Survival Bias

Amy Chen

The first of a series of three posts in which Next Gen Committee members assess our work at mid-year.

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Serving as a member of the Steering Committee for the University of Iowa’s “The Newly Composed PhD” Next Gen planning project under the direction of Judith Pascoe has been a welcome opportunity. As a recent graduate—I received my PhD in English in 2013—I am deeply invested in the future of doctoral education. My memories of graduate school and the difficulties of the job market are fresh, which helps me sympathize with those still in the middle of the process. The provocation I present here  emerges from these memories. I feel that we unintentionally perpetuate survival bias by focusing on people who survived the academic job market, and I propose that we correct for this tendency in the spring.

Over the past semester, our planning group brought in three speakers to discuss different rhetorical forms that graduate students must master: the dissertation, the footnote, and the tweet. In previous blog posts, I wrote about our first speaker, Amanda Visconti, mentioning the significance of her master’s degree in Information and her generous advisors. My purpose in those posts was not to diminish Visconti’s strength as a digital humanities practitioner: her vision, aptitude, and success are an important case study for our students at Iowa.

But what I outlined in those posts is how Visconti is exceptional. She learned technical skills which are usually taught outside the framework of humanities departments, and then applied those skills to her literary studies. Furthermore, she benefited from mentors who took extra time to help her navigate the often steep learning curves presented by interdisciplinary doctoral research.

Most graduate students are not thinking about how their work could be enhanced by the acquisition of additional degrees, nor should they be.  Universities are organized by discipline and hierarchy. Once one has committed to a field, it can take a long time to realize how one might learn from other fields. Interdisciplinary methods are only beginning to be accepted at traditional humanities journals and presses. As our speakers this past semester have attested, the shift is taking place, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a long way to go. And if students do not have mentors who will take the extra time necessary to help them (perhaps because that extra time commitment is not rewarded in tenure evaluations), they will suffer. It is hard for students to feel empowered enough to demand extra time and effort from those on whom they depend for recommendations.

In the absence of critical attention, survival bias can come to seem “normal” or “just the way things are.” Our Next Generation PhD guests thus far have been people who succeeded by conventional standards. They have had uplifting stories to tell: unconventional methods met with conventional (read: tenure-track) success. That’s the story we want to hear. The stories that haven’t so far been showcased—which, I might add, is not a failure of the grant or of Pascoe’s leadership, but of a cognitive bias we all share—are ones that don’t end so well. We need to hear more from people who attempted new methodologies or approaches, but were not rewarded with Harvard publishing contracts. We need to highlight PhD recipients who attained jobs that were not professorships.

Getting hired in alternative positions counts as success, particularly if these positions satisfy the objectives of the PhDs who seek them. You define your own success. After all, I’m very happy at Iowa in my non-tenure-track job as a Special Collections Instruction Librarian and the interim English and American Literature Librarian. But the way we have presented success this fall has tended to fit a particular narrative, one that hasn’t extended even to my genre of success. In the future, I would like us to think more broadly. Graduate students who master the different rhetorical forms we have discussed during Next Generation PhD events are powerful. Doing so will help these doctoral candidates achieve success. However, we must do a better job of emphasizing that success can take a variety of forms, with exciting outcomes possible both within and beyond the academy.

I suggest we take some time to address failure. Success makes a nice story. Success is inspirational. But I learn more from my failures. I learn when to change my methodology, when to change how I approach problems, when even to change my career. We can’t entirely avoid survival bias because we will continue to invite speakers who can suggest how students might emulate their successes. What we can do, however, is compensate for survival bias by being careful about how we frame exceptional stories, by discussing how (or if) we can duplicate particular features of success narratives here at Iowa, and by emphasizing, over and over, how failure is a critical part of what it means to survive.

PhDs in the Library

Dr. Amy Chen

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Looking over Dr. Amanda Visconti’s CV before her talk at the University of Iowa a few weeks ago, I realized that part of her success as a tenure-track Digital Humanities (DH) Assistant Professor and DH Specialist Librarian derives from her background. Dr. Visconti received an MS degree in Information prior to obtaining her PhD degree in Literature/Digital Humanities.

So does it matter that Dr. Visconti has both the MS and the PhD degrees? The truth is that obtaining an information science degree may not be necessary in every case for future digital humanities faculty and/or librarians, but it does allow candidates more flexibility on the job market.

I believe Dr. Visconti’s MS degree helped her in four ways:

  1. It highlighted her commitment to a professional orientation beyond a tenure-track job in a literature department. While Dr. Visconti does not have one of the most common library degrees, the Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS) or the Master of Library Science (MLS), her Information MS can perform the same role as these degrees do by formally expanding her identity.
  2. It added value to her Literature/Digital Humanities PhD. The Information MS degree is for students who might wish to work in a variety of settings, including the technology industry. As Visconti went on to have her PhD cross-listed in Literature and the Digital Humanities (DH), she was able to take the broader understanding of technology she acquired from her master’s degree and apply it to the research she was doing for her PhD, increasing her academic exposure to digital methods.
  3. It allowed her to be a more sophisticated doctoral student in Literature. With her first degree behind her, Visconti was better informed when she needed to research graduate schools and choose a mentor. This savviness also allowed her to be better positioned to reshape the paradigm of what the dissertation looked like, and to be able to advocate for her work.
  4. It gave her better timing on the job market. Dr. Visconti got her “additional” certification first. For doctoral students interested in library or DH careers, contemplating—while taking coursework, studying for exams, or writing dissertations—the pursuit of an additional degree can be overwhelming. But waiting until after graduating to consider this possibility can be even worse: at some point, a newly-minted PhD needs to earn a living wage, establish a family, settle down geographically, or simply leave her student days behind. Rather than finding a master’s program to professionalize her doctorate credential, Visconti carried her professional orientation into her PhD research, empowering her literary analysis while also giving her more options on the job market.

Writing this as an academic librarian—I am currently the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa—without an additional master’s degree, I can’t approach Visconti as a model of how to pursue a career in libraries because she is relatively exceptional.

It’s not just that she holds two degrees, but that the order in which she obtained them is important. Acquiring additional credentials so as to move into a different career track after graduating with a doctorate is a much more complicated undertaking, although certainly not impossible, as my career proves. To acknowledge this reality is not to make Visconti’s new role at Purdue seem any less exciting, or to suggest that her research is any less avant-garde, but it does concede that her experience is difficult for many students currently enrolled in PhD programs to emulate.