The Future of the Ph.D.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024 - Hosts Jeff and Michael are joined by Len Cassuto, an author and professor at Fordham University, and focus their conversation on the role of Ph.D. students and what the challenges in that part of academia might mean for higher ed. They dive into the subjects that Len explores in his new book, The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, such as the changes that should be made to better prepare Ph.D. students for their careers, and how universities might be exploiting free labor from students under the guise of an academic apprenticeship. The episode is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Ascendium Education Group.

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Key Moments

(0:00) - Intro
(3:19) - The state of PhD programs and graduate education.
(8:16) - Improving graduate education.
(13:25) - Ph.D. education and career diversity.
(19:03) - Graduate education and labor costs in higher education.
(26:20) - Preparing PhDs for career diversity and addressing challenges in higher education.
(38:33) - Redesigning PhD programs for a changing academic landscape.

Links Mentioned

The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education


Jeff Selingo:

Michael, the narratives around higher ed often focus on the undergrad experience, but as our listeners know, undergrads on many campuses are directly shaped by the experience of graduate students who play a big part in the life operations and purpose of a university.

Michael Horn:

And we often talk about grad students as a monolith, Jeff. But there are many different kinds of graduate students. Perhaps the part that gets spoken about least are the PhD students, and yet those are the individuals who not only are the future of the academy, but also the present, through their teaching labor and more. And so today we're going to focus on that part of higher ed, the PhDs and what the real troubles in that part of academia might mean for higher ed and the place of colleges and universities in society overall.


This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit This episode is brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working to eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success through innovation, data and information, policy and institutional transformation.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo.

Michael Horn:

As we said upfront, Jeff, the education and use of PhD students has a big impact on universities, but it's not one that gets talked about all that often, at least outside of the walls of a campus. I'll let our listeners in on a back channel conversation that you and I have been having for almost a year now, because you pointed out to me that as more PhD students unionize, that could have a material impact on the cost structure of universities in terms of the higher wages for the teaching that they do. And that in turn could have a big impact on raising the price charged to other students, or cause universities to revisit how they teach and perhaps use AI in novel ways to lessen the teaching load. This is the point of the spear, if you will, of higher ed, and as a result, PhD students and how they interact with the university has a big impact on everything below it.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, I think that's right. And it's also the case that this point of the spear, to use your metaphor, isn't as sharp as it once was. There are big challenges in PhD education right now along multiple fronts. And to dive into these challenges, I asked somebody I've known for years, going back to my days at the Chronicle to join us today, because he has perhaps thought more about this issue than almost anyone else. And that's Len Cassuto. Len is a professor at Fordham University, and is the author or editor of nine books. He writes on everything from science to sports and popular media, but he's also a longtime writer on the state of graduate education in America. And his latest book with Robert Weisbuch is, The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. Which is going to form the basis of our conversation today. So Len, welcome to Future U.

Len Cassuto:

I'm glad to be here.

Jeff Selingo:

So Len, according to some recent statistics, at least the ones I could find, about 50% of PhD students will not complete the PhD, and among those who finish, about 50% will not get academic jobs. And even among those who get academic jobs, they're probably more likely to be at an institution that looks probably very different from the one that they earned their PhD at. Less about research, more about teaching, for example. Now, those don't seem to be all positive headlines on the surface at least, but what's your diagnosis of the health of the PhD right now?

Len Cassuto:

Those statistics have dogged my steps for, going on 20 years now. So if you're asking me about the health of the PhD, I would say that the PhD right now is... And graduate school generally is in the ICU. Which is to say, not in the operating room, not in a critical condition about to expire, but needful of attention. Some pretty urgent attention of a fairly sophisticated variety. But let me get off the metaphor. The way that I would put this, I think that the most positive sign that we have here is the conversation that we are having right now. This conversation about the overall health and direction of graduate school was a conversation that before 2008, nobody wanted to have. In 1997, for example, when Elaine Showalter was president of the Modern Language Association, which happens to be my home disciplinary organization, therefore I know about this, she dedicated her one-year presidency to what we would now call career diversity for graduate students.

