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.

Excellent, Excellent, Excellent.

A big problem is that many fields have no idea what the overall employment trend has been for the last 40+ years, and many departments have no idea where their non-faculty graduates went. They are unprepared to teach such a seminar.
Are you assuming that PhDs aren't a useful preparation for anything outside academia (or that failing to carry on researching is a failure?).

I would have thought that a PhD might be potentially be useful in business, industry K1-12 teaching.

Even if only as an indicator of intellectual heft, ability to write a book,persistence (much as a liberal arts degree functions as an indicator).
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

Not just employers…

Back when I taught community college, the cosmetology program (that's hairdressing and makeup) didn't admit anyone that didn't have a calculus credit in high school.


Not because students needed calculus to learn hairdressing, but because they had ten times more applicants than openings, and it was an easy filter, and a way of getting them students who 'knew how to work hard'.
Berube's *actual* conclusion: "But I do want to say one thing about the fields of expertise we have created and validated in the humanities over the past 30 or 40 years. They have been, on the whole, pretty awesome. That's a technical term, so let me explain. I have never been among, and indeed I have never quite understood, the people who believe that the rise of the study of race, gender, and class represented a vitiation of the humanities. Nor do I see the rise of the study of sexuality or postcoloniality or disability as an indicator of a decline in the intellectual power of the humanities. Quite the contrary. ... This work is so valuable—and it offers such sophisticated and necessary accounts of what "value" is.

And yet when we look at the public reputation of the humanities... we can't avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn't valued by very many people, on campus or off.

The alt-ac community poses a timely and bracing challenge to that attitude....But in the face of that challenge, this is what I worry about: The department that most emphatically and open-mindedly embraces the idea of graduate training for careers outside academe might just find itself the department whose graduate program is eliminated in the next strategic plan. That is something that deans and provosts will have to consider before we can have any serious discussion about rethinking the purpose of the Ph.D. in the humanities."

He didn't just wind up with, "anyway aren't we all 'awesome.'"

But on to your actual points:
1) Do you really believe that the only measure of value should be the money that one can generate from an enterprise? (the Bieber analogy)? Is that the way that we should determine the future of higher education, or who should be able to participate in post-undergraduate education? If so, cool. But that's not taking some moral high ground, and it's not in itself an ethical position.
2) Regarding the "introduction to the institutional economics of higher education," idea, I do think that this is happening in English, if not in other disciplines. I know that it was a hot topic when I entered my PhD program in 1997, and I know that it is emphasized even more so in graduate programs in English today. I'd respectfully suggest that by the time students enroll in graduate school, it's too late. Depending on their instructors, never get The Talk as undergrads, or they don't get it early enough.(Note: one of the biggest problems I have is convincing my students who transfer from CCs about the state of the academic job market. Their CC advisers and instructors *don't* give them The Talk: they encourage them to Follow Their Dreams.)
3)Overproducing isn't,in English, about providing access to graduate education. It's about having instructors for undergraduate courses required for all college students - by accrediting agencies and by state laws. Composition. If you can come up with a way to staff all of the necessary comp sections while radically reducing the number of grad students, I'd love to hear that plan. Also, since the recession in 2008, the very good (say, top 50) programs in English *have* dramatically reduced their admissions. In some cases they have halved them. So.

I don't disagree that the system needs reform. I don't think that Berube disagrees either (though of course I'm not speaking for him - I think that's clear from a careful reading of his piece). I'm just questioning your post. What exactly do you propose? That isn't already happening? You've seized on Berube's "awesome." You offer nothing new or revolutionary.

(It seems obvious to me that one solution is for States not to defund higher ed. But that is a pipe dream.)
A PhD is useful preparation for K-12 teaching but only if a person can shed some of the trappings of graduate school. 9-12 teachers need to know content and the more deeply you know your area, the better you can shape curriculum but we must be pedagogy oriented and people oriented, not content focused and people averse. And no one wants to hire someone who thinks the job being offered is beneath them. When we interview candidates with the PhD, they are up against a lot of well-founded suspicion that they are going to be impossible to work with if we hired them.
To continue Dr. Crazy's #3-- overproducing in science labs isn't about graduate training, either, but to have cheap labor to do the bulk of your experimental research. And, of course, that continues into the postdoctoral years for a good deal longer than it should.
You're proposing that a system reform itself by cutting off large sources of its own revenue and influence? Purely for the good of those it serves? Because it's ethical?


Come the hell on. Systems resist shrinkage with all their power, ethics or no. It will only happen when it's economically necessary, and not a microsecond before. (Which will probably be in the near future.)
To those who suggest that PhDs go into teaching: Please understand that a PhD is not generally adequate training for teaching k-12 in the US for several reasons.

First, nearly all states require formal teacher certification, and a PhD doesn't count for that. I looked into this at one point in my graduate training and learned that I would have to, essentially, start all over again and either get a second bachelor's or a master's in teaching, despite my terminal degree. Given the weak job market for teachers and the lack of state funding for anything not strictly related to NCLB, the notion of returning to grad school and racking up more debt wasn't very attractive. The fact that the public's favorite sport in the last few years seems to have been teacher-bashing didn't help, either.

Second, a PhD doesn't teach you to teach. A PhD is a research degree. Some of us pick up some teaching skills along the way, but as DeanDad notes, in many PhD-granting programs this is ancillary at best.

Third, there is a world of difference between the daily work realities of higher ed and of the K-12 world. I like to think I'm a good college teacher, despite my lack of formal teacher training/credential, but I don't know if I'd be a good middle/high school social studies teacher and I certainly would not be a good elementary teacher. Among the many factors, I think it would be difficult (understatement!) to deal with my charges' parents on a routine basis. I'm also not so sure I'd be good at having a principal. PhD programs in social sciences, and the general reality of working in academia, reward a certain kind of independence that might not be such a good fit with the realities of K-12 life.

