Reinventing Graduate Education

Ph.D. Policy Shift

If the Ph.D. is an endangered species, what will happen to graduate studies over the course of the next two decades?

Earning a terminal degree does not accomplish the same professional goals that it used to accomplish. Thousands of Ph.D. holders graduate from American universities each year and only a small minority of them will obtain one of those coveted tenure track teaching positions.

Earning a doctorate is, of course, much different from earning a bachelor’s degree. Ph.D holders could have easily invested ten years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education. And that doesn’t even factor in the opportunity cost associated with the degree.

This opportunity cost results from the money lost because these Ph.D. students were not doing other things while in graduate school. Other things like working at a regular job and earning a regular salary.

So, when accounting for the financial impact of earning a Ph.D., one must consider both the time and money directly invested in the degree, and also the time and money that was not earned and invested while working at another job.

The end result could easily add up to over a million dollars when you factor in the earning potential of an IRA and 401K, in which most people begin investing during their 20s when they start a professional career.

But Ph.D candidates rarely have a retirement plan. They usually spend most of their 20s scraping together a meager living as a teaching assistant or even working in restaurants and bars–another career path that affords no long-term retirement options.

All this is to stress how important it is that those who pursue the Ph.D. are able to recoup their financial loss upon graduating. Getting a good job is crucial when one doesn’t begin to earn real money until his mid-30s.

And this is all the more reason the adjunct professor crisis is destroying the academy. Most Ph.D. holders are working these minimum wage part-time teaching gigs after graduation. No retirement, no health insurance. No return on investment for the decade spent in graduate school.

As this crisis grows and becomes more visible, fewer people will enroll in graduate school. The Ph.D. will slowly begin to die. After all, not many people are willing to make such a big sacrifice without any reasonable chance of a return.

Because of this eventuality, I recommend the Ph.D. be restructured in order to train students for a much wider variety of careers–both inside the academy and out. In order for the Ph.D. to maintain relevance, it needs to have definitive pathways to employment that will take the place of the increasingly common adjunct professor job. [pullquote]In order for the Ph.D. to maintain relevance, it needs to have definitive pathways to employment that will take the place of the increasingly common adjunct professor job.[/pullquote]

Some people call these new career paths alternate academic or post academic careers. Sometimes those titles are shortened to alt-ac and post-ac.

These are careers in government, library, research, writing, etc. that engage workers in ways similar to their graduate training, but that do not necessarily involve the dying profession of teaching.

The concepts of alt-ac and post-ac career tracks are still in their infancy. No one knows exactly how to define them yet or what they will become. But many people who study and write about higher education and graduate studies have begun to call for alternative forms of training for the Ph.D.

As one who is intimately familiar with the adjunct crisis and with the huge numbers of out-of-work Ph.D.s, I have taken a real interest in alt-ac careers. I believe they could potentially become the way out of adjunct hell for many people.

Whether it happens in graduate schools themselves, or whether it grows as an organic movement defined and shaped by those who live it, alt-ac promises hope for many who currently have none.

As a result, I’m helping to develop The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae as an alt-ac-friendly space. The first step is to gather resources about the as-yet-undefined reaches of the alt-ac world.

If you would like to learn more about alt-ac and post-ac jobs, add your name and contact information to the alt-ac resource list I started at Vitae. If you are already involved, please share your favorite resources, as well.

If we can pull together enough people on the alt-ac platform, we’ll be able to start influencing graduate schools to incorporate alt-ac career training into their Ph.D. curriculums. Major policy shifts begin with movement by the people.

The PhD is an Endangered Species

Head in the Sand

Graduate programs continue to crank out adjunct professors who support the system on their backs by becoming cogs in the academic machinery, and no one is talking about what will happen when the system finally collapses under its own weight.

University administrations are building their temp workforces, offering low wage jobs to any poor teacher who has a large enough debt balance and few enough other employment prospects. They do it because they can, which obviously isn’t always a good reason. This irresponsible hiring rash is a temporary fix to a long term problem.

Eventually it will catch up to them.

On the other side of the table are the graduate programs that are engaging in equally irresponsible behavior–accepting and graduating PhD after PhD, knowing full well that they are releasing their students into the abyss without properly preparing them.

Training grad students to be professors is foolish at this point. Everyone with half a brain who studies higher education can see the writing on the wall. This profession is shrinking by the day.

The only way for graduate programs to maintain some dignity and relevance in this new higher ed economy is for them to start adapting to the changing job market. Grad programs need to create new career tracks for their PhD students. If this doesn’t happen, I can’t imagine why anyone will continue to earn PhDs. Graduate programs will effectively squeeze themselves out of relevance by refusing to adapt.

Some schools have recognized this reality and have begun discussing the concept of alternative academic careers, or alt-ac for short. The alt-ac is the future of graduate studies and it’s time to start preparing students accordingly.

Read more about the relevance of PhDs and the importance of alt-ac training at:

The Ph.D. Needs CPR