Saturday, April 2, 2011

On the Myth of Professionalization Among Grad Students

This article was written by a UC Berkeley grad student in Jurisprudence and Social Policy and posted on the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWADU) site:
Last year, a woman in my department became a celebrity for a month or two. Folks who had never met her had heard about her and asked me about her research and her advisors. The source of her short-lived fame? She -- a political theorist with an emphasis on postmodern feminist thought -- got a job. And not just a job, the golden ticket of jobs: A tenure-track position at a reasonably good university. She was a source of both awe and reassurance -- it does happen, see. Really! But also: What did she do? How did she do it? What did she do that I can do, too?

Her professional success came at the same moment that journalists at the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times alike were running a series of stories about the “crisis” of tenure and the absence of tenure-track jobs in the humanities. These statistics-based doomsday pieces were accompanied by angry opinion pieces from professors who had started to resent and regret the con they believed they were perpetuating on incoming graduate students in these fields. Rumors of indefinite hiring freezes in the wake of the financial crisis were racing through campuses just as applications to graduate school -- where, unlike credit card debt, the student loan bills wouldn’t come due for a few years -- were skyrocketing in the absence of sufficiently intellectually stimulating post-college jobs. My fellow political theory graduate students and I were in a state of high anxiety, and justifiably so.

The reality of our situation as graduate students in the year 2011 is this: Most of the scientists will be OK, occupying post-docs until either breaking into a research university or “settling” for a well-paying industry job. The professional schools are a mixed bag; newly minted lawyers are increasingly relying on “bridge” grants from Boalt while they fruitlessly search for jobs, while optometrists probably face pretty decent prospects. But for those of us in the humanities and social sciences, the future looks bleak -- at least if we cling to the dream of growing up to be just like our advisor. We’ll probably end up working 2-3 teaching positions, possibly at different universities within the same metropolitan area, sans benefits, maybe still sending out tenure-track job applications, maybe eventually giving up and attempting to figure out what else one can do with a PhD in Jurisprudence and Social Policy (for example), or more likely -- competing for jobs on the basis of a bachelors’ degree we’ve long thought irrelevant.

So here’s how it works: A dwindling class of tenured professors, the “rock stars” of their discipline, are paid very well (you can look up individual faculty salaries here) by the university to maintain our reputation and placement in the US News and World Report rankings to attract paying customers -- oops I mean undergraduates -- research grants, and yes, elite graduate students. They are recruited to places like UC Berkeley (a public institution, thus not always able to match the salaries of, say, a Columbia) in part with an implicit promise: You won’t have to do such menial tasks as grade papers or interact with undergrads. There will be “squadrons of GSIs” (Dean Edley’s exact words) eager to do such work so that they may study at your feet. If a newly hired professor does not yet have tenure, there is enormous pressure to devote every waking second to publishable research -- and not to teaching. In other words: Professors may be amazing teachers who care deeply about reaching out to undergrads (and some -- to their own detriment -- work their ass off to be so), but the university systematically incentivizes minimizing the time spent working with students. Meanwhile, an increasing proportion of teaching is done not by tenured or tenure-track faculty, but by “lecturers,” who are basically piece-workers without job security or benefits. This benefits the university (hey, the customers/undergrads still get taught, but with a smaller price tag), doesn’t always bother the tenured professors (whose teaching load is reduced but job is secure), isn’t always obvious to the undergrad (lecturers are, after all, often as good or better than a tenured professor at leading college-level classes), and isn’t the subject of nearly enough anger and/or discussion amongst graduate students.

FACT: A post-doc in the English department at UC Davis (for which there will likely be hundreds of applicants) with a one-class-per-quarter teaching load pays $50,000/year, with benefits. The same teaching load at UC Berkeley, performed by a “lecturer”? $7,000/semester, without benefits.

SCARIER FACT: Chances are, you won’t be the Davis hire. You’ll be the lecturer.

Now I’m not trying to say that the world at large should pity graduate students; our “fallback” plan (i.e. get the hell out of academia and go be a paralegal or something) is a heck of a lot better than a lot of folks’ dream job. But what mystifies and frustrates me is why so many graduate students teach their hearts out for a wage that simply isn’t livable in the Bay Area under the assumption that this is temporary, a price to pay for the glory of academia that awaits them. Rather than demand a fair, livable wage for the work that they do, graduate students borrow -- literally, mortgaging their future. A social sciences PhD student once commented to me that his $30,000 in student loans weren’t a basis on which he should demand a raise as a GSI because: “This is just temporary; I’m training for a professional field where I’ll be able to pay it back.”

