Opinion: KU doctoral grad sees lack of faculty support

May 28, 2013


The recent Saturday Column on Kansas University and customer satisfaction (Journal-World, May 18) deserves an investigative report, but my experiences with this university will have to suffice. Here are a few personal responses to his rhetorical questions.

“Have (students’) years on Mount Oread prepared them well for a successful career?” “Would KU win the conference championship on student-parent satisfaction?” Speaking from my experiences as a 50-year-old doctoral candidate, Fulbright-Hays scholar and December 2008 graduate who served the university community for 10 years, my responses to both questions must be “no.”

Chancellor Gray-Little has declared, “graduate education is what really sets a research university like KU apart…” (J-W, Dec 31, 2012). True, I received an education from some of this country’s brightest and best researchers. However, this top-rate graduate instruction was accompanied by subsequent professional mentoring that was nonexistent or failed to rise above the lowest professional standards. Moreover, while faculty and staff push for “better tuition benefits” for themselves and their own children (J-W, May 12), no one advocates for the creation and monitoring of those elements that directly affect doctoral candidates and their employment prospects.

The mentoring I received at KU amounted to such gems as “lose weight if you want to get an academic job” (I am 5-foot-9, 210 pounds) and “your (personal) essay was smarmy.” I received the latter response about a Fulbright essay written about my recently deceased father. While writing my first cover letter I was warned I was not qualified to teach any of the classes I had mentioned in my application. When queried about my lack of teaching experience in “all levels of language and literature,” a qualification noted in every job announcement, my adviser replied, “don’t worry, at your level no graduate student has experience teaching those classes.” Responses from academic institutions where I have applied for positions suggest this is patently untrue.

Perhaps I should have been able to predict my future employment success when, in November 2006, after returning from a Fulbright-Hays research year abroad and writing a letter to administration officials describing actions I thought were detrimental to graduate students, the departmental chair advised me, “just because you graduate from this department doesn’t mean you will get a job.” This surprising sentiment was further strengthened by the department’s lack of support when I was accepted into the Graduate School’s Preparing Future Faculty Program the following semester.

Furthermore, the dissertation member who had sparked my interest in the writer I was beginning to research unexpectedly stepped down due to “time commitments” after I turned in a first draft and refused to even write a future letter of recommendation. Another faculty member stepped in as a replacement, but only as a “professional obligation.” Although I was warned that “KU does not discriminate” (with respect to age, but that other institutions do), it is quite evident my (now failed) career path had been laid out without consultation with me. How early this decision was made for me is unknown.

“What yardsticks should be used to judge the excellence, effectiveness or other qualities of a university?” The Saturday Column is correct in suggesting that part of KU’s mission should include assisting students in gaining meaningful employment (J-W, March 30). However, while the KU Law School worries about the employment rates of its graduates (J-W, April 7), the graduate division of CLAS does not, nor does it attempt to gauge its success/failure rates. In fact, CLAS does not seem to notice that some of its own departments may be “cooking the job books” (J-W, April 7).

In my own case, the departmental website reports that I am (finally) employed, but overlooks the fact that the lowly staff position I hold has nothing to do with my doctoral (or even college) degrees. In fact, my annual income from combined full- and part-time positions averages only $20,000, an income that will never allow me to pay off my student loans, own/rent a modest home, or retire above the poverty level.

Most tellingly, although “KU is re-evaluating education for doctoral students” (J-W, Jan. 2), Thomas Heilke, dean of graduate studies, has no interest in hearing how KU and one department failed this particular graduate student, although Heilke himself has stated, “we may have some departments doing things well, others that are not” (J-W, Dec 21, 2012). How sad, how true! Woe to that unfortunate graduate student who earns a degree at a university that does not care!

— Michael D. Johnson received his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009. He lives in Lawrence and works as an accompanist in the Perry-Lecompton school district.