She had a different name for it then, but it was an originary idea that certainly had all those contours. And she could not get it out of the gate. She was attacked from every side, not least by graduate students. And the trauma of it, actually, she said later on, the trauma of it helped her decide to retire early. So she was a casualty of that conflict. So today, and there are not many silver linings to the 2008 collapse, but it served to rip the fig leaf off of academia, if I can use another prurient metaphor, and to show that the emperor had no clothes. And so we could start having these conversations about what is graduate school doing, and what should graduate school do? Those conversations have been going on now for a good... More than 10 years. I know that because I've been in them, and they have resulted in some salutary initiatives.

I'm not going to say that the patient needs to leave ICU right now, because there's a lot of inertia in graduate school. Academia is small C conservative. That is to say resistant to change. And that's something we should recognize as a good thing. Graduate school is conservative by academic standards, and that perhaps is excessive. So I think that we should not consider the job done by any means. The job is still very much underway, but at least it is underway. In the 1960s, there was an academic job for anybody who wanted one and more people entered academia during that time than any time before or since.

One great statistic, which I got from Louis Menand's recent book, is that more academic jobs were created during the 1960s than in the more than 300 years of academia, of American academia combined up to that point. That gives you an idea of how many people were entering the system then, and they entered under what they consider to be the norm, which is that anybody who finishes a PhD gets a job. So that influx of people occluded the historical sun. And it's taken a long time to recover from that. Now at least we are ready to admit that that wasn't the norm, that was the anomaly. And we can confront what is today's version of the norm.

Michael Horn:

So I think that's a perfect transition, and I'll stay with your ICU metaphor, and say if that's the diagnosis, then what's the treatment? If you were in charge of revamping how we think about graduate education and PhD programs in specific, where would you focus your energy first?

Len Cassuto:

Well, you're in luck, because I'm a doctor. Well, doctor of philosophy, medical doctor, whatever. As a doctor, I do have an urgent prescription for the patient, and that prescription has three branches. The first and most important is that PhD education, graduate education in general, but PhD education in particular, because PhD education is the straw that stirs the drink. It's the oldest and most prestigious degree. What happens on the PhD level trickles down through the entire higher ed system and through there down to K-12. And so when we're talking about changing the PhD, we are talking about high-impact change. And so even though PhDs are not numerous compared to the numbers of other students in the system, if you're changing doctoral education, you are making notable change to the whole system. The most important change I think that doctoral education needs to accept is to become student-centered.

Now, I should pause to explain that for a moment [inaudible 00:09:08] that graduate school is definitely faculty-centered. It's about the professors. It's not fundamentally about the students. For example, in the humanities, anybody who goes to graduate school in the humanities is familiar with the experience of sitting in a seminar with a title that has an invisible colon, and after the invisible colon is the invisible subtitle, "My next book." Or, "My last book." As the case may be. In the sciences, the idea that graduate school is faculty-centered is transparent, because graduate students in the sciences are working on the faculty member's agenda in the faculty member's lab, and their work is designed to fund the lab. The lab gets funding by producing publications which produce grants, which produce publications, and which produce more grants, and the squirrels run on the wheel. And who do you think the squirrels are? It's the students.

So graduate school is faculty-centered. What would graduate school look like if it were student-centered? We are only just starting to get the answer to that question. Second, and this relates to the first, graduate school needs to be become more career diverse. Doctoral education needs to be more career diverse. We need to recognize something that's already happening, that has happened for most of the history of doctoral education, with the exception of that golden decade of the 1960s, which is that PhDs go on to different kinds of employment, including academia.

The primary focus might be academia, but the primary result is not necessarily academia. Graduate school needs to be more career diverse. Third, graduate school needs to be more public-facing. That is to say the relationship that universities have with their communities is something that they are very attentive to, particularly the economic aspect, but graduate schools need to look outward towards their communities and form more different kinds of partnerships other than the ones that are simply looking to bring money in.

There is a way that if graduate school looks to serve the community, the community will then serve graduate school. And one of the side effects of that is that graduate school will become more socioeconomically and racially diverse as a result of that. So, my three-pronged prescription for graduate school, student-centered, career-diverse, public-facing, and if you do that thing, then you get this fourth benefit, which is that graduate school will look more like America. Now, if graduate school will just take those pills and call me in the morning, we'll all be okay.

