May 21, 2003

Tough Love for Ph.D.s

The Invisible Adjunct raves and foams at the mouth upon encountering Laura Vanderkam's "System Wastes Ph.D. Brainpower." Vanderkam writes:

...this mismatch between professorships available and Ph.D.s granted is a colossal waste of brainpower sorely needed elsewhere. Universities that glut the doctorate market bear much responsibility for the situation. But graduate students aren't blameless.... the "starving Ph.D." phenomenon is here to stay. Even the ivory tower can't save anyone from that reality.

Today's market mismatch began in the 1960s.... But the hiring binge soon turned into a hangover. By the late 1970s, even top students found themselves exiled to places they never imagined. Then colleges and universities realized they could cut costs by hiring on a part-time or temporary basis. The Modern Language Association counted only 431 tenure-track English jobs landed in 2001, compared with 977 English Ph.D.s.... All fine ? if everyone knows the odds.... One survey found only 35% of students received realistic job-placement information from their departments.

Even enlightened students, however, delude themselves into thinking they can buck the laws of supply and demand. In graduate school, they experience the rare privilege of devoting themselves fully to learning what they love while being paid a stipend, however small, to do so. Having escaped reality once, they don't expect to encounter it again. "Most people who write their dissertations think they'll beat the odds," says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. "They think 'I'm meant for this,' or 'I'll be one of the ones who makes it.' " They cling to this fantasy...

Some graduate students do wake up. Much of the recent unionization movement can be traced to students deciding... they won't put up with the low wages, high teaching loads.... [U]niversities could improve the problem of inadequate information if they wished. Departments should warn prospective students about placement rates and encourage students to tailor their studies to existing jobs...

It makes me want to rage and foam at the mouth as well. You see, people who apply to graduate school have a (largely correct) self-image as people who are good at academic pursuits. A lot of past experience has taught them that if there is an academic needle to thread, they will be the ones who succeed in doing so. So it's not enough for the 35% of humanities departments that give their prospective students the straight poop to do so, for the prospectives will say, "1/3 of us will get tenure track jobs? I'm good at academic pursuits, so that must mean that the odds for me are pretty good." They don't think--or most of them don't think--Wait a minute, everybody else here is good at academic pursuits too. I've been in the top quarter of academic distributions all my life, but I have only one chance in four of being in the top quarter of this one.

You see this kind of failure to take account of the particular pool you are in in lots of situations. How many of the people buying stocks ask why, if the stock is such a good deal to buy, the person who currently holds it is so anxious to sell? How many college basketball stars realize that their NBA careers are overwhelmingly likely to be nonexistent or short? To attribute some sort of moral fault--as Laura Vanderkam does--to prospective graduate students who are about to get s*****d by the system merely because they suffer from the normal drawbacks and limitations of human cognition is brutally unfair.

On the other hand, when Vanderkam turns to the university presidents, the deans, and the senior faculty who somehow are too anxious to get enough teaching fellows to keep senior faculty teaching workloads low to ever resolve the problem of... ahem... "inadequate information," I stop foaming at the mouth and start nodding in approval.

Posted by DeLong at May 21, 2003 04:05 PM | TrackBack

Comments

A few points:

1) As someone who's been to pre-hellish graduate school (MA program) and is applying to the real thing (PhD programs in a niche disparaged even by other humanities grads), I have to say that departments have been quite open and realistic about placement rates and job prospects. Which brings me to

2) You write "To attribute some sort of moral fault--as Laura Vanderkam does--to prospective graduate students who are about to get s*****d by the system merely because they suffer from the normal drawbacks and limitations of human cognition is brutally unfair." That "merely" is a bit sneaky. If someone applying to graduate school is doing so without understanding how bleak the prospects are and how necessary a backup plan is, then I think that's at least imprudent.

2a) Regarding the same statement: I'd call that a core liberal belief; I wonder how many people would disagree with it (if you took out the "merely," of course).

3) Since when is "shafted" an expletive?

Posted by: ogged on May 21, 2003 04:38 PM

I have a tough time empathizing with people that spend 12 years in post-secondary education but 'still don't know better.'

