Nick Kapoor (University of Nebraska-Omaha)
The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) examines the current state of graduate education, the students that undertake this momentous task, and a future for the PhD that looks quite different from where it is today. Simply, this book is about fixing the PhD in the Arts & Sciences. It’s a book (in some places a manual) for change. Why do we need a change in doctoral education? Unfortunately, we train PhD students to be professors, when statistically that’s not the job they’re going to get (15). According to Chapter 1, about half of PhD students in the Arts & Sciences will not complete the degree, another quarter will find jobs outside of academia, and the remaining quarter will find jobs in academia but mostly as part-time faculty or full-time faculty off the tenure track. Every so often, a PhD student will “win the lottery” and grab the brass ring that is the tenure-track job in the Arts & Sciences.
So, if only a quarter of PhD students will attain jobs in academia, why is the PhD curriculum set up to train only those people? Cassuto and Weisbuch argue that PhD education is training professors and professors only, and that is not sustainable based on placement outcomes and demand. If the goal of PhD education is to train the next generation of professors, then admissions should be cut by three-quarters, but that’s not happening. There are thousands of PhD students who are fiercely passionate about their subjects that do not want a career in academia, but options are limited in their graduate education and they are chastised for aspiring to careers outside of the academy.
What is the authors’ solution to this problem? A more public-facing PhD, “We need a PhD that looks outside the walls of the university, not one that turns inward” (13). The PhD should be individualized and allow students to explore many different avenues, “Good graduate training should unlock and direct students’ creativity. Instead of narrowing their vision, we should broaden it, practically as well as intellectually” (16). Having trained in a subject for several years while producing original research to contribute to the field builds scholars who should be able to share their results with everyone and enhance the public discourse, “We need a more socially responsive and engaged PhD, a degree that will return more to our students—and to the world—than the old, hermetic model” (113)22.
How does this affect the Political Science PhD? Are there actions we can take to reevaluate the outcomes of the Political Science PhD? Absolutely. A few recommendations about looking at the Political Science PhD through the lens of The New PhD follow:
Create a Working Group through APSA that takes a critical look at the Political Science PhD
This working group should be composed of all different types of members that have a stake in the types of outcomes a Political Science PhD should possess: undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni in academia and outside of academia, faculty of all types, higher education administrators, university presidents, and employers outside of academia.
Like any good syllabus design, a rethinking of the Political Science PhD must begin with what the end goals and objectives are. From there, we must work backward to create a course of studies and experiences that obtain those goals. As the authors state, “A key attribute of design thinking is to become a visitor from another planet who keeps asking, ‘Why is it this way?’ especially when we’ve taken the way it is for granted” (101). This working group can have in- depth conversations about the foundations of the discipline: are the typical four main subfields too limiting? Could we restructure comprehensive exams to have a longer-lasting effect on graduate students? Could we replace comprehensive exams with a different, but equivalent experience? The working group should have staggered terms of members so that there are always fresh eyes looking at the information. Lastly, the working group should reconvene every year at the APSA annual meeting and assess where they are. Assessment must be constant to keep up with shifts in the academy and the prospects of PhD candidate employment opportunities. (And the ideas of the working group can be brought back to home departments for evaluation of individual Political Science PhD programs.)
Involve non-academic resources and courses into the Political Science PhD course of study
The authors consistently stress that there should be academic and nonacademic opportunities built into every PhD program (74). We should be training PhD students for jobs that are available to them and not shaming students into thinking an academic job is the only way to be successful after obtaining a doctorate. The authors practically exclaim throughout their work that a PhD should be preparing scholars, not professors; scholarly skills are transferable to several workplaces. Moreover, as the authors state, “We should aim not only to admit students from a variety of backgrounds, but we should also aim to admit students who have a variety of goals” (146).
Cassuto & Weisbuch are expressly against creating two tracks in a PhD (those who want to become professors vs. those who do not). However, they support creating a space for two seminars that PhD students can bifurcate into—one about the history of higher education, the history of the discipline and pedagogical techniques in undergraduate and graduate classrooms; the other about jobs outside of academia with guest speakers from government and industry and a job-shadowing experience. Both seminars should incorporate community and civic engagement as well as alumni from the program who landed positions in the academy and outside of it (74). These opportunities would give PhD students the opportunity to feel first- hand what a post-PhD career could be like in addition to “TAing.” Jobs outside of the academy are also worth having and graduate students should feel that from day one if that is what they’d like to pursue, “to speak of diverse careers is no longer heresy” (115). Including an internship opportunity for PhD students could also achieve many of these goals.
Exit Interviews with all PhD Students
Whether a student leaves the program without finishing or does finish, having in-depth exit interviews with all students will inform the department’s faculty and can be brought back to the APSA working group. Why did a student leave? What does the student think can be done better in the program?
A more student-centered approach
Interdisciplinary study is pervasive and momentum for it continues to gain. The typical “silos” of political science, sociology, and psychology, for example, are breaking down. This is good news as, in life, rarely do things fit into nice separate boxes. Allowing students to be more flexible in course selection and creating their own way enhances the student experience because it allows students to branch off and become experts in their main discipline (political science) and develop interests in adjacent fields as well.
This is also the form many recent job postings have taken on – a political scientist with a specialization in race relations, for example. This allows the Political Science PhD to be a bit more bottom-up than top-down and allows students to take more control of their work and what they are producing.
The authors also relate this to graduate admissions in a fascinating way. For example, a political science department that makes 40 offers would reserve 10 of those offers for students who indicated they would like to work on environmental politics. The departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Sociology would do the same. Now, there is a cohort of 15 – 25 students across disciplines all working on their disciplines through an environmental lens. All disciplines should market the cohorts and what “theme” is coming up in the next several admissions cycles.
The Political Science PhD certainly has great worth to the academy and to society. By evaluating it through Cassuto and Weisbuch’s framework we can see a doctoral program that has strong legs and admirable outcomes, but that could use some rethinking and tweaking. By thinking about public scholarship more critically, allowing a more student-centered approach, and preparing PhD students for the jobs they are actually going to get, we can retool an already prestigious and worthy degree into a powerhouse of public worth and immense personal satisfaction.
1For more on public scholarship see: Academics Going Public: How to Write and Speak Beyond Academe by Marybeth Gasman (Routledge, 2016) and Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) by Corey Fields, Jessie Daniels, and Arlene Stein (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
Nick Kapoor is a guest contributor to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.
Published since 2005, the Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the the Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.
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