Post Academic


Collected wisdom: 12 ways to save the lives of grad students (with poll)

"Wisdom Emblem" by George Wither (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Recently, much digital ink has been spilled over the fate of the university and, particularly, the humanities.  Connected to those larger structural concerns are the fates of graduate students, be they recent Ph.D.s or soon-to-be Ph.D.s or prospective students, during a time when budgets are bad, morale is low, and job prospects are even worse.  After all the posts we’ve devoted to these topics here, I thought it would be good to offer a list of things that have been floated to help grad students.  What follows is a summary of the accumulated wisdom gathered from a number of sources (OK, they’re all from columns from the Chronicle of Higher Ed) we’ve been following that put some concrete–if not easily achievable–suggestions on the table for universities, grad programs, faculty, and students alike.

William Pannapacker, aka Thomas H Benton, aka the advice columnist at the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

1. Don’t go to grad school in the first place!

“It’s hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it’s right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.” (from “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”, 1/30/2009)

2. If you do go, know that grad school is a trap that’s based on a lie of the love for learning

“Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.” (from “The Big Lie of the ‘Life of the Mind'”, 2/8/2010)

3. If you’re still thinking about going, get all the info you can about admissions, student aid, teaching, time to degree, attrition, job placement (from “Making a Reasonable Choice”, April 18, 2010)

More wisdom, after the jump…

Peter Conn, “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities” (Chronicle, April 4, 2010)

4. Admit fewer students

5. More transparency about job “possibilities”

“Every program should also include a required (presumably noncredit) first-semester course aimed at introducing students to the professional facts of life. Such a course would review local and national information on attrition, time-to-degree, placement, prospects for tenure-accruing jobs, salaries, and the workings of professional organizations.”

6. Accurate job placement information

7. Accept and even promote job opportunities outside of academia

“My own conversations with graduate students over several decades indicate that most of them do not find the idea of nonacademic careers particularly appealing. Perhaps if the question were rephrased—an alternative career or none—the results would be different. And perhaps, over time, a more spacious conception of postdoctoral employment might attract a different cadre of students.”

8. Enhance the status of the humanities

Gina Barreca“Are the Humanities Doomed?” (Chronicle Brainstorm blog, April 6, 2010)

9. I’m not sure what to do, so can someone else come up with a solution for me!

“But what about the really excellent graduate students? They already know how to write a dissertation, publish their research, teach excellent classes, and they already dress in highly appropriate attire.

So I’m asking, and I’m not kidding anymore, folks: What do I tell them?”

Katherine Polak, “A Letter from a Graduate Student in the Humanities” (Chronicle, April 4, 2010)

10. Faculty need to offer real solutions, not just lip service or doomsday scenarios

“Such pundits need to do what we TA’s tell our composition students to do: Offer potential solutions for the problem at hand. Writing the same meandering, pointless first draft of an argument does not constitute a valid contribution to the work of finding solutions. While our profession regularly excoriates the news media for overblown rhetoric, we seem to be better at articles that induce panic about our prospects than about, for example, jobs outside academe for which we might be suited.”

11. Recognize and encourage employment outside of academia

12. Oh yeah, and don’t patronize us…

“We, the humanities graduate students of the United States of America, do not want your pity, or your smug, self-congratulatory admonishments of our choices. What we want is your help formulating a path that will lead us into careers where we can be useful, not exploited.”


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