Sunday, September 30, 2012


Midtier Doctoral Programs

Why do people continue to apply to, and attend, nothing-special doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences?

I’m certainly not the first to ask this question, but I still haven’t heard a good answer.  And this piece reminded me that we could easily ask the same question about nothing-special law schools.

Apparently, in the face of catastrophic placement statistics, New England Law has continued to raise its tuition at impressive rates, to expand its classes, and to lower its LSAT scores.  Now, for $42,000 a year, you can attend a law school whose recent grads report a median annual salary of $50,000, and only 25% of the class even had a salary to report.  

As an academic, I was immediately struck by the obvious parallel to graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines.

The situations aren’t entirely identical, of course.  Law schools don’t need students as t.a.’s, and humanities grad schools don’t generally charge $42,000 a year per student.  (If they did, I’d expect to see enrollments crash.)  Law school is generally much shorter than a Ph.D. program.  But the basic concept of making money off the largely-false hopes of idealistic young people is the same.

At least the prospective lawyers have the excuse that the market only collapsed a few years ago.  People working on older information may not know how bad things have become.  But folks in the liberal arts fields have known for decades.  

Why do people still rush in?

I have a few hunches, but that’s all they are.  

One is denial.  Yes, others may struggle, prospective students think, but I’m special.  After all, look what a good student I am!

My response to that is that a whole lot of adjuncts-by-default thought the exact same thing, and with just as much reason.

Another is a felt lack of alternatives.  If you aren’t strong in a technical field, and sales isn’t for you, and your family doesn’t own a business, law or grad school can seem like a good idea.  If you don’t have any better ideas, I can see the short-term appeal.

But it isn’t a short-term decision.  Grad school in the humanities -- at least at the doctoral level -- is a solid five-to-ten year commitment.  Law school is three, but the debt is forever.  And with every passing year of low hiring, the backlog of people with degrees and looking for work just gets bigger.  Yes, if you’re a superstar coming out of Harvard, you will probably do quite well.  But if you’re a pretty good student coming from an average program, I really don’t like your chances.

In my own case, the decision to head to grad school was based on a combination of a lack of any better ideas, denial, and some faith that the Bowen report’s prediction of a “great wave of retirements” wasn’t complete crap.  At this point, the Bowen report has been consigned to the ashbin of history, but the other reasons still hold.

Yes, it’s possible to cobble together good and purposeful careers outside of the traditional academic track.  I like to think I’m a poster child for that.  But I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind when they go.  

I understand the issue from the supply side.  New England Law makes good money by continuing to recruit, and graduate programs need the prestige and cheap labor that grad students provide.  But I’m still struggling with the demand side.  

Why do bright people continue to jump, voluntarily, into the sausage grinder?

So am I insane for applying to mid-tier public policy PhD programs?

Why do people continue to apply to, and attend, nothing-special doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences?

I think "stupidity" is the blunt answer, and "information asymmetry" is the nicer version. The latter could be rephrased to your "I’m special," answer, or, alternately, that people genuinely haven't done the simple research that will show the reality of the academic job market. This seems to be the case for the people who I talk to about grad school in the humanities.

Now I simply point them to "What you should know BEFORE you start grad school in English Literature: The economic, financial, and opportunity costs," since that's more efficient than trying to explain the problems every time someone asks.
"I’m special" Ha! You answered your own question right there: They come from Mediocre LA Colleges (MLACs?) where the customers are in charge and the mostly adjunct faculty !! don't dare tell them they are not really A students just because they got A grades in HS.

By the way, you have benefited from the retirement boom and the relative lack of people in their 50s in academia. People 5 years from retirement don't apply to become Dean somewhere. The problem you see at your own college (which also exists at ours) probably made it easier to get the admin jobs that led to your current position. You caught the leading edge of that wave, and I see a series of bright Presidencies in your future if you are willing to move.
This is not in any way to challenge DD's larger point, but.

I do think that there are a fair number of students who enter PhD programs in evergreen disciplines who have no intention of becoming t-t professors. Many of these are high school teachers who will have greater opportunities for administrative positions if they have a degree beyond the MA, but they aren't interested in getting an Ed.D. Mid-tier programs don't (heck, even some upper-tier programs don't) necessarily offer full funding to every student who is enrolled - at least not in English. Thus, it's entirely possible for an English teacher, say, to go through an MA and a PhD program at a regional university without TA responsibilities. They never have any intention of seeking tenure-track employment, but for whatever reason, they want the PhD.

