Universities have a long history of providing citizens with education and training, which together contribute to the vitality of society. The relationship between education and employment—often buffered by ideas about skill sets, competencies, and the state of the labour market—has been central to recent discussions about the role, quality, and efficiency of post-secondary education. Historically, much of this conversation has been focused at the undergraduate level. Scholars and policy makers are debating and exploring the workforce readiness or employability of first-degree graduates of higher education institutions. Across jurisdictions, considerable research and angst has been generated by competing ideas about what type and how much education (and which resulting skills and competencies) are necessary to achieve the optimal (and perhaps fictitious) employability sweet spot. Given the increasing numbers of students attending colleges and universities and the need to develop an educated and productive workforce, the imperative to explore the relationship between education and employment becomes stronger. As such, it is reasonable to extend this debate to discussions of graduate education. But graduate education is not undergraduate education; the parameters that define it and the contours that shape it have their own particular nuances.
The nuances of graduate education prove helpful in understanding how the relationship between education and employment is structured and enacted in higher education generally. My goal here is to explore this dual illumination; how the construction of the connection between employment and education in undergraduate education informs our understanding of graduate education, while the nuances of graduate study allow us to better understand dynamics within the broader university sector. The impetus for this reflection is the recent conversation in various Canadian and American media outlets, which have cast graduate education—as a system and as a pursuit—as seriously flawed and seemingly pointless. I enter into this conversation not only as someone who is deeply passionate about higher education, but also as a recent PhD graduate from Canada who currently works at a private, research-intensive university in the US, and whose research interests and professional commitments are rooted in the structure of doctoral education, the experiences of doctoral students, the nature of academic work, and the changing academic profession.
Before proceeding, it is important to make a distinction between graduate education at the master’s degree level and doctoral education. Generally speaking, master’s education has not received the scholarly and policy attention that doctoral education has garnered. Over the last decade, master’s degree offerings have proliferated, but most of that increase has been concentrated in disciplines more closely aligned with professions—for example, nursing, business, social work, and education. Education in the professions includes accreditation and input from professional councils, and this shapes the demand for additional credentials beyond the baccalaureate. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus explicitly on doctoral education and leave the complexities of master’s education for another paper.
My research has been driven by two key questions: a) what is doctoral education; and b) what does it mean to do a doctorate? Additional questions persist—for example, who pursues (and hopefully completes) a doctoral degree? And for what purpose do they pursue it? For me, all of these questions are illuminated by considering the influence of discipline and of research imperatives, as is the relationship between education and employment at the doctoral level.
Disciplinary understandings are critical to any discussions of doctoral study. For instance, public policy and scholarly conversations have questioned the high percentage of students who do not complete doctoral study and the lengthy amount of time that is required to complete the various milestones of a PhD. It has been observed that doctoral students in science-based disciplines tend to be more successful at completing their degrees and do so in shorter time-frames than their counterparts in the social sciences or humanities. Completion rates and time-to-degree do vary considerably across disciplines, and much of those differences are rooted in the nature of the disciplines themselves. Yet public conversations around doctoral education do not explicitly recognize the significance of disciplinary conventions to many aspects of doctoral study. The demands and contours of the disciplines require different things from doctoral students. For example, the successful completion of comprehensive exams (or qualifying exams, depending on context) signals a critical moment for many PhD students. But the requirements to complete these exams vary considerably. The humanities employ a canonical structure where particular works or texts that are foundational to understanding the discipline must be mastered prior to the exam. Similarly, there might be language proficiency requirements that must be met, and as anyone who has ever attempted to learn a second language knows, this is not a straightforward or quick process. These sorts of requirements naturally lengthen the time to degree completion for some disciplines, yet are often absent in discussions about the low completion rates and long time-to-degree realities for some doctoral students.