Hudson Luce 3 years, 8 months ago

About 30 years ago, a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature from KU gave people a pretty good shot at getting a job with the CIA or NSA. Nowadays, if you spent good money chasing after that degree, you've probably wasted your money. When I got my PhD, I had a full scholarship and stipend all the way through, and then a couple of post-docs thereafter. In addition, I was fully qualified to teach any undergraduate course in organic or physical chemistry - the subject matter is well characterized and isn't that difficult if you've done it for a while. If you aren't fully qualified to teach whatever Slavic language(s) you studied, the department is absolutely worthless if they awarded the PhD, and they defrauded you. If they booted you out ABD, or you failed the qualifying exams that's another story, but PhDs are qualified to teach in their area. Here's an article you might enjoy: http://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2010/11/02/phd-job-hell-an-open-letter-to-thomas-h-benton-a-k-a-william-a-pannapacker-how-graduate-school-in-the-humanities-just-dont-go-destroyed-my-ph-d-and-saved-my-life/

Here's a quote from the article: "It was as if one professor in the world was saying what others only gestured at: there are no jobs for PhD’s in the humanities, there are little chances for employment for PhD’s, there is a terrible ethical abnegation by professors to let bright young people study for 10 years and then fall into the cracks of unemployability and depression.

There is a sad trap of prestige with grad school, a path which talented young people chase, only to find at the end a lack of any real achievement, social prestige, or financial reward—the very things that they thought grad school would bring them and for which they made unhealthy personal and financial sacrifices.

Something is structurally wrong in the humanities. Yet few have the guts to straight out say it."

melwetzel 3 years, 8 months ago

The author openly admitted he wasn't young . . . so this wasn't a 20-25 year-old mistake.

A local version of the dead horse, "A graduate degree isn't worth it . . ." too bad, that is first world problems. Think about whether you want to work at the sheet metal factory or the tannery, how about that for job options? Although the tannery gives you the opportunity to work with animals, both living and dead.

I just did a Master's degree, it sucked, it was "worthless" in some ways . . .but what else could I have accomplished in that 2 years that would be worth more? I firmly believe that at least once in the future, those 2 letters, M. A. will get me a job I would have missed out on otherwise.

KU only costs about $3,000 a semester for in-state graduate school. That is cheaper than almost any other kind of school. What do you expect? Often it is also subsidized or "work/study. or GTA.

I got my money's worth, I don't know what people expected from school.

Bob Reinsch 3 years, 8 months ago

If you want to study a language other than English, and have solid career options, I'd propose that rather than Slavic languages, you study other types of languages... like .NET, C++, Java...more jobs there than there are people to fill them.

Kendall Simmons 3 years, 8 months ago

I wonder if this guy realizes how incredibly whiny he sounds. No wonder he didn't get the support and letters of recommendation he wanted. Chronic complainers rarely do.

chootspa 3 years, 8 months ago

My thoughts, too. And now he's written an essay that any potential employer can go Google. I know I wouldn't want to give him an interview after reading it.

Bruce Bertsch 3 years, 8 months ago

Universities are not vo-tech schools. Employment in your field of study is never guaranteed.

voevoda 3 years, 8 months ago

Even in the humanities, there are some jobs for PhDs. If the author's classmates did get jobs--that's something that can be confirmed objectively--then his problem probably lies in himself, and not in KU.

mountainpeak 3 years, 8 months ago

It is always difficult to reconcile dreams with reality. At some point we must all come to terms with our dreams and the choices that have led to our current circumstances, for better or for worse. It is inspiring hear the stories of people who achieved success (however you choose to define it) from humble circumstances; and it is tragic to hear of those who began in favorable a environment and drifted into failure. Of course, most of us fall in between the two extremes. Regardless, I have observed at least one constant: You reap what you sow. There seems to be a growing trend to blame others when our dreams don't turn out as we had hoped. The author, unfortunately, mentions only the failures of said department and faculty, mentioning nothing of his own responsibility. An investigative report into the author's choices might cast a different light on the story. My experience in said department was very different, exactly the opposite, in fact. I found the faculty engaging, willing to provide useful advice (should I choose to follow it) and strong mentoring. They also did not sugar coat the realities of the job market. Blaming others for one's own failures doesn't do any good. Every one of us has to take ownership of our own future - and that is the bottom line.

KU_cynic 3 years, 8 months ago

I agree that the tone of this piece suggests some evasion of personal responsibility by the author. The negative tone contrasts with the acknowledgments and preface of his dissertation (available online through KU). In particular he thanks his adviser "who guided me through, held weekly meetings to make sure I was 'on track, and read my drafts meticulously." The fact that a committee member stepped aside due to time commitments suggests that he/she (it isn't hard to infer who this is, actually) did not want to back the student, although there apparently was no shortage of other committee members and other facilitators at KU (according to the dissertation's acknowledgment page). Last time I checked, it's still a free country and no KU scholar is obligated to push a potentially marginal and difficult to place PhD student.

