Make Career Planning the First Set of Required Courses in Grad School

Yesterday I wrote a brain dump about grad school reform. I think that grad school in the 21st century needs to strike a balance. Right now it’s too immersive. It gives grad students the unrealistic luxury of focusing solely on their craft. It immerses students in a world where the only thing they do is their discipline.

When it comes to working, though, your job may have nothing to do with your craft. And even if it does, often the day-to-day tasks have little to do with your disciplinary expertise.

For instance, my husband is a Ph.D. archaeologist. And he works in his field. But his day to day work? Project management. Budget management. Supervising staff. Revising their work for the higher-ups. Meeting with stakeholders. When I worked in museums, my expertise was adult learning via museum labels. Did I just write exhibit labels in my work? Hell no. I did a bunch of database entry, marketing, supervising, grant writing, and very little label writing.

The original purpose of grad school was to carve you into an expert in your discipline. That served its purpose – and remains necessary for certain fields.

Then, as the Bachelor’s degree became the new high school diploma, more people started getting Master’s degrees to out-compete for better jobs. When Bachelor’s became the entry-point to entry-level jobs, getting a Master’s degree gives you an edge. As a result, Master’s degrees are as common now as Bachelor’s degrees were in the 1960s.

It’s called credentials inflation. Burning Glass, a think tank that studies employment markets by analyzing job ads, wrote a really interesting report about this, and its implications in particular for entry-level jobs in sectors that shouldn’t require a degree.

But the trickle-down effect is real. Now I see jobs all the time that require a Master’s degree as the minimum qualification when a Bachelor’s would do. For those jobs, I routinely see Ph.Ds competing for them. And it’s not just a Master’s anymore. I’ll pick on Faculty Development here. That field has increasingly been requiring a Ph.D. as a minimum qualification – with the idea being that faculty will work with and trust only those with an equivalent degree. While that works out well for alt-acs with a terminal degree, it shuts out ABDs or Master’s candidates who may have better-aligned experience and credentials.

Off the top of my head, I can name 5 or 6 colleagues who feel they are the last of their kind – that they would never get hired into their line of work today because the entry-point has been moved.

It was DEFINITELY true when I worked in museums a number of years ago. I had to get a Master’s just to even try to compete. And it still usually wasn’t good enough. (Not that you needed a Ph.D. but that you needed the Master’s AND years of experience to reasonably compete for very few openings).

Getting back to grad school, though, it does serve a very real purpose in getting you the baseline knowledge you need to master – or be an expert in – your field. So how can grad school achieve a balance of preparing those who need to be experts in order to go into a given profession – faculty, pharmaceutical researcher, wildlife biologist – but also provide a career safety net of professional development for those who will not be able to find those jobs?

We can’t predict the economic landscape of any given field. What it looks like when you enter grad school may be NOTHING like what it looks like by the time you exit grad school. Economic and workplace needs change all the time. So I guess I could argue that structurally, the grad school curriculum needs to be more like undergrad. You need to do a baseline of career planning courses first – sort of like your general ed requirements. Then you can make better-informed decisions about whether to continue on with the disciplinary expertise-building courses after that.

I mean, just Monday I was in a webinar panel for grad students about career options and even today, now, 75% of them remain skeptical about how bad their faculty job prospects are. They truly believe they can beat the odds. While I admire their chutzpah, the facts simply do not warrant their confidence. And I’m still shocked at how little they know about career planning, YEARS and YEARS after I started noticing this about grad students.

Back in the recession, I was shocked at how ill-prepared grad students were for the work of finding work. Now, eleven years later, I’m becoming less patient with grad schools not transparently providing the facts and training they need to have the wool ripped off their eyes.

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