Arts and humanities departments across UK universities spend significant time and effort recruiting PhD students to study with them.
Yet concern for such students and their futures seems to start and end with getting them through the door and to the end of their programmes of study.
With too many fledgling academics and not enough entry-level jobs into the academy, why aren’t institutions and permanent members of staff doing more to bridge the gulf between PhD and post-doc?
Departments up and down the country spend increasing amounts of time incorporating “employability” into the subjects and courses they teach at undergraduate level. They recognise that undergraduate students can no longer attend university purely for the love of a subject and the pursuit of intellectual enrichment.
Recognise the issue
Yet somehow, the very same institutions and academics have managed to avoid offering the same consideration when it comes to their PhD students. While everything might be done during the course of a postgraduate’s study to prepare them and their CV for the rigours of academic life, very little is said or done about the dire shortage of entry-level academic jobs.
Each department’s share of research council funding is jealously guarded and individual academics work hard to put in bids that secure funding for keen postgraduate students. PhD students are regularly represented as the lifeblood of an academic department – essential to research culture, a “valuable” addition to teaching staff and, significantly, a way for institutions to further rank and classify how well they are doing.
Opportunities in academia are short term or exploitative
Those who regularly check academic job websites will notice week on week that the number of PhD studentships being advertised often outstrips the number of permanent positions up for grabs in the same areas.
PhD studentships also – by far – surpass those post-doctoral opportunities which we are all told are essential to establishing ourselves as viable candidates with a serious chance of getting a full-time and permanent position.
Most of the current employment opportunities available to PhD graduates wishing to stay in academia are either ludicrously short term or highly exploitative.
In my own experience of a medium-sized history department at a Russell Group university, the number of PhD students being welcomed increases year on year – with much celebration.
However, currently there is not a single postdoctoral position available nor, it appears, any plans to fund one. This department shows little concern when a significant proportion of its recent PhD graduates have been unable to find academic employment in their fields.
Rather than questioning whose responsibility it is to ensure that jobs exist for the increasing number of people trained in each department, the prospect of academic employment for PhD graduates is being consigned to the rhetoric of “good fortune” and “timing”.
Advice and training for hopeful would-be-academics in my own department have drawn heavily on the idea that if graduates “keep trying” they “might get lucky”. This only serves to further the myth that “it’s just one of those things” that there aren’t enough jobs.
In actual fact, if the situation is to change, academic departments must be the ones to provide jobs for their own, and other, early career researchers to go into. It is unacceptable for universities to continue to flood the already strained job market with PhD graduates hoping for an academic position while at the same time neglecting to nurture a stable stream of post-doctoral opportunities.
After all, it is these same institutions and departments which insist that graduates obtain postdoctoral experience before having a chance at a permanent faculty position.
The culture of non-responsibility must be changed
Those nearing the end of their PhDs and wishing to pursue an academic career will not be blind to the incredibly tough job market they are facing, and neither are the established members of staff who supervise, train, and support them through their graduate study.
However, while departments and academics acknowledge the role they must play in securing funding and opportunities for prospective PhD students, there is an astonishing culture of non-responsibility when it comes to ensuring that PhD graduates have academic roles to go into when they graduate.
There are, of course, some exceptional senior academics who work hard to ensure that their own success and ability to generate big funding results in future jobs opportunities for their own students and other postgraduates who fight tooth and nail to take the next step into the academic world.
But the lottery as to whether any student is fortunate enough to know or have a good working relationship with such an individual is not an acceptable foundation on which to rest the prospect of early academic employment.
Not every prospective PhD student in the arts and humanities wants to be an academic, but many do. These students are not undertaking study solely for the love of their discipline or the thrill of intellectual challenge, but in the hope of getting an academic job.
It is essential for universities to cease the irresponsible recruitment of as many PhD students as possible and time for them to start redressing the balance between early career research supply and demand.
Quite simply: universities need to stop merely training academics and instead start providing some of the jobs they have trained them for.