Tag Archives: Post PhD Employment

Women in geoscience get worse recommendation letters than men

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All around the world, women studying geoscience are half as likely to receive outstanding recommendation letters as men, new research shows. This is true no matter what region they come from, or whether the person writing the letter is a man or woman.

Previous research had already shown that recommendation letters for women are usually weaker than the ones men get. But today’s study, published in Nature Geoscience, is the first to look at letters from around the world and to focus on the field of geoscience, also called earth science.

“The study uncovers a very real problem in the entire field,” said lead author Kuheli Dutt, assistant director of academic affairs and diversity at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She hopes that the growing body of research on sexism in STEM will push universities and administrators to take a closer look at how they can eliminate gender bias.

Just like all of STEM, the field of geoscience is dominated by men. Women receive 40 percent of the geoscience doctorates, but they are only 10 percent of the professors. Previous research has shown the biggest “leak” in the pipeline, so to speak, happens to women applying to post-doctoral positions after receiving their PhD, says Dutt. So her team decided to zero in on this crucial part of the career ladder to see whether bias in recommendation letters might be holding women back.

The researchers analyzed the tone and length of 1,224 recommendation letters written for applicants to a competitive geoscience post-doc position at a university in the US. These letters came from 54 countries. The team read through the letters, which had identifying information redacted, and ranked their tone as “doubtful,” “good,” and “excellent.” The same proportion of men and women received “doubtful” letters, which was 2.5 percent of the total. “Good” letters indicated that the candidate was a solid applicant who could do what was needed. “Excellent” letters, instead, used phrases like “outstanding,” “superior,” and “a scientific leader in the making.” They made the candidate sound like he was truly head and shoulders above the rest, not merely a competent scientist.

Next, the researchers crunched the numbers. They found that female applicants were only half as likely as male applicants to receive an “excellent” letter rather than a “good” one. No one region rated women more negatively, though. And the results were the same regardless of whether the letter-writer was male or female. Women didn’t write more positive letters for other women.

The study has some limitations. The authors didn’t see the resumes of the applicants, so they couldn’t statistically rule out the possibility that male applicants were actually better qualified. (It’s very unlikely that female geoscientists worldwide are all worse than their male peers, says Dutt.) They also couldn’t track the outcome, so they didn’t know if, perhaps, female applicants were consistently chosen despite more lackluster letters, notes Juan Madera, a University of Houston professor who wasn’t involved with the study.

These results hopefully make it easier for academics to talk about sexism, Dutt says, and eliminate gender bias in the field. Dutt now wants to repeat the study with recommendation letters from 2012 to 2017. (The letters used in this study were from 2007 to 2012.) “Over the last decade there has been a greater awareness in higher education of these sorts of issues of diversity, so it would be interesting to see whether we see any real differences now,” says Dutt.

NEH seeks to spur humanities Ph.D. training beyond traditional career paths

Critics have long complained about doctoral education in the humanities, saying that it takes too long and no longer reflects the realities of graduates’ employment prospects. In other words, graduate humanities programs are still largely training students to become professors at major research universities, when the vast majority won’t, given the weak tenure-track job market.

And in recent years criticism has yielded possible fixes from various colleges, universities and academic groups: reduce time to degree, fund graduate students year-round, increase training on how to teach well, reduce subject matter coverage requirements — the list goes on. Now the National Endowment for the Humanities is tossing its hat in the ring, offering major grants to programs that better prepare students for nonfaculty careers.

“We know that the traditional career track in the humanities, in term of numbers of available positions, is diminished — that scenario has changed quite dramatically over time,” William D. Adams, NEH chairman, said in an interview. “So we’re reacting to that in trying to assist institutions in providing a wider aperture for their students to think about careers beyond [academe].”

The NEH’s Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. grants program, announced today, seeks to bring together faculty members, graduate students, administrators and other key players in doctoral education to identify ways to transform doctoral-level humanities preparation. Like the NEH’s other challenge-oriented grants, funds must be matched by the applicant institution.

There are two kinds of grants. Planning grants run up to $25,000 for as long as 12 months, for a maximum total grant of $50,000. Possible themes include strategies to secure faculty support for Ph.D. reforms, efforts to increase students’ exposure to multiple career paths or ways to encourage collaboration with other departments or nonacademic institutions.

Implementation grants may be up to $350,000 for as long as 36 months, for a maximum total grant of $700,000. Possible ideas include changes to Ph.D. programs that alter the dissertation format or requirement, graduate student funding for activities other than teaching, or the development of a postdoctoral career tracker for all graduates.

Those grant sizes may not seem large for those in the sciences, but for curricular reform of humanities doctoral programs, these funds amount to real money — and could possibly lead to real change.