I'm guessing every University has a career planning website. Berkeley's is here:

http://career.berkeley.edu/

Check out what Anthropology grads from 2000 are up to here:

http://career.berkeley.edu/Major2000/Anthro.stm

Posted by: Saam Barrager on May 21, 2003 05:10 PM

Ogged, re: point 3). I read it as something different than "shafted," and most certainly an expletive.

Saam Barrager, It is only very recently that some departments have begun to come clean about the odds. This is a welcome development. Another welcome development: some humanities faculty have stopped actively encouraging their bright and eager undergraduates to continue on with their studies in graduate school and have even begun to actively discourage it. I think this is key: most people sign on for graduate school at a period in their life when prudence is not the reigning virtue.

Overall, I think the USA Today article is a good thing: the sooner this becomes public knowledge the better.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on May 21, 2003 05:46 PM

There are few good books on finishing the Ph.D happily. _Getting What You Came For_ is one. Its been a while since I read it, but i think the author took a decade for a PhD in fish biology and then got a job at Red Lobster. Should be required reading. I think I was only one of 12 in my entering class that knew of this book.

Posted by: boban on May 21, 2003 06:19 PM

I'd like to ask about Master's degrees. Are they looked down upon? Why are they not seen as being enough for most students? Is there not a market for people who hold only MA degrees?

I know this is not entirely analagous, but one of the reasons why I am studying economics in the UK is that most of the universities here offer Master of Science degrees in the subject, which is good enough for most jobs in the field, at least on this side of the pond. In the US, on the other hand, a terminal MA (not MSc--odd for a field that considers itself a science) program in economics is hard to find; most schools only offer the MA as an option on the way to a full PhD, though there are exceptions (NYU is one). I guess that alone may demonstrate the success of graduate-level economics training, but I have to wonder why humanities grad programs have not adjusted to accomodate the non-academic job market.

Posted by: Damien Smith on May 21, 2003 06:44 PM

This kind of near miss can happen at stupendously high levels of ability, and perhaps is understandable. Nick Hornby (in "Fever Pitch") has this to say about a footballer (soccer player) named Gus Caesar, who was widely rubbished when playing for Arsenal.

"At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he's still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he's offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal. And it's still not over, even then, because if you look at any First Division youth team of five years ago you won't recognize most of the names, because most of them have disappeared..."

"But Gus survives, and goes on to play for the reserves..."

[ Hornby goes on to relate how Gus gets occasional games with Arsenal first team, and then the England Under 21 side ]

"Now at this point Gus could be forgiven for relaxing his guard a little. He's young, he's got talent, he's committed to the life he's picked and at least some of the self-doubt that plagues everyone with long-shot dreams must have vanished by now. At this stage you have to rely on the judgement of others and when those others include two Arsenal managers and an England coach then you probably reckon there isn't much to worry about."

"But as it turns out, they're all wrong.... In January 1987, in that first-leg semifinal against Tottenham: Caesar is painfully, obviously out of his depth against those Spurs forwards. "

Hornby relates a series of failures in crucial games, and "That's it. End of story." Gus Caesar's dream is over. "To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation...and it stil wasn't enough."

If you want to read the whole thing, and it is worth it, it's around p 200 of my copy of the book.

Posted by: Tom Slee on May 21, 2003 06:51 PM

Not all the jobs for Ph.Ds are in academia. I hear that Mr. Bush is searching for a new OMB director and someone to manage EPA.

Posted by: bakho on May 21, 2003 07:40 PM

look on the bright side - you can always become a blogger like Dr. Josh Marshall

Posted by: Atrios on May 21, 2003 08:28 PM

bakho,

True enough. Beyond that, I have an old friend who has gone in pursuit of a religious studies doctorate because, this wild, I know ... she is interested in the stuff. We let tobacco companies tempt, weedle and lie, when the stuff they sell is poison. No amount of supervision will ever convince large financial institutions that the playing field ought to be level. But when you are passing out education, by god, let's make sure nobody gets anything they don't really want, that they can't really make a buck from. I think we have larger problems to solve.