The influence of discipline is also felt in doctoral student supervision and supervisory relations. The role of faculty member supervision is critical to the experiences of doctoral students. The engagement of supervisors with doctoral students includes not only thesis supervision, but also concerns broader aspects such as feedback, socialization, mentorship, and guidance. Given the nature of research and the lengthy time required to complete a dissertation, the experiences of doctoral students often hinge on the quality of their relationships with supervising faculty members. While supervision is significant in all doctoral study, the nature of individual disciplines introduces a great deal of variability and nuance to the experience. For instance, doctoral students in the sciences and engineering disciplines experience a supervision model that might seem more like an employment contract—where students’ interactions with their supervisors mirrors an employee-employer dynamic, with a laboratory environment that more closely resembles a conventional workplace. Doctoral students might arrive to the lab at 9 or 10 a.m. and then leave the lab around 5 p.m., thereby mirroring traditional employment schedules—although many students work well beyond 5 p.m. Many of these doctoral students will have opportunities to interact with fellow students and with the supervisor during this work day, which facilitates feedback, advice, and guidance about research activity and about academic life. Doctoral students in the humanities experience a very different supervision structure, with implications for engaging in research and interaction with faculty members. For these individuals, the experience is much more independent—even isolated—compared to their colleagues in the sciences, especially during the dissertation writing phase. This means fewer mentorship and supervision opportunities for many students in the humanities and social sciences. Supervision, mentorship, and guidance definitely exist for humanities doctoral students, but in a much more unstructured way that depends on the initiative of the student and the availability of the professor.
Attention to disciplinary variation is needed if we are to understand how powerful differences exist in the lived experiences of doctoral students. The variations across disciplines must be considered when evidence such as low completion rates, long completion times, and the difficult academic labour market are marshaled to comment on the efficacy of doctoral study. The conventions and norms of disciplines affect the amount of time students need to finish each requirement of doctoral study and to successfully complete doctoral study. This is not to suggest that the sciences and engineering disciplines are easier than humanities related disciplines, but rather that the arguments invoked in popular discussions about the efficiency of doctoral study do not fully articulate the variability and diversity of doctoral education.
The disciplines also act as prisms through which we can explore the relationship between education and employment for doctoral students. This disciplinary framework introduces two powerful ideas: a) the uncompromising commitment to research as central to doctoral study; and
b) the different ways that this emphasis on research affects students across disciplines.
With only slight variations, a doctoral degree is, fundamentally, a research degree. Many of the experiences, relationships, and tasks within doctoral study are built around establishing research acumen. This includes mastering the literature in one’s field of study, writing publishable manuscripts, and presenting at academic conferences. Students are taught how to read scholarship, how to write for academic audiences, and how to produce knowledge to the standards of the academy. This explicit focus on research is a crucial element in defining the significance of doctoral study within the contemporary university. Across jurisdictions, universities seek to increase their prestige and reputation by attracting star faculty and promising students. One way this prestige is acquired is through the research activity of departments and individuals. Universities have long been judged on their ability to produce high quality academic publications and their record of securing external funding to support ongoing research. In both the global and domestic higher education landscapes, the perceived quality of a department or institution is deeply tied to research activity. When prospective doctoral students seek out programs of doctoral study, the quality of faculty members, the strength of the program or department, and/or the overall research reputation of the institution are crucial factors. Also, there might be specific disciplinary expertise (measured through research) that is found in an institution that might not otherwise be considered a top-tier research university; however, the quality of its disciplinary focus would entice doctoral
students to apply to the program. For undergraduate students, research profile is less important in deciding where to study. For doctoral students, this concern is central, and this is another defining nuance to consider when discussing graduate education.
Some of this might implicitly support critiques of doctoral education, which suggest that it is too narrow and that graduates will most likely never work in academic settings, despite the clear expectations—of both students and faculty—that graduates will work as professors upon graduation. However, the points I have raised demonstrate the inherent complexity of doctoral study. This complexity defies the simplified discourse presented in most media critiques, and makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the connections between doctoral study and employment. The foregoing discussion also illuminates important entry points into re-framing the experiences of doctoral students, expectations amongst faculty members and doctoral students, and the programmatic scope of departments, disciplines, and institutions. This reframing identifies the pressing need to implement reform efforts to encourage the successful completion and employment of doctoral graduates, reforms that go far beyond the critiques and conclusions contained within the popular discourse.
