- What Comes Next?Graduate Education and Contingent Labor in Theatre and Performance Studies
“What comes next?” This question haunts faculty and doctoral students alike when confronting an academic job market that has contracted dramatically since 2008. For the past decade, PhD programs in theatre and performance studies have wrestled with how to prepare students to make substantive contributions to new scholarship, and to enjoy rewarding careers in a fundamentally transformed academic landscape. Past models that envisioned the graduate-student-to-tenure-track-professor arc have given way to frustratingly long periods spent in contingent labor positions, significant student debt, and shrinking scholarly output from colleagues struggling to balance multiple part-time jobs without institutional support for their research. Beginning in 2016, a group of colleagues, both senior and emerging, from numerous institutions undertook an investigation of “what comes next?” in doctoral training: Jonathan Chambers (professor, Bowling Green State University), Eero Laine (assistant professor, University at Buffalo, State University of New York), K. Frances Lieder (assistant professor, College of Saint Rose), Diana Looser (assistant professor, Stanford University), Heather Nathans (professor, Tufts University), Elizabeth Osborne (associate professor, Florida State University), Danielle Rosvally (clinical assistant professor, University at Buffalo, State University of New York), and Kristen Wright (graduate student, Cornell University). Our goal was not only to document the current state of the field from the perspective of those colleagues enmeshed in the process of graduate programs and job hunts, but to solicit examples of best practices, examine what has changed over the past several years, and offer recommendations for the future based on the collective wisdom of those we surveyed.
We began our research with the assumption that graduate faculty care deeply about their students and about their students’ success. We acknowledge that faculty members face increased demands for institutional and professional services these days, and that the one resource faculty are all lacking is the time to radically rethink curriculum and training structures, do new research on the job market, and implement new programs. However, we encourage all who have an interest in doctoral education in our fields to explore the feedback gathered below from hundreds of current and recent PhDs. Their thoughts reveal that there may often be a disconnect between faculty members’ perception of mentorship success and its impact on students. Ultimately, their insights remind all colleagues working in graduate education to ask what could be more important than making meaningful changes to programs that launch students toward successful and fulfilling careers, and in smoothing the path for those on the job market?
As part of our process we circulated two surveys, which netted 548 responses.1 We used organization-wide listservs to solicit potential interviewees, and ultimately conducted over forty interviews (in person and via Skype, phone, and email) with current graduate students, recent graduates, and seasoned professionals.2 We reviewed doctoral program websites and data gathered [End Page 85] by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP).3 We also turned to information collected in previous surveys by the New Paradigms Committee and the Working Conditions Task Force of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR), as well as the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). We presented our initial findings at ATHE roundtables in 2017 and 2018, and incorporated audience feedback into our research as well.
The results reflect both the challenging realities that so many of our colleagues face today, as well as possible directions for the future. We heard praise for graduate programs or organizations that have responded creatively to the tenure-stream job shortage. We heard frustration from those who perceive themselves as part of a “lost” generation of scholars, stranded in low-paying and/or part-time jobs. We spoke to colleagues whose hopes of pursuing an “alt-ac” career were hampered by fears that they would be disappointing their PhD programs if they moved beyond the academy. We also heard from students who found routes to alt-ac careers challenging because their PhD provided no clear path to opportunities beyond the academy...