That said, keep in mind the following cold hard facts that no "mentoring" at the end of 8-9 years of PhD study at KU could hope to overcome:

  1. As discerned from its "PhD alumni" website the Slavic Department has awarded 21 PhDs over the past 20 years -- about one per year. It appears that only about 40% of those obtained a tenure-track academic appointment, and only a handful appear to have earned tenure and been promoted to associate professor. Somehow I suspect that this statistic is average or better than for many humanities departments at KU and at similar universities.

  2. The Great Recession has been a terrible time for scholars in many disciplines -- but especially the humanities -- to be getting PhDs and looking for a first academic appointment.

  3. Age-ism and weight-ism remain stubborn bastions of prejudice even in academia. And, a 5' 9" 210-lb man has a BMI that would qualify him as obese.

Finally, when Steve Warren was an unsuccessful candidate for KU provost he suggested that KU should recruit fewer yet higher quality PhD students, culling resources from those departments with bad track records and investing more in those with good track records. That was a good idea at the time, and it's still a good idea.

voevoda 3 years, 8 months ago

The measure of a PhD program's success isn't just placement in tenure-track faculty positions. That standard isn't the one used for doctorates in Education or Engineering, so why impose it on the Slavic Department, KU_cynic? PhDs in the humanities, and especially those who possess high level knowledge of unusual foreign languages (including Russian), often find work in government, the military, publishing, non-profit associations, and business. Tenure-track positions are not the only fulfilling academic appointments, either. In language education, often universities employ full-time lecturers in non-tenure-track but renewable appointments. PhDs in the humanities often fill high-level staff positions at universities. All of these positions draw upon the skills and expertise PhDs have gained in their programs. By this broader measure of success, KU_cynic, most humanities departments at KU have a successful employment rate of 80% or higher.

KU_cynic 3 years, 8 months ago

I agree that there are some fulfilling and rewarding careers for PhDs outside of tenure-track academia. However, a non-tenure-track placement outcome appears to offer a pretty poor return on investment for many, as Dr. Johnson illustrates. It would seem that the best mentoring that faculty could offer -- especially in the humanities -- should come at the beginning in the form of truth-telling about the time-to-degree, the likely placement outcomes, and a prospective student's likely return on investment. It's a shame that every KU PhD program isn't required to fully disclose such information in a consistent and prominent fashion.

And, doctorates in education are not a model to follow. Most demand for that degree comes from would-be-principals and administrators and such who see an Ed-PhD as a necessary box-to-be-checked in the highly bureaucratized government school employment system. I'd much rather have a school principal or superintendent with a solid degree in the arts, sciences, or humanities (be it BA, MA, or PhD) -- backed by solid experience as an impactful teacher -- than one with an almost guaranteed-to-be worthless PhD in education.

voevoda 3 years, 8 months ago

I'm sure that nobody who is pursuing a PhD in the humanities thinks that a tenure-track teaching job at a 4-year university is a sure thing. Certainly not at KU, which is proactive in talking about alternative careers. Graduates of KU are present on campus pursuing alternative careers, and former students who are pursuing academic and non-academic careers frequently come back to campus and meet with current students. If Dr. Johnson was uninformed, it's because he wasn't listening and not because his department was misleading him.

And as for the "likely return on investment," keep in mind two things: First, most graduate students studying for a PhD are not paying tuition and their living expenses. Instead, they have fellowships, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships that pay their tuition and provide a living stipend. It's not lavish, but it's sufficient that "likely return on investment" isn't a real issue. Unless, that is, students don't make good progress towards a degree that ought to take no more than five years, and instead outstay their eligibility for funding. Second, many of the alternative careers pay better than faculty careers.

If you don't like the parallel of doctoral degrees in Education, KU_cynic, you can't say the same about doctorates in Engineering. Or Geology, for that matter.

voevoda 3 years, 8 months ago

You need to look past the on-line reports from KU, which record employment only at the moment when the dissertation is submitted. At that time, about 60% have already found employment, which makes KU as good as other universities. But for many jobs, especially tenure-track faculty positions, candidates must have the PhD in hand already to be qualified, and that means that students who have just completed their degrees weren't competitive in that year's job cycle. Thus, the more accurate measure of employment is not the moment-of-submission data, but the 5-year data, and KU has no means of collecting it centrally. Departments try, but email and conventional mail addresses change. Some former students end up employed abroad, some marry and change their names, some die. But at those moments when departments have succeeded in accounting for just about everybody, many of them have found 80% of their PhD to be professionally employed.

