In my recent post addressing a reader's query on how to choose between PhD programs, I suggested the reader should focus less on the reputation of a program or particular advisor and instead focus more on programs' attrition rate (i.e. how many people don't finish the program) and job-placement rate. The other day, however, an anonymous comment inadvertently drew my attention to another salient issue that in my experience is rarely discussed: what I will (for lack of better words) call post-PhD attrition rates. Allow me to explain what I mean, and why I think it may be good as a new disciplinary norm to expect programs to track and make them clear on their placement webpages.
What I found was, to be frank, a bit disconcerting. While a fair number of old friends are still in the discipline--some currently tenure-track, others tenured--a surprising number of them, including friends who initially got postdocs or even tenure-track positions, appear to no longer be in the profession. I cannot tell, of course, why they may have left the profession. Perhaps some of them got tenure-track jobs but did not enjoy them. Perhaps others never got tenure track jobs. Perhaps others got tenure track jobs but not tenure. I simply don't know. What occurred to me, however, is that this is probably relevant information for people choosing PhD programs. Why?
I assume that many/most students entering PhD programs not only want to make it through the program and get an initial academic appointment. I take it many/most of them imagine themselves with a long-term career in the discipline. But in that case it seems like someone considering a PhD program should probably care about more than the kind of information listed on department webpages. Department webpages sometimes (though rarely, in my experience) mention attrition rates. More often, they list initial job-placements (i.e. the first academic job a person obtained). However, in light of what I described above, both of these sources of information are importantly incomplete. They at most give a prospective student an idea of how many people make it through a given program, and of those who do, how many of them initially get particular kinds of jobs (postdocs, VAPs, TT jobs, etc). By themselves, these sources of information provide no information on the proportion of students who make it through a program who go onto have stable, long-term academic careers--the thing, again, that at the end of the day I expect many/most prospective students to ultimately desire. Finally, it would not surprise me if different programs had substantially different numbers in this regard--namely, that some programs with similar initial-placement numbers to have substantially different post-PhD attrition numbers (since, plausibly at least, some programs prepare their students better for the world post-PhD, different types of jobs--teaching and research--have different tenure-rates, and so on).
As I am sure long-time readers of this blog know, more than a few commenters have suggested that they felt like they were "sold a lie" in their pursuit of an academic career in philosophy--that they didn't really know what they were getting into, didn't really know their chances of attrition and success in obtaining an academic job, and so on. Given how common these kinds of concerns are--and given the stakes that students have in pursuing this line of work (viz. spending a better part of a decade of their lives or more in pursuit of their career goals, with substantial costs such as student loans, foregoing other forms of gainful employment with more stability, etc.)--it seems to me that as a discipline we should expect programs to provide clear, transparent, and complete information for prospective students. If this is the case, it seems to me we should expect them to report not only their program attrition rates and initial job-placements, but also up-to-date reporting on where previous graduates are now. This may take some time and energy, obviously--to find, reach out to, and hear back from former graduates--but, I think, given the moral stakes involved, it would very much be worth it.
Or so I'm inclined to say. What say you?