Wednesday, November 23, 2005

 

How Economics Did It (as near as I can tell)

In the earlier discussion of the oversupply of Ph.D.’s, a few folks chimed in that Economics as a discipline seems to be immune to the labor surplus that hits just about everybody else. I asked the blogosphere how that could be, and got a few responses. (Stephen Karlson, of Cold Spring Shops, was particularly helpful.) Broadly, the answers I’ve received came down to:

- Greater external (non-academic) demand for graduates. The deregulation of the financial services industry led to the development of all manner of new financial institutions, many of which rely on academically-trained economists. If industry started snapping up English Ph.D.’s, that market would improve, too.
- The rapid rise of Business schools. They snapped up economists for their faculty, drawing from the same pool that economics departments did. Again, an external, local spike in demand works wonders.
- The inherent dreariness of economics as a discipline. It draws fewer people in than, say, literature or history, so the opening of the pipeline is smaller. Add to that the lesser popularity of Econ 101 (as opposed to Lit 101 or History 101), and you have less call for adjuncts to cover endless numbers of intro sections. Since graduate departments in economics don’t have to bring in as many t.a.’s to cover the intro courses, they don’t. (To be fair, much of the ubiquity of freshman composition derives from its status as a gen ed requirement. Very few places list econ 101 as a gen ed requirement.)
- A reduction in external ‘soft’ funding in the late 70s and early 80s led to a reduction in the number of grad students admitted, and the departments never really recovered.

Maybe. These are certainly more plausible than the ‘cartel’ theory, which would require both implausible foresight and an implausible lack of cheating.

Still, none of these explain why other disciplines continue to overadmit so drastically. The only compelling explanation I’ve seen, which several commenters volunteered, is that departments need the cheap labor of t.a.’s, whether there is any realistic prospect for those folks to eventually land faculty positions or not. (To the extent that’s the case, the ‘apprenticeship’ model for grad school is moot, and the argument against grad student unionization is equally moot. If they’re admitted primarily for their labor, then they’re workers, with a consequent right to organize.)

A few correspondents took issue with my Easter Bunny scenario (in which external forces, such as states or accrediting agencies, force a reduction in graduate admissions) on the grounds of implausibility. I rather thought that referencing the Easter Bunny was a way of acknowledging implausibility. Perhaps not. One of my pet obsessions, which regular readers are probably tiring of by now, is the lack of positive incentives (or presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia. As long as individual institutions see the economic benefit of overadmitting, they will. As professionals, I think we have a moral obligation to the next generation to disabuse it, lest it be abused. The most effective way to stop overadmitting is to stop overapplying. That’s probably whistling in the wind, overall, but we might be able to save a few bright young minds from going over the cliff. (Don’t mix metaphors like that at home!)

One commenter even accused me of being anti-education, on the grounds that surely no thinking person could possibly advocate fewer advanced degrees! I spat my coffee when I read that one. That’s just wrong. I’m not anti-education; I’m anti-abuse. The graduate education system in America has become abusive. It needs to be changed. Education is supposed to be about developing untapped potential, not about training for marginality. If we can get the structure right, then people will be free to go about their studies without worrying constantly about finding jobs.

Comments:
Interesting questions here. I have a few thoughts.

Well, first of all, economists pride themselves on "rational decision-making," so perhaps undergraduate economics majors get better advice from their advisors?

For decades, I've seen annual articles in economics journals about the job market for academic economists. Such self-referential research is actually a respectable professional activity in the economics profession, so economics professors advising undergrads do have access to very good information.

Moreover, many of the economics professors who teach undergrads do consulting in the business world as a sideline. (It is generally accepted practice to allow full-time economics professors to do such consulting work for up to one day a week.)

So, when an undergrad comes to a prof seeking advice about options after graduation, an economics professor is more likely than, say, a history professor, to have a clear and vivid picture of some alternatives to academic career paths. The economics prof is also more likely to have a rolodex of potential contacts in the business world, which could be helpful to the economics major.

Moreover, it's pretty common practice for economics majors, even those planning graduate or professional school down the road, to work "in the real world" for a few years after their undergrad degree before grad school. This gives them knowledge about alternatives to an academic life and contacts that can be helpful if they decide to bail out of grad school down the road.

It's my clear impression that fewer economics undergraduate majors wind up going directly to economics grad school out of "sheer inertia" and "lack of ideas of other good things to do with their degrees."
 
Put me down as "against more advanced education for the sake of more advanced education." Nothing wrong with folks getting a nice Masters in Liberal Arts while they pursue their careers, but to get a research degree for the purpose of teaching and doing research, then being unable to pursue that dream seems like the cruelest of jokes.

Much like the economy, education ought to serve us, not the other way around.
 
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