a sabbatical replacement, a semester in a postdoc, another semester as a sabbatical replacement, during which I got the TT offer from my present institution (almost a decade ago now).  I put out a lot of job applications during those two years (and in a previous year, when I was still ABD) and went through several conference interviews and campus interviews such that I emerged with a clear sense of just how scarifying the process of looking for an academic job can be.  I started reading the relevant literature– I found Marc Bousquet’s book particularly apt and enlightening and Karen Kelsky’s internet contributions here and elsewhere uniquely sharp and unsentimental – and have tried in my own department to be a voice for fighting for TT faculty lines, for hiring junior rather than senior people, and for behaving decently during job searches:  not asking for a lot of material in the first round of searching, not scheduling conference interviews at all.  I’ve mostly lost in those discussions, I think because for a while I was the only person in the department with a recent sense of what it’s like out there.  All of those conversations, however, were relatively easy to have (if difficult to prevail in) because they were about one-off decisions and not embedded commitments.

Now that I’ve crossed the line and become a tenured faculty member, I’m faced with the prospect of a much more uncomfortable kind of conversation, one that I must admit I have not yet had the courage to broach.  I suspect, though, I am not the only faculty member out there quietly wrestling with it.  In fact I’m pretty sure the factors that keep me quiet also explain why I haven’t come across much relevant discussion elsewhere even when I’ve gone looking (though I’d be glad to be directed to sources I’ve missed).

While I was an untenured faculty member, I was protected from pressure to supervise grad students.  What I did then (supervise MAs, serve on committees of students of colleagues, or in other departments) was good enough at that level. Since earning tenure, however, the feedback has become pretty relentless.  I have to bring in grad students, and in particular, if I hope to advance to a full professorship someday, I have to produce some PhDs.

I haven’t had tenure for long, but I have started to think about what it will mean to hold the line down the road. There are my own career prospects, of course.  There are also social dimensions. As it stands, to be a professor who doesn’t “attract” grad students is to be held in mild disdain by colleagues (and their students) who have more departmental presence and thus set the departmental culture.

To speak out as being against the recruitment of grad students would necessitate specifying my reasons.  This would more or less amount to an attack on the ethics (or at least the alertness-to-current-realities) of my faculty colleagues.  It would also, in a certain sense, be an attack on the preparedness and potential of many of our department’s graduate students.  The whole notion of recruitment to doctoral programs under present employment conditions presupposes a certain naiveté among the target audience.  Finally, it would be to stab my department in the back for purposes of resource allocation within my university, as other departments all insist that their graduate programs are excellent, recruitment to them is a worthy and important task, standards are uniformly high, and prospects sustainedly promising. It’s not a paranoid fantasy that central administrations (here are everywhere) are always looking for weaklings to cull, so that a sure result of my speaking out would not be an institution-wide conversation in which all departments reflected on their grad programs. The result would be a chum in the water effect in which other departments would insist on their absolute distance from any of the concerns I raised and would take the opportunity to declare their relative excellence and consequently superlative meriting of faculty lines and grad funding.  Having sat on grad committees in other departments, I know the issues I am concerned about are present all over the place in my institution and, from my readings on the issue, other institutions also (as readers here know well).

So do I keep my head down for now, eventually succumb, and end by throwing a few grad student shrimps on the doctoral barbie?  There are not a lot of academic jobs out there, so this is the little world in which I live and am likely to continue living for years and years.  My colleagues are nice people, though possibly not reading as much about the collapse of faculty jobs as they might. My department’s students are nice people, too, though often more naive than might be ideal. Do I want to make them all hate me? Alternatively, am I of a sufficiently self-abnegating character to lump along as an associate professor forever, not minding the aspersions cast along the way on poor old Professor L who attracts no acolytes?

I’m not asking for sympathy.  I’m a tenured professor.  Asking for sympathy would be obscene.  I am, however, suggesting that from my vantage point, I can see why it is that tenured profs are not leading the charge to change graduate education as we know it.  I’m still figuring out what I ought to do about it.

[Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.  She has carried out fieldwork in Guaraní speaking communities in the South American Chaco since 1997.]


*I am aware that many people do not believe reducing graduate admissions is an appropriate response to the job market crisis.  I believe it is imperative.

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Graduate Student Shrimps on the Doctoral Barbie: The View from Tenure (A Guest Post) — 23 Comments

  1. I think the comment in asterix was necessary, since it points to a latent assumption in this post – namely that earning a PhD means seeking a job in academia. However, if we think of a PhD as *education* rather than as atelier-like professional training, many other job opportunities are out there, to which PhDs would greatly contribute: in public service, in the industries, in management and governance. Seriously. Moreover, quite a few PhD students start grad school with the goal of going ‘back’ to their industry once minted but their life goals are altered by their own professors who make it clear that it is the academe or failure.
    One of my best friends from grad school used her language skills to go into facebook. Her adviser treats her like a failure.

    • I agree that a Ph.D. should be viewed as a valuable asset outside of the ivy tower. Alas, there are a lot of people who don’t When I got my doctorate in Operations Research from Stanford in the mid-90’s, nobody else in my cohort immediately went into academe, to the dismay and disdain of our professors. Ironically, they’ve done quite well for themselves, although perhaps not at the level of some of our famous contemporaries – Larry Page and Sergi Brin.

      So your best friend’s advisor should think twice about treating her like a failure. Especially as she may someday be in a position to endow a chair or three.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful note by Kathleen. I was struck by two words in this entry, one — “promotion” — by Karen, and the other — “advancement” — by Kathleen, both in regard to the change in job title from associate professor to full professor.

    My late father, who had a long career in academia, used to tell me that there are only two ranks that matter: tenured and untenured. Those were different days, of course, but my own experience was that my promotion from assistant professor to tenured associate professor was a real promotion in the sense that it fundamentally altered my work relations. Tenure itself accomplishes this, not the change in job title, of course, but at my university we do not have tenured assistant professors.

    My passage to full professor rank, by contrast, carried virtually no changes in my work relations. It did not grant me any privileges that I did not have as an associate professor, except the right to serve on a couple of university level committees that simply mean more work… And those committees don’t exclude associate professors, just limit the number of associate professors.

    Kathleen and Karen: as anthropologists I assume that you will recognize the fetishism of job titles here. The only benefit that accompanied my “promotion” to full professor was the rather intangible sense of higher prestige or status, but when I see so many of my full prof. colleagues who gained that title for very modest accomplishments, I don’t exactly feel overwhelmed by the status inherent in the title.

    I’m not proposing that Kathleen coast now that she’s been promoted. But anxiety over the phantom benefits of the next “promotion” isn’t worth it. I’d rather see all of us have the job title “professor” without parsing that more finely, letting us pursue excellence in our fields because we are passionate about our work, not because we are chasing job titles. Attract those grad students because you’re a great scholar, teacher and role model, not because you hate the thought of lumping along as an associate professor.

  3. HI Barbara (if I may),

    I appreciate the feedback (and thanks again, Karen, for the invite to guest post here. I feel like the last line of your response, though, doesn’t quite get to the nub of my dilemma — there are better and worse lines of crumbs leading to the grad school gingerbread house (being a “great scholar, teacher, and role model” vs. lumpiness), I certainly agree. But I’m actually worried about whether putting out that line of crumbs — of any variety — is an ethical thing to do.

    • Hi, Kathleen — you’re absolutely right. I should have been more attentive to your dilemma. My perspective has always been to do what you feel is right and good without becoming obsessed with the very flimsy rewards, especially after you have tenure (!), but I also know that’s not that simple. Congratulations on your successful promotion, though, and good luck with work. Cordially, Barbara

  4. AA — in my experience, grad students who come in with well-defined plans for a non-academic “after career” are common at the MA level and very rare at the PhD level. I think this is because it’s easier to do a whole variety of things with an MA while the PhD is in fact often a hindrance when seeking non-academic jobs. But this surely varies a lot by discipline.

