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The graduate-school boondoggle: Get a Ph.D. and never work full-time again in your life

November 22, 2015

From my latest for the Weekly Standard:

Celebrity STEM Ph.D.–but unable to land a tenure-track job
As late as 1970, more than two-thirds of faculty positions at U.S. colleges and universities were tenure-line, but now the percentages are reversed, with 1 million out of the estimated 1.5 million Americans teaching college these days classified as “contingent” faculty, the overwhelming majority of them working part-time. Parents who have shelled out or borrowed the more than $60,000 per year that it can now cost to attend an elite private college may be shocked to learn that their young Jayden or Sophia isn’t actually being taught by the Nobel Prize-winners advertised on the faculty but by shabbily attired nomads with ancient clattering cars who are wondering how to get the phone bill paid.
***
All of this means that every fall there is a desperate scramble among the young and the highly credentialed to garner one of the ever-diminishing entry-level tenure-track slots that still exist. A May 2014 report from the Modern Language Association (MLA), representing scholars in English and foreign languages, asserted that every year about 1,000 brand-new Ph.D.s in those fields emerge to chase about 600 new job openings. The report didn’t consider that those newbies are also competing with the 400 leftovers who had failed to obtain jobs during the previous year—plus all the leftovers still in the job market from the years before that. The humanities, where undergraduate majors are in steep decline, are famously overloaded with unusable doctorates, but as John Cooley learned to his chagrin, new STEM Ph.D.s fare only slightly better. Atlantic senior associate editor Jordan Weissman observed in 2013 “a pattern reaching back to 2001” of “fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work.” Postdocs in the sciences essentially consist of low-paid lab scut work. “Once it was just a one or two-year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills,” Weissman wrote. “Now, it can stretch on for half a decade.”
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As Kelsky—but almost nobody who is actually still inside academia—points out, there’s an elephant in this clamorous room of underemployed scholars. It’s the fact that from a supply-and-demand standpoint, graduate schools are simply turning out way too many Ph.D.s for the academic market to bear, depressing their wages accordingly. It’s a similar crisis to the glut of new attorneys that law schools were churning out in recent years even as law jobs paying enough to cover sky-high law school debt were disappearing. The law market seems to have corrected itself, with law school enrollments steadily plunging since 2011. That collapse hasn’t happened with graduate schools. Indeed, throughout the 2000s and beyond, new enrollments in master’s and doctoral programs of every kind continued to climb, even in the arts and humanities, where the job pickings are slimmest. In the fall of 2012, for example, new arts-and-humanities enrollments shot up by nearly 8 percent, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools. “It’s an ethical problem,” Kelsky said. “The Ph.D. degree in the majority of cases leads directly to unemployment. Five- or six-figure debt and unemployment.”
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It’s certainly true that professors love having graduate students around. They’re generally bright and motivated, they tend to do the assigned reading unlike many undergrads, and they typically don’t show up for class with hangovers. Graduate classes tend to be small, easy-to-grade seminars rather than huge lectures with hundreds of bluebooks. Grad students form an eager slave-labor force for research and teaching assistance, and their very presence on campus assures faculty and administrators that their institution is a serious scholarly enterprise, not a cow college in the middle of nowhere.
Posted by Charlotte Allen
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One Comment
  1. Lastango permalink

    What a smart piece! I hope it leads people to read more of your excellent work in the Weekly Standard archives.

    I’m glad you mentioned Obamacare, and the costs of providing benefits. I think there are two societal trends headed for a collision: (1) government forcing employers into social obligations to employees, and (2) the increasing efforts of employers to avoid those costs.

    Some efforts by employers are clear-cut. For example, some employers reduce their full-time staff to below-threshold numbers. Others outsource overseas, or bring foreigners here to displace American workers.

    But some are more subtle, reflecting the reality that automation becomes more attractive as human labor is made more expensive and politically dangerous. For example, Amazon reduced the number of workers in its pick-and-pack facilities by introducing racks that move to the humans that do the picking. Now, Amazon is testing robots that can do the picking too.

    Besides the traditional economic calculation of labor-vs-machine, there is something new in this: business has figured out it is being politically targeted by government because increasingly dysfunctional, bloated, broke governments at all levels intend to transfer their ever-growing (and increasingly diverse) social burdens onto the backs of business. So, IMO, Amazon is reacting preemptively to this long-term threat to its viability by getting rid of as many people as it can, and adjusting its business model to require less human input. No one will trace this back to predatory government… viewed from the outside, it just looks like nothing more than smart business to use automation wherever it will pay to do so. Nothing to see here, just a typical economic decision based on operating costs.

    Which brings me back to universities. I think the situation you describe will get even worse. I expect schools will covertly shift to a multi-tier system. Inside a given school, there will be dumbed-down educational tracks for students. These will operate on a shoestring, with fewer faculty, reduced requirements, and minimal support. The students following these tracks will be the under-performers who never should have gone to college anyway, and their degrees will be as useless as the graduates themselves. As a result, there will be even fewer full-time professors, and fewer adjuncts. The schools will win, and their “students” will lose time and money.

    However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The university gulag is imploding of its own weight, and its collectivist stupidities will collapse accordingly. The nature of teaching will change, and so will the roles. Grad student drudges will vanish – not because they are more appreciated and better compensated, but because they will no longer exist in their present form. So let’s not fight for their rights. That would be a waste of effort. Instead, let’s work toward the demise of the university system. When it goes down, it will take its slave labor system along with it.

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