Posted by: K Harris on May 22, 2003 04:30 AM

I think it's important that both colleges and grad schools give prospective graduate students the statistics, the anecdotal evidence, the long-term forecasts (and not the "everyone will miraculously retire next year!" ones), etc. Then, as K. Harris suggested, it's equally important to allow these people to make their own decisions. I knew all of the placement information, had read my way through a shelf of academic self-help books, and lived through my father's five-year academic job search in the early '80s. I got a job out of college and made some money, but I wanted to go to grad school anyway, so I did, and I'm not the least bit sorry. I don't think I'd be sorry even if I hadn't landed a good academic job -- I really enjoyed grad school, and there were several non-academic directions in which I could envision taking my (humanities) PhD. But it was my choice, my gamble.

What's unacceptable is the failure to inform students beforehand, and the acceptance of students who are clearly going to grad school as an escape from the Real World.

Posted by: Naomi Chana on May 22, 2003 07:32 AM


When I was in medical school I used to envy the grad students. While we had to memorize (trying to derive the anatomy of the axilla from first principles doesn't work), they could study one area in detail. While we were subjected to sleep deprivation and childish ritual abuse, they were yukking it up in the lab or in the coffeehouse. But apparently there is a (possible)price to be paid for all those good times. I don't envy them any more.

Posted by: J Rossi on May 22, 2003 07:36 AM

When I was in medical school I used to envy the grad students. While we had to memorize (trying to derive the anatomy of the axilla from first principles doesn't work), they could study one area in detail. While we were subjected to sleep deprivation and childish ritual abuse, they were yukking it up in the lab or in the coffeehouse. But apparently there is a (possible)price to be paid for all those good times. I don't envy them any more.

Posted by: J Rossi on May 22, 2003 07:41 AM

Interesting discussion. I'm torn between thinking "well, they're college-educated adults, screw 'em if they don't know what they are getting in to," and feeling real sympathy for people who spend several years of their life pursuing a degree that will not get them the kind of career opportunities that they expect. Even for those lucky few who get tenure-track jobs right away, many will be disappointed. I mean, the typical Ph.D. candidate at Harvard or Chicago probably did their undergrad at Harvard or Chicago, or Williams or Michigan or Georgetown or some other top school. But even among those who get academic jobs, many will end up at Ball State or UW Milwaukee or Utah State or some other institution that will be a culture shock at the very least.

A big part of the problem is that the only people who ever give advice to college kids thinking about a Ph.D. are their college professors; in other words, people who took a shot at the academic brass ring and were successful. This is, needless to say, not an objective group. College kids never have long, soul-searching conversations with the Assistant Reference Specilaist Grade II from the library who got a Ph.D. in 1982 and has spent the last 20 years cataloging books in a dingy basement.

I'm not sure what the answer is. But here are two modest proposals:

1) Ph.D. programs should more aggresively weed out students after two or three years. Some programs do this, but not nearly enough, and the number of students not permitted to go forward is too low. Programs could even expand the number of students they take in at the front end to make up for the loss of teaching assistants that would accompany such a plan. Students should still get a shot at the Ph.D. (I wouldn't be in favor of programs just cutting back on the number of students admitted, because there are undoubtedly kids who would not show up in the top x% of an applicant pool who might well end up in the top x% once the programs starts), but after two or three years an honest assesment should be made of each student's potential to get a tenure track job, and those who don't make the cut would be asked to leave. Its got to be a lot easier to get kicked out of a Ph.D. program and enter the non-academic job market at age 25 than it is to finish up and not get an academic job at age 30. At least in the former case you can pick yourself up, get a job (And even a shitty $28,000 entry level gig would feel like it brought in a King's Wage compared to a graduate stipend), have a little long-postponed fun, and maybe think about law school, business school, high school teaching, or some other career field while you're still quite young.

2) Ph.D. program should stop accepting people right out of undergrad. Maybe I'm just projecting, but I suspect that a lot of the glut of Ph.D. candidates is caused by the fact that undergrads find the non-academic world a bit frightening, and take refuge in further study. At least if everyone was forced to go get a job after college, kids' fears would be neutralized and the only people who then applied to Ph.D. programs would be people who really wanted to go for the right reasons. This might seem like a difficult-to-implement cultural change, but I think its possible. I myself am finishing up business school. Twenty or thirty years ago, everyone did an MBA right after college. Then business schools decided that the training would be more valuable if it was set against a backdrop of of work experience, and they decided to require 2-5 years between college and b-school. Its now almost impossible to get into a top tier b-school right out of college (lesser schools are another story; they'll take any tuition paying body.)