As a higher education researcher, I have the wonderful, yet complicated, privilege of exploring and reflecting on the contexts in which I am embedded. As a doctoral student, I studied the experiences of doctoral students, and now I study the nature of academic work and the changing academic profession—a profession in which I plan to spend the rest of my career. This sort of reflective gaze on my embeddedness was extremely helpful in identifying and responding to expectations during doctoral study. Unfortunately, many doctoral students across disciplines are not afforded similar opportunities to reflect on and to engage with their own experiences. As such, I encourage doctoral students to act as agents—both as individuals and in coalition with their colleagues—to suggest and to implement particular perspectives and activities that support continuous improvement of doctoral programs.
This focus on student agency to diversify and differentiate traditional activities in doctoral study also needs to be supported, nurtured, and legitimized in the departmental, disciplinary, institutional, and broader academic culture in which such student advocacy occurs. Multiple initiatives have begun to address the need for reform in doctoral education, and, recently, the comprehensive efforts at Stanford University focusing on the humanities represent a crucial step toward this important goal. Central to these efforts has been the need to decrease the time to degree completion and to diversify the curriculum to address non-academic careers for doctoral graduates in the humanities. The first element involved curricular and cultural changes in the department that introduced regular and frequent meetings and forums for doctoral students to engage with peers and faculty members where feedback, guidance, and mentorship could readily occur. The second element included the BiblioTech initiative, which emphasizes employment opportunities for humanities doctoral graduates in technology industries, specifically within Silicon Valley. These types of broad reforms could be implemented in other disciplines at other institutions, but need a coordinated strategy amongst departments, faculty members, and doctoral students. One potential area of reform in doctoral education is to re-engineer what research actually means in the context of learning particular skills that are relevant to different careers post-graduation. Writing for academic audiences involves a particular prose and tone, yet the need to understand research and to articulate a cogent, critical argument are competencies needed beyond the narrow walls of academe. Government agencies, consulting firms, policy offices, and non-governmental organizations all desire individuals who are critical thinkers and can communicate competently and efficiently. The ability to recognize and support these diverse career trajectories for doctoral degree holders is paramount, as more graduates either are unable to enter academe due to the limited job openings or are unwilling to engage with many of the elements of a professorial life that simply aren’t attractive to many graduates.
A parallel notion is to recognize that academic employment does not equal professorial employment. There are many offices and divisions within colleges and universities that need well-educated and articulate individuals. For many doctoral graduates, career options within higher education institutions but outside of professorial pursuits might be more gratifying, sustainable, and productive—but these realities may be difficult to articulate within the current expectations of doctoral study.
There has been considerable attention to and debate about doctoral education and the future of doctoral degree holders. In the context of the relationship between education and employment, doctoral study occupies a strange tension—a complicated space between reform and maintenance. Doctoral education needs to change as enrolments increase, yet many doctoral degree holders are not exposed to the diverse skills that enable greater marketability in a changing labour market. Many graduates do not enter professorial employment because stable tenure-track jobs simply are not available, or the life of a professor does not seem desirable (in the short-term). But, there is no alternative form of training or no other source of labour that provides the professoriate of the future. The only place future professors are created is through doctoral study. So—ay, there’s the rub—in many ways, the question is no longer “to be or not to be” a doctoral student, but rather “what are the priorities and purposes of doctoral education?” And, perhaps more intriguing, who gets to define them? Continued attention and debate is needed to advance clear and comprehensive strategies, expectations, and curricula to ensure the successful completion and employment of doctoral degree holders.
Bryan Gopaul is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.