Michael Horn:

Those all make a lot of sense. I like the prescription and the metaphor that we're continuing here. But I guess I'm curious, is part of this also that we maybe have too many PhD programs in some disciplines, and at some new universities, and we need to see some cutback? Maybe it's trimming, maybe it's big cuts, I don't know. But I'm sort of curious, your take there, or does the career diverse... Will that solve those problems?

Len Cassuto:

Well, solving those problems... I'm eager to solve every problem that graduate school has, but first, not least, because I'm an English professor, I want to examine the assumption embedded in your question. This idea of too many PhDs. I'm not saying that the answer is no, and I'm not saying that the answer is yes, I'll get to that. But I want to examine the assumption behind the question, which is that PhDs have some kind of purpose, that if you're producing them, if you have too much and it's too much for what? And so the vision to me, we need to have happy, professionally-contented PhDs working for the public good, inside and outside academia. That to me is the central goal of a student-centered graduate education. Meet students' needs, prepare them for the future that they choose, make them into the best version of their professional selves that you can.

Now, I understand that most graduate students enter doctoral programs with the idea that they want to become professors, but unless they fell off the turnip truck yesterday, they know that the likelihood is that most of them will not. But that's part of what the education has to address. But if we talk about the question of are we making too many PhDs, we have to ask how many PhDs do we need in order to create socially-productive graduate education, not simply to serve the academy itself, but to serve society. PhDs have a lot that they can bring to society. PhDs are the most sophisticated information workers that our education system can produce. They have a skillset that's more developed and more varied than any other credential can confer or recognize.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, so that's really interesting, because this idea that we could be producing these PhDs for different kinds of fields and businesses and outside of academia is really interesting to me. But does that mean then... How do we have to prepare them differently? So one thing you mentioned is that a lot of students are coming into PhD programs thinking they might work in the academy, and it seems like nobody really dispels them of that notion. You're right. They didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday, but I think everybody thinks, "Well, I'm going to be the one who gets that job." Right? So I guess the question to me then is, okay, if we want to be more career diverse, how do we have to prepare PhDs differently for the non-academic world? And does that include being brutally honest with them as they're coming into these programs to say, "You know what? We are going to prepare you in a different way, because many of you will not be going into academia."

Len Cassuto:

That question is highly salient. Absolutely. First of all, yes, we have to tell every student on any level of voluntary schooling, which is to say after K-12, we have to tell them the truth about what it is that we are asking them to sign up for, for them to give their time, and in many cases, their money. So honesty, absolutely. And that's not a given, because it's difficult for graduate schools in particular to reckon with this, because oftentimes the people who teach graduate school haven't yet gotten to the point where they're being honest with themselves. So certainly. But your question though about how can we teach graduate school in a way that recognizes the reality that our students face, yes, students do show a willingness, doctoral students show a willingness to roll the dice to say, "Okay, I'm going to be the one who hits number 17, and gets that job. And I'm going to win graduate school roulette." Because it really is more like roulette now than it used to be.

However, and we can recognize that it's a free... It's not only a free country, it's a rational decision to decide to bet on number 17, if the value that you get from winning is so great as to make the bet worthwhile. But we can make the alternatives to hitting number 17 much better than we do by teaching graduate school in a way that recognizes the diversity of outcomes that graduate students face. And we can do that without diluting the disciplines, which is the great fear that the faculty have. So I want to give one example of this, from the humanities, which is where I come from. The fear of diluting the discipline. If we spend time on skills, we're going to take away from disciplinary content, and as stewards of the disciplines, we can't afford to do that. We have to maintain the integrity of the discipline.

Well, okay, fine, let's accept that fact. Disciplines are evolving, but faculty are the stewards of the disciplines. But what we know about humanities PhDs is that while they have a whole bunch of really terrific sophisticated information skills, but they usually don't have that much experience collaborating on teams in the way that many employers outside the academy, and increasingly inside the academy, if I'm going to add that, need for them to do. That there isn't enough collaboration in the humanities. And collaboration is a skill.

