The ‘unfortunate’ life of a PhD graduate

Prof says universities do a poor job giving grad students professional training

Graduate school is professional school, a column by English professor Leonard Cassuto in the Chronicle of Higher Education, points out. Most PhD holders graduate from elite research universities with the full expectation that they will get the sorts of jobs held by their dissertation advisers. For many, if not most, that will never be the case, and universities should reframe doctoral education properly as professional training so grads have a better understanding of what type of career they might have, either inside, or outside, the ivory tower.

To illustrate the point that the expectations of PhD holders tend to be out of line with reality, Cassuto tells the tale of an “unfortunate” academic called “Jack.”

Like many other young Ph.D.’s then and now, Jack had bad luck on the job market despite a solid publication record. He didn’t get a tenure-track job out of the gate, so he took a visiting assistant professorship at a major state university. With that appointment, Jack began a career-long migration in search of permanent employment. That passage took Jack from campus to campus, with his two longest stops lasting four years each; one of those stints was in the writing program of a major private university, and the other was a visiting professorship at a different private university. The visiting job took the form of a series of one-year contracts, so Jack never knew from year to year whether he’d be employed beyond May.

Through it all, he evolved from a committed teacher into a fantastically dedicated one. He struggled with mixed success to maintain a publishing agenda while testing the job market again and again.

After that last four-year stint ended, Jack failed for the first time to land on his feet at another university. Then, in what amounts to a cruel cosmic joke, Jack got cancer. His diagnosis gave him a new job, as caregiver to himself. That job, like all the others, proved temporary. He died this past fall.

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