  5. I don’t share your views on the (im)morality of taking students in an overcrowded field, but I respect your honesty and desire to act in accordance with your morals. While I am not myself in the humanities or social sciences, from my contacts in those fields, there are several types of potential student that you might be comfortable to take on and actively recruit. One big source can be post-career people (retired, or nearly so), who are looking to do a PhD as a “hobby” because they are really interested in the topic; they have the financial reserves, and they won’t go on the job market to increase competition. Another source might be international students (especially from the middle east, china, vietnam) who are sponsored by their government or university (in many cases they already have a permanent teaching job, but no research experience), and required to return there to build their home country after the degree [this is very common in STEM fields, but I understand it can also be found in some social sciences] – to follow this up, I suggest you speak to colleagues from those countries, because the pattern is usually that it is a lot of work and personal contacts to get the first student from university X, but once you have them, many others follow from the same place.

    Good luck finding a path to reconcile your own views and the status/funding game in your institution.

  6. Alan — my fantasy PhD student is the intellectually-inclined spouse of an Oilers player 🙂 ; someone for whom economic security is no object!

    You are right that international students, for whom a doctorate from a North American institution can be quite prestigious and career-forwarding and who (from some countries, at least) come with their own funding, obviate many of these issues. To my way of thinking, they raise slightly different ones — they extend the end-game for graduate training as we know it, in that once upon a time in the 20th century doctoral graduates from a few major departments went out and seeded North America with new doctoral-granting programs, so that there were for a while jobs for all graduates. And we can kind of keep doing that for a while: just as once Harvard doctorates founded doctoral programs at, say, the University of Kansas (I’m just making up examples here, not drawing on specific institutional histories, disclaimer disclaimer!) so now North American doctorates go back to, say, Malaysian universities trailing clouds of doctoral-program-generating glory.

    At public universities, at least, I’m not sure that’s what the taxpayer signed up for: though an argument could (and is) made that it is a good thing, ie, it’s good for the global prestige and business connections of the state / province for the alma mater to form with the overseas destination. To buy into that idea, though, you kind of have to believe a lot of other things about “hooray the globalized economy” which might certainly hold if all kinds of social structures were different. But given current social structures, it seems a lot more like global elites skimming the cream of public investment for ends that are elite-oriented rather than public-oriented.

    • As an assistant prof in a STEM field, I can say U.S. taxpayers are lucking out that they have extremely skilled, heavily subsidized grad students from other countries to do so much research funded (partially at this point) by the NSF and NIH. The way scientific funding goes in this country, we should enjoy this benefit while it lasts.

      On another note, the central conflict of this post surprised me from the “other” direction. In science and engineering, assistant profs are pressured from day 1 to attract grad students and build a lab to produce papers and get funding (Jorge Cham’s “Profzi scheme”). It’s usually the tenured profs with smaller labs and less pressure to attract and retain students. There has been a lot of analysis of the professional population dynamics generated by the pressures of tenure, funding agencies, etc. That said, gradually school is arguably humane in STEM: stipends are roughly enough to live on, and everyone tries hard to finish in ~5 years. I nonetheless am screening applicants interviewing now to make sure they grasp the larger system of which their training is a part. I am distressed at how clueless some of them are about their options, and I’m trying hard to gently help. The ones who say, “It’s so cool I could get paid to learn!” are usually the less quantitative undergrads who have no concept of opportunity cost and haven’t really explored their options.

      • It seems to me that the ‘Profzi Scheme’ has collapsed in US in all but the best institutions:

        In the recent years, the number of PIs that cannot maintain NIH funding has sharply increased (over three fold in the last few years). Without stable external support, training PhD students becomes very difficult. The graduating ones cannot find faculty positions. And if they do, they are unable to renew their R01 grants.

