More PhDs, fewer professors: Anne Krook discusses the PhD in—and beyond—the academy

10/01/2015

Anne Krook began her career as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She then moved on to Amazon and, later, Seattle-area tech startups. Bridging her academic and private-sector experiences, Anne now works with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and humanities undergraduates who are transitioning to non-academic workplaces. You can learn more about her work at www.annekrook.com.  

Mitacs spoke with Anne about the state of the PhD, humanities scholarship, and non-academic careers.

What are some common challenges facing graduate students today that weren’t as common 10, 15, 20 years ago? 

There are many fewer tenure-track jobs, owing to the increased and increasing “adjunctification” of the profession. As a result, the jobs their supervisors were trained to value, to get, and to work in, are increasingly scarce for graduate students. Graduate students are often not well trained to search for the kinds of non-academic jobs they are most likely to get.

You work with academics who are transitioning to non-academic jobs. If you could offer only one piece of advice, what would it be? 

There is interesting, challenging, valuable work and there are interesting, challenging, valuable colleagues in many workplaces: do not fear your training will go to waste, or not be used.

What can universities do today to prepare their PhDs for careers beyond the academy?

They can start by acknowledging, from the beginning of graduate programs, the reality-based position that many graduate students—including many of their best—will eventually work outside the academy.

They can teach faculty to value those careers, or at a minimum not to denigrate that outcome for students. 

Finally, they can develop support for graduate students in their career centers and placement services. Graduate placement has traditionally been a departmental responsibility because it was assumed to be academic. Now that that is not the only, or even the majority, outcome, career centers and placement services need to include graduate students in their scope.

Many op-eds have been published touting the “demise of the humanities.” What’s your take on this claim as well as its recurrence? 

Oh, please. If you mean from the perspective of the value of humanities training to workplaces, it has not changed at all—particularly not in an increasingly global economy and a time of quicker-than-ever connections to others and other places. We need students who can write well, place events in historical, social, and economic context, evaluate cultures other than their own, and assess historical and social change in every kind of workplace, and we will need those skills approximately forever. 

If you mean from the perspective of universities who are deciding whether to fund the humanities, that is a different matter. That case is harder, because the simple connection between undergraduate training and jobs is much greater in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, for example, and universities are under pressure to show results, which most commonly mean post-graduate employment. 

The counter to this is two-fold: first, people with STEM degrees also struggle to find work and, very often, have to adapt to change in their rapidly changing fields. Second, if you were to look at Canada’s top 100 companies, by whatever measure you like (revenue, people employed) and see what educational background their top leaders have, you would find that many of them have humanities undergraduate degrees. 

Finally, considering the pace of social and workplace change underway today and the role humanities play in training the people who inhabit that world, I turn to the work of an excellent blogger and scholar, Chaucer Doth Tweet: “Yf ye wante a generacioun of innovators and problem solveres, teache poetrye. Teache a lot of poetrye.”

You advocate for parallel publication, wherein PhD candidates publish their work in both academic and non-academic media. Can you elaborate on this concept and its benefits for both PhDs and the academy at large? 

Not quite parallel publication: parallel composition describes it better. Every seminar paper graduate students write should have a short summary targeted to non-academic audiences. It is important that graduate students and faculty remember that audiences other than academic ones desire and consume sophisticated, well-researched arguments and that their work, like any other, will speak its own language over time. Explicitly writing for non-academic audiences trains graduate students to value professional, intelligent languages in addition to the one they are being steeped in in graduate school.

How do you see the role of the PhD changing over the next 10–20 years? And what do prospective PhDs need to do to prepare for and adapt to these changes?

The “adjunctification” of the profession reflects the economic pressure on the now-unsustainable cost model of post-World-War-II academics, as it struggles to scale to teach many more and less homogeneous students with a wider range of preparation and interests. That change will accelerate, not decrease, and academics as well as educational structures will need to adapt to those demographic and social facts.

The PhD will, I suspect, remain the credential signaling entry into the academic supervisory faculty, but what counts as legitimate subjects for research and teaching (and therefore as subjects for the PhD) will expand faster than universities can expand to accommodate them. The open question is how the PhD capstone, the dissertation, will change to accommodate an academic and extra-academic world in which the dissertation is not the first intellectual effort of its type in a scholar’s career, but perhaps the only one.


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