The NEH hasn’t set a limit for the number of grants it will award. Planning grant proposals are due in February.

Adams said the organization was open to any number of proposals, and he said they’ll probably vary widely by department and institution. But he guessed that most proposals would have some impact on the curriculum, “and that’s the deeper and more interesting prospect here.”

Adams added, “We do believe that the doctorate in the humanities has utility beyond the traditional career path of teaching, and that those highly educated in the humanities can contribute to society as a whole and use their knowledge and their training very productively.”

The NEH has long supported humanities doctoral education, but this is the first time it’s so boldly stepping into the reform debate. Other groups and commentators said they applauded the NEH’s move.

“The NEH leadership is showing that they see which way the wind is blowing, and now they’re adding their own breath to it,” said Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University who’s criticized traditional doctoral education in the humanities, including in his recent book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. The book includes some example proposals from NEH, such as alternative dissertation formats and collaboration with nonacademic institutions.

“There’s a long history of Ph.D.s taking their degrees outside the professoriate, but even if there weren’t, this the best way for graduate education to start reforming its own irrational workplace,” Cassuto said. “We need more Ph.D.s in public life who want to be there — both graduate school and society at large will benefit.”

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said the Next Generation grants seems “very much in concert” with MLA discussions over the last five years about how to reform doctoral education. In 2010, she said, the MLA began looking at how the dissertation might become something other than a “protomonograph,” an idea that was expanded upon in a 2014 MLA task force report on rethinking humanities Ph.D. programs. Among other things, the report recommended better preparation for alternative academic careers and shorter time to degree.

MLA this year launched Connected Academics to bring those ideas to life, including on several test campuses: Arizona State University, Georgetown University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute headquartered at the Irvine campus. The project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, runs through 2019.

“The kind of challenge grants that the NEH is planning to offer will be of enormous use in making important transformations,” Feal said — that is, if faculty members support students in developing a wide range of scholarly practices and exploring a range of careers.

“If faculty members communicate that the primary measure of students’ success is landing a tenure-track job in a research institution, then students will be reluctant to pursue other paths overtly,” she said, noting that graduate student interest in Connected Academics so far indicates they, at least, are on board.

Russell A. Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University and past president of the MLA, chaired the MLA report calling for reduced time to degree and other doctoral education reforms — some of which Stanford already had adopted. It introduced a five-year timeline for humanities Ph.D.s several years ago, for example. More recently, this month it also debuted a Ph.D. career tracker for all graduates — one of NEH’s example proposals.

Berman called the NEH grant initiative a “significant step forward in the growing recognition that the humanities Ph.D. is not exclusively for academic careers.” Like Feal, he deemed the initiative consistent with MLA’s recommendations for reform.

“Our society can only benefit from a wide distribution of humanistic intelligence and values — that should not be confined to higher education,” he said. “The NEH deserves applause.”

Some proposals for doctoral reform have called for more training on how to be an effective teacher, not less, given that many graduates now work in teaching- and not research-intensive positions. The Graduate Center at the City University of New York, for example, recently was awarded a $3.15 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to enable Ph.D. candidates to teach humanities courses at LaGuardia Community College using methodologies that have been proven especially beneficial to disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities. The goal is to increase retention and graduate rates for community college students and open pathways for them to pursue advanced degrees, but Ph.D. students also will get a leg up in terms of teaching experience. In a tight academic job market, that could help them stand out from their peers. (The grant also will fund educational technology and scholarly communication research and development.)

Luke Waltzer, director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Graduate Center, said the institution takes seriously “opportunities to produce graduates who are not only experienced and talented teachers, but who are also well prepared for alternative academic careers that make it possible to do humanities research and pedagogical work in new and exciting ways.”

Even though the NEH initiative is decidedly different from the Graduate Center’s, he said, it should still be “lauded” for promoting reform. Waltzer added, “These are mutually reinforcing pursuits, and doctoral training in the humanities should make ample space to explore research, teaching and the connections between them.”

Asked if reform proposals should actively promote pedagogical training — as the NEH initiative on its face does not — Berman said the issue is complex.

“Where universities need teaching staff, they should hire faculty,” he said. But of teaching experience as career training more generally, he said, “Teaching and learning occur in all workplaces, not only traditional classrooms. Teaching preparation ought to be considered part of professional development for all careers, inside and outside the academy.”

Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of film and media studies at Emory University, and a critic of alternative academic career programs for their potential to ignore larger structural problems in higher education, had a somewhat different reaction to the NEH plan. On the one hand, he said, “Nobody, including me, objects to any form of assistance for Ph.D. students and graduates. Nor does anyone object to facilitating more influence for the humanities in the U.S. public sphere.”