Further, it's worth noting that outside the NE, it is entirely true that candidates with mid-tier Ph.D.s might have a strong chance of being hired within the region of their degree, even if they are not nationally competitive. Now, clearly, this would only be the best of the best of those, and only at non-selective liberal arts colleges, non-selective regional universities that in no way expect to move up in status, and community colleges, but, depending on where you're looking, it's entirely the case that a "local" candidate might seem preferable to a "better" candidate.

Again, this isn't to dispute the larger point, that these are all the exceptions and not the rule, and that attending such a program with an aim of a t-t position at a university is probably pretty dumb. But. Just doing away with these mid-tier or lower-tier programs, I'd say, wouldn't even make a dent in the national job market situation, as I don't actually believe that these people are even applying for jobs nationally, in most cases, at least not in English.
One reason for good students getting mired in average PhD programs with not great career prospects that seems to get overlooked is the rise of primary and secondary education.

Over the last few generations, comping high school has become more and more necessary a goal. Go back 100 years and most individuals didn't even complete primary school, let alone high school. Factory and agricultural workers didn't see much need for education, with some good reason.

Slowly, education became more a requirement. The Baby Boom generation came along and not only completed HS but did all sorts of post-secondary schooling. Having a four year degree in Ancient Greek all of a sudden was a plus to employers.

Now it's practically assumed students will finish high school. This means that everyone is in school, full-time, for most of their life. Some students get really good at school and everything that comes with it: test taking, sucking up to teachers, studying, the structure of classes. In a way, schooling is quite easy for particular individuals that are good with structure and organization. After all, all the expectations for every course has to be spelled out on day one in a rubric. Generally life isn't like this, but most people do ok at school with such structure, and some actually excel at it.

For some individuals (like myself), adulthood seems like a tough transition away from the orderly, friendly life of school and the seemingly random hustle that is the working world. There aren't clean lectures and there aren't answers at the back of the book. There's plenty of uncertainty, and things start to cost money. All of a sudden, those Elizabethan poetry classes look pretty appealing. After all, there's a rubric to them, even of the prof is a dick to half the class. He's going to retire in a few years anyway too!

I'm not saying that formal education is a bad thing or should be discouraged, but in a way it has made the academic market worse. Instead of looking broadly, students look to the familiar. Instead of trying to generate an income, students opt to pay for tuition. TAing another intro calc class may be monotonous, but it's also predictable, maybe even enjoyable. This line of thinking leads to the ideas DD mentions in his post, of stupidity and feeling special.
As a bright person who did not go get a Ph.D. and is currently unemployed in my field (teaching high school math - I have an M.Ed.), don't underestimate the amount of TERRIBLE ADVICE these prospective Ph.D. entrants are getting from most of the people they know outside of academia (as well as possibly inside - I remember the pep-talks professors at my undergrad SLAC gave trying to get me to go get a Ph.D. in math about what a great job it was to be a math professor).

Well-meaning people constantly ask me why I'm not teaching at the college level. I have this conversation at least once a month with someone trying to "help" me find a new field to look into due to the total meltdown of k-12 funding in my area. They always seem surprised that (a) that requires a different degree than the one I already have and (b) there aren't any stable full-time jobs in math anyway (well, not enough to make going back to school for a Ph.D. a reasonably good idea), which is why I became a high school teacher instead in the first place.

Someone in my position more inclined to try to please their family (most of the people making these suggestions are relatives) and/or less inclined to research job prospects on their own would have signed up for it's-better-than-being-unemployed-because-at-least-my-family's-off-my-back-U by now, particularly in math where getting an assistantship is fairly plausible.

The hell of it is, they're right: I almost certainly would be a pretty good college math professor. I love teaching students how to do proofs and don't mind teaching pre-calc and calc every year (I didn't mind teaching high school algebra pretty much every year, either), so in some magical job-containing alternate reality I'd love to teach at a SLAC.