  7. Kathleen, I hold a masters from UofA. This document (pdf) shows completion times for masters, phds, listed by gender, department, and faculty. FGSR publishes these after every convocation. Note that in practice virtually no department runs a 2-year masters or 4-year PhD. The last couple of students in my cohort defended at the four and five year marks. Most of us took between three and four years. The reasons, in my experience? Inattentive supervision (you could spend a 3 or 6 months waiting for feedback on a chapter), and/or worse , exploitive chairs/departments/supervisors who use and abuse naive young students as indentured labour and fail to see why is a problem. You might be aware that a few years ago, the university created a Provost’s Fellow for Graduate Supervision which was I think supposed to look into these kinds of issues because they appeared so pervasive, but I don’t know what became of it – especially in light of the recent Campus Alberta cutbacks and changes.
    The best supervisors I’ve seen at Alberta (or anywhere) have stellar professional reputations, but are also attentive to their grad students and ensure their timely progress is a priority. I can think of three people They appear more interested in being genuinely professional and respectful in their conduct with peers and students, not manipulative careerists. Three of the four in my mind (two at UofA) have all now made full professor and are a pleasure to interact with. What’s interesting to me is how staying above the fray is actually a strength for them, not a weakness. In two cases I know for certain they’re engaged in a constant reflection on their practice as academics.

    I can’t imagine you’d have trouble recruiting good doctoral students if you’re selective about who you take on, attentive to their well-being and work, and willing to make them aware of but also protect them from the sharks that swim around that campus and help them understand and prepare for different options once they leave.

  8. Isn’t one of the reasons you’d want to be promoted from associate to full professor that it comes with an increase to your pay?

    • It’s a trivial increase, at least at my university: we get larger raises in our merit increases. “Promotional” salary increases are also part of the false consciousness of academia: a small salary increase is a tiny carrot held out to persuade you to work, and most of us seem to believe that the hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours we spend in scholarly production was all worth it when we get that little promotional increase. I make more money doing outside work in a week, over the summer.

      Many years ago I did some organizational studies, consulting for business and industry, and was struck by the frequency with which employers held out pretty trivial ‘symbolic’ gestures as rewards for good work. A “promotion” from Assistant Regional Sales Manager to Deputy Regional Sales Manager was often enough to make an employee happy and let them feel like they’d just had a major promotion, even if it came with no change in their job description, their labor relations, or even much of a salary change. These are very cheap ways for any business — and any college or university — to persuade you to be productive.

      Since I’m on a rant here — for which I apologize — I’ll also raise the issue of equal pay for equal work. At my university, and at many universities as far as the general wisdom goes, associate professors are the workhorses, handling more of the ‘service’ and teaching than any other rank, and are typically also more productive scholars since they’re racing for that next promotion. Why should an associate professor who is expected to do the same work as a full professor — but typically does more — get paid less, even by a small amount, than full professor colleagues? “Experience” is a convenient way to excuse my higher salary, but let’s face it, my assistant professor colleagues are more likely to be up-to-date with our field, more likely to be enthusiastic teachers, and much more likely to be publishing interesting stuff. Why should an assistant professor’s salary be half what I make?

      Again, my apologies for the tirade!

      • What Barbara says fits well from my limited experience, too — to be honest I have not looked at the salary scales for each rank since the year I got hired (I got one as part of my start up paperwork), but if memory serves since I started near the bottom I think it would take essentially forever for me to hit the top of the Associate Prof salary scale (it gets adjusted upward over the years through collective agreements). And I think this is true for many faculty, so that the motivation to go for Full Prof is usually driven by factors other than the desire to jump over to the salary scale that goes to 11!

  9. Also, being “held in disdain by colleagues” and department members with more “presence” is appalling. My immediate thought is that these people are not your ‘colleagues’ in any real sense of the word, nor are they people you should attempt to impress. They are ethically bankrupt persons for whom personal advancement within a deeply troubling and limited set of metrics – at the expense of other people’s well-being (grad students, other profs) – is the be all and end all of life. Sigh.

