Reinventing Graduate Education

If the Ph.D. is an endangered species, what will happen to graduate studies over the course of the next two decades?

Earning a terminal degree does not accomplish the same professional goals that it used to accomplish. Thousands of Ph.D. holders graduate from American universities each year and only a small minority of them will obtain one of those coveted tenure track teaching positions.

Ph.D. Policy Shift

Earning a doctorate is, of course, much different from earning a bachelor’s degree. Ph.D holders could have easily invested ten years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education. And that doesn’t even factor in the opportunity cost associated with the degree.

This opportunity cost results from the money lost because these Ph.D. students were not doing other things while in graduate school. Other things like working at a regular job and earning a regular salary.

So, when accounting for the financial impact of earning a Ph.D., one must consider both the time and money directly invested in the degree, and also the time and money that was not earned and invested while working at another job.

The end result could easily add up to over a million dollars when you factor in the earning potential of an IRA and 401K, in which most people begin investing during their 20s when they start a professional career.

But Ph.D candidates rarely have a retirement plan. They usually spend most of their 20s scraping together a meager living as a teaching assistant or even working in restaurants and bars–another career path that affords no long-term retirement options.

All this is to stress how important it is that those who pursue the Ph.D. are able to recoup their financial loss upon graduating. Getting a good job is crucial when one doesn’t begin to earn real money until his mid-30s.

And this is all the more reason the adjunct professor crisis is destroying the academy. Most Ph.D. holders are working these minimum wage part-time teaching gigs after graduation. No retirement, no health insurance. No return on investment for the decade spent in graduate school.

As this crisis grows and becomes more visible, fewer people will enroll in graduate school. The Ph.D. will slowly begin to die. After all, not many people are willing to make such a big sacrifice without any reasonable chance of a return.

Because of this eventuality, I recommend the Ph.D. be restructured in order to train students for a much wider variety of careers–both inside the academy and out. In order for the Ph.D. to maintain relevance, it needs to have definitive pathways to employment that will take the place of the increasingly common adjunct professor job. 

In order for the Ph.D. to maintain relevance, it needs to have definitive pathways to employment that will take the place of the increasingly common adjunct professor job.

Some people call these new career paths alternate academic or post academic careers. Sometimes those titles are shortened to alt-ac and post-ac.

These are careers in government, library, research, writing, etc. that engage workers in ways similar to their graduate training, but that do not necessarily involve the dying profession of teaching.

The concepts of alt-ac and post-ac career tracks are still in their infancy. No one knows exactly how to define them yet or what they will become. But many people who study and write about higher education and graduate studies have begun to call for alternative forms of training for the Ph.D.

As one who is intimately familiar with the adjunct crisis and with the huge numbers of out-of-work Ph.D.s, I have taken a real interest in alt-ac careers. I believe they could potentially become the way out of adjunct hell for many people.

Whether it happens in graduate schools themselves, or whether it grows as an organic movement defined and shaped by those who live it, alt-ac promises hope for many who currently have none.

As a result, I’m helping to develop The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae as an alt-ac-friendly space. The first step is to gather resources about the as-yet-undefined reaches of the alt-ac world.

If you would like to learn more about alt-ac and post-ac jobs, add your name and contact information to the alt-ac resource list I started at Vitae. If you are already involved, please share your favorite resources, as well.

If we can pull together enough people on the alt-ac platform, we’ll be able to start influencing graduate schools to incorporate alt-ac career training into their Ph.D. curriculums. Major policy shifts begin with movement by the people.