So how do we add that skill to a humanities education without necessarily taking something away? And the answer is easy. You just build a lot of the tasks that you're already building in, and you make them more collaborative. Now, for many humanities professors, the idea of having two or three students write something together is some kind of heresy. Well, the heresy comes from the fact that that's not the way it was done before, but if you haven't heard a professor say, "We do it this way because that's the way we've always done it." Then you haven't been in academia very long. And it's not a good answer.

We may have done it this way because we've always done it, but that doesn't mean it's the right way to do it now. We can teach collaboration, to use this one example, within the structure of a humanities education, without taking any of the books or the art or the music or the philosophy out of it. We are just going to approach the task from a more skill-centered perspective, because we need to understand that how to do something is for our students, at least as important and probably more important, than the what it is that we're teaching them.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. So when Michael and I were just out at the University of Michigan, because we were doing the podcast out there, and I kept thinking of a place like Michigan, which trains a lot of graduate students obviously, but many of them who do end up going into academia may not teach necessarily at a place like Michigan. Some of them will of course, but some of them may end up getting a job at Central Michigan, for example. Where they might have a much heavier teaching load and do less research.

So that's the other question I have. Even for those students that we're preparing for jobs in academia and that they can get those jobs in academia, I know when I've interviewed professors over the years, they sometimes wistfully talk about their graduate education at that institution, wherever it was, that is quite different than the institution they ended up at. And again, if honesty and being forthright and being transparent is the key here to being much more student-centered, do we have to also think differently about that? Even for those who will go on and get academic jobs.

Len Cassuto:

We can think much more instrumentally about that. Bob Weisbuch and I began our recent book, The New PhD, with a scenario, a thought experiment. If you imagine eight students who are sitting around a table, a seminar table, they're first-year students, this is the first class of their graduate education and they're raring to go. And obviously most of them are sitting at that table because they have the idea that they want to be professors one day.

So 75% of those eight people are not going to be in academia at all. Of the remaining 25% then, only a minority of those will be at research-centered institutions. And the kicker is, the graduate education that those eight people are set to receive, that graduate education is geared to the less than one person who's going to get the research-first job. So that's not practical and it's not sensitive. So how can we work on that? And the key word here is teaching. Not only teaching by graduate teachers to students in a way that recognizes their lives, but also conferring the skill of teaching to those students, because the ability to teach and the honor that comes from it... That is those graduate students who are sitting around that table, they're eager to teach. Part of the socialization that they'll receive is that they will be taught that publication is more important than teaching, that research is more important than teaching, that teaching is certainly something... It's part, it comes with the job, but really the lower their teaching load is the happier they should be. And so that's part of a socialization process that is in terms of preparing students in a student-centered way, it's malignant.

Jeff Selingo:

We've seen several strikes by graduate students in the last few years. The University of California system, University of Michigan, Temple, among others. There seems to be a narrative right now in the media that labor overall is having a renaissance, but I want to focus on what this means for the underlying costs of the universities themselves. Because we saw reports after the University of California system settled its contract, is that it's estimated to cost the system between $500 million and $570 million over the life of that contract.

Now, grad students have always been a cost center, but given the fact that they cost a lot less than faculty meant that colleges really could get a lot of labor out of them in the classroom and in the labs as we've been talking about. Do you think that's going to change as the cost of graduate students goes up? And what does that mean both for grad students and the universities that employ them?

Len Cassuto:

The short answer of course is that it will change it. However, there is a narrative of labor that's going on that's leading up to this. The focus of all of my work in higher education is that we can best understand the problems that we're facing if we understand where they came from. And the narrative of labor that led to these different labor settlements and these recognitions of graduate student unions is one that begins with the buried assumption that graduate school is in some sense an apprenticeship for an academic job. But as I said, there's really only a 10-year period in which that was factually true. Nevertheless, the graduate school enterprise, the university enterprise has been eating out off that assumption for a really long time. Rather too long. Coupled with the gradual increase in time to degree for PhD students, that made the situation increasingly untenable for graduate students who are literally giving the university years and years of their lives in exchange for what? Certainly not the idea that the apprenticeship is going to deliver them an academic job.