Posted by: sd on May 22, 2003 08:00 AM

A Ph.D. is not a meal ticket. A Ph.D. is a license to hustle.

Posted by: bakho on May 22, 2003 08:39 AM

As with most things, the degree of disclosure surely varies by university and by department. A friend in my entering law school class back in 1979 explained that he became a law student because the English Ph.D. department at UC Davis was very up-front about the fact that less than 1/3 of the students could expect to get full-time jobs teaching English. Having a family to support, those odds did not satisfy his needs.

Interestingly, this discussion seems to view Ph.D. candidates as children. There is no reason why highly literate and intelligent adults cannot be expected to inquire about their job prospects, and there is little reason to expect that a mandated disclosure really would do much good for those who are too indifferent to inquire, or too blinded by their hopes to believe the statistics.

Posted by: R Wood on May 22, 2003 08:39 AM

I have a different take on this.

First, without unpaid or low-paid research and teaching assistants who are irrationally going into debt and who will have few and poor job prospects, many universities simply could not function. This is a labor issue. We don't have to say that the universities are wrong or bad, but we should tell the grad students that they're being suckered. (A relative believes that she was kept on as a PhD candidate for two years after it had been decided to reject her candidacy).

Second, tenured faculty are similiarly abusing untenured faculty. Another labor issue, but from a scholarly point of view we also have to ask where the next generation of scholars is coming from. Without naming names, I know of complacent, well-paid tenured faculty with easy teaching schedules who haven't done a lick of good research for decades, while younger low-paid adjuncts beat their brains out teaching and really don't have the time to do much research.

Third, this problem is worst in what is called the humanities. Unsuccessful economists get bank jobs or MBA's, unsuccessful physicists become some kind of tech, but unsuccessful humanities majors have few options other than law, journalism, and HS teaching. And I know for a fact that education depts. are unfriendly to PhD's. Humanities PhD's are not only not prepared for jobs, to a degree they're "disprepared". (Many jobs involving verbal-type skills such as advertising, law, PR, and journalism, are actually contrary to the kind of truth-telling you supposedly do in grad school.)

Fourth, I've seen a lot of people in grad school submit themselves to institutional methodologies and to assigned topics of study which are very far from their own interests, only to find that the reward is not there and probably never could have been.

Fifth, in the past the humanities were partly institutionalized in the church or elite government bureaucracies (as in England or China), but were mostly amateur enterprises. I think that will again be the case. Less contempt for non-professional scholars and those who work outside the university would be a good idea. I have a vested interest because that describes me.

Posted by: zizka on May 22, 2003 08:41 AM

As with most things, the degree of disclosure surely varies by university and by department. A friend in my entering law school class back in 1979 explained that he became a law student because the English Ph.D. department at UC Davis was very up-front about the fact that less than 1/3 of the students could expect to get full-time jobs teaching English. Having a family to support, those odds did not satisfy his needs.

Interestingly, this discussion seems to view Ph.D. candidates as children. There is no reason why highly literate and intelligent adults cannot be expected to inquire about their job prospects, and there is little reason to expect that a mandated disclosure really would do much good for those who are too indifferent to inquire, or too blinded by their hopes to believe the statistics.

Posted by: R Wood on May 22, 2003 08:44 AM

It is one thing for university economics departments to fail to inform their graduate students about the realities of the job market (and some, indeed, fail to do this).

It is a different sort of sin to fail to teach them to be anything other than academics. Self perpetuating cultures such as this cannot help but be incredibly artificial. They raise what often seem to us in the private sector, or even those in government, to be idiot savants. Failing to be honest about the job market pales in comparison to this practice.

Sorry to be blunt.

Posted by: Jim Harris on May 22, 2003 10:13 AM

This discussion also doesn't take into account that people can change their interests. My brother-in-law, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and was in private practice for a number of years, changed careers and became a finacial planner about two years ago. He's found his old career helped him think about how to deal with his new clients.

Also, an increasing number of science and medical writers received Ph.D.s in science (mostly the life sciences or physics). I spent 5 years working towards a doctorate in developmental biology/genetics before concluding that writing about science used my talents better than did being in the lab.

