Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"Overproduction" of Ph.D.s

Last week I wrote a long and link-filled post about the "overproduction of Ph.D.s" problem, but blogger swallowed it and then one child got sick and then I had to give a lecture in NYC and then the other child got sick and then the proofs of two articles arrived on my desk with the standard "we sat on this for 28 months but now we need your corrections and revisions in seven days" letter and then the babysitter's great-grandmother died and then the babysitter's cat had to be put to sleep... (I am not making this up), so I have not had the chance to re-construct the post. And I won't here, either, since I have exams to grade. But here's the quick and dirty version.

John Bruce writes rather emphatically that he does not accept my analogy of academia to art, music or sports:
I see with some frequency the argument, always from tenured faculty, that to say there's something unfair about the academic economy if it overproduces PhDs is wrong, since there's no difference between the pyramidal food chain in academics and the same pyramid you see in sports, acting, music, art, and so forth. In other words, Hollywood (say) is full of wannabes. Only a few of those wannabes turn into Humphrey Bogart or Meryl Streep or Brian Dennehy. Thus, there are thousands of adjuncts, tens of thousands of TAs, and if the great majority never make it to tenure, that's no different from the minor league ball players who never become Joe DiMaggio.
Well, first, I can see why your average tenured prof would like this argument. It makes him or her into Maggie Smith or Ted Williams or Van Cliburn or Mary Cassatt or Ernest Hemingway. In fact, this is a real problem I see with this way of thinking. Nobody who says this is even remotely at the top of a talent-based pyramid. Nor is any of their colleagues, save only the Nobelist three states over. The fact that you got tenure, Prof. Throckmorton, makes you neither Leonardo DiCaprio nor Bruce Willis. You are instead an ordinary working stiff with pretensions beyond your station. No professor who hasn't shaken hands with the King of Sweden rises remotely to the merit of a top athlete or artist, and much as you'd like to think so, tenure isn't equivalent recognition. So let's get that out of the way.


Well, duh. I don't think I was even implying that getting tenure, even at Stanford, is the equivalent of becoming Humphrey Bogart. The economies of scale are very different, as the rewards differential shows. But getting tenure at a university can certainly be analogized to being a "working actor," who manages to keep gainfully employed at various jobs. Some of these actors will cross over to become more famous --the way a professor like Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins can cross over into mainstream publishing where he will make 10X his professor's salary -- but most will simply have a middle-class career at, say, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. And many, many more will invest years of auditions, poverty and struggle and end up with no tangible reward for it. I think the parallel with getting and Ph.D. and trying for a faculty job is obvious--and the odds are actually a lot better for a Ph.D. than for a hopeful actor.

But, John argues, it's different in academia because:
Nobody, except possibly the stars' cooks and gardeners, works at low pay in the system specifically to enrich a movie star in hopes of getting a payoff later. This, however, is specifically what grad students do. And a tenured professor at a research university would not be paid if there were not low-wage graduate assistants foregoing income in the system.


I've addressed this point before, but I see no evidence that professors are dependent upon low-wage graduate assistants in the way that John is suggesting here. As I wrote in the above-linked post, if someone made all graduate student teaching and assisting illegal tomorrow, the profession would go on with only a few changes. I can only speak for English, and it may be more of a big deal in the hard sciences, where research groups often rely very heavily on graduate students (but in those sciences, there are plenty of rewards for Ph.D.s outside the academy; only 1 person from my wife's "class" of Ph.D. students at Northwestern went into academia; the others went into industry and made money). But at Missouri, for instance, more than 75% of the English 20 (=English 101) TA's are M.A. students, mostly high-school teachers who are getting an additional credential to improve their salaries. So you'd have to replace 25% of the intro classes if you eliminated "overproduced" Ph.D. candidates. Not painless, but not hard. You could "place out" the top 10-15% of the students, who might benefit from intro English but not need it the way other students do. Then you could deal with the other 10-15% of students by slightly increasing the number of introductory classes taught by Professors (say, from 1 per year to 1.5 per year for a big department like Missouri). So to say that the tenured professors "would not be paid if there were not low-wage graduate assistants foregoing income in the system" is incorrect. Their jobs may be made easier (since intro courses are harder to teach than advanced courses), but the students and their revenue stream would still be there if the Ph.D. students were gone (in fact, at most places directing dissertations or having graduate assistants is not explicitly calculated as part of faculty workload; it's an add-on -- though teaching one or two graduate classes per year is part of the workload/salary package).

Now I don't want the above to be seen as a slam on graduate teaching or on adjuncts. That tenured professors don't rely on their "exploited" labor for their salaries does not mean that their contribution to the life of the college and the educations of students is negligible. I'll push the acting/music analogy a little further: the members of the ensemble in a Broadway musical are collectively essential to the success of the production. But they don't get the money and the security of the "stars" or even the established mid-level actors because although the collective work of the ensemble is necessary, any single ensemble singer can fairly easily be replaced by someone else who wants that job and is willing to work very hard for low pay as a way of getting a chance to move up.

