The PhD Glut and What to Do About It

tags: academic job market, PhD programs, graduate education

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in Americapublished by Johns Hopkins University Press.

My doctoral students used to get jobs teaching at colleges and universities. That was their goal, coming into graduate school. And most of them got there.

Over the past few years, however, their luck has turned. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with my students, who are as brilliant as ever (if I may say so myself). It’s because there simply aren’t enough teaching jobs in higher education, at least not the kind that give you health insurance and a living wage. Recognizing this, about half of Ph.D. students drop out before getting their doctorate. Those who finish take adjunct-instructor gigs and other part-time work, waiting for the tenure-track position that will probably never come. The situation is especially dismal in the humanities, as might be expected, but students in the social and natural sciences also struggle to find the academic jobs they had envisioned. The jobs themselves have disappeared, snuffed out by the larger economic challenges and contractions of higher education.

It’s a grim picture, but it’s also changing. Or so say Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch, in their forthcoming and surprisingly optimistic book The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 408 pp. Cloth, $32.95.)

Cassuto and Weisbuch acknowledge that the current system is unsustainable. Yet they also celebrate an embryonic movement towards “career diversity,” which aims to alter the doctorate, so it prepares students for jobs that actually exist. Seeded by some big grants from foundations like Mellon (which, it should be noted, also funded this book), the reform campaign is revising coursework, advising, and research requirements to ready graduates for positions in museums, journalism, government agencies, and industry. When the transformation is complete, Cassuto and Weisbuch predict, my future students will once again obtain good jobs. It’s just that most of these jobs won’t be in academia.


Count me a skeptic, at least for now. Of course, our doctoral programs need to take teaching much more seriously, as Cassuto and Weisbuch repeatedly urge. But critics of universities have been saying that for over a century, decrying recycled lectures by lazy professors and aimless discussion groups led by overworked graduate students. Part of the problem is the poor reputation of schools of education, which aren’t mentioned by Cassuto and Weisbuch. They’re professors of English, focused firmly upon their colleagues in the arts and sciences. But surely, the low status of ed-schools in the university world has inhibited real reform of teaching because nobody wants their name associated with the subject. Why should we expect this moment to yield a different outcome? Likewise, exposés of impenetrable academic prose date to the founding of the modern academy itself. Yes, we should train our students to write in actual English. But who, exactly, will provide that training? The same faculty members who moved up the totem pole by publishing jargon-laded tracts read only by fellow specialists? Don’t bet on it.

Read entire article at Washington Monthly

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