I do agree that at top schools the faculty only train students to follow in their footsteps. As an undergrad in the late 60s, non of my biology professors (or other science professors) gave any indication that there was any other use for a science education than going to grad school, getting a Ph.D., and doing research. Even teaching was not emphasized (though many were good teachers). Now there are a few programs like the science writing programs at UCSanta Cruz and MIT that take science grad students and train them in science journalism.

Posted by: Art Nevsky on May 22, 2003 10:24 AM

Too much of this discussion (not just in the comments here) seems to regard life as a succession of stages, each of which is a preparation for the next. It's like the '50s housewife who spent her day in curlers so that she would be prepared to go out in the evening (if her husband so chose). Graduate school is not valued for itself, but because it may lead to a tenure-track position. When it fails to, then it has failed and the poor person who trusted to it has failed and been failed, if not defrauded. And we must apportion blame.

This is wrong. Graduate school is delightful. I look back on my five years at Columbia as a high point in my life. I didn't go on to an academic career. I went on one campus visit: did an interview, lectured to a group of students; loathed the place; reasoned that if I was prepared to refuse a position at a name, strong, selective college with a young, supportive faculty, I really didn't want academe. I have had, from then on, non-academic jobs. But that does not wipe out the value of the preceding five years.

If a prime value of a good college is that one is surrounded by bright people _all the time_, then surely a prime value of graduate school is that one is surrounded by _extremely_ bright people all the time. That it is a highly selected pool is not solely to be assessed as a competitive disadvantage.

Posted by: jam on May 22, 2003 10:35 AM

If "everyone" were forced to get a job right out of college, we'd have an even greater labor/unemployment problem than we do now.

It's not just a question of numbers; clearly the effect of there being too many advanced education students is small overall. It's that these people are dangerous in the broader labor market. It is no accident. It is the design of the system to segregate and nullify them.

Zizka hits it on the head. Only I would say that the market only rewards humanities scholars to the extent that they are willing to become paid professional liars.

Posted by: biz on May 22, 2003 11:00 AM

Steven Landsburg over at Slate wrote recently about everything turning out worse than expected, the point being that anything we put a great deal of time and effort into, we probably have high hopes for - often too high. Same probably holds for getting advanced degrees. If you had asked my geologist brother whether his doctorate was worth it the first 4 years of after the fact, odds are he would have said "no". Now, the answer would be different. He had high hopes - that is what it took to keep him at it through the degree process. (It didn't help that his thesis research was more or less a direct refutation of his advisors' life's work.)

Posted by: K Harris on May 22, 2003 11:20 AM

"Interestingly, this discussion seems to view Ph.D. candidates as children. "

But if they come in directly after getting their BAs, they are. Frontal lobes don't mature until ~25 or so.

when I look at some of the assumptions/values I had going into grad school... :-( I saw people attempting to discourage me as a test/challenge, not as purveyors of valuable information. dumb dumb dumb.

those were good times though.

Posted by: Anna on May 22, 2003 12:27 PM

Eyeballing my google search it looks like average undergrad debt is $12,000. I don't know if this includes credit cards - I suspect it doesn't. Most of my friends celebrated their 23rd birthdays with $15,000 in debt. Call the average wage for a recent graduate $24,000.

With a phenomenal amount of discipline you can pay it off in 3 years. (That means no kids, no car, no trips, no restaurants, many roommates, etc.) You can let it linger, and finally pay it off in your 30s.

Faced with those options, well, I wouldn't do it in the first place. (I'm 28 and have saved enough to finish school without loans, debt, or working - it's good.) But if I were faced with those options I suppose I would much rather go back to school.

Posted by: Saam Barrager on May 22, 2003 12:54 PM

Bottom line: Academia is a sweet gig if you can get it, so there are lots of people willing to try for it, and to settle for low pay and less-than-ideal location. PhD students wish they could have it all, but they can't.

Posted by: Tim J. on May 22, 2003 02:18 PM

By dealing with this in terms of "victimization" (or not) and the personal problems of individuals I think that a lot of people have missed the point.

Two other groups feeling dissatisfaction these days, for rather different reasons, are high school teachers and Registered nurses, and people are telling them, too, that it's their problem.

Posted by: zizka on May 22, 2003 05:15 PM
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