Having gone to Carnegie Mellon for undergraduate, I know a fair number of actors and musicians. Some, like my best friend from college, have become stars. Others have not had as successful a career path, although quite a good percentage of them are full-time in their art (which, according to Bruce Springsteen, is the definition of success in the arts: when you can quit your day job). But among these folks there isn't the incredible sense of resentment that there is among people who have not had the same success in academia. Why is that?

I think the sort of folks (myself included) who tend to go into academia expect to be rewarded if they follow the rules: get into a top undergraduate institution, make A's, get into a good graduate school, make A's. The next obvious step is a TT job. When that doesn't materialize, because there are a lot of other people who are just as smart, hard-working and driven as you are who want it, then the rationalization develops that the system must be broken and you must be being exploited.

It is also the case that among Ph.D. candidates, graduates of the Ivies and other elite scholars are very over-represented. And, I have to say, my experiences suggest that these folks are heavily overinvested (emotionally, socially) in their undergraduate degrees. There is a very, very strong sense of entitlement among graduates of these elite schools (note how often the graduates tend to offhandedly mention their institutions -- Harvard grads are particularly repellent in this regard; there's a kind of up-talked, pseudo-question in the voice when, a Harvard grad has been asked where he/she went to school: "Harvard?")

I read a lot of the calls to reduce "overproduction" of Ph.D.s to be a thinly-veiled attempt to get rid of those hustling kids Missouri or Wayne State or Arizona or Notre Dame who are taking the jobs that rightfully belong to the graduates of the elite schools. For, make no mistake, if "overproduction" of Ph.D.s is somehow to be reduced by some kind of cartel system, it won't be the Ivies that will be asked to produce fewer graduates, and it won't be the Ivy programs that are shut down. The end result of such a process would be more intellectual inbreeding and stagnation. It will also push the decision tree of who ends up as a professor further back from graduate work to undergraduate work even to the (largely meaningless, imho) high-school work and test-scores that determine what undergrad institution one goes to (and lest I sound like the sour-grapes fox here, I was accepted to one Ivy and wait-listed at another but chose Carnegie Mellon anyway for my undergraduate degree).

This post is way too long, but let me also add that I do think there are problems with tenure (not so much Ward Churchill not being able to be fired for being a horse's ass, but the inability of colleges to separate out useless 'dead wood,' scholars who no longer teach well or do research, from productive people); and there are problems with intellectual close-mindedness; and all "speech-codes" are idiotic and should be completely scrapped; and the ridiculous proliferation of deans and sub-deans and various non-academic programs and centers should be radically reduced; and the single best thing that the country could do to fix college life would be to return to the 18-year-old drinking age so that the whole alcohol-Gestapo mandated by Congress and vulture lawyers could be dismantled. I'll try to address these things in other posts. But like the the medical system's problems, academia's flaws are not subject to one simple fix (from either left or right). Getting rid of tenure would have some good and some bad effects. Reducing the number of Ph.D.s would also have some good and bad effects, but I'm pretty sure that most of them would be bad for academia as a whole even if they might help individual Ph.D. candidates.

57 comments:

Natalia said...

A view from a large public university:

This is not the case at all schools, but at my institution, UC Berkeley, undergraduate education completely depends on graduate student teaching. All of the introductory reading and composition classes are taught by graduate students, and although professors teach the upper-level classes, all of them except for the junior and senior seminars (open only to English majors and often overfull) are large lecture classes. In a very few cases the students get discussion sections, led by graduate students (never by professors). In most cases there is no discussion at all, but graduate students are employed to grade the papers. There is in fact a shortage of graduate students to teach all the discussion sections that our department needs. Of course, there is also a shortage of funding to pay those graduate students, so this situation will not change regardless of how many graduate students we admit.

I think the argument that professors' salaries depend on exploited graduate student labor is tenuous at best (we are unionized!), but it's absolutely true that the department would not be able to accomodate the volume of undergraduates that it does without the (cheap) labor of graduate students.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matthew said...

I have to agree with Natalia to some extent. I'm an undergraduate at UC Irvine, and most of my lower-division courses are taught by graduate students or have a graduate student handling discussions. I don't think that without graduate students the professors I've had would falter -- they're incredibly capable individuals and I've had some who have foregone graduate students for whatever reasons -- but I think the ability to deal with the sheer volume of people going through programs today would be diminished. This makes me wonder, if this overproduction of PhD's was reduced by limiting graduate classes further, how the overabundance of students in classes would be handled. The only way I can see to do it would be to price education beyond the means of the average middle-class person to attain. Which, some could argue, is happening already but I think a policy of deliberately removing the spear carriers from the play, if you will, would only exacerbate it.

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