  10. CJ — thanks for the local grad perspective. Since you are hitting close to home, I want to say that I wouldn’t (at all) call my colleagues “ethically bankrupt”. The culture of grad programs everywhere that grad programs exist is that they are a good thing (otherwise departments wouldn’t have them) and that part of your job as a faculty member is to recruit people to them.

    This is about my department only for me — as a general state of affairs, it holds all over the place. I think tenure exists so that people who have it speak in their own names about important issues, which is why I have been willing to attach my name and my story to these observations, but I don’t want to be misread as suggesting that this is something that is unique to my department (in fact this is one of the ways I’ve dreaded being misinterpreted…) or my institution.

    To trot out a bit of disciplinary drollery: what I’m trying to do here is a bit of auto-ethnography. Outsiders think “why do those people do this or that thing that seems morally wrong, or plain strange?” and then the job of the anthropologist is to say, “well, within this cultural context this is why these choices and these outcomes seem unobjectionable and sensible”. But the “culture” in question isn’t specific to the U of A — it’s the culture of doctoral granting institutions throughout North America.

    I should also clarify that my own concerns bear really only upon doctoral programs — MA programs, when well run (and I am sorry to hear that they aren’t all they could be across the board at the U of A, from what you have said), seem to me not to be fraught with the issues that attach to PhD programs.

  11. Kathleen, your post hit home for me as well and triggered a pretty visceral set of emotions and memories and I apologise for my bluntness and harshness.

    When you describe your colleagues as holding you in disdain for your perfectly reasonable motivations and thoughts, they come across to me as having a particular set of issues that reminded me of my experiences. If your colleagues are recruiting students to advance their careers, and misleading them in order to recruit them, they are not playing ethically – in my view. I would argue that this is especially true at a public institution like UofA where professors are paid on the public dime, making them a form of public servant and accountable as such. Given the state of the academic job market now, I would argue it’s a professional ethical obligation to advise and recruit students with honesty. I’d go so far as to call it misconduct to prey upon naivete because a prof or department needs students. The incoming students largely don’t know this and recruiting them without advising them as such is deception and wouldn’t meet the ethical standard we use for social research.

    It took me a while, after speaking to friends hired at positions at other North American institutions, and personally experiencing in others both in Canada and Europe, to realise that what I experienced at UofA simply isn’t the norm elsewhere. There is a danger, I think, in suggesting some universal institutional norm because doing so removes the possibility of considering that there are better examples out there. Citing culture, especially holding it as a universal constant and not a dynamic and complex phenomena, risks making it easier to avoid to confronting the individual mindsets and behaviour that perpetuate certain cultures, especially at as intimate a scale as an university department. I’m of the view that if you can ‘see’ culture and it’s inconsistencies, you can then change it (see Archer 1996, Culture and Agency).

    UofA is maybe in some ways unique. It’s a public research university within a neoliberal oil-province run essentially as a one-party petro-state. Culturally, it seems to reflect the social and political climate of the province, being heavily positivist and individualistic, and dominated by the undemocratic force of vision of the current president (Top 20 by 2020, Harvard north, etc). That the province is now taking an much more active role in higher-ed and Campus Alberta seems to be set to bring universities in line with conservative political ideology and economic policy kind of sours that vision (but then again it’s also the political extension of what the president was trying to do anyway within the context of global league tables). In practice, the UofA culture emphasizes personal advancement over collective wellbeing, and focuses its efforts on promoting STEM plus business and economics, together with obscenely paid superstar researchers. Social science and humanities need not apply. Everything is built on the backs of graduate students.

    Someone once pointed out to me that Edmonton is a winter city (essentially subarctic), meaning the academic year runs through the cold and dark months, and this is why they might have trouble attracting people and could somehow reflected in the institution. Gentler climates have a moderating effect on work and personalities…

    • CJ — a lot to think about here, and actually, your points about the current climate at the U of A (political and otherwise, har har I’ll spare you the cold weather jokes!) are right on. At the same time, though, when I read my undergraduate alumni magazine (UNC-Chapel Hill) I’m often struck by how it seems to be the same all over at public institutions: for example the U of A has a new program in “Entrepreneurship” and UNC-CH now has a certificate in… “Entrepreneurship”. And keeping up with the outpouring of worry and heartbreak and rage from PhDs who can’t find work.. well, it’s coming from lots of places.

