The University’s Burden of Proof; or, Universities Need To Market Ph.D Holders Like Undergraduates

Recently, I was part of a LinkedIn brouhaha discussion about whether having a Ph.D makes you more marketable as an employee in private enterprise.  Unsurprisingly, the debate got very heated very quickly: with the state of the academic job market these days, finding a job is a hot button topic.

Many commenters had recently earned Ph.Ds in the humanities, and they were quite frank about their difficulties in finding a job after earning their degree.  Many of them felt that their Ph.Ds placed them out of positions in private industry, and they felt obligated to take administrative or adjunct positions at universities.

A sad reality for many of us, I'm afraid.

A sad reality for many of us, I’m afraid.

Generally, though, everyone agreed that most employers are gun-shy about hiring someone who has a Ph.D., either because they fear the person has few transferrable skills or will leave in favor of greener pastures and prove a poor investment.  Throughout the LinkedIn thread, the commenters reiterated a single question again and again: how we can educate employers about the benefits of hiring Ph.D holders?  Many argued that task falls to the individual job seeker.  I strongly disagree.  If universities are overproducing Ph.D holders—and under any objective scrutiny, they are—and underproducing reasonable academic positions, then it only benefits universities to place those degree holders privately.  Thus, the burden of creating a market for Ph.Ds in the private sphere should fall to universities, not the Ph.D holders they’re producing.

Here’s what I mean: all universities (and lots of individual departments) have career centers. The job of said center is to liaise with companies and the community-at-large to communicate the value of its degree system. They talk to recruiters, HR representatives, and national agencies to basically pitch students and the degree they earn to help graduates get jobs. As I mention above, a university only benefits from a high placement rate; it convinces more students to enroll in programs, more money comes in, graduates receive better placement, the university is showered with accolades, and the cycle repeats ad infinitum.

What Ph.Ds need are advocates within the higher education system that promote them in the private sphere. We need career centers to help change the brand of the Ph.D and translate our skills into economic and corporate terms. This, of course, necessitates a change in the way universities view their Ph.D programs in conjunction with a blanket acknowledgement of the higher ed hiring problem. Unfortunately, that kind of self-awareness doesn’t benefit universities at all, so Ph.Ds are stuck in limbo.

I do recognize that this is a controversial topic.  Anything having to do with the job market in higher education seems to be problematic, honestly.  However, the hard truth is that the way we conceptualize the Ph.D. needs to change (heck, even the MLA agrees, and they’re traditional as heck).  The only way for that to be effective, though, is if institutions start advocating for all of their students, not just their undergraduates.

Posted in Communications, Graduate School, Higher Education.

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