The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Because we needed another illustration of the absurdity of thinking about academia in economic terms

December 27, 2010

Courtesy of our friends at The Economist:

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Well, duh. Getting a Ph.D. is not, and should not be thought of as, a rational economic decision. It’s a vocation, something you do because you can’t not do it. Lots of people who get Ph.D.s should not, and lots of institutions over-produce Ph.D.s because they have lost the plot, and come to regard Ph.D. students as indentured servants who can teach the undergraduate students; in that way the article’s analysis is spot-on. But the implied solution — that we ought to re-think the Ph.D. in terms of the non-academic job-market skills that it can equip one with — is, I would say, silly and absurd. “Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world,” the article somewhat sarcastically claims, committing the basic fallacy that The Economist (and: economists) always commit and reducing the social to a mass of individuals; the proper parallel to art and culture is not the Ph.D., but theoretical knowledge. Do we really want to live in a world without anything but lifestyles selected by the almighty market?

The point is driven home with the observation that “doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.” “Bad” how? In terms of financial return? Yes, granted. Don’t do this unless you have to, your road is a lot easier and more lucrative if you don’t. But some of us have to, since we’re fond of preserving our souls intact, and that’s not a rational decision. Does the academic system need work? Yes, it does. Ph.D. training has to emphasize teaching more, and colleges and universities generally have to stop talking so much about the increased earning potential of their graduates as if that was why one went to college (that might be a motive, but it’s not the reason — not a philosophically defensible one, anyway, and now we cue Socrates to say his bit about “the unexamined life”). And academics need to get away from the misleading delusion that it’s their research that matters and not their teaching; theoretically-informed scholarship spurs thinking, nothing more and nothing less, even if various mundane spin-offs sometimes arise from such scholarship more or less by accident. Neal Stephenson, as usual, gets this right.

The bottom line: don’t go down this road unless you can’t not do it. The double negative here is deliberate, since the value of the academic vocation is a negative one: it’s a refuge, a fallout shelter, what Nietzsche probably would have called the cocoon within which the philosophical spirit can survive, since we now live in a world where the figure of the priest doesn’t play that role in the same way as it once did. Come shelter with us if you need to; I at least will endeavor to keep the light on and the door unbarred as long as possible. Economic rationality be damned.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.