I spent much of a Monday afternoon recently editing application materials for a very dear friend who is in the academic job market this year. I was happy to help, but as I sifted through his documents—rewriting sentences and highlighting passages that required his attention—I was haunted by the question, “Why aren’t his advisors doing this?”
While editing his cover letter, I came across something so surprisingly odd that I was touched by the question, “Who told you to do this?” He revealed that he was following the advice of a well-known – and expensive – academic advisor he had hired. This she did. Tact can no longer suppress this urgent question. When I inquired about his advisors’ role in his job search, it turns out that they let him manage – not that they weren’t willing to help (well, one was) but that they long since stopped being proactive in guiding through the maze we euphemistically refer to as “work season.” “.
My friend has finished his Ph.D. A few years ago at a prestigious research university, in one of its outstanding programmes. His dissertation committee is composed of well-connected, experienced academics. Ever wondered how these established professors could justify abandoning their students who were doing everything right – publishing in prestigious journals, securing competitive fellowships, and continuing to make impressive progress on not one but two ground-breaking book projects? Where the hell were they on Monday afternoon? I had to curb the urge to send each of them a harsh email of what they had done – and failed to do – to someone I loved.
Listening to the stories of academics on Twitter — some that now work securely, some that don’t — it showed me that my friend’s predicament was very common. I only joined this site a couple of years ago, and so I’ve been working, in the half-dozen years since I left school, assuming that everyone in my PhD program has the level, if not quality, of mentorship I’ve enjoyed at the University of Pennsylvania.
In other words, while I knew that some academics were better at giving advice than others—just as some are more skilled at research or teaching than others—I assumed that they all had the same sense of what they were supposed to do to their students in the job market.
The my thesis committee had four members: from Benn, Nancy Bentley, Wendy Steiner, and the late pioneer Amy Kaplan. and from Indiana University in Bloomington, Jennifer Fleisner (I name them by way of thanks). All four read each document I was forced to draft for my job applications and commented on them carefully, gracefully, and meticulously. They coached me during each of the five years I spent searching for a stable job.
I am constitutionally uncomfortable asking people about things, but by instructing them, I gladly felt compelled to keep them involved in the process. Once, when I was concerned about putting Nancy on another search, she soberly replied, “We’re in this together. I’m not ready to quit until you are.” She even made sure to reimburse the costs of the interview long after my graduation. And when—in what I decided would be my last year in the career path market—I conducted two sets of searches (one academic, one not), all four of my advisors received calls of reference from non-academic employers. All four were unequivocally supportive of my decision not to dedicate my life to the pursuit of the academic beluga whale (which I luckily bumped into that same year, with minimal dismemberment).
I work for a college rather than a research university, and while I expect to publish heavily, my duties do not include coaching and advising for graduate students. So, for a while, they weren’t on my radar. However, after realizing that many advisors don’t care about their students anywhere near the level I meant by it, I’ve been thinking more and more about the implications of their neglect as they navigate a treacherous market. Beyond just feeling angry—and I’m angry—I understand this as a problem for all of us. Simply put, there is no future for the profession if PhD students do not succeed in the academic job market.
The lack of full-time faculty positions is certainly a bigger problem than inadequate advice. But the crisis requires more care, not less. The fading of job offers at colleges and universities makes it even more important for advisors to be practical in their students’ searches. At the very least, the faculty owes their students the necessary guidance to ensure that they get the best shots in the positions at hand.
Good luck to all career advisors, but no PhD student should have to Pay for their services. Because these services are supposed to be an integral part of what we all paid for in high school. Many new PhD holders, who have not experienced good mentoring themselves, may not understand their mentoring obligations to their students. And if the horror stories I’ve been hearing are true, some veteran academics may have similar blind spots.
For these reasons, the Academy needs a bill of rights for graduate students who choose to pursue research and teaching careers in higher education. To spark this discussion, here is a list of things every current and future graduate student advisor should do:
- Meet early with graduate students to learn about their career goals (the type of job and institution they prefer) and to discuss how to help position them to achieve these goals.
- Read and comment on each required document of your students’ employment applications.
- Request lists of all jobs they plan to apply for (including links to job postings) and encourage them to send you updated lists as you apply for additional positions.
- Contact any friendly acquaintances at the institutions on those lists and talk to your students.
- Arrange for mock job interviews and job conversations for your students.
- Meet with students about any upcoming interviews and visits to campus.
- Advise on negotiation strategies for any upcoming offers. If no performances come true, help students formulate plans to support themselves over the next year, whether through academic choices or otherwise.
- Repeat steps 1-7 for as long as your students remain motivated to search for faculty positions.
Although, as I have stated, I do not work at a research university, this issue is of interest to me because I consider the education of graduate students to be a village-level affair. No, those of us in institutions without graduate students have no formal obligation to help them in the job market, but I think we’ll make a stronger career with all hands on deck. I have been impressed by the many faculty members at university institutions who have enthusiastically volunteered to read the material and advise job seekers for free, and I hope to see more do the same.
It’s a tough time being a graduate student. Just think what a difference this faltering generation of emerging scientists would make if their advisors advised it.