Advanced Degrees and Academia: Prospects and Pitfalls

There’s been a lively debate recently on the worth of an advanced degree in the humanities (including history, for those who see it as a social science) and on the wisdom of pursuing such an education. Appearing today is one argument against the idea, while someone reminds us that for some people it’s still a viable career choice.

This debate intrigues me as someone who pursued advanced degrees, who trains people in the pursuit of advanced degrees, and who participates in the hiring of people with advanced degrees in an academic setting.

My experience as someone who was pursuing advanced degrees and who sought entry into the academy strikes me as aberrant. My colleagues and I were given very little encouragement and support by members of our department outside of our advisers and other mentors (in those cases, I received a great deal of support and advice, for which I am forever grateful). One faculty member announced that we were flying our kites in a dying wind, and we responded by making t-shirts devoted to that credo. The job market was challenging, and I might have had a different perspective had I not gained admission into a top-flight graduate program. The fact remains that during the 1980s I was hired twice while I was an ABD (all but dissertation) graduate student, and within months of gaining my degree I was hired again in 1990. I have no idea how usual or unusual this was, but I note that many of my peers also did rather well … I presume you’ve heard of David Blight, Joseph Glatthaar, and Nancy Isenberg, for example.

That said, the job market of the 1980s, although much less generous than the job market of the 1960s, still held forth promise for those willing to build a career. It was unlikely that one landed one’s dream job right at the beginning, but then who does? What was notable in retrospect was the fact that there were tenure-track jobs out there in sufficient number that qualified candidates who competed well in the marketplace enjoyed good prospects for advancement.

I have found training people to be a far different type of challenge. For one thing, I’m training students to become part of a job market that looks a great deal different than the job market I encountered. People teach differently, and newly-minted Ph.D.s had better understand new instructional technologies, whereas I can continue to rely upon what I was taught to do and perform my task as an undergraduate educator well enough to be nominated this spring for the fifth time as Professor of the Year at ASU. Moreover, ASU graduate training in history does not feature areas in which my expertise is of a significant advantage. I would draw more students from a better-qualified applicant pool if I taught at an institution that featured areas in which my expertise could be put to good use. The students I have advised are more than qualified and competitive enough, but they were carefully chosen and mentored at ASU: there are times I believe certain well-qualified candidates are wiser to go elsewhere to continue their education at an institution that has a brand-name recognition in a certain field than to rely a great deal upon my individual reputation to enhance their job prospects.

To me, it’s very simple: graduate programs exist to sever serve the interests and ambitions of graduate students, period. They do not exist to provide graders and researchers for faculty, or to make faculty seeking to be mentors feel wanted and needed and important. Advisers who need advisees to flatter their egos should seek another way to gratify their desires. Mentoring is a career-long commitment that extends well beyond an advisee’s receiving a degree. It’s not a question of whether I want graduate students, but whether I think it is wise for a student to come to ASU and work for me, and whether I believe I can help launch that student’s career. I don’t need to seek students to bolster a sagging self-esteem or to persuade others of my worth (“Look at how many students I have!” is a dumb and vain question; “Look at how many of my students have jobs!” is not). Yet I see colleagues all the time confuse the quantity of students they advise or the number of committees on which they serve with the quality of their advising and mentoring.

Thus, the changing nature of the academic job market is of real concern to me. There are fewer and fewer tenure-track positions openings, and, as in the 1990s, retirements do not always mean an institution will replace at rank or do so quickly. Several significant names in the field of Civil War history, for example, have not been replaced at rank by the institutions from which they retired. That lack of mobility at the top ranks trickles down to shape the entry-level market. More and more public institutions in particular are relying upon instructors and lecturers to teach more and more courses; online education is appealing in part because of the money that can be made from it without devoting the talents of front-line faculty to engaged students in new ways. When I taught an online course several years ago, I refused to tape lectures: I did so because I knew that down the line someone could craft a course shell that looked as if I were teaching the course, whereas it was really a grader hiding behind the curtain provided by videos of me holding forth on this and that. In contrast, in the spring of 1983 the University of Wisconsin Department of History found itself in the unusual position of hiring three of its graduate students to teach undergraduate courses (a Civil War/Reconstruction course, a course in military history, and a survey). That was an extraordinary opportunity with an unusual result, in that the three instructors chosen were Blight, Glatthaar, and some Islanders fan who was on the verge of seeing his team clinch its fourth straight Stanley Cup.

It was a great spring.

When it comes to hiring, I know that as a member of a department in a Research I university, we will be able to attract top-flight candidates should we be able to hire tenure-track faculty at entry level. But one must also consider the impact of a growing number of non-tenure-track teaching faculty on the profile of an institution and its ability to provide a quality education. This is not because the faculty in question are inferior, but because they are laboring under burdens (temporary employment, lack of benefits in some cases, onerous course loads) that make it difficult for them to move beyond their positions. Even as I worked at The Papers of Andrew Johnson and Wofford College, I labored hard to make sure that I kept up with transforming research into publication (I submitted the draft of my dissertation to my publisher before I defended it as a dissertation … don’t try this at home, kids). I’m not sure how this new generation of non-tenured instructors will be able to do the same thing given the conditions under which they labor; it is unclear that the future of significant research and publication in the humanities is well served by this emerging new world; and it is even more unclear that undergraduate education is well-served under a model that continues to evolve by happenstance more than by a deliberate design for crafting undergraduate education in this century (as opposed to a somewhat deliberate design for restructuring the educational workforce, which used to be known as the faculty). We need to be frank about these considerations and to set them forth to someone considering pursuing an advanced degree as a means to enter the academy. And we need to understand that not only do all roads not lead to a position at a Research I institution, but also that they need not do so, and everyone need not walk the same path to the same destination, especially when not everyone will reach the destination intact.

All in all, it’s a discussion worth having.