In this reality, I'm thinking of going into banking.
To echo the previous comment, I think feeling like you don't have many options is a major factor. I entered the post-college job market in fall 2008 (great timing!), and while I managed to support myself, my income was under the poverty line. Observation over time told me that the two ways to move up to "full time" and "not desperate" were to wait for years for promotion within one organization and hope nobody with an MA applied from outside, or just get an MA already. And then I learned that you had to pay for MAs, but PhDs were free, and many of them give you an MA along the way. So I figured, "hey, I won't do debt, but I can do free and drop out after the MA!"

I was admitted to a grad program (top school, but program a little weak in my area), my income almost doubled, and I got my MA with no debt - so far so good. But around that point, I got married and wasn't willing to move out of our depressed state for work, so I didn't drop out, and that is a major reason why I'm working on my PhD. Still not planning on being a professor though.
i would bet that the real reason is that there is hope that a PhD in the given field is going to net more money than a master's degree.

"how can i make more money with a master's in pre-civil war american history? get a PhD in pre-civil war american history..."
Here in Big City, there are several marginal PhD programs, some of them offered by for-profit schools. The academic standards are quite low, and some of these programs don’t even require the student to write a thesis that can be published in a peer-reviewed journal. The thesis that is required is often little more than a glorified term paper, requiring little or no original research. Some of these are Ed.D programs. Some of these programs are designed for teachers here in Big City’s public school system, so that they can get a piece of paper that says they have a doctorate so that they can get promoted and perhaps move into management. These people are certainly not seeking a tenure-track position in a college or university somewhere, they are just trying to get their tickets punched so that they can be promoted and moved up in the K-12 educational bureaucracy.

I sometimes moan that I was a sucker—why did I go through all of the woes and hassles of getting a real PhD from a real school when I could have gotten one of these cheap degrees for a lot less time and a lot less effort? In the present job market, the two types of degrees would be worth about the same, namely, just about nothing. I often quip that my PhD and $1.75 will get me a ride on public transportation here in Big City.

Dr. Crazy makes a good point @6:31pm. If the nearest "top tiet" school for a subject is 1000 miles away, the number of applications for a tt CC job is not nearly as high as you hear about nationally (meaning close to NYC) and most will be from nearby state universities.

Anonymous@9:39pm is right about bad advice, especially about college teaching. You do not need a PhD in math to teach undergrads. Most tt CC profs and full-time with benefits U instructors in this area have MS degrees. You can also get a job with an MEd (in math ed) if you have 18 hours of grad credit in real math, although that depends more on the market and experience.

Further, most of those math jobs are not teaching calculus, even counting "business" calculus. Most are teaching "college" algebra and below, the same classes you are teaching now. Only a tiny fraction of college math credits are at or above calculus, and really good HS teachers with the right degree can have an advantage at a CC.
Oooh, nice typo for "tier".
Why? Because they continue to get terrible advice from the people they have come to trust the most - their professors and advisers in their undergraduate programs!

I teach at a "less-selective" regional public. Approximately 55% of our faculty are non-tenure-track. Median salary among the full time, non-tenure, faculty is in the mid 30s. Not exactly an exciting career prospect, and not what our students think of when they imagine themselves becoming professors. Most of our students come from working class backgrounds where they are either the first in their families to attend a 4-yr college, or the first in their families to have the luxury of focusing enough attention on school to do really well. These are kids who do not know much about the academic labor market, nor do they have the socio-economic networks that would expose them to reality. These students don't come from money and will inevitably end up going into (further) debt to finance their grad school aspirations. So if they're serious about going to grad school, then they desperately need solid, realistic advising from their professors.

Yet, what do my (tenured) colleagues do? They aggressively advise our stronger students to apply to doctoral programs left and right! It isn't just that the kids think they're special - my colleagues seem to think our students are special, too. And while I agree that many of our students *could* be wonderful researchers and teachers, the fact is that the same is true for any number of under-employed adjuncts in my field right now. Our students deserve to know this and nobody else in their lives is going to tell them, if we don't.

In fact I have gotten in trouble on occasion, for telling smart, hard-working, and naive students that grad school isn't going to vanish, that they should take their time and really do some careful research before deciding to go on to a PhD program, and that they should talk to recent grads from a top-flight nearby R1 institution about the job market these days.

My colleagues tell me not to dishearten our students. I tell my colleagues to get a grip on the brutal realities of being part of the adjunct nation.

