Improving the treatment of PhD students

In a fascinating article in this week’s Chronicle, Leonard Cassuto explores how universities treat their postgraduate students. You can read the whole article here. A few respondents to this blog have also highlighted the precarious position of doctoral students in the UK so I thought this would be a timely topic for discussion.

Cassuto argues that the experience of most PhD students studying at university bears little resemblance to the teaching jobs that they will end up doing (if they’re lucky!) in the first few years after finishing the doctorate. He claims that supervisors need to be realistic with their postgrad students so that their expectations match the opportunities available in the job market. Having a PhD from a research-focused university does not mean that you will get a job with a low teaching load and good research support.

Essentially Cassuto’s message to PhDs is that most academic jobs are not like the job your supervisor does. Your expectations need to change to meet the job market. Of course, this difference between hopes and reality is not the fault of the student but of the individuals, departments and institutions who are training them for an academic career.

Most universities offer PhD students very little academic career development training. It is assumed that your skills and expectations will be honed by imitating your supervisors and colleagues. What is actually required is a professional development strand to the PhD.

One commenter on Cassuto’s article suggested inviting back former postgrad students to talk to current ones about the jobs they do now, including non-academic roles, which sounds like a great idea, but could it ever happen? This would also help to solve the problem that many graduate students feel abandoned by their alma mater once they have finished their PhD by showing that their opinions and experience are valued for years afterwards.


About Catherine Armstrong

Dr Catherine Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in North American History. She is a former teaching fellow in History at the University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University. Catherine was also Director of Historical Studies in the Open Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her first book ‘Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century’ was published by Ashgate in June 2007. As a long-time jobseeker for an academic role herself, Catherine is in a unique position to understand and offer her knowledge and experience to those developing an academic career.

2 Responses to Improving the treatment of PhD students

  1. John Gibson says:

    It’s a very good article and highly pertinent. A lot of PhD supervision, particularly when undertaken by older academics who developed their early academic careers in a radically different sort of professional environment compared with today’s, is simply unable to offer meaningful advice regarding professional development. This is understandable as such staff have effectively been out of the job market for (in some cases) decades and therefore have no relevant experience to impart.

    Where there is a more significant weakeness is in the engagement (or lack thereof) between careers services and academic departments regarding the professional development of PhD students. I attended a postgraduates’ career fair organised by my university’s career service during the final stages of my PhD in late 2005; what was on offer was exactly the same as the career fair organised for third year undergraduates the previous day. There was absolutely nothing tailored toward the different skill sets, expectations, ambitions or qualifications of people completing PhDs. It appeared as if the careers service and academic departments had not spoken to one another in years regarding postgraduate employment prospects. Yet in my current market research role, my PhD is very much valued as adding considerably extra weight to my capacities and performance, meaning I have risen to a higher salary more quickly than would have been the case without the PhD. The precise process at work here is very poorly understood within universities – both among academics (who rarely have direct experience of non-academic work) and among careers advisors.

    A second problem, in my view, relates to a lingering attitude among many academics that those who aspire to academic careers, but who end up squeezed out of the profession through lack of job opportunities (itself a function of the sheer weight of numbers of applicants for even temporary research positions), have “failed”. In such circumstances, conversations with academics from a previous department can (in many cases, though by no means all) become quite strained once an aspirant is out of academia, beause there is a faint whiff of failure hanging over such people. It is thus easy for those of us who have had to find alternative careers to lose touch with the profession extremely quickly indeed. Yet it is precisely such people, when making a successful transition into other careers, who have potentially the most to offer PhD students regarding professional development and giving a realistic, well-informed assessment of career options.

    I tend to think there is sometimes an attitude of not wanting “failures” to be seen in the academic department in question again – perhaps because their presence makes some academic staff anxious that their department is not quite the hive of successful academic enquiry and training that many of them imagine it to be?

  2. Gesta says:

    With regard to your last paragraph, certainly at my institution, former Ph.D. students have come back to talk to the current ones about a whole variety of careers. Even when I started my doctorate in the late 1990s there were occasional talks and also, importantly, workshops on various aspects of academic and academic-related matters at one of the major medieval conferences.

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