A Ph. D. in Hard Knocks?

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.

-- CAV


Mike said...

Great post, Gus.

The landscape for JDs is at least as bad as for PhDs... possibly worse, because universities may at some point rebound, while the commercial world is learning how to get by without spending as much on attorney services and may not need to return to them as broadly.

Worse yet, a JD is resume' poison. Any job interviewer assumes that you will run off for an attorney job at the drop of a hat, even if you tell them you hate ligitation and have no intention of practicing law in the foreseeable future. Joke's on them, because there are no attorney jobs out there to which a JD can run off! Which, in turn, means the joke is really on the JD once again.

I have a friend who is a salesman and proud of it, the kind you don't see much anymore. No slime, no tricks, he already passed that phase years ago and realizes now that salescraft and a product he understands well enough to stand behind are all it takes to be successful. He is, I kid you not, ONE CLASS away from his degree. He has 117 credits. And he has no intention of taking that class. (I'm trying to talk him into doing so by 2013 when his credits "expire" and convert to empty electives... just to have it done.) His rationale? "College isn't for everybody. Most people would be better off learning a trade or craft. All the career and none of the student loan payments."

Despite his situation being an example of a time where the ROI seems well worth it to just suck it up and finish school, I think he is right on target with his assessment of the necessity of college. Indeed, College is NOT for everybody, though we have had decades of governmental artifice, propaganda, and subsidy declaring that it is. What has happened with all that governmental "help" for education? Costs have skyrocketed while the quality of the end product has declined (a bachelor's degree is worth much less now in most disciplines than decades ago).

This is a subject about which much further and deeper exploration could be done. What happened to the social structure of apprenticeships, and why? What keeps people away from profitable trades that are outsource-proof? What happened (besides devaluation) to the BACHELOR'S degree, which used to be the measure of an individual who was well-learned across a broad array of disciplines?

I don't think we're too far gone to reverse some of the downward trends. In engineering, the bachelor's degree is still robust. My brother-in-law has nothing more, and he builds spacecraft for a living. Spacecraft! Propulsion components, specifically. I spend my JD days collecting the same amount of money to run legal analyses of laws that, in most cases, the world would work just fine without. It's kind of like the lack of horses in Vietnam. Something just ain't right about that.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Worse yet, a JD is resume' poison. Any job interviewer assumes that you will run off for ... at the drop of a hat..."

In that respect, a PhD and a JD offer a similar challenge to job seekers who have them.