Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Time, or Too Late, to Kill the Ph.D Octopus?
Over at POTUS, a fine group blog by some top level American political historians and political scientists, eminent historian Alonzo Hamby has two informative posts (scroll down for the first) about how graduate education in history has changed. The capsule summary: it’s gotten longer and a lot more uncertain. Hamby has illuminating thoughts about the various ways that a grad student’s life differs from the experience he had back in the early ‘60s. But, ruminating about why it is that average (or maybe median, he doesn’t specify) time to the history Ph.D. is now 11 years past B.A. and 8 years past admission, he touches pretty lightly on what seems to me obviously the central factor—a glutted employment market. This is only to point out the obvious. But there’s no incentive to rush through a dissertation if there are no jobs waiting for you, and all kinds of reverse and perverse incentives to prolong the agony.
All this has been pointed out ad nauseum. But as far as I’m concerned it can’t be said too often, and both the consequences and the best response still merit consideration.
As a teacher of fabulously talented and ambitious undergraduates--who are nevertheless, shall we say, lacking in life experience--I often lament the passing of the wonderful Invisible Adjunct. Back in the day, whenever students approached me to talk about grad school, I advised them to read through the entire archive of IA and get back to me. The wise souls were warned off. The incurables got recommendations. I tried lots of other ways of communicating the dire information, but nothing else brought home the message quite so clearly: going to grad school in the humanities, and some of the social sciences, is asking for heartbreak. Bless her for keeping the site up!
One consequence of the irrational market, as Hamby suggests, is extended time to degree. But there are obviously lots of others. As Timothy Burke points out, where trivial flashiness exists, chances are good that the underlying motivation is the desperate need for distinction created by an overcrowded market. Fill a shrinking pond with qualified and talented people and you’re going to see a lot of fine shaving of niches. Narrowness, hyperspecialization, orthodoxy, deep cultivation of research projects that appear both grandly ambitious and undentably cautious, ressentiment—all likewise predictable results. (There is a minor upside in that a small percentage of really gifted people are led to do very impressive things. But my guess is that this is a tiny group indeed—all of them are at the Valve--and no justification for the wider problems.)
So what’s to be done? In an ideal world, the adjunctification of the university would cease and desist. That’s probably not going to happen, until perhaps there’s an effective academic labor movement. Meanwhile, for good and not so good reasons, graduate programs in the U.S. still accept more Ph.D. candidates than are ever likely to find academic employment. And given that context, even the best intentioned of graduate educators can do relatively little about the pathologies, including the long and winding road to completion, that result.
The most obvious solution is for graduate programs to drastically limit their acceptances. But for several obvious reasons, this is hard to do. And, it has some mixed consequences, I think. On the one hand, you’re likely to get a very talented pool of grad students. (Frankly, the sporadic acceptance rate of some of my students amazes me. The competition must be insane.) On the other, you’ll probably encourage yet more caution and orthodoxy. (The fact that I began my own graduate education by literally walking into a school off the street and asking if I could take some classes probably influences my view here a little.)
A less obvious approach was suggested 5 or 6 years ago by Louis Menand, who suggested in a NYT magazine article that the Ph.D. should become a professional degree like the J.D.: no more than three years, with the end product to be not the equivalent of a proto book, but something more like a modest journal article.
The main virtue of this approach according to Menand, if I remember right, is that a young person could enter a three year Ph. D program without fear of overcommitment and professional deformation. But to be frank, I think it’s got to be acknowledged that this is in effect an inflationary program (where the other approach is deflationary), and its likely result would be to kill academic professionalism dead. Since Menand is a genius and no friend of academic professionalization, I have no doubt that he’s quite aware of that implication. I think he’d rather see a world that had a big sea of uncertainly employed litterateurs doing all sorts of wild things (call it, the blogosphere maybe), than a universe with a tiny elite of sinecured clerics.
Then again, I could be remembering and reading him completely wrong. And maybe there are other ways to skin the octopus. I’m not sure what I think myself. I give thanks often that I don’t teach at a graduate institution where the issue would be more directly on my conscience. And I continue, often sadly, to try to dissuade even my best and most suited students from taking the plunge themselves.
Update. An additional thought. If indeed the main options to an irrational employment market are either to shrink the pool of credentialed labor or to devalue the credential and thus lower the barriers to entry (and frankly I know jack about any of this and have no idea if what I’m saying makes sense), it’s not obvious to me which would be the best way to encourage the unquestionable good of a gift culture. At first glance, it seems as if e-publishing and lower barriers go naturally together. But don’t gift cultures traditionally depend on stable norms and populations? and can they flourish where employment and status anxiety are ordinary?
Anyone interested in this really should read Fred Hirsch’s _Social Limits to Growth_. A few points:
1. In a society in which the necessities of life—for the middle class, at least—become more and more available due to a mixture of technological and productivity advance, there is going to be ever-increasing competition for positionally limited high social status jobs. People want status and have more time / resources available to work for it.
2. The irrationality of this market is global but not local. In Hirsch’s phrase, if everyone stands on their tiptoes, no one sees any better. But if any individual person fails to do it, they don’t see as well.
3. Other than by drastically changing the system—by assigning jobs among the pool of candidates with basic qualifications by lottery, say—it becomes very difficult to keep people from competing further in an effort to better their chances. A three-year Ph.D. would only lead to everyone getting two Ph.D.s. You can try to ban certain forms of competition, of course; I think that Berube recently mentioned an agreement to limit the number of recommendation letters a candidate could have. Limiting grad school admissions wouldn’t really work unless in combination with a ban, otherwise people would probably start taking a couple of years of pre-grad-school preparational study after their four year undergraduate degree before applying for grad school.
4. Lowering barriers to entry doesn’t really make sense, because there are an essentially fixed number of positions. If you lowered barriers to entry for lawyers, say, you might find that with more lawyers, more jobs for lawyers were created as it became cheaper for everyone to sue everyone else. But for professors, there’s no such thing as a free-lance professor, and the same parts of the job that make it high status (tenure, independence, etc.) mean that universities don’t want to hire a lot more just because the people are there. Of course you could get rid of these things and also get rid of the high status part. In the current context, that means the full capitalization of the university, where everyone becomes an adjunct.
I appreciate your post, Sean. I am pursuing part time a Doctor of Arts degree in English, which is undoubtedly less marketable than the Ph.D. I work in publishing to pay the bills for my family and the degree may or may not help me in the future. However, I enjoy the stimulation of the classroom. You really can’t recreate that experience. Most of my friends do not want to talk about Joyce or Lionel Trilling. Sure I could read on my own but I like the discipline. I think for those students who you find are really talented will be okay. They still have a 1 in 6 shot of getting a tenure track job and they may even get a free ride and not have to pay for grad school. And if tenure track does not work out there is academic publishing, writing, journalism, and other outlets. And if your students really want to teach, high school is an option. Teachers here in New York City make over $90,000 after 20 years and unless they kill someone, they will never get fired.
Rich: “A three-year Ph.D. would only lead to everyone getting two Ph.D.s.”
Well, not necessarily. Over here in the UK we offer 3-year PhD programmes, which in practice are 3 years + 1 year ‘writing up’ (so four years really; although the fee is much lower for year 4). It means a very directed programme: I expect my PhDs to have a 10-15 thousand word chapter and annotated bibliography by the end of year 1, the whole thing drafted early in year 3 etc. It gives them less time to eg teach, but it doesn’t mean they finish thinking ‘hmm, I want another one of those now ...’ like Chinese food.
On the other hand there’s a fair spread of people who have PhDs and are now working in fields (schoolteaching, business) where they don’t strictly need one. But it’s all personal development.
I agree with you, Sean, that graduate students experience an immense amount of suffering and anxiety.
I agree with you, Rich, that it would be hard to reduce the competitiveness as long as we are playing a zero-sum game.
But I think that Chris (whom I have been lucky enough to teach) does have the solution. First, in a part-time Ph.D. program with evening or weekend classes, a student can build another career while also acquiring a speculative option on the possibility of an academic position. At the City University of New York Graduate Center, where I am teaching this semester, the doctoral students include a number of journalists, at least one New York Times editor, some senior people in publishing, and, yes, high school teachers.
I think the French have worked out the other part of the solution. In France, a job teaching at a high school is fairly prestigious, and it is something EVERYONE has to do before embarking on a Ph.D. I believe that even Sartre and de Beauvoir, coming out of the Ecole Normale, had to teach in provincial high schools before starting graduate school. If graduate schools required applicants to teach for two years in a high school, graduate school matriculants could be sure that they really liked teaching, and they would have some useful pedagogical experience. They would also go in understanding that they were committing themselves to a teaching career, not a teaching career at a particular level. Failing to get a university job would seem less like failure. High schools across the nation would be enriched by five hundred more gifted people a year, and high school teaching would automatically become more prestigious. Colleges might even become open to hiring talented scholars (with doctorates, of course) away from high schools, if those scholars had published something noteworthy. Right now, colleges regard high school teaching AFTER the Ph.D. as an indelible blot on one’s escutcheon. Unlike admitting fewer students, this is an agenda that would be easy to accomplish. If eight of the top graduate programs in English began to require two years of high school teaching of all applicants, how many of the most ambitious undergraduates would not fall into line?
One risk is that this requirement would make humanities teaching less prestigious (the science programs will never go along with this). But it might have the opposite effect, particularly if potential applicants were required to teach at-risk students.
One might also want to make an exception for mid-career students who already have other jobs.
It was my impression (perhaps incorrect) that in the UK, more screening-out of people is done earlier within education than in the U.S.—not to mention that the more a society can do social stratification by other means, the less pressure there is to obtain educational qualifications. But yes, some people do take degrees for personal development or interest rather than as a career booster. Having a four-year Ph.D. does really help those people.
One thing about closing down the weaker programs is that there will be a ripple effect, since once they’re closed down there will be even fewer tenure-track jobs available, and some of the formerly “good” programs will become “bad” programs.
Someone explained once that, for demographic reasons, net mobility in academia is strongly downward. Top-ten undergrads can’t all go to top-ten grad schools, and top-ten PhD’s can’t all get top-ten tenure-track jobs. Only if there are a certain high proportion of undergrad schools without grad schools will PhDs be mostly employable.
(This is peripheral, but a study of academic career paths could locate the small number of individuals whose path is consistently upward. There can’t be more than a handful who went (e.g.) from an average high school to a second-rank state college BA, a first-rank state-school PhD, and finally tenure at a top-ten school. These would presumably be very exceptional people.)
The French HS teaching requirement is news to me, but what a great program! In the US it’s the opposite: a PhD without specialized teacher training cannot teach in most high schools, and even with specialized teacher training he’ll be too expensive for most schools to hire. The proliferation of specialized applied professionalisms like “education” and “journalism” has had a very negative effect by locking scholarly PhDs into tiny ghettos.
As some of you know, I’m a nihilist like Menand. And I thought I was all alone in this world.
Didn’t mean to kill the thread.
Come on, guys, I’m not really a nihilist, and anyway, I’m not really able to kill academic professionalism dead.
Unless someone makes me really mad.
John, I don’t know what to say other than: you’re correct. I was involved with prospective recruitment for about five years, and the majority of the prospectives at it were from top-flight schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, &c. Very rarely was someone like myself (state university) there; and I was waitlisted, so I was only accepted after the Ivies and their reputational kin declined. How this plays out on the job market, I don’t know; UCI’s reputation makes it so we never really hire fresh-to-market faculty.
I fully intend to finish my PhD in four years, five max. But this total might be misleading, because in theology, virtually all doctoral programs require a separate MA before admission, normally from another school (i.e., you don’t just pick up the MA along the way—U of C Div School is one of the rare exceptions to this, in that they primarily accept PhD students out of their own masters programs).
