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PhDs need real jobs too

People who study for doctorates in the arts and sciences are typically driven by love — for a particular historical period, author or field of inquiry. But graduate school isn't just a place to dive into 18th century novels, Medieval art or neurobiology. It's also, necessarily, a place to prepare for a career.

Most graduate programs encourage their students to set their sights on jobs teaching or conducting research at a college or university. They also endorse the notion, whether intentionally or not, that taking a position outside of the professoriate is some kind of failure.

That's insanity. It takes nine years on average for students to obtain a doctorate in the humanities, and the sciences are almost as bad. At the end of that long process, students encounter a job market for professors that is a mostly dry well. Only about half of doctoral candidates in the arts and sciences will eventually obtain jobs as college and university instructors. An increasing number of those openings are short-term gigs, many less than a year long, with no promise of future employment.

Even the lucky graduate students who secure a tenure-track position are likely to find a mismatch between their training and their future job requirements. As students, they learn how to become research specialists. But most professors spend most of their time teaching. Only a sliver of the doctorate population gets top-tier, research-first jobs.

We would hardly expect a modern journalism school to have a single-minded focus on print newspapers. Yes, there are still jobs to be had at newspapers, but only a small fraction of the number that there once were. A single-minded focus on professorships — on research-dominated professorships in particular — is just as irrational.

This attitude is a hangover from the Cold War, when the federal government spent heavily on academic research and higher education for its citizens, first returning World War II soldiers and then the children of the baby boom. Government investment in new public universities and federal loan programs made college affordable for more Americans than ever before. There was a corresponding shortage of teachers for all those new students, which meant that pretty much anyone who could finish a doctorate could become a professor. The result was the largest generation of professors in the history of American higher education.

That one generation turned out to be a historical anomaly. It ended in the 1970s. College and university administrators waited a long time for it to come back. Only now, two generations later, are we finally accepting that the golden age is over.

I talk to graduate students all over the country, and they know which way the wind is blowing. They want an education that bears some relation to the diverse career possibilities they know they'll have to consider when they're done. A graduate student in math recently confessed to me that he wants to get a job at a bank. I just met a PhD in English who works as a technical writer for a software firm in Silicon Valley. Yet I've also heard countless graduate students say that they fear disapproval, even scorn, if they tell their advisors they're considering work outside academia.

Professors and administrators need to get over their self-importance and honor nonprofessorial career choices. When professors teach graduate students to disrespect the work that many of them must eventually consider, they're sabotaging their prospects. But it's worse than that. When we teach our students that professors' jobs — preferably research-intensive ones — are the only ones worth having, we're teaching them to be unhappy.

More practically, professors and administrators have to develop programs to help their graduate students professionalize for the job market of today, not 50 years ago.

This is already happening here and there. The University of Louisville, for example, runs a series of about 25 professionalization workshops each semester. These help new graduate students get their bearings, and older ones prepare for different kinds of job searches.

These changes have to continue, and multiply. Our students' professional lives depend on it. Thousands of graduate students have unionized to protest the conditions of their educational workplaces. Their discontent sends a message that needs to be heard. If tomorrow's talented college students believe that graduate school is a fool's errand, they'll simply vote with their feet and stay away.

That would be a loss not just to universities but to the whole country — because as Thomas Jefferson famously observed, a more educated population makes for a healthier democracy. PhDs don't all have to labor in the proverbial ivory tower. All of us benefit when more PhDs are in public life. Let's teach graduate students about all the things they can do, not just one of them.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University. His new book is "The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It."

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 30, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Preparing PhDs for the real world" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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