Transparency and reform

What kind of “consumer information” should doctoral programs in the humanities provide to prospective students? Pursuing a PhD is not like smoking: the warning against entering graduate school might take the form of the nutrition information on packaged foods rather than the dire warning of impending disease and death that we put on cigarette packages.

At the annual meeting of the Association of Graduate Schools (AGS) in 2011 I gave a short talked about the information on student outcomes we should provide for the public. I used the website of my PhD alma mater, the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, to make a (negative) point about what we should NOT be doing. First, I looked up the page on alumni that Penn, like most doctoral institutions, maintains. On the site there was a (to me) strange sentence providing a placement “rate” and arguing that the Penn data were pure: ONLY tenure-track placements at colleges and universities count as placements for the doctoral completers tracked by the department.

It’s true that the past few years of Penn English PhDs have gone on to impressive institutions. I followed a link to an older and less impressive era: 1994, when I myself finished my PhD. I noticed a number of names that were not familiar to me, a number of people I considered in different classes (they began either before or after me, with some overlap), and a few of my cohort. The information was a bit old: I was listed as associate professor and associate dean (I tried not to resent that my ascension via loss of the prefixed “associate” had not been reflected on the site). And, both from personal knowledge and from taking an hour to look everyone up on LinkedIn as well as googling them, I could see that the information was sadly out of date.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, turned out to be a wonderful repository of information. I traded the fascinating careers of colleagues, some of whom started tenure-track jobs (the only kind worth mentioning, as the headnote had sneered) and then accepted other employment, some of whom always had either para-academic or non-academic work, and the small number of others of us who had more or less conventional academic careers.

I pointed out that the organization of the website suffered from a couple of flaws: it should group people according to when they begin together rather than when they end (we could see how long it took them!); the site should register how many students began and did NOT complete in those years (without, of course, mentioning them by individual name); and the site should track how the careers of us humanities PhDs actually progress.

The news from Penn English was actually good news. Those of us who finished in 1994 have had extremely interesting, productive, and engaged careers. My colleague at Penn, Andy Binns, who was in the audience, accepted the ribbing with good grace. After all, Penn English is no worse than nearly every other graduate program in this regard.

Our programs are small enough that we should be able to track our students accurately and extensively, including those who never manage to finish their degrees. Accurate data from the past twenty or thirty years would provide incoming students with a full story. That full story can’t be captured in a “placement rate” or in a list of best-case outcomes. Instead, it should bring to life the wide range of interesting, if occasionally unexpected, career tracks taken by those of who pursued a burning interest in our subject matter in graduate school.

If the data were accurate, complete, and presented outcomes for a wide range of years with accuracy and detail, prospective students could better assess their desire to devote a number of years to PhD work.

Real information–transparently and openly provided–could drive the change my previous entry hopes to see in our curricula and program structures. But that change shouldn’t come only from our charitable sense that we could make our programs more humane (while retaining rigor). That change must come from students, who have a lot to tell us if we’re willing to listen.

There have been some graduate student comments on previous entries. Students, please let me–please let all of us–know what you’re thinking.

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About George L. Justice

George Justice is Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. A specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, Justice is the author and editor of scholarship on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women's writing. His BA is from Wesleyan University and his MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to coming to ASU, Justice taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Marquette University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri, where he also served as Vice Provost for Advanced Studies and Dean of the Graduate School.

3 thoughts on “Transparency and reform

  1. I finished my PhD three years ago and am currently working as a mere adjunct with one class, but I don’t think I can say I don’t know what I was getting into. Yes, there were some articles about how there might actually be a faculty shortage and jobs would be plentiful, but there were just as many talking about the “publish or perish” culture and how women who choose to have children and “take off time” from the workforce by working part-time have trouble getting back on track in their careers. So it was obvious there weren’t a lot of great options, but there weren’t a lot of great options anywhere if I wanted to stay in my field. One could say I hedged my bets, because rather than attending a well-regarded but expensive institution that would have opened doors but put me heavily in debt, I attended a more middle-of-the-road institution that had offered me an position as a graduate assistant. By doing that and working part-time at another job, I made it through the PhD debt-free.

    The biggest issues I have with “transparency” is that detractors always want more of it and that the people most interested in transparency are often not aspiring students. All too often transparency functions as another way for outside groups to criticize and push agendas to decrease funding. Meanwhile, students, who tend to be fairly optimistic in a “beat the odds” kind of way, will keep entering programs.

    The other problem, if it is that, seems to be that many of the current and recent students (undergrads and graduate students both) seem to think they should be guaranteed a good-paying job merely for having gotten a degree. Life has never worked that way. Our current statistics show that those with degrees are making more than those who don’t, but that highlights an even bigger problem: many of the people who didn’t get college degrees didn’t get them because all the data we had available at the time showed that a person could make a decent middle-class living in a blue collar job. We didn’t have any data to show that at some point, blue collar salaries would stagnate–as would those of many white-collar middle-class workers–and only those at the very top would see great increases. I think it’s fair to say that while our current data seems to indicate that a graduate degree includes far more challenges in terms of debt loads and potential employment avenues, the reality is that we really don’t know what the job market will look like in twenty or thirty years. No one expected the bust. Certainly the fact that politicians keep hammering on the need for more students to choose STEM fields in higher ed yet the reality that the job market is not supporting the number of STEM graduates in terms of jobs or adequate pay is telling. We know the reason there’s been a push from IT companies for immigrant workers is because they pay them less. The real issue we’re seeing in many different career fields is not an issue of career choice so much as it is one of declining wages and ever-increasing profits. The system itself isn’t sustainable.

    Where we really need transparency is in the big companies that are dominating the education debate at all levels. Maybe Bill Gates could be the first to come clean and list his workers educations, salaries, and prospects for advancement, because that data would be far more useful to a larger number of current and prospective students than the decisions that individuals have made in the face of larger economic forces.

  2. Hey George,
    Check out the job placement section of Penn Graduate Program of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory. Whoever is maintaining it seems to have a more inclusive attitude: the list includes everyone from full professors to adjuncts to high school teachers!
    Best, Kate

  3. I am fortunate enough to be a part of a department with an truly excellent placement program, and by program I mean we have more than one faculty member who devotes their time to students on the market. While I certainly knew what I was getting into when I decided to enter into this program a few years ago, I’ve noticed that there is absolutely no transparency when it comes to actual student outcomes. While many of my fellow students have been lucky enough to get TT jobs, our department lists these placements by the year they were obtained, and makes no reference to the cohort year of the student. Because of this, the 4-7 placements listed each year look pretty promising, considering most cohorts are in the 8-11 range. Now that I’m a bit farther along in the program, I can see that 1-3 students in each cohort (at least for the past few years) are actually getting jobs. And in the past three years, students from the same cohort have never gotten jobs during the same season.

    My cohort, which started with a group of 10 two years ago, has already lost three students, and judging from how things are going, the remaining seven will not all make it through. I’m curious (though pessimistic) as to how my cohort’s success will be reported when we start to look for (and hopefully get) academic jobs. Most likely, the few of us that manage to get TT jobs will be listed along with others from years before and after us, and not with others in our cohort. (I’m keeping a record of my cohort, fyi. Should make for interesting blog post 3 years down the line).

    Last year, after a report of my program’s completion rate was published (9%), our department lost a good deal of funding. In this sense, I agree with LisaC that clamoring for transparency sometimes comes from those who would like to cut humanities funding, and funding for graduate education in particular. I still find it deeply disturbing, though, that this study was *not* made available to the current or incoming Ph.D. students. We may “know what we’re getting into” in a broad sense, but we certainly do not have all of the information.

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