Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

The Road Less Traveled

Lenny Cassuto, Ph.D.
Lenny Cassuto, Ph.D., a professor of English at Fordham University, is known as the “Graduate Adviser.” Through his column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he advises thousands of graduate students around the world.

Cassuto, who began writing his monthly column in 2010, has written for the Chronicle since 1998, when he first took issue with the ways graduate students were being professionalized. His concerns are even more pressing today.

The main problem, according to Cassuto, is that graduate programs too often emphasize students’ futures in academia. Too many professors focus the classroom experience on training students to follow in their footsteps.

“The professionalization of graduate students has surely gotten more pronounced, as the supply of professor jobs has gotten smaller relative to the number of people who seek them,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that for many students their work will not necessarily be in teaching.

“In today’s academic economy, we should look carefully and closely at all the employment advice we give.”

The assumption that all graduate students will become professors creates a lack of relevant opportunity for many graduate students. This assumption can skew classroom discussions. It also creates a lot of anxiety in students who do not complete their graduate degree, or earn their doctoral degree but pursue careers outside of academia.

“I think it’s important that the work that graduate students do in school have a relation to the work they will do afterward—whether it’s inside or outside of the university.”

Cassuto suggests faculty advisers get more involved in their students’ lives to get a better sense of each student to help them find career paths that are meaningful to them, whether it’s in academia or another field.

“While I was in graduate school,” he recalled, “I was always considering nonacademic careers, because I was concerned about where I would live and I was aware that I might not be offered a professor’s job in a place that I wanted to move to.

“It helped a lot to keep the possibility of an alternative career in mind even absent the details of what such a career might look like.”

Professional development workshops, such as those sponsored by Fordham’s individual departments, as well as the Office of Student Development at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), can also help students see that there are other career options besides professorships, which helps remove the stigma of leaving academia.

A push for the Office of Career Services at Fordham, as well as offices at universities across the country, to provide opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students alike is another step in the right direction. 

Though Fordham is still developing more ways to aid students who enter unexpected or nontraditional careers after graduate school, GSAS continues to support and encourage these students to explore all of their options as part of the Jesuit tradition of cura personalis (care for the whole person).

In the meantime, what advice does Cassuto have for graduate students? 

“Don’t feel trapped,” he said. “To leave a program before you receive your terminal degree is a choice, not a failure, and it’s a choice we should teach students to make thoughtfully, and honor and support that choice when they make it.”

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