In short: We refuse to think and act as if our work as teachers were crucial to the ability of universities to even pay lip service to their “educational mission” because we continue to cling to the belief that we’ll be rewarded for our brilliance with job security and all the perks of professor-dom if only we can finish that damn dissertation.

So why do PhD students persistently ignore the reality of their future career prospects -- and their role as educational labor? I can propose three (non-mutually-exclusive) hypotheses:

1. The “But, I...” phenomenon. We’re a talented bunch, we PhD students. We did really well in college, maybe we did really well on our quals, we’ve been told by our professors that we’re special, clever, “the smartest/most insightful/most intellectually mature” student to come along in years! Decades! Academia, until around the third or fourth year of a PhD program, rewards impressing authority figures; we’ve gotten very, very good at that. So it’s only natural that a group of individuals who have made it this far, who have succeeded at the task of “demonstrating great potential,” should be sublimely confident of the repeatability of this particular set of observations. Maybe the job market is tough, but so was getting into grad school, right? I’ll be different, we secretly say to ourselves.

2. Privilege. Not only are we a talented bunch, we tend to be a relatively privileged bunch. All the efforts to increase graduate diversity at UC Berkeley make this clear: PhD students are disproportionately middle-class (in family origin), white, raised by educated parents, and -- in the sciences -- male. For the most part, we’re used to existing in a world where -- not discounting personal tragedy or struggle -- hard work is rewarded, the system works to protect our property and well-being, we have health care and parents who understand our career goals and support them (financially or otherwise). This privilege takes the edge off (for many of us) our financially precarious position: If we need that emergency loan, or that flight home, or a little extra to make rent, a lot of us have parents/grandparents/other sources of financial support. Not only does this make the plight of those graduate students without these resources invisible (no one wants to admit they get a little extra from mom and dad; hence the silence surrounding personal finances in many departments), but it actively prevents those without those resources from starting and/or finishing graduate school. If folks can find other -- outside, private -- sources of funding rather than demanding a living wage, the university is only too happy to oblige with unsustainable pay and fellowships. The result? Those without these external sources are forced out. (Or never begin at all; we should recognize that the very idea of grad school -- the idea of being purposely poor for the sake of knowledge -- is one that makes a lot more sense to a college grad who has never lived on food stamps or doesn’t need to support their own parents.)

Also (bonus privilege effect!): If you’re used to the system working for you, it’s not an easy Gestalt shift to embrace a view of yourself in the world where you’re exploited. We’re smart, right? Certainly too smart to end up serving an institutional role that doesn’t serve us. We’re being paid to read! Can you believe it?! (Of course, the irony is that after the first two years -- when serious, self-directed research actually begins -- we’re paid to teach, which takes time away from our own work and contributions to the academic corpus.) Our unwillingness to identify as workers comes, I think, from a combination of elitism and guilt: We know that we have it relatively good (especially if we’re some of the folks with outside support or the ability to walk away at any time), and we’re used to thinking of ourselves as thinkers, the creme-de-la-creme of our generation, not the unwashed masses we associate with labor unionism.

3. We actually like to teach. Lest you think I hate my brethren: Grad students are -- on the whole -- deeply idealistic, passionate people, especially about their area of intellectual interest. We like to teach (or at least, no one wants to admit that they don’t). We’re so grateful for being paid to study (a side effect of the “funding packages” that treat teaching as a part of the we’re-paying-you-to-be-awesome rather than a “If you want to be able to pay your fees you’ll do this work for us”) that we jump at the chance to help others, to reach out to undergrads. For all the systematic devaluing of teaching from a careerist perspective, amongst graduate students there is definitely a culture of “going the extra mile,” of being the best teacher possible. I think graduate students as a whole are genuinely committed to being awesome teachers and encourage such a commitment in their peers. Which is GREAT -- except that it also means we’re willing to do a lot of unpaid labor. And since many of us got into grad school in part on the basis of our “volunteer efforts” as undergraduates, we’re used to being taken care of and then “giving back” -- rather than seeing our talents and efforts as something we exchange for the ability to eat, clothe ourselves, pay tuition, etc.

So what should our response to the ugly reality of the contemporary university be? Well, one is to not go to grad school in humanities or the social sciences in the first place. Or, if you do, recognize that grad school is a fun way to spend your twenties (or your thirties, or your forties), and may be intellectually fulfilling, but isn’t career training. Have your fun and get out, in other words -- and be prepared to be competing with college grads for jobs when you’re done. But I don’t really like either of these, and I suspect my colleagues don’t either. Graduate school -- for all its failings -- provides a context in which scholars can pursue ideas and research beyond what is already known and discussed. It provides a setting and material support for work that challenges the status quo in profound ways. A dissertation, after destroying its author’s psyche, can actually contribute to human knowledge, add to the collective human understanding of the world (however narrowly or incrementally). For all the infantilization of the first couple of years of grad school, eventually we do get thrown into the intellectual deep end and are asked to produce something new. And that’s pretty damn cool and not something I want a) eliminated from contemporary social and cultural practices; and b) limited to those from wealth who can afford such an experience. Moreover (and more to the point): Teachers are needed. Good teachers are needed. Universities have always combined -- with more or less success -- two social functions that are not necessarily or inevitably linked: Research pushing the bounds of human knowledge, and the continuation of existing knowledge through teaching.

In 2011, at major public universities in the U.S., we’ve largely lost sight of this teaching function. There is not a single department at UC Berkeley that requires teaching experience, aptitude, or interest as part of the application process. We just assume that if you want to write a dissertation, you won’t mind teaching and will be halfway good at it. But teaching is a separate, valuable, and really freaking tough-to-learn skill.

In light of all this, I put forth a set of proposals -- two short term, one more challenging and longer-term:

- A career training/placement office for graduate students that actively seeks to broaden the field of potential jobs for PhD-holders beyond academia and the university/college system. There are basically no resources on campus for PhD grads who want a job, don’t mind looking outside of academia, but don’t know where to begin. We need folks with the knowledge and the time to aggregate information about job opportunities that may not even occur to many PhD students and make it available to us.

- Systematic, accurate tracking of job placement for PhD and professional school grads. This is a big issue right now amongst law students and law schools, and seems like a no-brainer. Keep track of what grads are doing (and how much they’re making) at 1, 5, and 10 years out. This could be done by department or through the graduate division as a whole.

- Make teaching a core mission of the university. No, really. This means paying lecturers more and giving them greater job security and benefits. It also means paying graduate students a salary commensurate with the idea that they’re providing a central, meaningful service to both the university and undergrads, rather than receiving financial aid. It could mean requiring more significant teaching loads from tenured faculty. It certainly means smaller class sizes. Improve pedagogy classes for graduate students and demand that teacher training be an ongoing process that isn’t an extra burden on top of a full class load but an integral part to what graduate students are doing as part of their studies. This would be a profound cultural shift -- but also a mutually reinforcing one: If universities hired and paid as if teaching were part of its core mission, then there would be more decent-paying teaching jobs for PhD graduates, which would mean that rather than an afterthought or a hobby, learning how to teach difficult material well would become a part of what grad school is about and key to post-dissertation job prospects. (Teaching might also become a bigger part of why folks do or don’t choose to go to grad school -- applicants would increasingly treat a PhD program as a road to a specific career rather than a way to pursue academic interests once college has ended).

In short: We grad students need to stop seeing ourselves as special, and instead see ourselves as part of a sometimes-great institution that does amazing things, one of which (perhaps the most important of which) is challenging and enriching students’ minds through classroom instruction and discussion -- but also to recognize that it is an institution that currently systematically undervalues this work. Our lives as researchers-slash-teachers-on-an-unlivable-salary? This is it. There’s no magical job waiting for you once you finish your dissertation. But -- and I say this knowing most, if not all of my fellow grad students would agree -- this (our current work) is actually totally worth it if we can pay our rent, afford health insurance, and (if we want) raise children. So let’s fight for that.


  1. Yo, if you want to raise children and have health insurance, how about not go into grad school in humanities? It's not like there isn't a glut of terrible McScholarship done by faux-Marxists.