  12. Thanks to Kathleen for her honest and well-reasoned post and to Karen for inviting it (and for everything else she’s done).
    I haven’t contributed much to prior discussions on this thread as I’m an Associate Professor in business, not humanities, but I had three thoughts to share:
    1) Yes, Associates don’t really make that much less $ than Full, but I’m guessing that most people who go into academe aren’t that motivated by money once they are past the poverty line. The big differentiator is that, unless you declare that you plan to remain Associate forever (which has its own baggage), you will always be in the process of applying for Full and, thus, of being assessed by the Fulls in your department. And good luck being Chair as an Associate, since you have to deal with Fulls with kid gloves, as they may otherwise hold a grudge for scheduling them for that 101 intro section at 8am on Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays that you need to fill.
    2) As someone who teaches at a Cal State, where we grant no Ph.D.s, I had always felt cheated because I never had doctoral students to supervise and then publish co-authored articles for they had done 90% of the work (be honest folks, that’s what happens). But I now appreciate the flip side of the coin.
    – I didn’t go directly into academe from my Ph.D., but instead interviewed for industry positions. I got a lot of “why the #$@^ did you get a Ph.D. if you want to work in industry” flak at the time. So, yes, non-academic jobs are an option, but it takes a little effort.

    So thank you for the opportunity to share. I’m up for Full this year and so far my reviews are good.

    • It really depends on the industry — some industries look for Bachelor’s degrees, some for Master’s, and there are industries that want PhD’s. The examples of the latter that I know of are all STEM though.

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  14. When I was interviewing at the department where I am now a PhD student, one of the professors I interviewed with made a point to discuss the realities of the job market and ask if I had a non-academic career plan. This helped me properly set my expectations and allow me to enter graduate school with full knowledge of the challenges (and I did still enter!). I had also heard (from undergraduate advisors) that I would not be admitted to graduate school unless I had academic career goals. That interview conversation, and others later, allowed me to realize that professors in my department will support me in non-academic career goals as well.

    There are more solutions (albiet partial solutions) than just admitting less students. Educating prospective students and being a champion for non-academic transitions are just two ways that faculty in my department have prevented me from being a victim of the academic job market.

  15. Excellent post. It brings to mind my own experience going on the Canadian market as a PHD from a smallish Canadian school.

    I am currently in my second TT job. Hence, I speak from a position of absolute privilege.

    But for the past decade I was on the market. There, I was always competing with graduates from U of Toronto, York, and McGill. Although my publication, grant, and award record is strong, I consistently landed interviews at mid- to low-tier schools. Graduates from the “big 3,” meanwhile, landed the interviews at the top schools.

    As a result, I’ve reflected somewhat bitterly on the tactics my alma matter used to “woo” me to its PhD program. I see now that the best TT jobs (which I’m defining as jobs in research schools) go to grads from UofT, York, McGill (and occasionally UBC), if not to international scholars.

    But when I was a MA student looking for a PhD, I did not know that to become a research professor, one had to go to the highest ranked school. Yes, I was naive. But I am also from a working class family. Back in my early 20s, I did not understanding the workings of academic pedigree.

    This brings up the issue of attracting grad students to U of A. I think it’s incumbent for Canadian scholars to tell aspiring students that most TT jobs go to graduates from UofT, York, McGill, and, increasingly, UBC. If they want to become a professor in Canada, their chances are greatly improved if they go to one of these schools.

    Yes, U of A is in the “top 5” Canadian research universities. But it is not — in my field anyway — generally recognized as being as prestigious as U of T, York, or McGill.

    This is why I tell my own aspiring students that if they want to become professors, they should choose their grad programs wisely. Pedigree matters.

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