When my college seniors would approach me for recommendation letters for graduate school in the humanities, they would inevitably leave my office with copies of Thomas H. Benton’s “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” and “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.”

William Pannapacker’s most recent article certainly would have made the reading list had I continued to teach. Pannapacker smartly addresses the lack of data about job placement within academia and the virtual nonexistence of data following grad students who decide not to pursue academic jobs or drop out of the program (as often, 50 percent of them decide to do). He also alludes to the way in which graduate student advisors tend to paint a rosier picture of the job market than exists, failing to alert their students that their best offer might be to serve as an adjunct professor in a remote location. Today, contingent faculty make up 76 percent of the academic labor force, and only 50 percent of faculty are employed full-time. Tenured or tenure-track professors are definitively in the minority in American higher education.

And yet, our graduate programs are designed to channel students into the research expected of tenure-track professors. Currently, most graduate students take anywhere from six years to most often a decade to complete their studies. The bulk of that time is dedicated to the rite of passage known as the dissertation.

The tenure-track process for junior professors is similarly predicated upon specialized scholarship; however, this research is rarely published electronically and freely, for open is viewed as inferior. In sharp contrast, the most reputable journals in most disciplines are closed-access—invisible to the majority of the public. Such scholarship nevertheless is deemed by 75.7 percent of English and foreign-language departments as more important than teaching in tenure decisions.

Clayton Christensen discusses the misalignment of incentives in a recent interview in The Economist: “We are awash in content that needs to be taught, yet the vast majority of colleges give a large portion of their faculties’ salaries to fund research.” Stanford University President John Hennessy affirms that “[a]s a country we are simply trying to support too many universities that are trying to be research institutions.” To complicate matters, decreased federal and state funding of higher education will likely become the norm. As all of these forces collide, what will happen as infrastructure for research scales back and more online technologies emerge that prioritize teaching over scholarship?

The Minerva Project, for example, is creating short-term faculty contracts without possibility of tenure. Candidates are to focus solely on teaching—no research. At places like Western Governor’s University, Altius’s Ivy Bridge College, and UniversityNow’s Patten University, the teacher’s role is further subdivided so that the person teaching the online course is separate from the person evaluating the students’ work for grades; these instructors are also different from the people responsible for coaching and mentoring the students along in their academic careers. These newer pedagogical models not only scrutinize the multiple roles of professors but also bring into sharp relief the questionable relevance of research for grad students moving directly into teaching-only roles.

Will our graduate programs fall in line with the massive technological advancements occurring in higher education? The authors of “An Avalanche is Coming” proffer that some universities “will need to specialise in teaching alone—and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced [sic] teaching possibilities now available: the elite university, the mass university, the niche university, the local university, the lifelong learning mechanism.”

As more alternative careers and opportunities to teach or design courses online emerge, will Ph.D. programs adapt to prepare their candidates adequately without disparaging these opportunities as somehow second-rate to tenure-track positions? What will be the role of the dissertation for students who wish to focus on teaching? Will there be different pathways within doctoral programs that enable students to immerse themselves in either specialized research or online teaching roles? Will the length of time differ for these two different modes of study?

It seems inevitable that the wave of technological advancements occurring in higher education will put pressure on graduate programs in the U.S. and simultaneously call into question the role of research within academia. It’s about time.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD