Graduate education “reformers” won’t ask the graduates for advice


I’ve written of the Ph.D. glut a few times, and things really were different when I applied to grad school:

I was rejected from the majority of graduate schools I applied to. It wasn’t that I was all that weak an applicant, but the recent collapse of the USSR (at the risk of giving things away) meant the US was being flooded with high quality, famous (in their field) mathematicians, and this was going to continue for years…there weren’t going to be many jobs for new Ph.D.s anytime soon, and so grad schools did the right thing and cut back enrollments.

Year in, year out, for well over a decade now, higher ed has been churning out people with advanced degrees, degrees only higher ed would hire, in numbers higher ed knows far outstrip the number of positions it will fulfill. It’s been a well-known problem, and the obvious solution, not accept so many grad students, will not be considered because it cuts into those delicious student loan checks.

Instead of doing the right thing, higher ed has pretended the obvious solution doesn’t exist, and gone to a different solution: find another place to put scholars besides academia. Trouble is, you’ve got many scholars in academia trying to figure out how to do this, and their total lack of knowledge of “the real world,” i.e., anything outside academia, makes them woefully incapable of discovering how to do it successfully .

Of course, they could just ask scholars who’ve left academia successfully, but this is a fairly rare method of learning:

A few years ago I reviewed grant proposals from universities seeking to reform graduate education. Only two of the 15 or so proposals included outreach to Ph.D.s in nonacademic careers…

The author I’ve quoted from above tries to place Ph.D. Historians, as difficult a Ph.D. as any, into jobs outside of academia, with some success.

The bottom line: Pursuing a doctoral degree has tremendous costs, even when the degree is “fully funded.” Doctoral students fall behind their peers with B.A.s and M.A.s in many significant ways, and not just financially. Because doctoral training is, by and large, not suited for most nonacademic careers, Ph.D.s who leave the academy must often learn radically new skills for jobs that do not — and never will — require a doctorate. Some of those new skills are antithetical to doctoral training.

A Ph.D. is an extremely specialized degree, at least for most fields, often culminating in a paper on an extremely specific topic (eg, “mating habits of the New Zealand spiked centipede”)…generally not a topic of any great use to the “real world.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, as the Ph.D. is supposed to be a pure research, pure knowledge, degree.

Thing is, pursuing such a degree can easily consume 4 years, 8 years, even a decade of a human’s life, in addition to the time spent getting a bachelor’s and quite possibly a master’s degree first. It…really was intended for someone who expected to spend a lifetime in academia.

These years spent are well spent if staying in academia, but are generally wasted years, economically speaking, for those going out “into the real world.” As the vast bulk of those doing this are only entering the real world because there is no place for them in academia, we once again come to the conclusion higher ed is hurting these people, draining away their most productive years of life in exchange for grad school tuition, a much higher tuition than undergraduate school.

In hindsight, I presented an overly rosy picture of postacademic life because I didn’t want to discourage and depress young Ph.D.s who were already under stress. I didn’t want to admit that many highly intelligent people outside the academy do not revere the doctoral degree, and that the job search would be much more difficult than they were being told.

I’ve sought “real world” jobs in the past, and was told time and again I was “overqualified.” I again point out how evil our higher education system is in producing more Ph.D.s than it knows it can employ, not just wasting years of people’s lives in “education,” but additional years as they overcome their excess qualifications.

On the financial front, Ph.D.s start their nonacademic careers significantly behind their peers, and the losses stretch out over a lifetime, affecting pensions and retirements, mortgage payments, and the ability to pay for a child’s education.

While the above is true, it’s also worth pointing out that many academics end up forgoing having children…they can’t afford it, and are too old once they have a Ph.D. Again I point the finger at higher ed for doing so much harm to society by literally taking our smartest people out of the gene pool, even as I acknowledge how much hurting people like this helps the Poo-Bahs running our schools acquire nice tracts of lakefront property.

One of the surveys explicitly declined to survey recent graduates — an omission which I cannot help but feel was calculated.

Well, of course they don’t want to talk to the graduates, because the graduates would give them a chorus of “I wish I didn’t waste so many years of my life in your school.” They already know that answer, you see, and don’t care: they need a solution to the Ph.D. problem which will still allow the purchase of nice pieces of lakefront property, not the obvious solution of not accepting so many Ph.D. students in the first place.

Two comments merit a counter-comment on my part:

You cannot anticipate even being invited for an interview for a tenure track academic position these days or even invited back to lecture at your alma matter…The post-doc fellowship can drag on for 5 or 8 years and some people are stuck there forever.

Having served on hiring committees, I saw even meagre permanent positions receive hundreds of applicants with Ph.D.s desperate for anything…unless you have a real advantage (the proper skin color or self-identified genitalia helps), you’re not getting called in for an interview in most cases. The “post-doc fellowship” is the real world equivalent of an internship, except at the end of the internship you’ll likely be cut loose and replaced by someone younger and maybe more talented, instead of the real world where interns are getting actual job experience that will help them get hired.

An “overproduction of PhDs”? I think by now we all understand the issue isn’t “too many” persons with degrees, but too few jobs. The work formerly bundled into a professorial job has been unbundled into teaching-only adjunct, part-time and contract positions.

While there is some truth to the above, I still believe there’s an overproduction, in many fields at least. Year in, year out, we produce more Ph.D.s than there are job opportunities in the institutions creating those Ph.D.s, and the adjunctification of the professorship position can only answer for a few of those jobs.