I'm sure, irtnog2001, that this reply will not satisfy you. Not only because it's not data on line, but because you are predisposed to think badly of KU PhD programs, and perhaps of PhD education in general. However, I doubt that you have any basis for your opinion, either in data or in experience. I have both.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 8 months ago

irtnog asked you for source links, and you provided none, saying that there are online reports showing 60% employment at the time of dissertation. Please provide the online source for that, then.

Carol Bowen 3 years, 8 months ago

Unfortunately, this is a problem with many college degrees. We produce too many graduates in education, architecture, social work, ... We are doing a disservice to students, tax payers, and the general public. Universities are not vocational schools, but the departments and students should have an idea of what the market is and the department's placement rate. I cannot imagine floundering around with a PhD and no feedback, but I have heard this complaint before. It's not new.

chootspa 3 years, 8 months ago

First off - you shouldn't go to grad school if you have to pay for it. You may be really poor for many years, but you shouldn't be taking out loans. If the university isn't confident enough in your abilities to find some money to pay for your studies, it's a bad omen for your ability to find work in academia later on.

Secondly - don't poop where you eat. You generally won't end up working in the same university where you get your degree, but those professors know the other professors, and when you get an obscure degree like Slavic Languages, count on them knowing everyone. You do yourself no favors by making enemies out of the friends of your future colleagues.

Thirdly - have a backup plan. Not everyone gets a tenure track position. They're vanishing fast. Publish. Stoop to teaching for lowly community colleges. Find work in the private sector while you get adjunct experience. Or just give up on the idea of being a professor.

slavicalumna 3 years, 8 months ago

Please do not base your judgement of the KU Slavic department of Dr. Johnson's opinion piece. Like KU_Cynic, I also had a very different experience in the KU Slavic department. I received thorough mentoring related to pedagogy, research, grant-writing, and the job search process. Like most of my peers, my entire education at KU was funded through GTA-ships, fellowships, and lectureships.

The department is tiny and alumni do not always send in updates so I'll briefly detail what I know about Johnson's peers: Dement, Harris, Murphy-Lee, and Amditis all hold permanent positions teaching Russian (2 tenure track assistant professorships and 2 permanent lectureships). Since graduating from KU, 3 of these alumni have published articles in top journals in the field, work that they began researching at KU. Perkins wishes to work at KU and holds a permanent position in the language lab (as a grad student, he cultivated skills and gained experience that would complement his Slavic PHD, making him quite marketable). Keefe works as a language specialist for the government. Considering the job market in Russian, the department has had remarkable success in placing its PhDs, both in and outside of academia.

I do not intend to convey the message that the KU Slavic program or its professors are perfect. Grad school is grad school. But the professors in the department truly care about their students' development, marketability, and success. They also take recommendation letters seriously (one of the faculty even helped me write my first recommendation letters!). If they cannot recommend Dr. Johnson, they must have their reasons. I will not slander Dr. Johnson by speculating on what these reasons might be.

In hindsight, I am grateful I chose to pursue a PHD in Slavic languages at KU. I have met many grad students in Slavic and Russian history PHD programs who have not experienced the encouragement and mentoring I enjoyed.

slavicalumna 3 years, 8 months ago

Correction: Instead of KU_Cynic, I was agreeing with Mountainpeak.

yourworstnightmare 3 years, 8 months ago

Graduate mentoring varies widely between disciplines.

My experience with graduate mentoring in the humanities consists of ignoring the student for weeks on end and then meeting once a month or so to discuss his or her "progress". This seems to be the norm for mentoring in the humanities.

No student should be admitted into any PhD program without a guarantee of financial support and tuition support for five years. Making a PhD student work a day job to pay for his or her graduate education is outrageous and virtually guarantees that the student will not succeed. If the resources are not there to support students, that is a great indication that additional students should not be accepted into a program.

Fewer, more highly-qualified PhD students is the only sensible way to go.

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