The Educational Bridge to Nowhere

In a new book, Leonard Cassuto goes beyond the “Quit Lit” and offers a cautiously optimistic solution for cleaning up the mess known as Ph.D. education.

Joerg Sarbach / AP

The American system for creating college professors is often criticized for being lengthy, difficult, expensive, and inefficient. Those who complete their Ph.D.s but are unable to find a tenured position—a prospect whose likelihood is increasing given that the number of tenured professors is dropping—are some of its most vitriolic critics. Some within higher education are rethinking their methods for training Ph.D. candidates. Leonard Cassuto, a Fordham University American-studies professor and Chronicle of Higher Education columnist, describes—and proposes solutions to—the messiness of doctoral education in a new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press.

To briefly sum up the widespread criticisms of Ph.D. training, research-focused graduate students in the U.S. in 2003 spent a median of 10 years in school, starting with the time spent in their baccalaureate programs, according to the National Science Foundation. Even if those students receive relatively generous stipends and are able to avoid accumulating massive amounts of debt, a decade can translate into what’s ultimately a very long-drawn out (and sometimes depressing) apprenticeship. Yet, despite an extremely high attrition rate—which according to an earlier analysis by Cassuto is about 50 percent—many of the country’s science graduate programs, for example, overproduce Ph.D.s. There aren’t enough tenured-instructor positions in these fields, (traditionally the end goal for prospective Ph.D.s,) for the number qualified candidates, National Science Foundation data shows.

Various reports suggest that most of the Ph.D.s who do find tenured positions tend to come from a small number of elite programs. Just a quarter of all universities, for example, account for the vast majority of tenure-track faculty in the U.S. in business, computer science, and history, according to a study in Science Advances. In theory, that means those who fail to land one of these coveted positions must think about a new career well into their adult years. The average age for completing a 33, which is rather late to be contemplating a new career.  It can’t be easy to recover from a decade of potential missed salaries and job opportunities outside academia. Some stay in higher education and resort to taking on positions as low-paid adjuncts—what some cynics might refer to as the helots of academia.

A growing number of disgruntled Ph.D.s—Slate’s education columnist Rebecca Schuman, for example—are penning blog posts about their departure from academia, spawning a new genre of essay known as Quit Lit (a trend to which The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost is less than sympathetic). In a viral tirade posted on Vox last week, a tenured professor who’s vowed to leave her job in a year wrote,

In the time that’s allotted to us to in life, we have to make many choices. Opting to pursue an unmarketable career solely because one loves it is an available option. But that decision has consequences. In a university system like ours, where supply and demand are distorted, many promising young people make rash decisions with an inadequate understanding of their long-term implications. Even for people like me, who succeed despite the odds, it’s possible to look back and realize we’ve worked toward a disappointment, ending up as “winners” of a mess that damages its participants more every day.

Had I known sooner, I would’ve given up on this shrinking side of academia many years ago, saving myself plenty of grief while conserving the most valuable quantity of all: time. No one should have to wait so long or sacrifice so much of it for a system like this. Time is money, and we must spend it wisely. Until something is done — something that isn’t just a quick fix, something that looks long and hard at the structure of the present university system and tears it up from the foundation, if that's what it takes — the academy is no longer an investment of time worth making.

Some critics within academia, however, are a little more optimistic—or less fatalistic, anyway: They’re ready, and calling, for reform. Dan Drezner, a Tufts University professor of international relations, has used his roles at Foreign Policy magazine as a senior fellow and the Washington Post as a regular contributor to prepare prospective Ph.D.s for the challenges of the current job market, urging them to consider abandoning their tenured-professor plans and seek alternative routes to their professional goals. Michael Bérubé, a Pennsylvania State University literature professor and the former president of the Modern Language Association, has figured as a prominent critic of graduate education, writing about the need to convert adjunct positions to teaching-intensive tenured positions. Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton and former president of the American Historical Association, has also offered frank commentary on the problems with Ph.D. training, as has the left-wing group blog Crooked Timber, among other sites.

Cassuto joins these pundits’ ranks with his book, which is targeted at the higher-ed community. He argues that the popular press has eagerly highlighted “academic foibles and follies” and exploited the public’s “prurient” interest in the desperate economics of so many recent Ph.D.s. (Does that mean the mainstream news coverage of grad-school is analogous to porn?) He urges his fellow academics to reframe what’s become a exceptionally vexed discussion about the grad-school issues, offer practical solutions, and assume a “caretaker” role with their students—working closely with them and helping them align their studies with their professional goals.

