Co-ops for some PhD students, miniature American flags for others!

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski. Shared under Creative Commons.

I read with some interest the recent news that the University of British Columbia will be launching a pilot program, offering co-op positions to their PhD students in English. The news was greeted with some excitement from people, myself included, in that it seemed to be that a major university was finally doing something to address the employability of their English PhD grads who more than likely won’t be able to find a tenure track job. For me, however, the shine wore off pretty quickly, much the same way my initial enthusiasm for all things #alt-ac waned before long.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. While I think it is wise for PhDs in any discipline to cultivate skills that have use outside of the university, implementing a co-op program for PhD students doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problem faced by PhDs entering the non-academic workforce: the fact that compared to being in the workforce for the same amount of time, a PhD in English (and I assume many other fields) is a not the best place to do your non-academic career development.

I’d happily argue that doing a PhD in English helps hone a highly valuable set of skills like analytical thinking, project development, written and oral communication, persuasive logic, among any number of things. But what I am skeptical of—and I say this after a year in the private sector, post-PhD—is that the PhD does this as well as actually working for a living. Even if it does as good a job over the same period of time, I’m skeptical that it makes sense to do a PhD to acquire those skills, given that you’re more than likely getting paid far, far less to do a PhD. I know that money’s not a big motivator for many people (especially in an English PhD program), and that’s fine for those people; others, however, would like a living wage before they are 30. And when you consider how many people actually are going into debt for the PhD? Well, the case becomes clearer in my mind.

Realistically, your typical PhD program is designed as prep for one career and one career only: an academic one. This should hardly be surprising, given that it is largely administered by people who have only known the very same career. It’s unfair to expect somebody who has spent his or her entire professional life studying, say, Spenser to all of a sudden provide expert advice on non-academic proposal writing. I think that asking the PhD as it is currently conceived of–and as it is currently delivered–to do more than provide professional training to produce new professors is a bit much.

Is the UBC program a step in the right direction, then? Well, I’m not so sure. The graduates of a co-op PhD program in English may be more employable than others in their cohort who do not work on a co-op assignment. But that’s a pretty small portion of the people who will be applying for those non-academic jobs. If I’m being generous, I can see UBC’s program as providing the means by which students can build practical experience they can put on a non-academic CV. But is the PhD the best place to do this? Are these skills that are necessarily beyond the ken of, say, an undergrad or an MA? It doesn’t seem so; in fact, on the Types of Work page they mention that “Arts Co-op already offers an MA Co-op program in SLAIS (Library/Archival studies) and is recruiting additional employers interested in PhD students from English.” So what’s the PhD for here? That’s four years (at least) of work to put you in the same place in the job market as a person with an MA.

If I am optimistic, I’d say that UBC is making a well-intentioned effort to address a massive problem in graduate education today by helping its students find transferable skills through real world experience. But if I’m cynical–and honestly, around this stuff, I seem to be more cynical than not lately–I’m seeing this as a play on UBC’s part to differentiate themselves from other English PhD programs by capitalizing on a lot of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt facing PhD students (and would-be PhD students) about their employability. That is, UBC sees an opportunity in the market and they are seizing it presumably to attract more PhD students. And after recently reading Garry Canavan’s blog post “The Five-Year PhD as Improved Plumbing,” as well as Mark Bousquet’s How the University Works, I’m extremely wary of any steps taken to “solve” the PhD crisis that don’t involve a significant reduction of enrolment (ideally, but unlikely to be, accompanied by an overhaul in hiring practices and a reinvestment in the faculty. [I can dream]).

I guess for me the bottom line is that a program like UBC’s, and indeed, any program that incorporates “practical” skill development into education at the PhD level is little more than palliative care. I’d love to see programs that gave students the opportunity to pursue their passion in the Humanities while developing practical skills but I just don’t feel as though the PhD is the place to be implementing that.

And this brings me back to why the shine’s come off the Alt-Ac apple for me. As much as I do believe that PhDs should be viable hires for organizations, the fact remains that the PhD rarely makes somebody a more viable hire than someone who has spent that same time in the workforce. Of course, it’s a lot tougher to make that call when you’re coming out of an MA and excited to dive deep into Melville or Chaucer or whomever. And maybe that’s the other reason why I think we should be cautious before going all gung-ho for practical components to PhD programs. I think it’s important for people to have a space to explore those kind of intellectual passions without worrying too much about the market value of that practice. And that’s something PhDs are actually good at.