I'm unclear as to what you think the better choice would be, for the population you've stipulated. Learn to be an auto mechanic?

Be a stock boy at Macy's? That was the only job my number 2 son could secure with his BS from a snooty liberal arts college. And Macy's steadfastly refused to let him work more than 20 hours per week, four hours per day, because then they'd have to offer benefits. It was hardly worth the commute. So I can't blame him for playing the law school lottery.

These folks are past the MD window, but they want to be "professionals." As hopeless as the PhD might be, in our minimum growth economy it looks to be the best of a very bad bunch of choices.
Someone in my family recently got his doctorate from a mid-level program. Well, maybe it was even a slightly-above-average program, but it was not a superstar program. His field is philosophy.

Mostly, he is unemployed save for an adjunct class here and there. So he made a bad career move for sure.

Why? Well, it wasn't ignorance. This guy's father has a doctorate and works in academia and never pulled any punches regarding philosophy job prospects. And, even if you don't have that kind of context, the first and only thing most people say to you if you're getting a doctorate in philosophy is, "you'll never have a job." He heard it constantly. Folks outside the academic sphere can assume that if you're getting a Ph.D. in English or History, you'll teach English or History - even though they don't know the system and how hard that actually is, that is an intuitive guess that makes you sound vaguely employable to folks you meet. But nobody ever assumes there are jobs for philosophers. My relative knew what he was getting into.

But, he did it anyway. And he loved it. The guy really and truly loves reading about, writing about, and teaching philosophy. And you know, a small part of me kind of envies him that. I've always been employed and employable, but I've never loved my work. I may well hobble into retirement never loving my work, even though my income is stable. And since I have two kids to support, I feel like this is the right decision.

But I can see the attraction of spending a few years doing what you love, damn the consequences, even if I'd never make that choice myself. Especially if you're young and single and have only you to answer to. You can survive on that TA stipend, if just barely.

And as someone pointed out upthread, if you don't have many other job options and don't go into debt to get a Ph.D. (my relative didn't)it's probably better than eeking out a low-wage job. You'll have a better quality of life as a student and can at least feel like you're getting somewhere and accomplishing something; our society values "Ph.D. student" more than "McDonald's cashier" even if the latter has a more certain job path.
Most of our students come from working class backgrounds where they are either the first in their families to attend a 4-yr college, or the first in their families to have the luxury of focusing enough attention on school to do really well. These are kids who do not know much about the academic labor market, nor do they have the socio-economic networks that would expose them to reality.

And according to some of my colleagues, the most progressive thing that we can do is aggressively encourage them to get a PhD. How else will we get more PhDs from underrepresented backgrounds if we don't encourage our students to go to grad school?

There's a noble goal in there somewhere, but when you look at the potential downsides for real people with real situations to think about, I'm queasy about it.

Mind you, I'm in a STEM discipline, so the downsides aren't (usually) as bad as for a humanities PhD, but still. There is a very real opportunity cost of getting a PhD vs. going into the private sector and getting an MS (and possibly an MBA) part-time (and partly or wholly on the employer's dime).
"There is a very real opportunity cost of getting a PhD vs. going into the private sector and getting an MS (and possibly an MBA) part-time (and partly or wholly on the employer's dime)."

Yes, there is - but in an economy where new college grads are consistiently struggling to find jobs (non-STEM majors, anyway), "going into the private sector" is not some flip-the-switch decision. If they can't get a private sector job in the first place, or can only get private sector jobs in retail and food service, then the opportunity cost shrinks, or appears to.
I realize that it's an especially rough time for new grads. However, my understanding is that, historically, there have often been eras where new grads spent time surfing couches and working in crappy jobs. That time in crappy jobs was also time spent desperately reading ads and talking to anyone and everyone and developing a broader, more flexible view of what they might do, until finally they found a job better than food service. It might not be white collar work, but it was something that they could live with.

Time spent in grad school is generally not time spent broadening one's view of what one might do in the private sector.

