Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thoughts on Graduate Training

In response to yesterday’s post about the seeming invisibility of the social sciences, a commenter asked me why, if I value the social sciences so highly, I strongly advise against people getting Ph.D.’s in them.  Shortly after that, I saw Michael Berube’s essay about graduate admissions, in which he kinda, sorta suggested that they should be cut back, but not unless the departments are willing, and it’s complicated, and anyway aren’t we all “awesome.”  

A few thoughts.

First, no intelligent observer can deny that the production of doctoral candidates in the evergreen disciplines far exceeds the demand for them in academic positions.  According to this piece in yesterday’s IHE, that’s even true in many scientific fields.  (The headline suggests that tenure-track positions are the true “alt-ac.”)  But degree inflation isn’t limited to academia; as the New York Times pointed out yesterday, many employers now use a college degree as a first-level screen for job applicants, even for jobs that don’t use any college-level skills.  It’s enough of an employer’s market that they can.  The story profiles a law firm in Atlanta in which even the gofer has a four-year degree; among the benefits is a healthy crop of college football rivalries to make office parties lively.

So there’s that.

That’s why I see no contradiction between saying “students would benefit from taking Intro to American Government” and “I wouldn’t encourage my kids to do what I did.”  The former speaks to the intellectual richness of the subject; the latter speaks to the institutional economics of higher education.  Those are not the same thing.  I can simultaneously believe that many students would benefit from a thoughtful examination of politics, and that it’s unlikely that tenure-track jobs in poli sci will suddenly explode.  I love jazz, but I have no illusions that this year it will outsell Bieber.  

A more useful line of inquiry, I think, would be to look closely at the structure and assumptions of graduate education, given the institutional economics of higher education in America.  Does it really make sense to continue to produce so many people whose training is geared so strongly to tenure-track jobs that are increasingly scarce?

Over the long term, which is getting shorter all the time, I don’t see the current system as sustainable.  Law schools are making some painful adjustments, and I don’t see why graduate schools should be immune.  But in the meantime, some pretty basic reforms seem in order.

First, every graduate program with an academic focus should include some sort of introduction to the institutional economics of American higher education.  It’s simply inexcusable that they don’t.  Most programs have some sort of first-year seminar; that seems like a perfect place to do a basic introduction to the realities of the profession.  If that leads to a certain amount of attrition, as disillusioned students pursue greener pastures, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  And if it doesn’t, at least the students will have a more realistic picture of what’s out there.  Yes, research universities are conspicuous and, in many ways, attractive.  They’re also atypical.  Unless you’re coming out of a top-ten program, you’re likelier than not to land elsewhere.  

Ideally, that course could take both “macro” and “micro” perspectives.  From a macro perspective, what are the academic employment trends since, say, 1970?  From a micro perspective, what do actual entry-level jobs actually pay?  What do they actually require?  Do they resemble the idealized image many high-achieving undergrads chase when they go to grad school?  Let’s tell some truth.  If Berube is right -- and I think he is -- that “we have to secure the future of institutions that permit freedom of inquiry and freedom of thought,” then let’s take a good, hard, serious look at what it means, and what it requires, to secure those institutions in this political economy.

It may have been reasonable to skip the introduction to the profession in the boom years, but the boom ended forty years ago.  It’s not reasonable anymore.

Second, and I can’t believe this is still controversial, stop overproducing.  Yes, that may lead to a loss of “access,” but in a setting in which so many people can’t find anything more lucrative than adjuncting, I have to ask “access to what?”  Some graduate programs should shrink, some should re-focus, and some should phase out.  After forty years of this, it’s unethical not to.

Finally, and again, I can’t believe this is controversial, pay some attention to teaching.  At both community colleges and teaching-centered four-year colleges, the faculty positions that do exist go to people who teach well.  (To its credit, English has done a better job of this than many other fields, including my own.)  Grad students pick up messages from their advisors; if teaching is considered nothing more than a distraction from research, those grad students will have to do some serious unlearning before becoming useful outside of a few rarified places.

A more realistic graduate education system might result in fewer dashed hopes, better teaching, and more people with enough sense of how things actually work that productive reforms would be likelier to ensue.  I see all of those as positive goods, even if they aren’t quite awesome.