Wednesday, January 23, 2008


One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A couple of alert readers sent me links to this article, in which someone noticed that Gov. Spitzer's (NY) plan to hire 2,000 more full-time professors for the SUNY system – which sounds great in itself – also includes a plan to bring in 4,000 more graduate students to support them.

Apparently, Gov. Spitzer believes that a stronger SUNY system will help the state economy both directly and indirectly, and that raising its academic profile is the way to do that. The grad students are understood to be support staff.

The grad students are understood to be support staff.

They aren't understood to be, say, apprentices. Outside of a few specific fields, there's simply no shortage of graduate students or Ph.D.'s. If anything, there's a terrible glut. Anyone familiar with the higher ed employment stats – or the blogosphere – knows that there's a backlog of doctorally-qualified people looking for full-time jobs. Worse, unless I'm fundamentally misreading the proposal, the hiring would be concentrated outside the fields that need it the most. Since the point of the proposal is economic development, rather than a jobs program for academics, it would mean more money for, say, certain applied sciences, and nothing at all for the evergreen disciplines. In other words, it won't do anything to help, say, folks in English or history.

In that light, the influx of new graduate students makes sense. They work the labs. Hotshot scientists won't go anywhere where they can't get good grad students to fill out their labs. The grad students are there for cheap labor and a kind of bait. Their job prospects, when all is said and done, are quite beside the point.

I don't mean any of this as a criticism of Gov. Spitzer. I mean it as a criticism of the folks who've taken his proposal as some sort of jobs program for academics. Over the long term, it will almost certainly make the existing imbalances worse. If anything, it shows yet again the gap between the dialogue going on in higher education and the dialogue outside it. Outside, the swelling ranks of the freeway fliers simply isn't taken as a major problem. In fact, to the extent that folks outside higher ed care about keeping costs down without their kids having huge classes, they may embrace the adjunct trend (short-sightedly, in my mind, but still) as part of the solution.

In the comments to yesterday's post about the dialogue gap, Sherman Dorn made the point that one of the drivers of fast tuition increases has been cost-shifting from the public sector to the students. To the extent that's true, it implies that there's an eventual limit: once the entire cost has been shifted, that's that. And it's certainly true that the share of many public colleges' budgets covered by tuition – as opposed to state or local aid – is higher than it was ten or twenty years ago. But if that were the major issue, we wouldn't have seen the tuition inflation at private colleges that we've seen at publics. SD's observation is correct, but I'm not sure it's as central as he seemed to indicate.

I suspect that the larger cost-shifting issue is within the public sector itself. Increasingly regressive tax structures have dumped an ever-larger portion of the costs of the public sector on the middle class. They (we) are getting cranky about that, but many don't quite stitch together the cause-and-effect.

There's also a cost-shifting issue by generations within higher ed. We can maintain the highly-paid, senior tenured positions for people with seniority by underpaying their juniors. That's really what the adjunct trend amounts to. We grandfather the first group in, and pay for it by exploiting the hell out of the groups that come after. Other unionized industries have dealt with this through tiered contracts; academe has dealt with it by denying the younger generation contracts at all.

All of that said, I applaud Gov. Spitzer's recognition of the economic value of the creative class. I just hope that we understand which problem it might actually help solve, and which it certainly won't. This is probably a good move for New York, but after the initial surge, it would actually make an already bad situation for academics that much worse.

I wish I had enough wisdom 6 years ago to know that, despite being an academic star, my prospects at any kind of job security at a decent salary (more than $20,000 a year) in my field were worse than dismal. The sad truth is that no matter how good you are in grad school, no jobs means no chance at employment.

In retrospect, I would have chosen a field more marketable in the private sector, and stopped my grad school journey at the Masters level. I don't regret the additional education I received, but in cost-benefit terms it simply has not been worth it.

As a grad student, I never complained about the pitiful wages
and long work hours; after all, I loved what I did, and I viewed it as paying my dues. However, I did expect that if I worked hard I would land a good job after graduation, and that has simply not happened.

My advice to anyone thinking about graduate school beyond the Masters level is to think in terms of the entertainment industry: there are many, many people with talent, but very few jobs to go around. If you are good, either at acting or deconstruction, you will probably be able to get by doing what you love. But the odds of any sort of recognition or financial security are definitely stacked against you. If you can live with this, pursue your dream; if not, find a way to make your dream more marketable and save yourself a lot of disillusionment in the long run.
DD said: "I don't mean any of this as a criticism of Gov. Spitzer."

But I won't refrain. This is wrong-headed. He should've said he'd hire 2,000 more f-t,t-t professors and been done with it.