So sure, content-wise, PhDs should be experts in our fields and that might translate into a necessary condition for good teaching, but it definitely isn't sufficient.
"A big problem is that many fields have no idea what the overall employment trend has been for the last 40+ years, and many departments have no idea where their non-faculty graduates went. They are unprepared to teach such a seminar. "

No, the majority or overwhelming majority of their Ph.D.'s have not gotten tenure-track jobs since the 1970's. Any job posting leads to 100 *qualified* candidates. The people running the departments by now are people who graduated in this ere; the 1960's Ph.D.'s are now in their sixties or seventies.
Barry@6:05AM -
The majority of PhD graduates in physics have NEVER gotten tenure-track faculty jobs EXCEPT in the early 1960s. Before 1950, the fraction going to academia was even smaller than today.

It is irrelevant if the 1960s PhDs are retired or dead; what matters is whether the current faculty know and understand the relevance of their training to their current job is the exception rather than the rule. As Dr. Crazy pointed out, many are aware of this and explain reality to students. I think Physics has better (and very long-term) data on the job situation, but I have my doubts whether other fields (history, English, poli sci) have similar data. Some seem unaware that CCs hire anyone.
Dr. Crazy- as far as staffing comp, can't you have more advanced undergrads TA? (there may be accreditation issues there, and I'm not proposing a system with no oversight by somebody with a PhD, but it seems the obvious solution).

Anonymous (5:15)- I think you are right. That said, I also think the K-12 system would probably benefit from having more autonomous teachers. I know that's against the dominant cultural flow right now (blah blah "standards" "accountability" "NCLB" blah blah), but maybe the problem isn't that PhDs are poor prep for K-12 teaching, but that the K-12 environment is poor for independent intellectual types.
This comment has been removed by the author.
"First, every graduate program with an academic focus should include some sort of introduction to the institutional economics of American higher education."

This is a really interesting suggestion, one that would be really great to be implemented. If a PhD really is a "professional" degree, it would be responsible to address what the job market looks like in reality. It may also help some candidates avoid wasting years of their life by adjusting expectations.

A possibly more interesting side effect of such a seminar, if instituted across across the board at American universities, would be inter-school comparisons. How would the seminar look at Nowhere Special State versus Stanford? How many pure math PhDs would suddenly take an interest in econometrics (or even vice versa)? How would brand new graduate programs approach this seminar, versus older programs with strong reputations?

It could open a big can of worms, or add a level of legitimacy to the whole enterprise.
I'm the one who raised the question "why not teach with a PHD".

To clarify: I'd never assume a PhD qualified anyone to teach without teacher training - around a year's post graduate teacher training is standard in New Zealand.

We've had some great PhD teachers who got a PhD for the in depth love of their subject, and taught because they wanted to share it.

Also in New Zealand it's also standard that teachers develop their own lesson plans and curriculum, working towards externally moderated exams/assessments which are standard across the whole country.

From comments here (and, to be fair, an old Happy Days episode!) I'm under the impression that sometimes teachers in the US have to use standard lesson plans?
Another thing...really I don't think anyone should be in front of a classroom without some Adult Teaching training!
RJ, suffice to say that there's often not a lot of room for independence in American K-12 classrooms. Also, the American job market for teachers (in non-math fields, especially) is very weak. My college, which is regionally known for producing teachers, has been actively discouraging students from pursuing teaching degrees in fields like English and Social Studies for close to a decade. For a variety of reasons including shifting demographics, NCLB, and state-level cuts to education funding, many US K-12 school districts are not in a hiring mood.

At any rate, this is not to say that PhDs can't do other things, although I don't think teaching in US public K-12s is an obvious option. The real issue, as noted in the original post, is that most social science PhD programs don't train you to do other things. They train you to work in a research University setting, as if there were jobs for all in such a setting.

And in fact, any hint that you (as a grad student) might even consider doing otherwise can get you defunded, or at least disfavored. Professors become less willing to work with you, advise you, co-author with you, etc., if they think you might not go on to a research career. I've seen it happen. People who ended up starting their own successful policy evaluation & consulting business, people who opted to go on to government service, and people whose intended academic career trajectory included elite liberal arts institutions or teaching schools, and people who opted into quasi-administrative career tracks as opposed to research tracks were viewed as "failures" in the PhD program I was part of (a top-20 political science program).

This is ironic, because most of my grad school peers who "failed" in those ways have gone on to stable, happy careers with decent incomes, while many of us who "successfully" took the traditional academic/research route now work for low pay and with little job security as adjuncts. The percentage who actually went on to those high-power academic research careers was actually very small, and incidentally, doesn't seem to be strongly correlated with quality of work or basic ability.
One of the brilliant things that Stanford has done for it's STEM PhDs is create a PhD MBA track that is an incubator for new businesses. I can think of several local biotechs that were started by folks with this combo of training and experience - their companies were started with VC money while they were still in grad school. The problem with grad programs now is that they teach no transferrable skills and, in the case of science, effectively remove you from the job market for about 9 years. That's hard to come back from unless you had industry experience before your Ph.D. If more people were encouraged to have "real" (non-academic) part time employment while in grad school, the lack of opportunity for Ph.Ds in academia would be more defensible. As it is though, Anon 5:46 is spot on - those who look outside research are "failures" while those who live the life of the mind starving in their garrets are "successful". It takes time and a lot of intestinal fortitude to get over that culture.

A mid-tier grad program should provide students with the Ph.D and the ability to do meaningful part-time work while in school if they really want to benefit their students.
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