After the Academy

After the Academy

Is Columbia supporting its aspiring academics?

Published on February 24, 2016

The Columbia English and comparative literature department’s information session on applying to graduate school takes place one Thursday evening in November in one of those forgotten rooms in Schermerhorn Extension—the kind of classroom undergraduates might remember writing a final exam in during the fall semester of their sophomore year, but now takes a couple of minutes to find.

In the center of the room stands a large table, at which sit department Director of Undergraduate Studies Michael Golston, assistant professor Dustin Stewart, and third-year Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Kate McIntyre. About a dozen undergraduates filter in before Golston starts the session.

Schermerhorn Ext. 963 is as good a place as any to come to a rude awakening.

The speakers begin talking about the particulars of the arduous application process, the general structure of a Ph.D. program, and of course the economic anxieties of an aspiring academic—issues that have become all too familiar to anyone majoring in the humanities.

“As a general rule, don’t go into debt to get a graduate degree in the humanities,” Stewart advises.

Then, almost three-quarters of the way through the session, Golston says, “I have students who’ve gotten Ph.D.s here six or seven years ago and haven’t been able to find a full-time job,” and it’s as if he’s dropped a corpse onto the table.

Undergrads cast tentative glances at each other, cringe, let out nervous laughter. Is it really as bad as we’ve heard?

The 21st century Hector

Meghan Hartman, a senior at Barnard majoring in religion, will be continuing her studies in South Asian religion in a (still undecided) Ph.D. program this fall. For her, the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the field is one of personal passion. “I just like it. It’s great,” she gleams. “I mean, that’s not a very profound thing to say, but it’s just exciting.”

“I do accept that it might be a strange place to get a job, but I do genuinely believe that whatever market or enterprise you enter, it will be difficult no matter what,” Hartman says.

One thing is for certain: Graduate school is difficult. For example, Columbia’s art history department website explains that obtaining a Ph.D. requires two to three years of intensive coursework, followed by several more years of composing a dissertation—hundreds of pages of scholarly analysis supporting what is, if all goes well, a sufficiently compelling argument.

Hartman echoes this ideology. “I’ve always thought of the dissertation as being the beginning, not the end,” she says. “That’s where you sort of mine the ideas to write your first book and then hopefully from there, that’ll get you a position, and then once you’ve written your second book, you’re on your tenure way track. And you just keep writing.”

Historically—or, when many of the now-tenured professors at Columbia were applying for their first positions—scenarios like the one Hartman describes were more or less how the graduate school system sent students from Ph.D. programs to tenure-track professorships at universities. But many feel that this model of the grad student system that Hartman describes, especially in light of the Great Recession and the resulting decrease in department funding, is now failing.

Almost immediately upon sitting down to talk with me last week, graduate student Kate McIntyre admits, “Most of us aren’t getting tenure-track jobs.”

In many respects, the statistics seems to agree. A 2013 survey conducted by the Modern Language Association found that out of 2,214 scholars who received a Ph.D. in English, other modern languages, and related fields between 1996 and 2011, only 47.9 percent had tenured or tenure-track positions at universities. Perhaps worse, almost half of scholars who received doctorates in the humanities in 2014 reported having “no definite commitment for employment or postdoctoral study,” according to a poll by the National Science Foundation.

In spite of some bleak statistics, however, enrollment numbers in humanities Ph.D. programs have yet to go down. In fact, the same NSF study found that American universities had 276 more Ph.D. candidates in 2014 than in 2004, before the Great Recession.

Anya Josephs, a senior at Columbia College majoring in English who will be attending graduate school next year, acknowledges that her choice of career path is risky. “I’m obviously anxious about the prospect that the grim, dark future may be what’s coming for me, and that on the other end of seven or more years of school there might not be a job waiting for me,” she admits. “But there’s also not one waiting for me right now.”

Hartman, on the other hand, believes that larger industry-wide statistics fail to capture the nuanced realities of specific programs.

“I actually would counter this theory that the job market’s going down in the humanities,” Hartman says. “I mean, [the positions] are getting more scarce, but the department I’m applying into is receiving more money and they’re hiring. They’ve hired two people in the past two years; I think that’s a good thing.”

And sometimes, the best solution is just to focus on the task at hand. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my chances of getting a tenure-track job. I think that my life would have a lot more anxiety in it if I did that,” McIntyre says.

I wonder out loud if the 21st century humanities grad student is the modern-day Hector—the Trojan king who fearlessly charges into battle, already fated to die—and if perhaps the parallels to this powerful classic narrative lend themselves to a kind of romanticization.

McIntyre laughs. “Yeah sure, you love your work, and there’s something heroic about your love of the work, but also heroism only gets you so far. Hector dies,” she points out.

In other words, the kind of lofty, idealistic passion often associated with people dedicating their lives to studying and writing books is, at this moment in time, often self-sabotaging.

