Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University and the author of a monthly column on graduate education, The Graduate Adviser, for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In his new book, “The Graduate School Mess: What caused It and How We Can Fix It,” he proposes a plan to solve the problems that have cropped up in grad schools in recent years. He explains why the system isn’t working here:
By Leonard Cassuto
Imagine 100 people embarking on a long training program to enter a particular workplace.
Now imagine first of all that half of them will never make it. That’s a 50 percent attrition rate.
Out of the half who don’t make it, half of those — 25 percent of the original group — will decide to leave in short order, within one to three years.
No problem there: They tried it and decided that it wasn’t for them.
But the other half of that group of non-completers — the other 25 percent of the original group — don’t leave right away.
They stay many years, twisting in the wind, until they’re finally blown off the tree.
Now let’s return to the other 50 percent who actually complete the program. Half of that group — another 25 percent of the original group — won’t get jobs in the place they aimed to join. Many of them will have hoped dearly for those jobs, and the reality that they won’t get them will hurt. For some it will take years to sink in.
Finally, let’s look at that last quarter of the original starters, the ones who grab the brass ring and get a job in that workplace. For many of them, that brass ring does not lead to the prize they hoped. Instead, their jobs don’t look like the ones that their trainers had, jobs that they had been taught to want. Instead, their positions feel to them like second-class berths.
Only a handful of that original group of 100 will wind up with the kinds of jobs that their role models had.
Any person with common sense would describe such a workplace as irrational — and that’s putting it kindly.
The workplace is academia, of course, and the training program is graduate school. The training takes about seven years for scientists, and around nine for humanists. That’s the better part of a decade after college, plus the time on the academic job market, often two years or more.
The length of study for the PhD is outrageous, and it’s a relatively recent development, born of the increasing competition for jobs over the past 40-plus years.
Of course it’s also born of the willingness of the professors who hire graduate students to reward extra years spent in graduate school amassing publications, teaching experience and the like. Instead of hiring young people with potential, departments let those young people work for meager graduate-student wages to prove themselves. The students spend years doing that, and of course there’s no certainty that they’ll actually get a professor’s job after all that.
Worse, the professors at graduate schools teach their students to want the kinds of jobs that they themselves have. Those positions center on research, with teaching having secondary importance. Those jobs, the ones that gave rise to the “publish or perish” cliche, accrue the greatest amount of respect — but they are comparatively few in number. Graduate students long for them because those are the jobs that they see their teachers doing.
It’s time to put a stop to this crazy distortion of lives and livelihoods. In my book, I suggest some of the ways that we can teach our way out of this mess. We professors have to prepare graduate students for the full range of jobs that they will actually get. And, as important, we have to honor the full range of those alternatives, both inside and outside the academy.
By all means let’s teach graduate students to be researchers. But that’s not the only work that they will do. If we teach graduate students to disrespect the majority of the jobs that they are likely to compete for, then we are doing nothing less than teaching them to be unhappy. That’s not just unethical — it’s immoral.