The Duck of Minerva

Perpetual Hiring Difficulties II: Academageddon


27 April 2009

To continue a thread I started some weeks ago: If you’re thinking about getting a Ph.D., think again. Its a dysfunctional industry. From today’s NY Times op-ed pages, Mark Taylor writes:

GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

The Academy is not a healthy industry. Higher Education is doing well, as an increasing number of people are going to college and seeking graduate degrees. Despite this fact, the Academy itself is in trouble. Applied research is doing well, professional schools are doing well, but the Academy as we like to idealize as our home is rapidly going the way of the newspaper.

Future PhD students, do appreciate how you will be used and abused by this system:

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

When Taylor has to pick a field to throw under the bus to demonstrate the poor state of scholarship, he of course turns to Political Science and IR.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

Its our field that is again singled out as particularly useless. Now, granted, this isn’t all IR scholars, I’m sure that there are many out there doing interesting and valuable work on religion and politics, but the point is these people were marginalized by the field (considered not important enough) such that they weren’t invited to the meeting that Taylor attended.

One of Taylor’s suggestions I find particularly interesting:

Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

This echos, in part, some of Charli’s and my comments on the growth of digital media, Web 2.0 and the benefits of it as a potential outlet for knowledge beyond the traditional journal.

Can you see the day when a blog replaces a journal, or a digital video replaces a university press book? The Duck of Minerva as a ticket to tenure…. The utter absurdity of that statement is perhaps part of the problem.

Again, this isn’t to say that no one should get a Ph.D. However, it should serve as a wake-up call both to students and academics. Students: Know what you are getting into and go in with your eyes wide open. Academics: Don’t let the academy become the next Detroit Free Press–a dying industry covering a dying industry.