Back in November during the info session, Stewart cautioned undergrads that when it comes to thriving in graduate school, “Love for one’s subject is necessary, but not enough.”

Joe Sheppard, a Ph.D. candidate in the classics department of GSAS, agrees. “There has to be a genuine and clearly understood intrinsic goal,” he adds. “Think about where you want to live for a long period of time, because probably you’re going to be spending six or seven years there.”

Geographic mobility as economic mobility

Since in many cases, students enter graduate programs in their mid-20s, these six or seven years may encompass several major milestones in life, like marriage or childbirth.

These considerations tend to carry particular weight with women. Gabriela Minden, who graduated from Barnard in 2015, is currently on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Austria. When she was discussing the possibility of going to graduate school with her professors, she recalls, “Most of the professors I was working with and speaking with were male, and the one female professor I was speaking with said, ‘Think about where you will be in your life when you are completing your Ph.D. And think about how that might affect your personal life.’”

Even after graduate school, life in the academy can continue to impose restrictions on women’s personal lives. Data from the NSF’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients reveals that fathers and childless women are about 35 percent more likely to secure those increasingly elusive tenure-track positions.

This is due in large part to the fact that the highly competitive academic job market can send doctoral recipients all over the country to follow an employment opportunity. At the information session back in November, Stewart cautioned potential graduate students that when it comes to working in the academy, “The expectation is that you’ll be willing to move around.” Stewart obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013; he could be considered one of the lucky ones.

But for many graduate students, “to move around” is easier said than done. Sheppard, for instance, is from New Zealand, meaning that his student visa requires him to either return to New Zealand for two years before coming back the United States or find work in a third country.

As a result, he has accepted a degree of lack of control in his fate. “If I finish [my dissertation], then I’ll evaluate if I have to go back to New Zealand to shear sheep or deliver mail for a year while I recover,” he shrugs. “I’m not totally wedded to this.”

Darius Echeverria, who currently serves as a dean at the Center for Student Advising and is a visiting lecturer in the Columbia history department, recalls his time as a full-time professor. “I turned down professorships, full-time tenure[-track] jobs in different places that I did not want to live in the area,” he says. “For me, there was a degree of being in this [New York metropolitan area] market that I was attracted to. It was also a little bit about personal considerations of supporting my extended family.”

In other cases, specific academic interests and disciplines can limit the number of options available to a doctoral recipient going into the job market.

McIntyre notes that, for instance, “If your work has to do with queer theory or critical race theory, there exist conservative institutions that are not interested in you.”

Fourth year graduate student at GSAS, Nicole Gervasio, who both studies queer theory and identifies as queer, understands that some institutions may be turned off by her work. But she adds that since universities are often significantly more liberal than their surrounding environment, she would likely do fine at any university that would hire someone like her.

“What I would worry about,” she concedes, “is when I left the university and was walking around with my partner—who is particularly androgynous—and we are very visible as a lesbian couple. That is where my anxiety would come in if I felt unsafe, and then I would probably regret the fact that I had moved there because it was somewhere I couldn’t feel comfortable being myself.”

At the same time, Gervasio admits, “Because of the dire straits that the humanities job market is in, people don’t feel like they have the right to have a choice anymore [in where to live].”

Obtaining a tenure-track position has become so idealized as a goal that weighing pros and cons almost seems antiquated.

“Many folks go where the opportunity is, even if they don’t want to necessarily be there,” Echeverria agrees. “I would say be cautious about it, because if you go to an area and you have misgivings about it, will you be able to produce your very best scholarship, your very best teachings, your very best contributions to the campus community if you’re somewhat indifferent?”

In a profession people choose based largely on passion over pragmatics, “indifference” seems to threaten the point of even trying.

Real world: Columbia University

As the academic labor market becomes increasingly uncertain for people looking to enter the field, many schools have taken to reducing the number of students in their graduate programs despite overall increases in enrollment in the humanities.

For Josephs, who is currently getting decisions back from these graduate programs, the phenomenon is bittersweet. “Most of the programs I’m applying to accept somewhere between 2 to 5 percent of applicants,” she explains.

“I think it’s a responsible thing for the programs to do,” she elaborates, before taking a sip of water. She raises her voice just slightly as she continues, “Right now, it would feel better to have more ‘yeses’ and fewer ‘nos,’ but ultimately I think that that is going to be part of the solution.”

Reducing the number of Ph.D. candidates may help reduce the symptoms, but as Fordham University American history professor Leonard Cassuto writes in his book The Graduate School Mess, it might create other problems in the graduate school system. “[A] problem with admitting only enough graduate students to replace the small number of retiring professors each year is that if we shrink graduate programs down to a nub, we will trim the diversity—intellectual as well as socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic—right out of them,” Cassuto writes.

