Thursday, October 28, 2010
Via Dismuke and Glenn Reynolds is a YouTube video that would be a lot funnier if it didn't depict the prelude to a common and tragic waste of youthful talent and enthusiasm. The video shows a college student asking for a recommendation to graduate school. She wants to become an English professor.
Of course, if you don't want to watch a cartoon, there's an article on overproduction of Ph.D.s by a professor who has decided on that basis to stop accepting new graduate students. Were the video not a cartoon, I'd just about have to check that it didn't star the author.
They walk into my office every spring, dressed in new suits (the men) or dressy pantsuits (the women). They are prospective graduate students, and they're nervous. We engage in a few pleasantries, and then I ask them what they want to do with their Ph.D.s. They all reply that they want a tenure-track job at a research university. I then ask them what they know of the academic job market in my discipline (social psychology). Smiles faltering a bit, some say they've heard it was rather bad at the moment; others say they don't know much about it. I explain to them that calling the job market "rather bad" was akin to calling Katrina "a bad storm" and that the market is as bad as I've seen in my 23 years as a professor. They gulp hard and then reply gamely that they are prepared to work hard to achieve their goals. I smile back at them and applaud their initiative. Inwardly I wonder if they truly know what they are getting into, that even if they work hard and amass an impressive vita, it still might not be enough to enable them to earn that coveted tenure-track job.Getting a PhD in any field is very hard work -- and not in the Boxerian sense, either! It also takes years.
I would go so far as to say that anyone considering a Ph.D. in any field -- not just the humanities -- think long and hard about it. Don't do this unless at least one of the following is true: (1) there is a healthy demand outside academia for doctorates in your field and at a good level of compensation; or (2) you have a very clear idea about what you hope to accomplish in your field and a solid alternative plan in case your academic career does not work out for some reason. (By an academic career "not working out," I include such things as people discovering that they really do not like academia, or that their interests have changed enough to make such a career less appealing.)
So think. And then, think again.
The below is from the same article:
... I think academia shares many of the classic elements of a social trap: It is in most faculty members' and departments' best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out Ph.D.s is one of the major metrics of departmental "success." Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues. I have served as chair or co-chair of 13 Ph.D. students in my career, a number I'm guessing is typical of most research faculty. Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn't sustainable. We're not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today's economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well.I wouldn't call any of the behavior above truly "self-interested," but people really do such things. I think the real problem lies in massive government encouragement of higher education creating a system of non-objective incentives like the one described above.
This is certainly not to say, "Never even consider getting a Ph.D!" It can be a very rewarding pursuit and lead to a wonderful career. (I often thought of one professor of my acquaintance that it was as if he had found a way to get paid to pursue his hobbies full time.) But if you must dive in, know the waters and know yourself very well.