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Literature grad-school official on job placement: It's complicated!

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 7, 2010 11:16 AM

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In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Donoghue, director of graduate admissions for the English department of Ohio State University, says many of the right things:  departments like his should offer better mentoring to Ph.D. candidates who statistics show are likely to fall through the cracks (like sixth- or seventh-year students); applicants to Ph.D. programs should receive a "brutal" briefing on career prospects in the humanities; many departments should admit fewer students. But he also says one very ridiculous thing that hints at just how deep runs the denial of people like him about their role in the humanities jobs crisis.

Donoghue begins his essay by bemoaning a "exasperating" question he often gets from Ph.D. applicants: "What's your department's placement rate?" That's a far, far too multifaceted question, he laments, to answer with one number, or even in one conversation. (Pity the naive applicant who asks Donoghue for the 100th time.) Only with "an 8,000-word essay," he writes, could he convey the sheer human complexity of Ohio State's placement record. The professor continues:

Let me give you a concrete example that illustrates my doubts about placement statistics. It's not really a hypothetical, but rather a thinly veiled description of a typical year in the placement annals of my own department. In that recent year, we graduated 11 Ph.D.'s; four did nationwide job searches, and two of them got tenure-track jobs. [my emphasis] The third of those four Ph.D.'s got a two-year appointment as a visiting assistant professor that may possibly be converted to a tenure-track job, and the fourth got a one-year postdoctoral fellowship. Of the seven other Ph.D.'s, five did limited searches for personal reasons, and none got job offers. They will try again next year and in the meantime will work as adjuncts. One received a tenure-track offer but turned it down so that he could accompany his partner, who has a tenure-track job at a better institution. The one remaining Ph.D. did not go on the job market at all, but instead accepted a position as an English teacher at a private high school, which from early on in his graduate career had been his professional ambition. Now, what was our placement rate? Any answer to that question can't be quantified ...

Well, here's a qualitative reaction: It's not very impressive.

And it took--speaking quantitatively--- only 199 words to find that out. So why not require, or allow, departments to provide a paragraph or two of context along with the allegedly oversimplified statistics? This really doesn't seem that complicated.

PS  How depressing is it that commentary on this issue has not advanced in the past half-dozen or even dozen years? (Especially depressing if you're old enough to have followed the debate that long ... )

Illustration: Jonathan Barkat for the Chronicle
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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