Guest column: Preparing Ph.D.s for the real world

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 eighteenth 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 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 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.

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.

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 Ph.D. in English who works as a technical writer for a software firm in Silicon Valley. Yet I’ve also heard countless graduate students say they fear disapproval, even scorn, if they tell their advisors they’re considering work outside academia.

More practically, professors and administrators have to develop programs to help their graduate students professionalize for the job market.

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.

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.

All of us benefit when more Ph.D.s are in public life. Let’s teach graduate students about all the things they can do, not just one of them.