But when those eager undergrads come to us holding out a dream that goes "I want to be a professor!" we ought to be able to do something more productive than smash it. What are the alternatives?
This is why I say "nobody knows anything." We gesture toward some alternatives, sure, but what do we know about them?
- Law school? But there are a lot of unemployed or underemployed lawyers out there. As I understand it, the law profession has been undergoing the same adjunctification, if that's a word, as the academy, with big firms scooping up fully qualified attorneys and paying them a pittance without the prospect of being an associate or making partner (equivalent of t-t and tenured).
- Tech writing? Yes, this is a good option in normal times. But in a job market where even the mighty Microsoft is laying off employees, is it a realistic one? What are the prospects out there?
- Foundation work and grantwriting? Again, communication skills are important, but what are the prospects like in this economy?
- High school teaching? I tell my students (truthfully) that high school teachers are better paid than professors, but they still would need to get certified, unless they're willing to teach in a private high school. If the "want to be a professor" dream is really about wanting to teach, this would be a good option. But several states put caps on the number of teachers that can be trained, so this could be a limited option.
- Going into another field--science, maybe? It's not as farfetched as it sounds. If the student is generally strong academically, apparently medical schools are looking for people with varied backgrounds, as long as the person can also pass organic chemistry or whatever. And if it's research that attracts the student, why not get a Ph.D. in nursing? The desperate shortage of nurses is due in part to a lack of faculty, since practitioners can make more than Ph.D. nurses who teach, so there's a growth industry.
The question is this: what do we (the academy) tell them? I don't know enough. Do you?
Nobody knows anything.*
[*For the record, this is William Goldman's famous quotation about Hollywood in Adventures in the Screen Trade. I'm stealing it but didn't want to plagiarize or anything.]