Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Yet More Evidence That I Don't Understand the Press

Isn't this story actually good news?

It's being covered as if it's somehow a bad thing that fewer people are taking the GRE this year. (The GRE is the sort of SAT-for-grad-school.) It's a pretty good predictor of the coming year's grad school applications. Typically, enrollments boom during recessions, but even though this recession has hair and teeth, applications are actually down.

People, this is fantastic news.

If all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about the plight of adjuncts is actually starting to get through on the Admissions end of the pipeline, then there may be actual hope for eventual improvement. Fewer people hopping into the sausage grinder may mean less sausage down the line.

Yes, there's the predictable “but we need educated people!” objection, but that strikes me as hopelessly naïve. Right now we turn down hundreds of applicants for every faculty job (or, more accurately, we did when we were still hiring at all). That doesn't smell like a labor shortage to me. If the number of disappointed applicants drops by half, it's still indefensibly high. To argue that it should be even higher strikes me as simply perverse.

In most of the classic academic disciplines, it's devilishly hard to get a full-time academic job. This is not news. What I haven't been able to figure out is how it is that we've been trumpeting this basic fact from the hilltops for a decade or more, with no discernible effect on the number of people entering the field.

Could it be that they're finally starting to connect the dots? Could it be that, even in a recession, the prospect of spending 5-10 years trying to get credentialed for a field with overwhelming odds of underemployment is perhaps less attractive than other things?

(Admittedly, it may be more a matter of increased debt aversion than raised consciousness. That's okay; I'll still take it.)

As regular readers know, I'm a fan of an educated population. This isn't about hoarding knowledge, or returning grad school to its roots as a province of the elite, or engaging in a rearguard action against diversity, or any other sinister motive. It's about treating people fairly. Continuing to shunt bright young minds into an already overcrowded pool just doesn't make sense. If some of those bright young minds are figuring that out for themselves, all the better.

Of course, certain graduate programs – I'm not naming any names, you know who you are – may respond simply by lowering their standards. All those sections of Freshman Comp aren't going to teach themselves, after all. And certain professors – again, I'm not naming any names – will do whatever they need to do to maintain their status as members of 'graduate' programs, even if there's no demonstrable need for their programs.

Still, the beginnings of a Great Refusal suggests that some basic truths are starting to get through. The optimist in me can't help but smile at that, and hope that it continues.

I'll personally believe it's good news when I see how the grad school applicants are distributed.

I still believe we need more American grad school applicants in the hard sciences, not fewer. All points about the jobs not being available in the evergreen disciplines are well-taken, but the jobs are there in the sciences, and if Americans don't get PhD's, those jobs are going to the PhD's that are there.
Still jobs in the hard sciences?? Everytime we advertise for adjuncts, we see more scientists asking to move from academic research spots because there is almost NO HOPE of moving above a lowly research drone anymore. My husbands big, high-tech company is laying off Ph.D. engineers (again) and hiring temp contractors or moving the work to the Phillipines and Taiwan. This is not just the recession - this is the future.
To Anonymous: there was a report on Inside Higher Education about this recently (late November??), and it looks good. Comp sci and physics are up, the humanities are down. Social sciences look to be within the margin of error around last year's figure.
I'm not sure why Dean Dad thinks we have been trumpeting the fact that the job market for (non-STEM) Ph.D.s sucks "for the last decade". If that's what you're seeing, DD, more power to ya. But that's not what I've seen.

I did get the news, though, because I was careful enough to buy that LINGUA FRANCA guide years and years ago -- remember LINGUA FRANCA? -- and that's why I eventually wound up doing clinical psychology grad school instead of my original discipline.
God yes, I remember Linga Franca!
But I am that generation who was tempted into grad school by that 1989 report (Bowen report? can't remember the exact name) that warned that waves of professors would soon be retiring and how will we fill those jobs?

We all know how that turned out.

I know three hard scientist well (one has a tenured teaching job, one moved to Sweden to take a job, one got an MBA to take a job in industry. All had been lowly research drones/post-docs.
I'm guessing (just guessing) that the majority -- probably a large majority -- of people who go to grad school, especially for masters programs, are going to improve their work situation. I'm 30, and half of everyone I know is in grad school working on a masters -- to advance at work. I know almost no one in grad school hoping to enter academia (more of those folks seemed to go right on from college).

