Graduate Students Unprepared for Graduation?

A consultant for would-be academics, says she wouldn't have a job if professors would do theirs.

Karen Kelsey, a former anthropology prof who’s now doing hired consultancy for would-be academics, says she wouldn’t have a job if professors would do theirs.

Your students don’t come to me because they think I’m the perfect adviser. They come because I’m available and you’re not. And because I don’t sugarcoat the truth and you do. When their work is bad, I tell them. Point blank. “Your essay is truly awful,” I’ve said. Or, “Has no one ever taught you how to write a grant?” Most important, I highlight the career stakes of their errors: “This job letter is no better than a B+, which in this job climate, may as well be an F. Do it over.” And they do.

When I ask them why they come to me—and not you, their Ph.D. advisers—the answers never vary. “Oh, my adviser? He’s supportive about the diss. But in terms of my career? I’m totally on my own.”

Why am I the pinch-hitter for an absentee professoriate?

Because you’ve chosen to do that as a full-time job whereas advising students on their careers is, at best, a diverting time suck for professors who have actual classes to teach, grants to write, and research to publish?

Cultivate a letter-writer? Do the elevator talk? Tailor a job letter? You are sending your Ph.D. students out onto this job market so unprepared that it would be laughable if the outcome weren’t so tragic. Meanwhile, when students ask for help with their job search, too many of you respond with some version of “not my problem” or “the Ph.D. is not professional training.” When one of my clients asked her adviser for career help, the professor accused her of trying to “game the system.” Incredibly, one of you told another of my clients, “Jobs come up all the time! It’s not like there’s a season for them!”

My experience here is limited but this strikes me as highly unrepresentative. Professors are usually quite happy to reach out to their professional contacts to help out their students, particularly those whose dissertations they supervised. If nothing else, it looks good for people who they’ve mentored to get jobs.

Your responsibility to your advisees extends to telling the whole truth about the academic enterprise at this time. Tenure-track lines have been evaporating for years. Aiming for a tenure-track job is, for most students, unrealistic. For those students who wish to try, the effort requires years of methodical training and calculation of career chances, from the point of arrival in the graduate program through the dissertation defense and beyond. Your job is to look up from your students’ dissertations, and assist them in mastering those skills and calculations.

How? By teaching your Ph.D.’s how to write a CV; to cultivate prominent scholarly supporters; to pursue grant money with a single-minded purpose; to apply for national awards; to publish, publish more, publish higher, write a stellar application letter, and do the elevator talk.

The problem is that few senior professors have any clue about these things. The people who were advising me when I was finishing up in the mid-1990s had gotten their jobs back in the day when it took three years to get a PhD, tenure-track jobs were plentiful, and it was not uncommon to be a full professor by 30. And my bet is that even most professors my age really don’t have much mastery of writing application letters, doing elevator talks, and all the rest.

Academia is a mystery even to most academics. Most are ensconced in their teaching and research and have only an inkling about how things work in departments across the land. I’m more likely to read the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed than the average professor, even though I’ve been outside academia for almost a decade now; I’m just interested in the process in a way that most aren’t.

Frankly, deans and department chairs are more likely to understand the hiring process than the average professor. But there’s such a glut of candidates in most fields that the process seems almost arbitrary.

And when, even after doing all of the above, the tenure-track job doesn’t materialize, as it often will not, instead of averting your eyes in shame from their so-called “failures,” you step up, professors, and work with your Ph.D.’s to transfer their skills into some sector of the economy that is not contracting as badly as your own.

As someone who got a PhD and wound up off the tenure-track path, I sympathize with this. I really do. But if there’s a creature on this earth less qualified to offer advice about how to get jobs outside academia than a tenured college professor, I haven’t encountered it. They’ve spent decades learning how to do one thing very well and succeeded in a very regimented system with set rules.

To the extent that they’ve spent any time thinking about applying the skills learned in graduate school to another line of work, they figure that brains, writing, and research skill are marketable anywhere. But the truth is that a PhD can be a real detriment in the outside world, in that employers fear that the holder is overqualified, out of touch with the real world, or otherwise a bad fit.

Additionally, newly minted PhDs tend to think that they’re much higher on the global pecking order than they really are. They’re confident that they’re smarter and better trained than most people and therefore tend to apply for jobs above the level of their actual experience.

Would it be nice if professors could help their graduate students figure this all out? Sure. But you can’t teach what you don’t know.

UPDATE: McGill’s Steve Saideman weighs in:

I guess I am surprised–that Phd students have the cash to hire people like this.  But am I surprised that profs can be lousy advisers?  Um, no.  I know of some profs that don’t even do the basics, like read the damned chapters within a month or two (one colleague lets them sit on his desk for a year, sometimes).  Doing more than that, to help a phd student find a job by reviewing the CV, read stuff to be submitted to journals, networking to help them find jobs–this all takes heaps of time.  But it is definitely part of the job.

Yes, it is part of the job, especially since we profs can do our work because our grad students are doing the grading, the coding, the book-chasing, and all the rest.  I consider it part of the implicit pact we make–the student needs to do the work (his/hers and mine), take feedback seriously, and so on and I will need to do the work to make sure they get started in this difficult business.  Indeed, I have often used the Harry Potterism of unbreakable vow–that advising is a lifelong (or career-long) deal.

Steve’s probably ahead of the pack in this respect. He’s also relatively young, which means he came of age in something like the current job market.

But Don Snow and John Oneal did much the same for me back in the day and Snow, who was my dissertation advisor, continued to help when he could long after I left campus–indeed, into his retirement. But it’s a bit much to expect that senior scholars are masters of navigating the job search–especially if the road leads beyond the ivory tower.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anon says:

    From my observations and experiences as a professor, I do think most professors are willing to try, at least, to help their students find a job.

  2. Tristan says:

    How can this be a problem for society? Whether everyone is skilled at writing application letters or everyone is unskilled doesn’t affect how many grads the companies hire. They simply have a number in mind and choose the best x applicants. Of course there is a case to be made for it being better for any given individual to improve their letter writing skills, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better for anyone if EVERYONE improves at (or gets worse at) writing grant requests.

    Of course this assumes we are talking about non-skills like grant writing and job applying etc. and not actual work.

  3. Argon says:

    Rule one: An anthropology Ph.D. is no reliable ticket to a ‘good’ job.

    Rule two: Your future is your responsibility.

    Rule three: What a having a Ph.D. demonstrates in a job candidate is the ability to beat one’s head against a wall repeatedly, *until that wall falls over*. So it does suggest perseverance and the ability to defer gratification.

    I worked one summer as a intern in a chemical plant. More than 50% of the engineers (mostly BS/MS) were divorced. In contrast, none of the Ph.D. chemists were. The plural of anecdote isn’t data but…being able to defer gratification is a big thing for a successful marriage (I have doubts about whether it applies to academics, however).

  4. BigFire says:

    Graduate program prepares its participant for only one thing: to get a diploma. The fact that this sheepskin doesn’t translate to meaningful employment isn’t the fault of the program, only the mis-advertisement that college used.

  5. john personna says:

    We could hire a lot more if we slashed wages, and created an army of “barefoot professors” to roam the countryside ….