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.