I expect the fact that GRE numbers are down suggests that people are paralyzed with the uncertainty of the economy, which isn't a good thing for the economy recovering. Though the real warning signal (or sigh of relief) will be when grad school applications come around this year and we see how they're distributed.
To the last commenter--ah yes, I was lured to grad school by that same report. If only I'd done CS instead of English. Sigh.

I, too, ready this report as good new, though I agree with others I hope the downturn is in flooded disciplines and not those where we need folks. I think the press may be reading this as a) potential "brain drain" and b) bad news for schools that actually make money off of graduate students (MBAs, etc.).
Is this an across-the-board trend or one limited to GRE-based disciplines? The article only briefly mentions that GMAT numbers are expected to be up. I wonder about areas that require the content-specific GRE (my understanding is that math departments are sometimes this way), LSAT or other, similar tests.

Also, I'd like to echo the desire to see how the applicants are distributed. Are we seeing a decline in PhD-seeking applicants who are likely to seek faculty jobs or masters-seeking applicants who will be looking for industry jobs?
I'd like to cast my vote in with this quote from the article:

"Many people these days are experiencing 'freezing behavior' where they are so uncertain about their next move and the state of the economy that they aren’t making any changes, she noted. 'It could be that this has created a temporary pause where we would have normally seen a flow to graduate school. That the flow hasn’t started doesn’t mean it won’t.'"

Certainly, the MBA ticket to Wall Street has lost some of it's luster. So, there might be some career path shifting headed people's ways. And, that's probably good. But, in fields like mine (fine art) an MFA is more or less entry-level for $25K non-profit jobs ($25.1K on the coasts). A BFA isn't likely to earn you more than a graduate stipend would anyway. Thus, if you're already out there with a BFA, now is the perfect time to hide in grad school.

I think I'll wait and see before I read much more into all this.
I think rather than being a response to the general situation in academia it is a response to declines in reasonable loan money - especially at the graduate level.

It makes more sense to me that people are basing their decision on the immediate (no financial "aid" so I'm not going to school) rather than an outcome six or more years out.
A couple points:

1. The goal in earning a graduate degree, Dean Dad's protestations to the contrary, is not always and exclusively to earn a terminal degree and enter academia.

2. The GREs are only one form of Graduate Exams. As mentioned, other options include the GMAT (which according to US News and World Report has seen an increase of 10.4%) and the LSAT (up 6.2% according to the same article. http://www.usnews.com/blogs/on-education/2008/12/08/gre-participation-down.html)

3. The more interesting bit(and a view apparently not being considered) is assessing the disparity given the characteristic differences of the two types of exams. Is this really a "decline" or a shift in interest? Remember, the GMAT is generally required for admission into Business Schools for both Master's programs (MBA and MS programs) as well as PhD programs.

Perhaps the lack of interest in the GRE's and the increase in interest in the "professional" graduate exams might well show a more "income oriented" approach, and may be the beginning of the leveling that so many have called for.

Let's assume that generally people earn PhDs to move in to academia. This shift could signal an increase in B-School faculty (perhaps driven by the relatively larger salaries in the B-Schools) and perhaps then a market correction as the B-School candidate pool increases (lowering salaries) and the other areas decrease (resulting in an increase in salaries)
Having taken both (more than once), and being a faculty member involved in the admissions proces at both MS/MBA and PhD levels, I offer the following observations:

1. The GRE is perceived to be harder, smarter people take it, it is harder to get a high percentile score.

2. Fewer people take the GRE, and will only take it "if they have to."

3. Fewer programs are requiring the GRE, since a) fewer people take it, and b) the GMAT seems to tie to undergrad GPA better (Extra Credit: Why would we expect the GMAT to correlate better to undergrad GPA?*)


Fewer and fewer programs are requiring the GRE, and fewer and fewer people are taking it.