I'm not trying to romanticize the lean years, I'm just saying that there is an opportunity cost to not being out there job-hunting, no matter how crappy it might be at the start. And when the recovery comes, the first new jobs will mostly go to people who have been pounding the pavement and doing crappy jobs and freelance and hustling for even the most meager opportunity, rather than people who spent time honing themselves for the culture of academia.
My advice for students who don't get into a top tier is this: During college, get internships in the areas where you want to work. Whatever your college job is, make sure that is something you are interested in doing after college or is something that demonstrates skills that are important to employers (my sister spent a summer managing a pool at a summer camp that hosted parties for local businesses– not related to her current job but it showed that she could recruit, schedule, and deal with drunk people or minor injuries in kids without having to call for help.) If you are in a STEM discipline, do undergrad research. In engineering, do as many coops as you can. The professional network from your internships / work should allow you to leverage your way into a job that’s better than retail. Work this job for a minimum of two years. Bonus points if this is a job that allows shift work (allied health, security) or allows you an independent business (accounting, sealing driveways, landscaping, childcare, consulting). THEN apply to grad school and use this other business on the side to pay bills. Do not go into debt. Graduate with options so that if you don’t get the job of your dreams you still have something you can do for employment. You’ll feel less used and betrayed because unlike your classmates, you have experience and a resume that gives you options. You'll also know at a gut level that there's life outside the ivory tower and your choices will be made in that light.
"So I can't blame him for playing the law school lottery."

Uh . . . that's not what DD was talking about.

So, learning for its own sake is totally off the table?

I know it would be naive to ignore the question of how one's going to support oneself after graduation, but there's quite a lot of presumption in the way this post is framed. Specifically, the presumption that the problem is people getting useless degrees, rather than most people lacking the economic freedom to pursue what they want to pursue. The decline of funding for the humanities takes us straight back to the nineteenth century, when it was the (nearly) exclusive domain of a wealthy elite that could afford not to worry about income.
Marriage. Nothing like love to ruin a young girl's life. :-)

I was in a good program in French, with a ton of grant and fellowship money. I mean, a ton of it: enough to support me in a middle-class lifestyle all the way through to the last year or two of the Ph.D., at which point I was promised an instructorship.

Then I decided to marry a young lawyer. Hey. One corporate lawyer is worth two in the bush!

I joined him in Phoenix, where I found Arizona State University did not even offer the Ph.D. in French. And the few graduate-level courses offered were conducted in English! I hadn't been in an English-language course in my major since the end of my freshman year.

Dead end there.

I switched to English, the path of least resistance. If I'd had any sense, I would have switched to accountancy. But obviously the fact that I had an undergraduate degree, a Phi Beta Kappa key, and many tens of thousands of dollars in award funds indicated that "any sense" was not one of my strong points.

At the time I started, academic jobs were plentiful. By the time I finished (my mother died in the interim, I had a baby, I taught interminable numbers of exploitive freshman comp courses, and I learned to function as a corporate wife -- itself a full-time job), you couldn't get a job for love nor money...certainly not in the ninth-largest city in the land.

The Ph.D., however, served me well in the real world. I ended up in magazine journalism, where I was always paid better than my contemporaries thanks to the degree. And for a certain kind of man, a woman with a doctorate is a type of trophy wife.

My husband's practice was well established. It made no sense to ask him to leave a healthy practice with one of the most prestigious firms in the American Southwest to follow me from one-year gig to one-year gig in search of a low-paid tenure-track job. As a practical matter, the presence of absence of t-t job opportunities was irrelevant, where I was concerned.

So. Why did I go to a third-tier school? I was a woman. In those days, that was enough said.
" So, learning for its own sake is totally off the table?"


Yes, it really is.

Remember, you're not talking about learning. You're talking about a Ph.D. You're talking about tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars. This isn't learning for its own sake. This isn't finding yourself. This is f****king up the rest of your life if you make the wrong call.

And I think that DD has it right here.
The silver lining might be that people will rediscover the fact that, in the humanities, you can be a life-long learner and researcher w/o being employed in academia. Yes, it may be a part-time occupation. Yes, it will be harder to gather with colleagues at conferences and in the faculty club. The upside will be that the audience will be broader (not just a few grad students) and the struggle for tenure will be absent.
And then they want their student loans forgiven.
You have to keep in mind, however, that getting a doctorate degree online does not guarantee a huge increase in your income. The reason for this is that there are quite a few positions out there that actually require a PhD degree. You should know also that academic jobs that necessitate a doctorate usually pay less than jobs that are not related to academics. It is therefore important that you carefully choose the field of study that you would earn a doctoral degree in.

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