Sean, I’m pretty sure that IA advocated revoking the tenure system. What’s your take on that? Say everyone getting seven-year contracts, renewable perhaps once. That’d open up the job market quite a bit, after all.
My knowledge of grad school admissions suggests that there is a strong bias toward high-prestige schools. When I was in graduate school at Yale, there were a dozen or more comp lit and English grad students with BAs from Harvard alone, and many from Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, a fair percentage of them with MA degrees from Cambridge or Oxford. Smith and Wellesley were well represented. But it was also surprising how many students there were who came from schools that I had literally never heard of, like Austin College (which is in Texas but not in Austin) and Trinity University in Texas (not to be confused with Trinity College in Connecticut). Their presence suggests that a candidate from anywhere could get serious consideration. My recent experience suggests the same thing. A student of mine from the College of Staten Island, which is a young school and not yet well known, applied to a number of top programs and did very well. He was waitlisted at one of the foremost schools in his chosen field and was ranked number three among candidates in his field at the other; I am sure he must have beaten dozens of candidates from the Ivies. He ended up taking a very generous offer from a top-15 program. And the word was that it was his personal statement and his essay that got him noticed.
I remember hearing that Walter Benn Michaels and Brook Thomas both got their degrees at UC Santa Barbara, got jobs at the University of Hawaii, and gradually climbed to the top of the pile of Americanists.
A friend of mine at Texas believed that his department (philosophy) identified their favorite students almost immediately based mostly on personal networks. It wasn’t specifically “He’s from Harvard, he must be good” but more “Your dissertation adviser has been a friend of mine for years”.
In practice it comes to the same thing—my friend’s undergraduate adviser from the second-rank state school did have a contact within the school, but it was a relatively weak connection.
There really is just one place to go to for blame here, and they are the ones who need to be forced into solving the problem as well: the universities. They are the ones responsible for flooding the market, and they knew damn well what they were doing. It’s about cheap labor and keeping the competition for jobs fierce. They’ve dispensed diplomas like tissue papers. They’ve overloaded classes and hired part-timers with the ruthlessness of a Walmart or McDonalds. They’ve weakened the tenure system, but they’ve preserved it as a kind of lottery prize. See? you, too, can be a winner!
Unions are the solution. It won’t happen, but they’re the solution. It won’t happen because the tenured faculty act like mid-level managers in a corporation. They’re happy to have their middle class jobs, and sorry to say, too many of us don’t actually mind the higher status over lower ranking employees. I myself have seen some of the most disgustingly bullying behavior among faculty toward grad students and adjuncts - some of these faculty are supposed to be liberal humanists. Hell, the worst abuser of other workers I ever knew was a well-known Marxist! I guess it’s easier to like people in theory. Honestly, I worked in industry for a while, and I’ve never seen a company act with as little regard toward its employees (not to mention customers!) as universities do.
Why any of us put up with it is beyond me. We all shrug our shoulders and say there’s nothing that can be done. How is that auto workers have better labor sense than Ph.D.s?
Why limit the pool of Ph.D.s? Why blame the adjuncts? The obvious answer is to create more faculty jobs. I haven’t seen enrollments go down in my 20 year career, but for some reason, the number of positions has diminished or remained static. Has anyone seen the size of the endowments of universities lately? Has anyone bothered to find out how much adminstrators pay themselves? Rest assured, there are no adjunct controllers.
There is an answer, but there’s no reason for the “winners” in the academic game to go to the mats with the administration. It’s a lot easier to look the other way and feel helpless to do anything to help the have-nots.
Grad students and adjuncts might succeed with a union themselves - but for whatever reason, all attempts have failed in the past. I guess the whole brutal education process - all of that poverity, sacrifice, and humiliation take the self-respect out of them. Somehow they think they deserve the treatment they get, and there’s plenty of their superiors willing to reinforce the punishment. Thank you sir, may I have another.