We know that not to be true. So if they're not apprentices, they must be laborers. And if they are laborers, then upon what basis is the university entitled to extract labor from them at apprentices' wages? And so we are seeing the pigeons coming home to roost here. And it will change the economic balance of the graduate enterprise and also the undergraduate enterprise, because as you correctly point out, the reliance on graduate student labor is one of the ways that public universities in particular have been able to balance their budgets up to this point.

And so we are apt to see some kind of transformation that will have consequences that will reach beyond simply the graduate enterprise. Now, however, in the graduate enterprise, I think one thing we may see is that if a graduate student becomes more expensive, that may exert a pressure that will reduce the size of certain graduate programs if universities decide instead to go outside the university to staff the courses that they were using graduate students to staff. So that may result in the reduction in size, particularly at public universities, of graduate programs in certain disciplines.

Jeff Selingo:

Well, Len, thank you so much for being with us on Future U, and we'll be right back.

Len Cassuto:

It's been my pleasure.

Jeff Selingo:

This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system-level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first-generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit

Michael Horn:

This episode is being brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They're workers, parents and caregivers and neighbors. And colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs. Learn more about the foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student-centered at

Welcome back to Future U. And Jeff, I am really glad you reached out to Len and brought him on the show because not only is he entertaining, but I think that what he talked about cuts across so many issues confronting higher ed right now. And I'll just name a few, but then I want your thoughts on something. First, as you know, I got my start in education in the world of K-12, but the reason I moved into higher ed was because I realized that the K-12 system is ultimately a dependent one on our higher ed system. And if we want to fix it, well, you need to address the challenges in higher ed. And I thought Len's point that this is frankly all ultimately dependent on the PhDs was a really good one. They're the ultimate point of dependence, if you will.

And then I thought both his diagnosis and prescription for what ails the PhD was really spot on. Student-centered? Yes, please. More focused on teaching instead of research? You bet. Both you and I have at various points cried out for this. More honesty upfront about the career pathways? Totally. And I'll say Len pointed out that colleges are afraid sometimes of being honest, but I actually think if they were more honest about career prospects, it would boost the satisfaction of those who enter the programs, because they frankly would've better expectations upfront.

It doesn't need, in other words, to be pessimistic or scary, just realistic. And suggest an exciting variety of pathways. But then, if I'm being honest, as I say all that, I have some questions around whether these prescriptions are really all that possible. And so I'll start there with my questions, where I'll grant that PhD degrees in STEM fields, they'll have huge utility beyond the academy. But more PhD degrees in the humanities that don't go into the academy? I hear his point that you can develop skills that employers will value, but I guess my question is will they really have utility beyond the academy?

Like collaboration on a highly academic paper in an academic discipline that's been shaped by the research journals and the need to be published for, and then work, say four to six years of study, I'm just not sure that I buy that there's real demand for that sort of an individual to then just jump into another field. And I guess my question is, wouldn't it be more useful to get an education that's actually tailored and more bite-sized, and on demand for what you want to go do?

But that may just be my take. My sense is that you're intrigued by this idea of preparing PhDs for greater career diversity. And I think it sounds great in theory, but I guess I'm skeptical that there's real demand or it's a great idea. And so maybe the fact that paying PhDs more will raise the cost structure and thus cause colleges to reduce the size of some of these programs, maybe that would be a good thing, even if it's done for instrumental reasons, because it would better match demands. I'd love your take. Is the solution career diversity or is it rightsizing what essentially I think actually is an academic apprenticeship?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, Michael, my worry is that despite advanced analytics, that I think our take on labor market demands for the future are not very good overall. So right now, of course, given the academic job market, it probably doesn't seem very smart to get a PhD in English or philosophy. I'll agree with that. But if we don't continue producing them, then we won't get future faculty in the pipeline for jobs that might open up a decade from now. Now, you're more of an expert on how people get jobs and what education and training get them there. But I fear that if we move most of our PhD programs outside of say, the top whatever number of universities, to more bite-sized options that prepare students for life beyond academia, then in some ways we might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. So yes, I do agree with you and Len.

