A Reasonable Proposal for Higher Ed Change

Friday, 08 July 2011 15:41

A few weeks after my defense, I sat down with members of my department for an “exit interview” where I proposed a brief list of suggestions and changes to the grad program. I composed the list carefully, making what I thought were relatively politically safe and low-cost recommendations. While a few of these points may be specific to the institution I attended, I believe that many grad programs would benefit from this advice.

Financial Aid (especially important for students without external funding):

  • Offer a one time $500 grant to students in the finishing stages of the PhD to cover thesis paper, printing, and binding fees.
  • Extend guaranteed funding to 5th+ year students and/or offer sessional teaching positions and/or guaranteed TA/RAships (that cover living expenses).
  • Offer a one time $200 grant to cover “professionalization” costs, such as buying appropriate clothes for job interviews.

(Non-academic) Job Training:

  • Appoint a Non-Academic Job Market faculty member and/or graduate student committee. Much like the Professionalization Committee, the Non-Academic Job Committee can hold talks, presentations, etc. on preparing students for the non-academic job market.
  • In addition to bringing in a representative from the Campus Career Centre, enlist employment professionals who specialize in helping academics transition to non-academic jobs.
  • Set up non-academic professional training sessions (i.e. a seminar in project management) for graduate students and/or explicitly encourage attendance to university-sponsored sessions held throughout the school year.
  • Bring in PhDs who are working in non-academic jobs to come in and speak about their career paths to graduate students.

Discursive/Culture:

  • Clearly state on the Department’s website the current rates of PhDs finding academic jobs – or at least link to external resources regarding employment opportunities.
  • Start talking openly about the current state of the academic job market in classes. Not to scare, but to encourage students to develop a ‘Plan B’ career path.
  • Openly support students who choose to leave academia at the completion of their degrees. Announce their successes during departmental meetings (much like how academic placements are currently announced).
  • Have supervisors stay in (minimal) contact with their PhD students for 6 months to a year after degree completion in order to better understand the job market and individual career paths.
  • Openly and repeatedly encourage graduate students to access campus-wide services (such as Career Services).

My exit interview went well and the faculty I spoke with were honestly interested in improving graduate experience. Apparently, (some of) my suggestions were addressed at a departmental meeting – the outcome? A PhD working in a non-academic job – who was finally not a spouse of a current faculty member – spoke to the grad students. A small start I guess, but in talking with PhD students still working towards completion, the same fears and silences around academic employment are intact. [Update: Since this article was written, my former department has established a permanent Non-Academic Job Resource Officer and website, and there is increased awareness and discussion of the career challenges facing graduate students.]

I personally feel that the largest changes need to happen within the culture of academe. Tenured faculty need to start talking to their students (undergrad and grad) about the state of the university. I appreciate the pressures on faculty to remain silent, but I firmly believe that is it unethical to encourage students to pursue an expensive and difficult graduate education without also giving them the facts about the grim prospects of academic employment.

Graduate students: Get out of the “silo” of your department. Look at the services your university offers. Bring in outside voices. Be sensitive to the disparity in graduate funding. Make connections with graduate students in other disciplines. Work towards academic employment, but design a “Plan B” for yourself too. Arrange for your own "exit interview" with your department or faculty - you might be done with your studies, but you can help those still struggling through.

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