I’d like to say with the happy conviction of some of the other posters that there are other careers out there to be had, but a Ph.D. is an anathema to most industries - the high school establishment prefers education majors, not scholars. A Ph.D. still must go through the certification process, and more years of humiliation before making that 90 grand NYC salary. In industry, no one hires someone more qualified than themselves, and they sure as hell don’t want a brainy Ph.D. asking too many questions.
The larger issue is this: why should these people who have stuck it out and finished their programs not be rewarded with jobs they were most likely born to do?
I suppose it’s unrealistic to say universities should provide jobs for all Ph.D.s. It doesn’t make it any less right, though.
One of the problems is tenured faculty who don’t want to teach the non-major courses, so want their schools, however unprestigeous, to have a Ph.D. program so they can staff the comp sections. The school where I got my MA is talking now about setting up a Ph.D. in composition and writing. They’ve never had a significant poet; they hardly have significant scholars in comp; and the people who were teaching freshman comp along with the major courses aren’t doing that now and certainly don’t want to.
And no matter how good anyone gets at teaching freshman to write better, the real jobs require scholarship or substantive scholarship on oneself (for the creative writers), and getting tenure even more so.
A lot of these discussions focus on students finishing their PhDs in the United States or the UK who then go on to the market in the United States or the UK. I’m not criticizing this, as I think it’s understandable given the context, participants, and audience of the conversations. What I would like to know is if anyone has done any kind of comparable analysis or research or plain ol’ anecdotal snooping concerning students who earn their degrees (wherever) but then apply for positions in, say, Japan, Korea, Egypt, Israel, India, China, &tc.
I think that the labor point of view is the right one here, as K. Engels said above. Two-tier hiring makes it possible to degrade workers in general without making any individual immediiately worse off. All the well-paid tenured people are granddaddied in, but a lot of them are replaced with adjuncts when they retire. (Two-tier hiring does, of course, massively harm those whose hopes for the future are destroyed, and enormously devalues the investment of time, money, and effort which they had hoped would lead to a career. But it doesn’t make their immediate system worse).
Something like this was inevitable when the university was defined as a business marketing a product. This glib identification was accepted uncritically by a lot of people, even though it misrepresents what universities have always been. Talking this way isn’t an analysis of the university at all; it’s a proposed transformation of the university.
I first saw two-tier hiring and a marketing perspective back in 1985 or so at a junior college. 2/3 of the staff were adjuncts with weak prospects for promotion. It was good for student consumers who wanted college credits quickly and cheaply as part of their credentialization process, and in fact there was some good teaching done in that school—mostly in tech fields, of course.
My own decision not to go to grad school was driven by my awareness that in my own field of greatest interest (history of the Mongol empire) the great figures were not being replaced by Mongolists when they died or retired, and not only that, one of the best guys in the field (Paul Buell, 50 or older at that time) had never succeeded in getting a tenure-track job and ended up retraining in something unrelated.
Methodologization on the disciplinary model has worked to devalue the liberal arts PhD. Careers like education and journalism, which used to be fall-back positions for unsuccessful academics, now have their own career tracks and prescribed methodologies, so PhD’s are frozen out. A friend of mine with an anthro PhD and a lot of linguistics and language-learning background retrained as an ESL teacher, and was told in no uncertain terms that he would be treated exactly the same as the bright 22-year-olds in the class with virtually no background. So he had to take a number of execrable Mickey Mouse classes in “intercultural communication”, etc.
Reed College once had an MAT program retraining academic types to become HS teachers, and it eventually was squashed because it did not give enough respect to the pieties of educationism.
Educationists (like journalismists) are adamant that they provide expertise in “education” and “journalism” which are free-standing, and which make it possible to write about or teach anything, without mastery of the particular subject-matter. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but a Post or Times reporter writing about the economy was hurt and angry when Brad DeLong ridiculed him for being almost entirely ignorant of economics.)
What about that this gives academics the chance to be nomad-saints?