“Why don’t they care” or better yet, Why should they* care?
As I helped facilitate a panel on tracking humanities PhD initiatives at MLA’s Connect Academics Summer Institute, I engaged in thought-provoking discussions about the results of past PhD tracking initiatives, best practices for future projects, and personal experiences in implementing a project of this magnitude. In this discussion a PhD candidate from another campus in the UC system asked, “Why don’t they care?,” referring either (or maybe both?) to the negligence of faculty members or their lack of intent in supporting graduate student preparation for various careers. The simplicity of this question beckons a response from multiple levels of the university because frankly, this is an institutional problem. And in response to the graduate student, a faculty member suggested modifying the question to “Why should they care?” While the former question was a plea for help from faculty, the latter question shifts our focus to making an argument for institutional and departmental tracking of doctoral students post-degree. This piece strives to accomplish a bit of both, and I can bombard you with statistics about why it is necessary to track doctoral students after graduation, but the question I want us to consider is: What is at stake?
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the circumstances that PhD students and recent graduates face. Aside from academic pressures to succeed, PhD students face a tightening academic job market with far too many PhDs and very few secure academic appointments. This is a critical moment for the humanities at large. Universities across the UC system have changed General Education requirements, decreasing undergraduate enrollment in courses in the humanities, and ultimately, reducing teaching opportunities for tenure-track professors, adjunct faculty, and graduate students. At the macro level, threats to defund the NEH will potentially affect campus, department, and individual funding for research, teaching, and humanities programs.
I believe that institutions and departments should care about PhD tracking initiatives. The long-term effects of implementing tracking programs do impact department reputations and prestige, doctoral enrollment, and institutional funding. At the same time, tracking the outcomes of PhDs sheds light on a variety of career paths that doctoral students may follow post-degree. As individuals who are still “in-training,” doctoral students have a right to know their options, and not simply at the end of their programs, rather as early as their first or second year in the program.
Just as departments invest time and funding in the potential of their doctoral students, we as graduate students also devote our time, resources, and ultimately our lives into doctoral education. With this in mind, I urge institutional staff and faculty to acknowledge that our doctoral education should include frank conversations about all opportunities, including academic, hybrid, and alt-ac careers, early in graduate students’ careers. These candid conversations will demystify the experience of advanced doctoral students who only start pursuing other options at the end of their graduate programs. Further, an open dialogue with advisors will help doctoral students make more informed decisions in their programs that will ultimately empower them as future scholars, administrators, educators, writers, and professionals.
As doctoral students, we understand the constraints that departments and advisors face in offering guidance to graduate students. We are aware that departments operate with limited resources and that departmental staff are often overworked. We also recognize that although faculty advisors have a large degree of autonomy in how they perform their labor, departmental obligations also shape their ability to mentor doctoral students, especially when it pertains to pursuing in a myriad of non-professorial occupational trajectories. Despite these obstacles, deans, department administrators, faculty members, and doctoral students can still collaborate to design and carry out PhD tracking programs that will simultaneously reduce the workload of departmental staff and achieve the goal of tracking current and former PhD students in the humanities. This joint effort might include a GSR position for a doctoral student to acquire administrative experience in tracking and communicating directly with PhDs post-degree. Departments could also modify progress-to-degree tracking software, which is already used to verify the progress of current PhD students, to include questions on career plans and the types of positions applied for.
The end game in PhD tracking is the following: data findings from tracking projects will show that the responsibility to assist graduate students with career preparation lies at all levels of academic institutions. To that end, department chairs and supporting staff need funding, personnel, and training to be able to provide doctoral students with the resources they need. Faculty advisors must also acknowledge the institutional problem that advanced graduate students and recent PhDs face with a tightening job market. Finally, university graduate divisions and career centers also require training to understand a) the nature of research, writing, and study in the humanities; b) the academic and non-professorial career options for PhDs in the humanities; and c) the tools and resources that PhD students need in order to thrive in their studies and careers. And sure, these changes signify turning the entire university on its head, but the structure and function of academic institutions is changing in a manner in which the existing conditions are simply unsustainable.
As I reflect upon my experience as a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, I ask deans, department administrators, and faculty members to consider the following suggestions. First, doctoral students should be at the center of these discussions. Why? Because we need to know our options during doctoral study and after graduation. Most importantly, we deserve to have a platform to learn about the career trajectories of former doctoral students. In the same vein, please bring back the narratives of students into these quantitative PhD tracking initiatives. These actions will help departments re-evaluate the graduate curriculum, forcing cultural change at the departmental level.
Second, let’s consider tracking all doctoral students throughout the duration of their program, and even thereafter. By focusing on doctoral graduates who obtain tenure-track positions at top-tier research institutions, departments maintain prestige and prioritize these careers over any others. This hierarchy of career prospects is unrealistic in the existing job market. Instead, departments might consider tracking all their doctoral students, including those who leave their programs with ABD status. PhD candidates are interested in learning about the career trajectories of individuals post-degree and of the career paths of those who left prior to graduation. Our concerns about our own career trajectories leave us asking, what was their experience in achieving their career choice and how did they get there? How did former doctoral students navigate professional and academic networks to facilitate their transition from graduate school?
The primary objectives with humanities PhD tracking are quite simple: we aim to acknowledge where our PhD alumni have gone, identify a range of career options, and evaluate how to accomplish these goals and aspirations. While this seems like a personal venture, graduate students’ enrollment in PhD programs suggests the need for departmental and campus intervention to facilitate the success of their PhD students. We urge you: department chairs, faculty, deans, and university staff and administrators, to consider departmental and institutional cultural change, and form collaborative working arrangements so that we can capitalize on existing methods and best practices for tracking doctoral students.
*(departments, administrators, faculty, graduate students, etc.)