Friday, May 07, 2004

"Overproduction" of Ph.D.s.

[Now that's an exciting title for a blog post. People who don't care about the insider stuff of academia and only come here for the Tolkien stuff will probably want to scroll down or come back tomorrow]

Erin O'Connor, whose blog I've read regularly and enjoyed a great deal for quite some time, has a long, semi-angry post in which she discusses perceived problems in academia, including but not limited to the use of adjunct faculty, the difficulties of the job market and the problems of properly rewarding good teaching. In earlier posts I've addressed some of these issues previously (treatment of adjuncts
; exploitation of graduate students ), and given the foot-high stack of papers to grade (35 annotated translations in Anglo-Saxon, 25 15-page Chaucer papers, with final essay exams from both classes and final objective exams in Anglo-Saxon still yet to come in), this isn't going to be as long or detailed a post. But I wanted to address something that I believed for a long time that I've only realized lately is a morally and ethically problematic position.

Prof. O'Connor states
It is agreed that there is a massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s, and that departments that are contributing to this massive overproduction of Ph.D.'s are grossly irresponsible toward grad students even as they serve their own needs very well (they get the cheap labor they need to get freshman comp taught, and they get a pool of smart, interesting students to whom faculty can administer narcissistically gratifying graduate courses). Usually, the solutions offered to this problem run along the lines of suggesting that fewer Ph.D.'s should be produced, that those that are produced should be better supported, and that "The Profession," as comprised of hundreds of discrete departments, should renew its commitment to the tenure track by, well, being very committed to it (this commitment in turn is organized around an ideal of hiring as many TT faculty as possible, cutting back on adjunct labor as much as possible, and placing as many newly minted Ph.D.'s as possible in TT jobs). It doesn't work, and it can't.
Note the passive voice in "it is agreed." I used to agree, and I'm pretty sure that most people in the profession would agree. And I now think that they are and I was wrong.

Why is there seen to be an "overproduction" of Ph.D.s? Because there are only X number of jobs available in the academic system, and there are some number greater than X people who want those positions.
Thus the competition for those positions is particularly fierce. And, given the laws of supply and demand, the pay for the positions will be lower and the work demands higher than they would be in other circumstances. Thus, the reasoning goes, if there were fewer Ph.D.s looking for jobs, those people both in the jobs and looking for jobs would be better off. Reduce the number of people getting Ph.D.s and everyone would be better off.

Well, except for the kids who want to get Ph.D.s and would now be blocked from doing so due to the planned reduction in the size of the labor force. Thus 22-year-olds who want to go to graduate school and study would have to be locked out, not for their own good, but for the good of others -- either those already in the system or those who would somehow be deemed to be more deserving.

In practice this would mean that a very few, "elite" programs would produce the next generation of professors. After all, if you're going to reduce supply, then you'd logically cut the programs that are "lesser" in some way. (Unless there were an across the board cut--i.e., each school agreed, cartel-like, to reduce their acceptance of Ph.D. students by, say, 10%--almost impossible to imagine; and if it did happen, it would lead to no school being able to create or build a new Ph.D. program).

Because I am not personally invested in the myth of the superiority of, say, the students who go to ivy-league schools, I am not very confident that such a restriction of supply would be good for the profession intellectually. But it would be an even greater moral disaster, since it would create even more of a "rich get richer" system than already exists. Furthermore, such a restriction of Ph.D. slots would lead to earlier and earlier decisions having greater and greater effects. For instance, now a person could start as an un-funded student in a Ph.D. program, still earn a Ph.D., do a great dissertation and get a job. Since under a regime necessary to significantly reduce the number of Ph.D. students, the un-funded students would be the first to go (since they would be, presumably, less capable -- on paper, at least -- than their funded counterparts), you would have very early "lock-in": screw up one class your junior year of college and that's it.

To me the biggest problem in the elite side of the American educational system is this too-early lock-in. Students are tapped as capable or not way too early in their development. Med schools now in some cases are judging applicants based on the second decimal place in their GPA (because so many applicants are 3.8x or 3.9x). This is ridiculous in that it shows nothing about the different abilities of the students except, maybe, who had a little dumb luck on a final exam in a sophomore organic chemistry class. It just as stupid when the process is applied in other fields.

Prof. O'Connor believes, as I believed while I was in graduate school, that schools produce Ph.D. students to solve labor problems. I am not so sure. I think schools produce Ph.D. students because there is a demand, by students, to become Ph.D.s, and teachers want to grant that demand. If you restrict the number of students who can attempt the Ph.D., you are doing an injustice to those students who are capable of doing the work, who might prove themselves later on, but who, at the time of admission to the program, don't look as good on paper.

A quick illustrative story:

A friend from graduate school came to my institution as part of a relationship (i.e., partner was accepted, my friend moved to the city due to partner). Friend was never deemed worthy of funding for a variety of what seem to me to be trivial reasons. Friend persevered. Friend ended up with the consensus #1 job in Anglo-Saxon his second year on the market. Friend has a book out, another under contract, and is on glide-path to tenure at Research 1 school. If Ph.D.s were restricted, I doubt friend would have been allowed to continue. Also, at the same time friend was continuing to be refused funding, another acquaintance was getting the "gold-plated" funding package: a named scholarship, no teaching requirement, extra research money. Said acquaintance never finished. Suggests that early identification of who is or isn't good enough is pretty haphazard.

Sometimes we should be a little Foucaultian about ourselves: reducing the "overproduction" of Ph.D.s makes guiltless 22-25 year-olds suffer the loss of their dreams for the benefit of other people. Fewer Ph.D.s would make for better lives and better remuneration and better prospects for those who already have them: as Foucault points out, self-interest dressed up as humanitarianism has a particularly bad record, historically.

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