I think that something needs to be done. But there's not one answer here, nor is there one solution for every university that has a PhD program. So let's start with who we're talking about here. The Ivy Plus institutions and the very biggest publics like the University of Michigan or Berkeley, they're not likely to do much to change their programs. And for those that are doing well at placing PhDs, well, that's okay. But that's a pretty small group, and probably getting smaller. What I'd like to see elsewhere is kind of a scaffolding approach to the PhD. A lot more entry and exit points, plus as you suggest, academic apprenticeships for those who really just want to teach. So to go back to Len's scenario that he laid out about the eight students sitting around a seminar table. And how few of them will actually be at the finish line or in academic jobs that pay the rent.

Well, if we had more legitimate, and I'll say legitimate, exit points, that give you some sort of credential short of the PhD, well, that doesn't mean they just dropped out then. Imagine how many of them could find good work. Now, I do disagree a bit with you that there isn't a need for PhD in the humanities in the workforce. Okay, now maybe full-fledged PhDs. But I think we still need PhD-like people. And what do I mean by that?

I think there is a need for people who have the research methods or the deep knowledge of a field right now. That doesn't mean they need the time it takes to get that full-fledged PhD, but if we had more exit points, I could imagine something that is more than a master's, but short of a PhD, and more important than even that, that is cross disciplinary. So for example, what I think we need right now is probably something that combines a deep knowledge of ethics and history and philosophy with AI. And I'm not sure a master's degree does that, nor can we wait for somebody to get a PhD in that. But I would imagine that that would be well sought after by all of these big companies now thinking about the future of AI.

Michael Horn:

Great set of points, Jeff. And I think stackability, exit points, basically places where you can earn a credential, it doesn't feel like you've exited or not made the PhD, that makes a lot of sense. And I totally agree that there is an expertise to be paired with AI from these humanities fields that we need more of, not less of at the moment. But then let's shift to the next one and take the question of making teaching a more central focus. Because I think you probably have to change how tenure and most universities work to make this a viable solution. And then you also have to somehow create a current labor force that actually knows about teaching so that we can teach about teaching. Or maybe more importantly actually knows something about the science of learning. And for the most part, in faculty positions today, those don't exist.

And I'm not sure how you get them. I mean, maybe online courses that scale across the academy. But Len has this other point that I think is true, which is faculty just love to teach what they've written about or what they're researching. I love the way he said, "My next book title. It goes here." And to change that, you really would have to... I mean, imagine the arguments that would've to occur inside of these departments about what it is people really need to learn. So again, I love Len's points, and I'm super sympathetic, but I'll just tell you a quick story that I actually see unfolding live right now from outside my perch at Harvard. Just as an example of how hard I suspect this might be. And it's, Clay Christensen developed this course, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise. It grew, I don't know, four or five faculty teaching it.

Basically the whole second year students, some 800 students at Harvard Business School signed up voluntarily to take this course in the second year, every year. So they thought it was the most important course. Clay, as we know, has passed away. And bit by bit, there's not a tenured faculty member teaching that course, and you're seeing the energy, at least from my outside perch, start to dissipate or drain away from it. The question is, do people really need to understand disruptive innovation and jobs to be done and things of that nature? I'm biased, I say yes. But to Len's point, there's not a faculty member who's tenured, who is still studying those things or writing on those things. And so you can just watch the course withering away because at the end of the day, yes, HBS cares about teaching more than a lot of research-based institutions, but it's still a research-based institution. So again, I love Len's idea, but I'm just not sure how we solve all these real, on-the-ground problems.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. So I think maybe back to my scaffolding, Michael, because who says the best teachers have to come through PhD programs, especially if we don't teach them how to teach? So there are two ideas here I want to advance. One is that we should make teaching more of a concentration within PhD programs for those who want to pursue the degree because they're interested in teaching, but also to be more proactive in current faculty in those programs, identifying people that they think would make good teachers. I think this would create a distinct pathway for the faculty role that is different from the research role. And standardizing and elevating the teaching-only role of faculty on campuses would also, I think, eliminate the ad hoc hiring of adjuncts that we know now occurs. And it would professionalize the teaching core by recruiting academics interested first and foremost in instruction.

