My students, especially soon-to-be master’s-degree recipients, frequently ask about whether Ph.D. programs are a good career path. Given the difficulties of this job market, even for students in a professional program who have experience in the field, the prospect of a Ph.D. can seem like a permanent safe harbor. Appearances deceive, though, as a tight academic job market and a deepening reliance on adjuncts make even employment after the Ph.D. a difficult proposition. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s been an increasingly strident pushback to the idea that Ph.D.s are necessary. Numerous examples exist in the humanities, sciences and social sciences.
Rather than restate themes that have already been covered better by others, I offer recommendations for how faculty mentors should answer these sorts of questions from students. We are always going to be asked about whether students should follow our career paths, and the days of faculty blindly endorsing Ph.D. programs as if they were a universal solution for all students are over. Doing our job as advisers well requires that we take a pragmatic approach that gives students a clear understanding of the challenges currently confronted by academe. This will require many who advise Ph.D. students to take a more hands-on role in preparing their students for the challenges of an increasingly difficult job market. This pragmatic approach has three elements: honesty, professionalization, and options.
It’s awfully hard for something or someone to help you get where you want to go when you don’t know where that is. When you’re searching for a job, there is nothing more important than knowing exactly what you want. Going to grad school is a very expensive way to ask for directions. There is nothing wrong with being lost for awhile.
89. Virtually no one reads what you write.
You are not paid for your academic writing (see Reason 88) because no one is willing to pay to read it. In fact, virtually no one is willing to read it at all. After several years of work on a dissertation, you can have some confidence that your adviser will read the finished product, and somewhat less confidence that the other members of your dissertation committee will read it. Beyond that handful of people, it is unlikely that anyone will ever read your dissertation again. As university libraries are increasingly archiving dissertations digitally, you may not even have the satisfaction of seeing your name on a volume in the library. On rare occasions, someone may come along and cherry-pick something from your research that relates to his own, but chances are that no one will ever sit down and read the paragraphs over which you agonized for so long (see Reason 28).
The same fate awaits the vast majority of published academic writing. Typically, it takes months of research, writing, and revision to produce a journal article that will be seen by fewer people in its author’s lifetime than will visit this blog in an hour. Academic presses print as few as 300 copies of the books that their authors have labored over for years. Most journal articles and academic monographs are written because academics need to be published to keep their jobs, not because there is a demand or need for their work (see Reasons 33 and 34). To the extent that academic writing is consulted at all, it tends to be “read” solely for the purpose of furthering someone else’s writing. In many cases, editors and peer-reviewers probably read manuscripts more carefully before they are published than anyone will ever read them after they are published.