(* fewer and fewer domestic US students are pursuing science/technical undergrad degrees; GPAs are lower in science/technical degree programs; we got us a serious case of regression to the mean)

How ironic my magic verification word is "blesser."
My theory is they just have so much debt when they finish their BA that they can't afford to apply to grad school. ;)
Also what are people who want intellectual stimulation really supposed to do? If you're not interested in nursing or business, you're basically doomed as far as making any sort of real living financially. So why not go to graduate school? I mean, what kind of jobs should people be clamoring to prepare themselves for? I don't see all that many stimulating, thoughtful-- and high paying jobs-- just waiting for smart students to decide to do instead of studying British Poetry.

Even if I could be 18 years old and start over what would I study? I don't like germs so nay on medicine. Law is boring and there are too many law students too. Computer work is being shipped overseas. I have no interest in business. Might as well keep teaching a bunch of sections of ENG 101. It pays the bills, I can try new approaches each semester, and I don't have to work all that hard compared to most people around the globe.
I truly enjoy your blog, thanks for sharing your candid wit!

As an applicant for the Fall 2009 semester (and former GRE sufferer..) I will say, if nothing else, this is good news for me--less competition! ;) Or so I hope. Unfortunately, I think some fields--such as mine--won't see much of a change.

I'm surprised to hear that numbers are down, however. Trying to register to take the GRE was a joke, and I was literally given the last spot available on the day I chose--weeks in advance.

I have not taken the GMAT, but if it is less expensive than the GRE, that could contribute to the noticeable decrease in GRE takers. Some (albeit few) schools in my discipline specified "GRE or GMAT"; The GRE's price increase to what, $140 or so for the test? Plus another $20 per school to send out the scores electronically? Makes it a ridiculously expensive choice for struggling undergrads. If you're applying to ten schools, you're looking at at least $340, not including the schools who oh-so-graciously insist on two official copies. At this rate, a stipend would practically serve to reimburse me my first year. (Alright, exaggerated, but still. Reimbursement plus a bonus for sleepless nights and near-heart attacks over USPS-lost applications.)

The commenters seem confident that graduate students often don't intend on entering academia... I can tell you that I do, and many of my friends who are fellow-applicants or first-year grad students do. The discussed perspective concerns me, yet at the same time, the institution I'm presently at is still searching for a suitable full-time professor for the exact position I would be gunning for in 6 years. So, perhaps there is hope.... for the brilliant and well-published.
"the LSAT (up 6.2% according to the same article."

This may actually be the more depressing bit, because:

"Perhaps the lack of interest in the GRE's and the increase in interest in the "professional" graduate exams might well show a more "income oriented" approach, and may be the beginning of the leveling that so many have called for."

There are already too many lawyers, the profession is straining at the seams as traditional methods of advancement and compensation fall apart and substance abuse and mental illness rates remain higher than just about any other profession, and law school is FREAKING EXPENSIVE. Law schools justify this by selling the idea of the six-figure starting salary, but the fact is that even coming out of a top-15 school, not that many students secure those jobs. (In most places, the average plumber makes more than the average lawyer, although the opportunities for career and income advancement in law are greater.)

So we have a glut of highly-educated professionals with six-figure debt, and more flooding the ranks every year, which creates a problem similar to the adjunct problem -- why promote senior associates to partner when you can fire them (typically right about when they're starting a family and have a mortgage) and hire yet more freshly-graduated lawyers at half the price? Same problem, only with higher salaries and quite a bit more substance abuse.

If people are applying to law-school because they're career- or income-oriented in their decision, they're likely to be sadly disappointed, and to graduate into a crappy economy with enormous quantities of debt.

(And, as you may or may not know, the ABA forbids full-time law students from working for pay more than 20 hours per week, and advises (but does not mandate) first-years not to work at all. So your options for paying your way through school are very limited.)
Computer work is being shipped overseas.

Computer employment is higher today than it was during the height of the dot com boom. Yes, there are consulting companies overseas building software, but more and more companies are bringing their software development work back to the US after finding that cost savings due to labor were lower than the higher cost due to problems with the software they were getting back. Also, the major Indian companies like Tata are starting to build large groups in the US like the Japanese automakers build factories here.
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