At the time when I applied to graduate school, I really didn’t know anything about living in the real world. Maybe undergraduate life was too disconnected from the real world to give me any inkling. Not that my undergrad years were easy and breezy – I had 3 campus jobs throughout my years at college, and no car, and no material luxuries. But there was very little discussion about what it meant to take your college degree out into the real world. For me as an English student, I think my undergraduate work allowed me to be swept up in the romance of literature and writing. I came from a working class family, but I guess somehow I believed that getting to college was already the pot at the end of the rainbow.
In fact, all I really knew was that I loved books and literature and wanted to keep studying in that field, and that I thought I would love to be a professor in an English department one day. So after a year of working at an office job, I left corporate America and applied to English grad programs. I didn’t really have a plan; I thought I would figure it out as I went. Well, it turns out, according to most advice pieces in The Chronicle and elsewhere in blogs on the web, that I was all wrong -- I went to graduate school for all the wrong reasons, without having the proper means, and without a clearly mapped out career plan, all to my eventual detriment, apparently.
The “right reasons” to go to graduate school are, according to these advice-givers, to get a job. (Not because you "love" literature.) Job getting is the main objective. This, of course, makes very practical sense, but if you don’t know anything about the field, or about academic life and professionalization in general before you begin graduate school, then logically you’d have to learn about it when you get there. But do we, as graduate students, learn what we need to know about getting a job when we start graduate school? Wouldn’t it be a great idea if graduate school education from day one included in its curriculum – in fact, made mandatory in its curriculum – a practical course in professionalization in the field?
Now, for a minute, let’s compare and contrast Arts and Sciences graduate degrees to other forms of post-Bachelor degree education, thought of as “professional degrees,” such as JDs and MDs. Medical students have a clear path of professionalization built into their programs; law students, on the other hand, do not. I’ve heard lawyers and law school graduates complain that law school has absolutely nothing to do with the practical, day-to-day job of being a lawyer. It seems absurd that such elaborate education systems would get built that do not directly feed into the job market that requires the degree.
It is the same with Arts and Sciences graduates – there is almost nothing that was required of me as a graduate student that pro-actively prepared me for the job market. Assignments and projects – and more precisely the A, A-, B+, B grading systems that went with these assignments – do nothing for students to prepare them for eventually getting a job in the field.
Here’s what I’m imagining: a mandatory professionalization curriculum that requires students to demonstrate and generate knowledge of the basic arc of an academic career, starting from someone’s first semester as a PHD student to – well basically the end of his or her life! This curriculum would provide information about the conventional path through graduate school as well as encourage students to explore how that arc can be modified and altered, inviting students to identify alternative career pathways and end-goals that can be reached when starting a program. The curriculum should ask students to outline possible career paths, and to research and become experts in the market, and to understand what the academic world is all about. In addition, spotlights should be put on the mechanisms of conferences, publications, committees, dissertation writing, applications, interviews, and self-identity within the field.
Then, aside from this curriculum addition, the assessment system in the existing courses needs to be totally changed in order to promote marketability. Getting an "A-" means nothing and will do nothing to help you get a job. Instead, incorporate professionalization into the curriculum itself. Require us to submit papers to conferences, and to prepare articles for specific journals and CFP's. Have those submissions (and acceptances) be the basis for grades and course fulfillment. Have mock mini-conferences within the seminar, or join forces with other seminars to have bigger mock conferences across the department. It is through these forums, rather than seminar papers alone, that students should be evaluated and critiqued and assessed, with an eye to marketability and credibility in the field. Sources and methodology should be scrutinized, and presentation skills, either oral or written, should be constructively critiqued, helping students to prepare to publish, speak at conferences, and complete the dissertation.
I believe that this vital part in the education of graduate students had been overlooked in the past because there was perhaps no real need for it, when the supply and demand for PhDs was more balanced. But I don’t see how it can continue to be overlooked.To be fair, many of my professors tried to incorporate elements of professional skills into coursework, but as a whole I think more can be done systematically to make a greater impact.
What do you guys think? What can we do to help transform what needs transforming insofar as embedding professionalization into curriculum?