Wednesday, May 19, 2004

"Overproduction" of Ph.D.'s, redux

I've received a surprising amount of email and a few web comments about the post just below, but I haven't been able to respond due to grades being due and baby not sleeping through the night (though he slept from 12 to 6:30 last night, so that was good; we're making progress).

One of the contributors to the comments on Elisabeth Carnell's blog, Dorothea Salo, wrote:
"I also think Drout mischaracterizes what the dream *is*. The Ph.D is NOT NOT NOT the terminal goal for (I would argue) 95+% of those who enter Ph.D programs. THE TENURED JOB IS THE TERMINAL GOAL. If that goal is out of reach for a substantial percentage of those who try for and/or achieve Ph.Ds, then Drout and his ilk are doing them a hell of a disservice, wasting a lot of their lives on a lie."

Carnell has already pointed out that it's not quite true to generalize so much. I can point to three friends out of my fairly small circle of close friends who are also Ph.D.s who got their degrees with no interest in a tenure-track job at a research institution. One wants to be a University President and needs to do the Prof. thing as a stepping stone, one wants to head the English dept at a community college, and the other is already Dean of the Graduate school and will almost certainly continue to move up in administration (and said friend is my age!).

But that's not really my point. I'm more concerned with this:
If that goal is out of reach for a substantial percentage of those who try for and/or achieve Ph.Ds, then Drout and his ilk are doing them a hell of a disservice, wasting a lot of their lives on a lie."

Setting aside the erroneous personal approach (I'm not sure what my "ilk" are, but if they teach at teaching colleges like Wheaton, have no graduate students of their own, and don't rely on any graduate students to teach classes in their departments, I'm not sure that the condemnation really holds water), I think there are real intellectual problems embedded in this statement.

"That goal is out of reach for a substantial percentage of those who try for..." Yes, it is, numerically. But we don't know which students it will be out of reach for. All the proposals I've read -- eliminating Ph.D. programs if they don't place 40% of graduates in tenure track jobs, etc.--assume that one can tell very early on who is good enough. But that's silly, given how much dumb luck is involved in the job search. For instance, you'd think candidates at the Ivies would be "better" than those elsewhere. That hasn't been our experience at Wheaton. While it's true that someone with an Ivy Ph.D. will probably get more consideration at a research-oriented school, such a person is actually at a disadvantage for us, since he or she is probably too specialized, lacks teaching experience, lacks ability to wear many hats (though this may be the way said candidates put together their vitae and letters; personal I reject all Ivy candidates who don't mention teaching in the first paragraphs of their letters.). So in terms of applying for jobs at small liberal arts colleges that are teaching-focused, a person from a "marginal" institution (like my own degree from Loyola-Chicago), has at least as good a chance as one of the more privileged.

More importantly, I'm not sure how it is a "lie" to allow people to continue in a Ph.D. when the job market is bad. Everyone in graduate school knows the job market realities--we talked about it constantly, from the day I arrived in my second M.A. program (my first M.A., in journalism, was different because no one in the program wanted to go into academia). The sound-bite was: "I can't believe you're specializing in medieval. To get a job in that field you have to wait for someone to die." To which I replied: "But a lot of medievalists are ancient, and maybe there will be a plague or something." This was on the first day of graduate orientation.

Now In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood argues that graduate students mentally overvalue their chances of success, and he may be right, but I think that's no different from people who want to go into medicine, law, art, music, acting, tv, film, or publishing. In every case, when you know something about the inside of the field, you quickly learn that there are trade-offs between the enjoyment of the job, the difficulty of getting one, the money, the hours, the politics, etc., that make the grass greener somewhere else. For really desireable jobs, in any field, the competition is fierce, as you'd expect it to be, since the reward can be so great.

I object to the idea that people have to be forcibly prevented from entering that competition for their own good, and so that they don't 'waste' their lives. Our sorting mechanisms at every stage are inefficient and unjust, but there is somewhat less inefficiency and injustice at later stages -- when the person has a publication record, teaching experience, etc. -- than simply trying to judge a person's potential based on an undergraduate transcript. Perseverence, bullheadedness and desire, sustained over a long period of time, are in my mind better indicators than a bunch of A's in undergraduate courses.

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