No jobs for the boys... or girls

July 16, 1999

Are we educating too many arts postgraduates? asks Rebecca Stott

The number of postgraduate students in British universities is climbing steadily. The Higher Education Statistics Agency reported nearly 50,000 postgraduate research students registered in December 1998. But the number of jobs available for them in academe has not risen.

If the PhD is designed to prepare candidates for lecturing, what proportion get jobs in academia? When they do, do they feel they have been well-prepared for teaching, research and administration? What proportion go on to successful careers in industry or the media? How many feel their postgraduate years prepared them for the demands of their new careers?

Earlier this week I rang the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which funds postgraduate research students in the humanities. I was told that these are the questions British policy-makers are turning to, but as yet there are no easy answers.

These are also the questions dominating graduate programmes in the United States as a result of a widely publicised crisis in the academic job market and the agitation of postgraduates, who crowd the corridors of hotels in the annual Modern Languages Association conference cattle-market, competing for a small number of tenure-track jobs.

The association has written a series of controversial papers demanding radical changes to graduate programmes.

These reports recommend that university departments should analyse their provision and if students are not being placed in the positions for which they are trained, a department should either cut its programme size or revise its mission to offer more diverse job opportunities.

What can be learned from the US professional employment crisis? Do we in British universities have a crisis? Might we predict one? Last Saturday I chaired a conference, which was billed as an opportunity for English literature postgraduates to hear practical advice on getting a job, getting published and acquiring teaching experience. We were not prepared for the deluge of applicants. They travelled to Cambridge from as far away as Liverpool and Exeter - students writing on research projects from the work of Bunyan to post-Stonewall gay writing.

Some spoke warmly of their departments, research and teaching assistantships, reading groups, mentoring schemes and good careers advice. Most complained of isolation, of not understanding debates in higher education and their implications for the future. Many knew little about the research assessment exercise, the Quality Assurance Agency, benchmarking and Dearing, for instance.

Many also reported that their departments had expected them to teach their first-year undergraduate classes with no teaching training or supervision. When challenged, supervisors had simply said this is the way it has always been. But is this the way it will always be?

On Saturday these delegates established themselves as a caucus of postgraduate students of English. If this annual conference is taken seriously it may well become an important forum for greater postgraduate participation, alongside other groups such as the National Postgraduate Committee. This caucus of postgraduates in English wants more advice on how to manage careers and more information about the job market.

If PhDs are designed to prepare the next generation for academe, then why are we preparing so many postgraduates for so few jobs? Why are we not offering more systematic teaching training or supervision? If we are not prepared to reduce the number of PhD places we offer, should we not be preparing our students for more diverse job opportunities and placements? Can we use our PhD programmes to make high-level liberal arts skills more applicable to the non-academic world?

Many initiatives can be integrated into PhD programmes without great disruption: discussion groups, reading groups, presentation training, training students to write accessibly for readerships outside as well as within academia. After all, as the MLA report points out: the world at large can never have too many literate, articulate critical thinkers.

Rebecca Stott is head of department at Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge

How should arts PhD programmes change? Email us at address above.

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