As a postcolonial scholar, Gervasio is particularly concerned about this implication. Gervasio became interested in postcolonial literature during her undergraduate career at Bryn Mawr College, after taking the only two postcolonial courses offered. “Even though it was not very widely offered, I didn’t make a practical connection between how rare those courses were in my own alma mater department and what that would mean for something like the job market later on,” she admits.

Though postcolonial literature may seem like a niche area of focus in English departments at the moment, it is also an actively emerging field. In her capacity as a graduate student instructor, Gervasio regularly interacts with students who express keen interest in her discipline.

But, as she ultimately concludes, “I think that there’s a real disconnection between the kind of courses that students actually want to take and the things that faculty and universities everywhere are looking for when they decide: A) do they have any positions available to hire this year, and B) are they going to end up hiring somebody in postcolonial studies specifically.”

In this respect, the hiring practices of America’s universities may be behind the times—a problem that is, in fact, symptomatic of a larger core issue in the current structure of the academy as a whole.

Graduate school programs as they currently exist train Ph.D. candidates both to become college professors, and to chase tenure-track jobs. But in a market where only half of doctoral recipients end up holding those positions, these programs largely fail to nurture viable alternatives for the other half.

For students like Gervasio, who are nearing the end of their programs, this creates a particularly stressful predicament. “People who are, like me, about to go on the job market next year or the year after, do have the sense that it looks a little bit bleak and that there are not that many positions even advertised for tenure-track jobs in postcolonial literature every year,” she says. “It really puts the pressure on you to figure out plan B.”

For students who enter a six- or seven-year program specifically designed to make them college professors, however, coming up with a plan B can be difficult.

In light of the issues present within graduate school programs, I ask Josephs if she’s dead-set on being a college professor. “I really don’t know what else I would do,” she responds. “I feel pretty sure that this is what I want to do with my life.”

But the notion that academics are born to teach, and specifically in a college setting, may create a kind of tunnel vision for the most traditional academic jobs.

“It’s a potentially dangerous narrative, because what the conceit of ‘I don’t know if I’m prepared to do anything else’ is, is this idea that you have the real world, and the academic world is sequestered and separate as the canon,” McIntyre argues. “But that’s not true, as economic realities are making painfully clear right now.”

So in order for Columbia’s graduate programs to survive and thrive, the University has to look outward, at options outside the academy.

Plan B

Solutions to the “graduate school mess,” to quote Cassuto, however, are complicated by the University’s dependence on cheap graduate student labor. In addition to the 2,919 faculty members of the University, Columbia relies on the instruction of 1,796 graduate assistants.

Though most Ph.D. programs in the humanities at Columbia provide candidates with either five or six years of funding, students often need an additional year or two to complete their dissertations.

In that event, Gervasio says, “Most of the time people are able to stick around for a seventh year without necessarily working too hard to search for their own funding, because we also have the benefit of being viable as preceptors in the Core Curriculum.”

For those who have already obtained their Ph.D.s, Gervasio adds, “There are also postdoc beyond your seventh year that Lit Hum and CC [Contemporary Civilization] offer that could theoretically keep you around for a little bit longer.”

Sheppard questions whether Columbia’s intentions with graduate students are always noble. While Ph.D. candidates like Sheppard enter funded programs that provide students with stipends, he says, “I think Columbia treats master students essentially as cash cows and charges them fees. And all of them have some kind of—not expectation—but aspiration that this might be a gateway into a Ph.D. program.”

“And it sometimes is,” he concedes, trailing off.

Teaching Literature Humanities on top of doing research for his dissertation is, for Sheppard, often a balancing act. “When … I’m on a stipend or something, I do become more aware of potentially the tension between the amount of money that students are paying and the quality of education than they expect, versus the amount of money that I’m receiving and the amount that I value every hour of my time,” he admits. “I want to make sure that you’re getting the most out of this class, especially Lit Hum, which is such an important formative class in your first semester.”

As instructors for Core classes, graduate students often teach some of the most influential courses undergraduates will take in their four years at Columbia. In spite of this, Gervasio notes, “There’s no programmatic encouragement to really develop your teaching skills.”

McIntyre voices a similar personal concern. “I do want to say, ‘Don’t go to grad school if you don’t want to teach,’” she says, lighting up in a moment of indignation. “And that is not because you can’t get through grad school if you don’t like teaching.”

“I get plenty of recognition from my students, which makes me feel really good about it. But from the institution itself? Not really,” Gervasio adds. It is worth noting that Gervasio is currently a gold nugget professor on CULPA.

For many, developing teaching skills is a necessary part of staying marketable in a job market with a limited number of teaching positions at universities. “If you really want to be cut out for an alternative career, then you probably have to be doing other things in addition to writing your dissertation,” Gervasio advises.