  2. Right, cause there are so many other awesome jobs out there...

  3. Contrary to what many seem to believe, grad school shouldn't be a refuge for people who have nothing to offer to society. That's what teaching English abroad is for.

  4. Also, in Europe universities do just fine without giving jobs to grad student TAs. Don't act like you are doing some important, valuable, and essential work. Graduate student TAs are more or less expendable.

  5. @Mortal Wombat: Actually, the fact that GSIs are expendable is the entire point -- it's fundamentally precarious labor. GSIs and lecturers do 75 percent of the teaching at universities in the US. These instructors provide a highly specialized and valuable service for less than a living wage, which is precisely how the university continues to function, while (at the UC for example) management grows at such an alarming rate.

  6. Hey, how about no. TAs are neither valuable nor highly specialized, at least in the humanities. I should know, I was a graduate student in literature for 8 years. If TAs disappeared tomorrow, then nothing of value would have been lost. Do you think American students are better educated in the humanities than European students that learn from big lecture classes without TAs? You are lucky to be getting a wage at all, for doing a job that provides absolutely nothing to the society.

    Your labor is fundamentally precarious because it is completely useless. What you are getting is essentially a hand-out. Be grateful and stop whining.

  7. Um, your argument literally makes no sense. The university needs GSIs and adjuncts to teach its classes -- they teach 75 percent of university classes for a reason.

  8. Are you illiterate? Or are you so close minded that you cannot even imagine that other countries may handle education differently, with often superior results? University does not need TAs. They can simply cancel discussion sections and fold all the useless TA taught classes into larger lectures. You know, like it is done in everywhere else in the world.

    Don't be so blinded by your sense of self-importance. You don't add value to the university as a TA. If anything, a student's education is unfairly compromised by being forced to learn under inexperienced and untrained TAs.

  9. You can troll around here all you want, but you'll never make the fact that 75 percent of the teaching at universities in the US is done by GSIs/adjuncts disappear.

  10. I just explained to you how easy it is to make that 75% disappear. I mentioned, too, that, where that 75% never existed, higher education is actually more robust than here in the States. No one doubts that TAs teach a lot of classes. The simple point I am trying very hard to get across to you is that those classes are absolutely without value. Even a graduate student in, lol, jurisprudence and social policy ought to be able to understand that????

    Or you can continue to play victim and live out your Che Guevarra fantasy.

  11. Current undergrad, here.
    I love my TAs. Honestly, I don't know where I would be without them. Professors are too busy doing whatever they do, so TAs perform a necessary function for undergrads that professors perhaps can't. In lecture classes that reach to 150, smaller sections are greatly appreciated, and adjunct faculty and lecturers add to the intellectual community on campus. Because TAs are profoundly useful, they should get paid better for being so.

  12. @Lela: Thanks!

    @Mortal Wombat: I just realized that you still haven't understood the argument that's being made in the piece above. I thought you'd understood it earlier, but apparently you're having a hard time following. (Maybe you could find someone to help explain it to you face to face, you know, like a GSI.) What you're really trying so hard to say is that grad students make bad teachers and that classes would be better if professors taught them. That has literally nothing to do with the argument that's made above. The point isn't about who's a better teacher but about the way the university functions.

  13. I'm sad to see a thoughtful piece like this derided by largely pointless comments.

    Given the 75% statistic, improving teacher training for graduate students would likely have the effect of improving the quality of university education. I'd venture that most graduate students have the capacity to learn effective pedagogical techniques and an interest in becoming effective educators. Providing a living (not a luxurious, mind you) wage to graduate student TAs demonstrates that teaching is the core of education...something that's apparently not obvious to most folks in education these days.

    Well-developed teaching skills are useful outside the academy, in corporate and non-profit settings alike. Someone who can teach themselves a skill and then effectively teach it to others has a leg-up when competing for jobs.

  14. there are no industry jobs for PhD chemists,
    Is Cal ranked number 1 in chemistry? yes
    Do I have a PhD in chem from Cal? yes
    Do I have 3 papers in JACS? yes

    Do I have a "well paying industry job" to settle for? NO
    Do I see others qualified like me jobless like me? YES

    sorry to hear the humanities continue to be crapped on, but you can drop the pretense that it's all good for science degree holders