Sober Op-Ed: The Ph.D. Isn’t Working Right Now!

Graduation Student Entering Maze Path Uncertain, Seeking Occupation, Employment, Goals


Dear Commons Community,

Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch have a new book coming out in January entitled, The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education.  This morning they have an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education that provides a look at the state of the Ph.D. and make recommendations for improving it for the sake of students, most of whom will never be able to get academic appointments in colleges and universities.  The op-ed opens:

“Imagine an entering cohort of eight doctoral students sitting around a table in a seminar room or a laboratory conference room. They’ve just arrived at graduate school, and they’re eager to see what their new adventure will hold. They all know that the academic job market is depressed, but most are hoping for a college or university teaching job of some kind.

Now let’s flash-forward in time. According to recent statistics, four of the eight (50 percent!) will not complete the Ph.D. — and those are pre-Covid-19 numbers. Of the four who do finish, two will not get academic positions and will seek jobs elsewhere. The remaining pair will get full-time faculty jobs, most likely at teaching-intensive institutions. Perhaps they’ll get tenure-track assistant professorships, though the chances for those positions have been shrinking. And maybe one of the two will get a tenure-track position at a research university like the one where those eight students assembled years earlier.

Yet all eight of the first-year students at the table will be trained according to the professional needs of that single one who might snag a job at a research university. The curriculum of most graduate programs in the arts and sciences emphasizes research, above all, and is contoured to prepare students to compete for the rarest and most competitive jobs that sit atop the academic status pyramid.

This status quo presents a picture of incoherence of process and goals. The Ph.D. simply isn’t working right now. The degree is taking longer and longer; graduate-student cohorts are less diverse than in most social sectors; the curriculum is frequently haphazard, and so, too, is the way doctoral students are advised and trained to teach. No one is really in charge, and assessment is almost entirely lacking.

But above all, this most prestigious of degrees isn’t serving students because it doesn’t prepare them for the realities that they will face in their professional lives. We should expect holders of the highest academic degree not simply to know a great deal but to know what to do with it, both within academe (teaching, for instance, is one enactment of knowledge) and beyond it.”

They proceed to make recommendations for making the Ph.D. more valuable for doctoral students.

“We need a Ph.D. that looks outside the walls of the university, not one that turns inward. There’s nothing new about a public-facing Ph.D. Its roots lie in the American academic past, before the Cold War expansion of academe created a temporary demand for professors, along with the illusion that this demand would endure forever. Engagement of multiple and diverse publics is a much older aim of American education than the model of pure scholarly replication.

Such an emphasis on public use and usefulness is coiled into the DNA of American higher education. Most private colleges and universities were founded by religious groups seeking to improve society through learning and the good works of their educated students. And the public good was a prime tenet in the founding of state universities beginning in the 19th century.

This idea of usefulness explicitly included the arts and sciences. Public universities fulfilled the language of the 1862 Morrill Act, which calls for both “liberal and practical education.” As John Dewey put it in 1917, a discipline “recovers itself … when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method cultivated by philosophers for dealing with the problems of men” (and women, we would add). That’s a worthy credo for the tradition of American higher education.

And it is one that the Ph.D. can fulfill splendidly — if we let it. Graduate students and Ph.D.s are highly resourceful people, but we don’t see their resourcefulness often or broadly enough. Doctoral students learn to work with information in sophisticated ways and to communicate to different kinds of audiences. But too many can get stuck because they aren’t aware that they possess those skills.”

I think Cassuto and Weisbuch are providing important insights into an issue that higher education has to address.  The present pandemic may hasten its response.


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