But grants that support training for nonfaculty positions employing humanities in the public sphere “bypass the actual core issue in academic employment: the relentless conversion of teaching-intensive faculty jobs to part-time and nontenurable work,” he said. So while the NEH grant promotes alternative careers, he said, it should be acknowledged that the most common alt-ac career by far is working as an adjunct. And it’s adjuncts who need the most help, according to Bousquet, since Ph.D.s working outside academe are the least unemployed workers in the economy.

“For many students, alt-ac positions are an individual palliative decision: If I can’t find a research-intensive job, and teaching-intensive jobs are too poorly paid or degrading, what else can I do with my many skills?” Bousquet said via email. “Our institutions and professional obligations have the responsibility to seek a cure, not institutionalize a palliative.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association disagrees. His 2011 essay, “No More Plan B,” co-authored with AHA president Anthony Grafton and often cited as a launching pad for much of the current debate, called for offering graduate students “education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.”  The AHA, like the MLA, has “challenged both the ethics and educational implications of the adjunctification of higher education faculty,” Grossman said. But they also believe that doctorates "offer scholars unique qualifications for a wide variety of jobs, and this NEH initiative will help graduate departments to broaden the employment opportunities and horizons of both students and faculty.”


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William (Bro) Adams, NEH chair

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A Ph.D. should result in a tenure-track job, not an alt-ac one (essay)

What’s the measure of a successful doctoral program? In many fields, placement in tenure-track positions used to be enough. Today, however, many Ph.D. programs are claiming other kinds of success, particularly placement in what is being described as alt-ac (short for alternative academic) employment. Alt-ac positions are often in administration on a campus, in museums or in libraries. Others are in government or nonprofit organizations. Typically these alt- or nonacademic jobs involve research, analysis and writing — skills that many people hone in graduate school — though few require completing a doctorate.

Some people believe that in competitive hiring between individuals who have some degree of postgraduate education, actually holding the terminal degree can offer an advantage. But is that theoretical edge in nonprofessorial employment a good reason to run a graduate program?

One explanation for the changing metric is that graduate faculty members are being more respectful of the actual career pathways of their students. As Bethany Nowviskie, the director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and a research associate professor of digital humanities at the university, puts it, “That our culture for many years has labeled these people ‘failed academics’ is a failure of imagination.” Her complaint is fair enough, particularly for those with nonfaculty positions on campus: professors do sometimes inflict status injury on nonfaculty staff members, even those with advanced degrees.

A more cynical explanation is that faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes.

Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification. One of the four major correlates of research activity used to measure aggregate institutional performance is Ph.D. conferrals. The hundred or so universities in the Very High Research Activity (VHRA) class push out a median of 35 humanities doctorates annually, 900 percent more than the hundred or so institutions in the merely High Research Activity group, whose median production is just four per year.

So long as continuing high levels of doctorate production are part of the price of admission to the most exclusive club in American higher ed, it’s hard not to imagine that many universities will continue to run a menu of smallish graduate programs even at a financial loss — and find ever more elaborate rationales to keep them running.

With the support of influential graduate faculty and staff members at academic associations, the alt-ac brand of hashtag activism has won a tidal wave of big-dollar institutional support. While serving as president of the American Historical Association in 2011, Anthony T. Grafton issued a manifesto saying graduate curricula and culture should value and target alt-ac and nonacademic jobs and stop treating them as plan B to professorial appointment.

Today, the AHA actively sponsors “value-added” changes to graduate curricula in support of what it has called “The Malleable Ph.D.,” a vision of next-generation degree holders who respond flexibly to job-market opportunities other than their first-choice professorial careers. The association and its funding partners want prospective degree holders to know they are 100 percent behind those who, as 2015 AHA President Vicki L. Ruiz puts it, refuse to dismiss “a career outside the classroom as some sort of consolation prize.”

Armed with a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of “Career Diversity for Historians,” Ruiz is using her presidential year to whip up rationales for Ph.D. programs to value “service to multiple publics” — i.e., beyond the faltering mission of reproducing tenure-stream faculty. Similarly, the University of Miami has attempted to brand itself as a “national leader” in graduate education by launching a program of internships in alt-ac careers alongside traditional forms of apprenticeship training such as teaching.

In short, suddenly a lot of money is being spent proving something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics could have told us for free: people who have earned doctorates have extremely low unemployment and generally have good jobs. The Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) have each run expensive surveys to this effect.

The Council of Graduate Schools has the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Mellon Foundation to extend those survey efforts to other disciplines. The explicit intention is to articulate new rationales for Ph.D. production and new metrics appropriate to those rationales. CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega says the goal of acquiring better data about the alt-ac and nonacademic careers that previous degree holders have already found for themselves is to “develop curricula and professional development opportunities that better prepare graduate students for the full range of careers they are likely to follow.”

