With Bubbles Like These...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

There has been quite a bit of discussion, at least in my Internet haunts, of a "higher education bubble," and of the need, as law professor and blogger Glenn Reynolds puts it, to "face up to what's going on before the bubble bursts messily." There's no arguing the point, but the following post at Instapundit should give anyone in grad school (or considering grad school) great pause:

100 REASONS NOT TO GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL: #55 -- There Are Too Many PhDs. "Colleges benefit from this situation, because there are so many well-credentialed people desperate for teaching positions that they will work for very little money. This would not be such a problem if the world outside of academe had more use for people with PhDs (see Reason 29). The fact that it does not is why there are so many people with doctorates who now find themselves working in part-time temporary teaching positions with no benefits (see Reason 14). . . . Perhaps most scandalous is what legitimate research universities have done to devalue the PhD, which is now awarded in fields ranging from hotel management to recreation and (most ironic of all) higher education administration. In the meantime, universities continue to lower standards for graduate degrees. The traditional American master's degree -- which once required a minimum of two years of study, the passing of written and oral comprehensive exams, as well as the writing and defense of a thesis more substantial than many of today's doctoral dissertations -- has been dramatically watered down. Will it be long before the PhD suffers the same fate?" [minor edits, links re-inserted from original post]
Doesn't that sound familiar?
[P]art of the cost of acquiring an education is artificially removed from the prospective student's consideration, making it difficult to reach a rational decision. Furthermore, the availability of such money economy-wide compounds the problem by making it virtually certain that anyone he competes with for a job will have the credential he is thinking about. Thus the cost of a very difficult undertaking is artificially lowered and the value of acquiring it is artificially raised.
A commenter to the 100 Reasons post linked above shows how this pans out in practice:
It's frustrating because now a PhD is seen as a reasonable requirement for positions that absolutely don't need one. So, if I'm toying with the notion of quitting grad school to pursue positions in admin or something, NOT finishing could in fact be a liability... even though my PhD would likely have no logical connection to that work.
Related to this is what I called the "wast[e of] talent and effort on a colossal scale," whose day-to-day consequences can be hinted at by the following piece of economic reasoning from an article titled, "At Home with the Kids and My PhD," by Dr. Troy Camplin, who had been scraping by teaching courses as an adjunct:
I cannot work to lose $400/month. Who can? Who would, even if you could? Thus, the decision was made to drop the four classes I had and to withdraw the children from daycare so I could stay home with them.
He now babysits by day, and moonlights as a hotel clerk.

I would strongly recommend pointing this blog out to anyone you care about who is considering starting grad school (particularly in the humanities) -- or finishing it, for that matter. While I would not categorically reject pursuing a ... terminal ... degree, I would urge anyone doing so to make that choice with open eyes and a very well-thought-out Plan B. And then wait, perhaps long enough to try something else, which the blog very sensibly points out can be done before starting grad school.

I'll close with a Top Ten list of reasons culled from the list to date (which is only up to #55), supplying my own titles.

Grad school (particularly in the humanities)...
  1. ... will probably take the better part of a decade off your life.
  2. ... represents a significant detour from reaching adulthood.
  3. ... incurs psychological burdens.
  4. ... can be very hard to shake.
  5. ... can make it difficult to land a good job.
  6. ... can cause fertility problems.
  7. ... can dramatically affect one's family life.
  8. ... can rob you of the most productive and enjoyable years of your life.
  9. ... results in many people speaking gibberish.
  10. ... can lay waste to one's personal finances.
Certain drugs have been banned for causing less harm, not that I advocate banning drugs.

Were graduate education chosen freely (i.e., without government nudging and encouragement), and paid for entirely by private funds, some do-gooder would have probably succeeded in having it outlawed by now -- not that it should be.

-- CAV


: Corrected spelling of "Glenn."


Troy Camplin said...

You practically have to publish a book to succeed with a Ph.D. ... hold it, wait, I DO have a book: Diaphysics. Still working at that hotel. I'm looking to upgrade to something that pays more, though. Like Home Depot :-/

Gus Van Horn said...

I did not know about that. Thanks for stopping by and mentioning that.