Wednesday, May 28, 2014
It’s the Little Things…
"The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong," said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. "What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths."Departments should be more clear with students from the start that tenure-track jobs are becoming harder to find, Mr. Berman said, and should also explain to students what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector.
Your move, Chronicle.
I worry just how much of that ignorance gets passed on to PhD students at top universities. He also seems to think that a PhD is enough to teach at any high school in the country.
But it is also true that tenure-track jobs at research universities are exceedingly scarce and will be difficult to find, which means that recent PhDs who seek academic careers will have to “settle” for jobs that are much more teaching-intensive. Unfortunately, the research universities do not prepare their students very well for the academic career options that are really out there.
The current glut of new PhDs is largely to blame for this mess. This is not likely to change anytime soon, because faculty at research-intensive institutions are very reluctant to even consider proposals to reduce the numbers of graduate students that they accept, even when faced with the limited career options that are out there. This is not really done in order to preserve academic standards, but is primarily done for selfish economic reasons.
These faculty members depend greatly on their graduate students, who do most of the work on their research projects. A high-level tenured faculty member at a research university often does very little of the actual day-to-day research on their research projects—most of that work is done by lower forms of life such as graduate students, post-docs, or even by assistant professors on the tenure track.
It is often true that just about all that senior faculty members actually do is sit in their fancy offices and write research grant proposals. Just like a candidate running for political office, a large fraction of their time is consumed by fundraising, leaving little time left over for actual research.
Based on the prestige earned by the work done largely by their graduate students, these senior professors spend their time on the government dime flying back and forth to prestigious conferences held in exotic locales. It is often true that they add little more than their names to the papers written by their graduate students. As a friend of mine once said—graduate students do most of the work, whereas the senior professor who is the principal investigator on the grant gets most of the credit.
This system is basically corrupt and it encourages the granting of more and more PhD, even when faced with the grim job prospects for most of them. Under this system, the output of graduate schools isn’t really papers, books, and grants—it is new PhDs.
I don't know if you have ever seen PhD Comics, but a couple of them from the last few months sum up the fact that the primary concern of the lead investigator is staying ahead of the cycle needed to keep the grant money flowing:
and two of the most recent ones, with id number 1712 and 1710.
That reality (where your job is as much about talent management as it is about generating new ideas that get grant funding) is why some are happier at a PURELY teaching college than one that is a wannabe research institution (high teaching load and an ever increasing demand for research).