Cassuto spends much of the book describing “the mess,” as he calls it, including the problems typically featured in all that quit-lit: everything from the number of years spent in those programs and the elitist bent of hiring practices to the disappointing job market and the challenges of finishing a dissertation around the time you’re probably ready to have kids. He says that nostalgia and misguided projections have kept academia from appropriately adjust to the shifting university-employment landscape, which had its heyday in the 1960s, when the higher-education system underwent a significant expansion and the job market for professors was strong.

Cassuto’s book has its shortcomings. It spends little time analyzing the circumstances and incentives that created this “mess.” It goes without saying, as Casuto notes, that most professors would probably prefer teaching small seminars of eager graduate students over large lecture halls of hungover undergraduates who are playing video games in class. Graduate-level courses aren’t only easier to teach than are undergraduate classes, leading them, as Cassuto points out, is also more prestigious.

But Cassuto fails to explore whether there are business incentives to keeping grad programs bloated. Citing a New York Times analysis of the growth of graduate-degree programs, the Canada-based English instructor and blogger Lee Skallerup Bessette has suggested that administrators invest in expanding Ph.D. programs because they attract high-profile faculty, who in turn increase the school’s reputation and rankings. Focusing on what he described as Brown’s shift in programmatic priorities, The Daily Herald staff writer Baylor Knobloch also scrutinized the motives for such growth. In addition, there’s the perennial controversy over the exploitation of grad students for low-wage teaching labor. Based on that logic, it would seem that neither administrators nor faculty members have an interest in actively reforming graduate-school education—closing down certain programs in order to shrink the number of Ph.D. spots, for example.

But instead of shuttering lower-ranked graduate programs, a move that Cassuto says would increase the elitism of doctoral education, he suggests expanding the tacit mission of graduate education beyond strictly preparing students for positions in higher education. Faculty, he argues, should offer counseling and unconventional internship opportunities to some students to encourage them to pursue other professions.

Restructuring Ph.D. programs to train students for careers outside of academia would be certainly be tricky. The broader labor market has not yet expressed a huge demand for the kinds of qualifications and specializations (American studies, for example) that are by definition typical of Ph.D.s. What does one do with a resume consisting of treatises on, say, Victorian novels other than to teach others about that topic, to continue a life trajectory already devoted to spending one’s days analyzing and debating Dickens and Bronte? And while it’s true that some Ph.D.s do find soft landings in other careers, rarely do those careers require a 200-page dissertation and extensive knowledge of fascist ideology in the interwar years in Germany—accomplishments that have probably consumed years of a given Ph.D.s life. It’s hard to find practical applications for all those years of specialized knowledge. (My husband—whose dissertation was, in fact, on that aforementioned topic—was one of the fortunate ones: He now works on Wall Street.)

Then there’s the reality that many faculty members’ limited experience outside of academia may make it difficult for them to provide general career advice to graduate students. Cassuto’s proposed overhaul to the graduate-school mission—one that emphasizes greater connections to the world beyond the Ivory Tower—isn’t impossible. But it would likely require changing the deeply ingrained mindsets of its status-quo members—people who've been long immersed in the microcosm of academia—creating new employment offices and counselors (and potentially exacerbating existing concerns about administrative bloat), and, of course, undoing parts of the traditional Ph.D.’s rather sacred legacy.

Any reforms need to come from the inside, Cassuto says, to ensure that outside players don’t impose less-than-welcome and misguided changes to an already tenuous system. Perhaps most importantly, Cassuto concludes, the system cannot continue to mistreat Ph.D. candidates: “Put simply, we don’t take care of graduate students very well—and we have consequently lost the trust of many of them along with the general public. Everything I’ve said in this book may be understood as part of an attempt to regain that trust, and more importantly, to deserve it.”

Of course, it’s worth acknowledging that graduate students themselves are at least partially to blame for their predicament, as well. Prospective students have easy access  mountains of information and personal anecdotes on the Internet about the realities of the grad-school job market. Who applies to graduate school these days without doing some basic research on what that experience might be like?

These discussions are important, not just for those who have contemplated getting a Ph.D. terminal master’s programs—those that aren’t designed to lead to a Ph.D.—as well as vocational education at community colleges and technical schools, are also accused of educating people for jobs that don’t exist. A Vox analysis of data on the federal government’s newly released “College Scorecard” suggests that at slightly more than 200 vocational colleges, three quarters of the students earn less than $25,000 even a decade after graduation. Some students in these programs graduate with debt that far exceeds their incomes, making them worse off than before they began their education. Higher education, whether in pursuit of a vocational certificate or Ph.D., shouldn’t be a bridge to nowhere.