Teaching high school seems like the most obvious alternative—every prospective and current graduate student I interviewed cited high school teacher as another potential career option.

“There’s always [the option of] teaching in junior college or—I mean, I’m teaching English right now, so—in high schools,” Minden says. “I think it’s not only what you learn through your dissertation exactly, but [also] other things you bring.”

But currently, the relationship between graduate student instructors and the departments that host them is fraught by the administration’s opposition to grad student unionization.

McIntyre attended a meeting with GSAS Dean Carlos Alonso in January, in which he explained the administrative rationale. “First he said that what graduate students do isn’t work, and then a little bit later he said it looks like the same, its form is the same, but its meaning [is different],” she recalls. Alonso made similar statements last April.

“When I hear someone say something like that, I think, ‘You cannot possibly believe that,’” McIntyre explains. “Because you have us teaching undergraduates at one of the best universities in the country. And if you believed that, and it was known by the undergraduates and the parents of the undergraduates, that you believed that the labor graduate students are teaching the first classes that students take when they come to college was only training and wasn’t real work, then that is scandalous.”

Futures outside the classroom

With all the tension surrounding the limited availability of tenure-track positions and the proliferating usage of adjunct professors, it becomes very possible that a large part of the future of academia lies outside of it.

“I think [the administration is] becoming more and more aware or having to figure out structural ways for graduate students to have more opportunities outside the academy,” Gervasio notes.

Hartman is particularly excited about the new possibilities that the digital humanities present for researchers.

“Digitizing things like manuscripts, especially in South Asia, is a huge deal, because all of these manuscripts are hundreds of years old. They’re crumbling, and honestly these manuscripts are dying,” Hartman says, “so I think there has to be a conjunction of using both the humanities and technology.”

Certainly, if digital archives can create new positions at research institutions for young academics, then the digital humanities may serve as a viable part of reforming graduate programs.

Many people currently in Ph.D. programs are moving away from looking only at traditional academic positions, expanding their vision for their work to include “alt-ac,” (alternative academic) careers, which include a multitude of administrative and research-based positions.

“The idea is … you work part-time for the library and part-time for the Center for New Media or something. You teach one class, but you’re also responsible for—I don’t know—helping train teachers, and [you] write things, publish scholarship in the newspaper,” Sheppard explains. “Something that sort of involves your skills that you have in your field, but it’s not traditional lecturing.”

These nontraditional career options, however, remain largely unexplored by the highly traditional institution of the academy.

“I think the Dean [Alonso] himself is also mentioning it; many people don’t even acknowledge that it exists,” Sheppard elaborates. “There’s something to be said that this conversation hasn’t really trickled down to the graduate lounge or even conversations with professors.” Sheppard takes a cursory glance around Nous Espresso Bar in Philosophy Hall at the groups of graduate students chatting around us, perhaps talking about alt-ac themselves.

One alt-ac career that Columbia is paying particular attention to is university administration. Gervasio, for instance, is part of the GSAS Fellowship in Academic Administration, which gives graduate students the opportunity to work in various administrative positions around campus.

Echeverria himself holds an alt-ac position here on campus, both advising students and teaching courses. For him, the transition from lecturing to advising was an organic one. “I felt I could assume this [would] not be a tremendous transition,” he says. “I had already done faculty advising. How different could this be?”

Though Echeverria maintains that he loved his time as exclusively a lecturer, he was enticed by the prospect of working outside the classroom.

“The opportunity came along to simultaneously still teach and be an academic dean with a notion of encouraging students on both sides,” he recalls. “I really thought my teaching experience would be a tremendous resource.”

Echeverria is clearly well-suited to his new position as a student advisor; throughout our interview, he offers several pieces of advice to students: “You need to fail to be successful. … It’s a natural inclination to compare yourself to somebody else. But that’s not really fair to you.”

“It’s always important to try,” he says.

And even if the academic job market grows bleaker, there will always be people who try.

Minden reflects upon a conversation she had last spring as a senior at Barnard. “I was talking to my thesis advisor … and his advice was, ‘Only do this if you’re happy with a Ph.D. and that’s it. You don’t need to be a tenured professor. If you are happy having turned in your dissertation, and you’re OK shifting gears to something else, then you should pursue this,’” she recalls. “And I think I am.”

“You might spend almost an entire decade of your life doing this work for at best $30,000 a year, only to learn that there is no job for you at the end of that, no job in terms of what you were traditionally thought you were vying for,” Gervasio points out. “I think that if that happens, you have to not get crestfallen and you have to not feel like it was seven years wasted.”

After all, no one has ever entered academia to become rich and powerful. At least in that regard, graduate students will never be Hector, breaker of horses.

“What else are you doing this for if you don’t enjoy it?” Sheppard asks. “It’d be great to be able to do it and get paid, too.”

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