One of the foremost thinkers in how we can overhaul the graduate school experience to address career planning is Leonard Cassuto. In addition to his excellent book The Graduate School Mess (which should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic), he also writes a series for the Chronicle of Higher Education called the Graduate Adviser. His latest post, “Outcomes-based Graduate School: The Humanities Edition” illustrates how one university – Lehigh – tackled overhauling its graduate curriculum in English.
There’s several things to note in how they went about this.
First the department went back in time to see what kinds of jobs its graduates ended up working in. That required an honest look at how their students were faring on the job market. For the early 00s, very well. But, then, like all other disciplines, their graduates found the academic job market had gone topsy-turvy during the recession, with only 18% of graduates finding tenure-track work by 2013. The data helped the English department confront the reality, as well as the scale of the problem.
Then the department looked for themes and commonalities among its graduates’ careers. This is time-consuming but great work – to mine any records and interview students about what skills and experiences were most valuable to their alt-ac jobs.
From that research, the department then devised certificate programs that students could earn along the way to – not in addition to – a degree. These certificates attest to additional specialized training they received along the way, but they also empower individual students to combine already-required courses with courses in other areas. The certificates created “optional pathways” through the program, allowing students to diversify and attest to their skill set outside of English composition. This is reminiscent of other sectors of higher ed doing similar work, such as issuing micro credentials or implementing guided pathways at community colleges.
And to me, the biggest takeaway was that, during their research about commonalities, the department found that most of their alt-ac graduates had “most had nonacademic work experience on the campus.” A-ha! You mean that old adage that what employers value most is previous work experience is true? Yup. But rather than just steer its students to the on-campus jobs site, they worked side-by-side with selected units on campus to create graduate assistantships in those units, where they take on “programming, public teaching – ‘whatever needs doing’ – and gain different kinds of professional experience.”
While overhauling a curriculum to build in thoughtful and industry-meaningful certificates takes a significant amount of faculty buy-in, time, hard work, and consensus building, the assistantships model could easily be implemented much more quickly. It provides students with work experience is valued by employers, and it provides those campus units with highly-skilled workers who can work more independently and on larger tasks than undergraduate students.
It’s something all graduate schools need to be considering as an easy-to-pilot reform that improves career outcomes of students.