Now he's gone and stuck his foot in it. A forward-looking graduate student, one-year on the prior side of the incoming initiative, ought to work like heck to create a graduate student union in the system. Maybe that'll go a little way toward teaching the exploitive class that grad. students ought not be viewed as unmarried helpmates. As DD said, being an apprentice is perfectly acceptable: that's what you go to graduate school for. Otherwise, hire a bunch of research assistants. - TL
By the way, you might've titled this post: "2,000 Steps Forward, 4,000 Back."
Okay, I am confused. If the Governor has, as you seem to infer, targeted the engineering and science disciplines, then the grad students that are hired will be in the highly desired fields of sciences and engineering. No problem there. Right?
as a suny student, Thats the suny system for you, always cutting corners! I'm just glad someone has stepped in, making sure that it doesn't affect the quality of a student education!
I'm currently a chemistry student at a smaller SUNY school that isn't a doctoral granting institution. I haven't read much into his detailed plan other than the recent state of upstate speech, but you are correct to state that this isn't about helping academics get jobs. This proposal is a good thing for New York. First, it adds 2000 well paying jobs to areas which are struggling. I suppose there's also a good chance that increasing the numbers of professors could increase the enrollments of these schools as well(although then you wouldn't be lowering class sizes), which would bring further money and jobs(real support staff) to these areas.

Again, I haven't read the specifics of the plan but if, as DeanDad suggests, this money is focused towards science, it is likely that many of the grad students will go on to find employment in existing biomedical companies various upstate regions or to create new startup companies, which will bring much more money to the area(that will come from venture capitalists, not middle-class taxpayers). So even if this isn't helpful to each and every individual graduate student, it certainly is a good thing for the SUNY system and for New York as a whole.
A Phd in math, science, or engineering is marketable. Many research jobs look for some post doctoral work in addition to a Phd. Dow wants people that have taken lots of chemistry schooling. Also, grad school can pay well. When I got my BS in engineering in 2000, my best offer from a LSU was for 13k / year, room, board, tuition assistance. It wouldn’t have cost me anything to go get my Phd and I would have had some spending cash while I did it. A friend of mine was getting 20k and not paying a dime for his tuition. Maybe that’s changed in the last few years as the tech boom slowed but at that time there was a clear demand for someone with a BSE and the schools were competing with each other and industry. I know that this isn’t true for history or English Lit but…well why is that anyone’s fault but your own?

I think his proposal is a good one. Why is it New York states problem that a lot of people chose to do something they love instead of something that pays well? You really wanted to teach. Well, so do lots of other people so it’s not that hard to find someone who wants the adjunct job. Lots of people have to make choices between ‘something they love’ and something that pays well.

I really doubt that industry won’t have room for 4000 Phd’s in technical fields. That’s the key thing. A Phd in chemistry is in demand for more than teaching chemistry. Other than personal satisfaction, the only place I know that wants a Phd in Literature before they’ll hire you is a college.
I was struck by TL's distinction between hiring research assistants and providing graduate students. In some fields there may be a disconnect between the two. In my engineering field, though, there is typically a one-to-one ratio between grad students and research assistants, and the topic of the research assistantship matches the PhD dissertation topic. Student and faculty research interests and efforts are aligned, and teamwork occurs as a result.

Most engr PhDs go to industry, particularly when they aren't graduating from an upper-tier school. Adding 4000 grad students certainly will create more potential to have technical grads stay in the area, especially if they create links during school. The local economy will have to be prepared for international students, though, which can be a barrier for hiring. The domestic market may be okay, even in its current economic state. A BS engineer in my group just received an offer for upwards of $60k/yr and is considering it low, since it's in a place with an expensive cost of living.

Here's another cost to NY of the program: hiring an engineering or science faculty member costs more than the salary. If these are at R-1 SUNY campuses, then there is also a startup package for lab equipment, which can range into the several $100k. No startup package, no fancy new professor.
Here's another cost to NY of the program: hiring an engineering or science faculty member costs more than the salary. If these are at R-1 SUNY campuses, then there is also a startup package for lab equipment, which can range into the several $100k. No startup package, no fancy new professor.

True, but the school will also expect that fancy new professor to start writing grants. I'm an adjunct prof at one of the main upstate SUNY campuses, and several of the recent hires have walked in with major funding. With overhead rates at about 58% these days, a $1M grant will result in the institution getting a nice fat $300,000 check. That'll pay for a nice startup package, that will. Plus, the startup funds are a one-time expenditure, whereas that prof will keep generating the overhead for a couple of decades, at least.

I'm inclined to agree that the extra grad students are fine, as long as they are being pointed toward industry, not academia. Several upstate areas are trying to get a foothold in the tech sector, so producing a crop of engineers and industrial scientists is not a bad move. (That is, as long as they don't get their degrees and then promptly leave the state.)

DD's exactly right; this is not a jobs program for academics. It is an attempt to help New York industry, especially in Western New York, transition into a more viable economic model.
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