And this two-track model is actually heavily favored across higher education, at least according to this pre-pandemic survey that I reported on, of 1500 faculty members, administrators, and policymakers, that was conducted by the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California. And in that study, 50% of tenured faculty, 70% of full-time, non-tenured faculty, not surprisingly of course, said they found the idea of customized pathways in a particular area of practice attractive. And by the way, so did 68% of deans and 74% of creditors. So this idea of a different pathway for people who have a PhD to get into teaching and not necessarily just research, but of course as you say, that would also require us to change the tenured standards as well.

And the second thing that I think we need to do is have a track to teaching at the university level that does not involve the time and cost of a PhD. And this track, for example, can lead to teaching at a university as a faculty member, but can also lead to having a workforce that allows colleges to rethink the faculty model overall. So for example, you might have preceptors or course designers who can assist faculty, or be faculty members themselves in some cases.

And you know Michael, when I think of this model, I think of what's happening in healthcare with PAs, with physician's assistants, right? Both of them can diagnose, they both can treat, they both can care for patients. They can also prescribe medicines. They work as teams. [inaudible 00:45:46] obviously MDs enjoy a much more considerable degree of autonomy. And the same, I think could be true of different levels of faculty. We don't just need full-time PhDs who teach adjuncts who may have PhDs and not. I think that we need to create more levels, and I think there needs to be pathways through graduate programs to get to those levels, all of which I don't think would require as much time or money, and maybe more students would actually want to pursue them as a result.

Michael Horn:

It is a great set of points, Jeff. It reminds me actually of Len Schlesinger, the former Babson president. He had this idea for medical education that it actually should be a long continuum where you can jump off at any point to take a nursing role, an RN role, a nurse practitioner role, on up to a doctor, to a specialty doctor and so forth, just to make it much more human, but also to differentiate the set of roles.

And frankly, I think the answer in healthcare to the physician shortage is allowing nurse practitioners and others, physician's assistants, to do more. And so I think this is a really great idea for higher ed as well. And maybe we can end the practice that winning the teaching prize is the kiss of death for one's tenure odds. But with that thought, that's maybe a hopeful one, my last question is, I know that when Len was talking about those eight PhD students, that hypothetical he gave around the college seminar, and how if we're lucky just one of them will maybe get a top job in a top research institution. I know you have some broader concerns about what those odds mean for the faculty experience, and so I would just love to hear your thinking there.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, I don't want to throw out what I think is good about PhD programs. And I think one of them is that they do bring together some of the smartest people in a field to debate some of these big issues and create new knowledge. And I feel like if we make them much more tactical about getting jobs, whether it's inside or outside of academia, we might lose some of that. I think the other issue that we have to be concerned about here, and I think that this is a problem right now with a lot of PhD programs, is it really gets caught up in the big prestige game in higher ed. And I think what ends up happening is that PhD students earn their graduate degrees from the Michigans of the world and the Berkeleys of the world. And while some of them may get hired at those places, as Len pointed out with those eight students, some of them might get a job, but they're probably going to get a job at Central Michigan or Eastern Michigan or Western Washington University, and so forth.

And they end up at those places probably in some cases, somewhat disappointed, but also trying to make those places something that they're not, in some cases. That they want them then to become Michigan or Berkeley. They want them to become places like they trained, because they miss that experience. And I think that as we think about redesigning PhD programs, not only do we have to think about this teaching track, but we also have to help graduate students understand this vast ecosystem of higher ed and how there are these different types of institutions that are more teaching institutions. And again, maybe if we raise the level of teaching within PhD programs, these jobs might be sought after at a place like Eastern Michigan, rather than be seen as, "Oh, it's a step down from my PhD program."

Michael Horn:

A great set of reflections, Jeff. And I always, as you know, love redefining what good is away from, quote, unquote, "historical prestige" to something else that values differentiated pathways and decisions through the job market in academia and otherwise. And so love those thoughts. I think it's a great place to end from a really fun conversation with Len Cassuto, the author of the new book, The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. And thank you to him, and of course, all of you, our listeners for joining us on this episode of Future U. We'll see you next time.

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