Put plainly, CGS and other big institutional players want to move the goalposts from a difficult challenge — placing Ph.D. holders in tenure-track positions — to a far simpler one — taking credit for positions degree holders are already finding for themselves. They’re responding to programs desperate to find measures justifying Ph.D. production at a time when they can no longer pretend that the “market” in tenure track jobs is going to turn around.

Ruiz is up front about this, frankly adopting the approach articulated by advice columnist Leonard Cassuto earlier this year: “Instead of thinking wishfully about how great it would be to have a better system, let’s focus on what can be done with the bad system that we have.” What Cassuto and Ruiz mean by a bad system is one that trains people for positions that don’t exist because the jobs have been converted into temp work.

As responsible analysts have understood since the mid-1990s, this isn’t because of an oversupply of Ph.D.s but an intentionally created undersupply of tenure-stream positions. Beginning in 1970, administrators began systematically turning teaching-intensive jobs into part-time or nontenurable positions that — they claim — don’t require a Ph.D. As a result, many teaching-intensive appointments are filled with students, staff members and other people who don’t have doctorates — while those with doctorates quit the academy or take alternative academic jobs.

So from at least one informed, activist perspective, keeping Ph.D. programs running makes sense. There’s actually plenty of faculty work for everyone with a doctorate. The real solution is turning temp work back into tenurable positions, just as the American Association of University Professors has long maintained, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has recently proposed with a bill to make federal education aid contingent upon states restoring a 75 percent tenure ratio in publicly employed college faculty. If the Sanders plan succeeded in restoring that ratio in even two large states, many disciplines would soon see an undersupply of persons with terminal degrees.

However, what Ruiz and Cassuto want is to keep programs running without changing the labor system. That’s a far less ethically tenable posture. Unlike the AAUP and Sanders, they prefer to believe the system is fundamentally unfixable, and dismiss meaningful change as “wishful thinking.” They think people studying for doctorates should actively plan on jobs in filmmaking, government or nonprofits. Cassuto’s new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, reiterates this thesis, claiming that graduate schools in the humanities with a “realistic” approach must alter curricula to emphasize “practical, transferable skills” that prepare Ph.D. students for a “wide range” of work entirely outside the academy.

Even while people without doctorates make up an ever-larger fraction of college teachers, Cassuto and his supporters dismiss as “utopian” such straightforward Sanders-style fixes to the system as employing those with Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions. Although Cassuto occasionally lauds examples of Ph.D.s in teaching-intensive positions — including one of his own students whose admission he might have blocked if he’d known she wanted to teach at a community college (gasp!) — over all, he assumes that graduate students have little interest in pursuing careers in what he airily dubs “low-caste teaching.”

Apart from the distasteful confusion of curricular location with caste, there are at least two big factual mistakes here. First, grad students and nontenurable faculty members teach the full range of courses at many institutions, from the first year to disciplinary seminars, including at the graduate level. Second, most faculty positions, tenured or not, involve teaching courses at different locations in the curriculum.

Dismissing lower-division teaching as “low caste” isn’t just offensive; it paints a false picture, dismissing from consideration the majority circumstances of the professoriate. The superficial pragmatism of Ruiz and Cassuto conceals how foundations, associations and much of the academic chattering class continue to evade the real problems of contemporary faculty.

For people with doctorates, by far the most common “alternative” to professorship is a nontenurable appointment. Ditto for persons who went to graduate school but didn’t complete the degree requirements. Those with these part-time or nontenurable appointments have long outnumbered the tenured minority. They too are treated like “failed academics.” What is really needed is much more aggressive support for the nontenurable majority faculty.

While no one is going to argue against supporting degree holders who search for nonprofessorial employment, there’s little evidence that they actually need more of this help. My cohort of graduate school activists in the mid-1990s was already perfectly aware that folks with doctorates who went the nonprofessorial route generally had low unemployment and good jobs. According to the MLA and AHA surveys, that hasn’t changed. These folks have consistently found excellent employment without placement help from their professional associations.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for foundations and associations to actually address the more substantial question — raised by activists, the AAUP and Sanders — of whether persons with doctorates should hold teaching-intensive positions as they did in 1970, and on what terms, with what preparation?

Sure, that would require sustained civic engagement and serious political effort. It would raise further tough questions — such as how to safeguard the workplace rights of current faculty without doctorates while recreating teaching-intensive tenure-stream positions. But that would be in the best interests of graduate students, for many of whom the goal of getting a doctorate remains quite straightforward: a tenure-track job.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor in the department of film and media studies at Emory University.

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