Tell it like it is.

24 04 2011

Reason 55 of 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School is a particularly important one*:

There are simply too many PhDs produced every year for the higher education establishment to absorb them all, despite the absurd degree to which it has absorbed them into jobs that have nothing to do with traditional research and teaching. Today, universities hire doctors of philosophy to be in charge of their dormitories, alumni associations, and police departments.

Colleges benefit from this situation, because there are so many well-credentialed people desperate for teaching positions that they will work for very little money. This would not be such a problem if the world outside of academe had more use for people with PhDs (see Reason 29). The fact that it does not is why there are so many people with doctorates who now find themselves working in part-time temporary teaching positions with no benefits (see Reason 14).

I have a particular interest in this one because I went back and forth with Marc Bousquet about a year and a half ago on precisely this subject. His position (which I don’t disagree with) is that it’s not so much a numbers thing; it’s a structure of the profession thing. Mine is:

Every tenured professor in America could get radicalized tomorrow, but if history graduate departments keep churning out more Ph.D.s there’s still going to be a lot of pain before the ensuing revolution ever takes effect.

In other words, restrict entry AND restructure. Don’t just depend upon one or the other.

If you watch Marc’s video above, you’ll see that the surplus of Ph.Ds (and dearth of jobs) was a surprise to his interviewee. If you’re reading this, it’s no longer a surprise to you. When you think about it, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

Therefore, your job, should you choose to accept it, is to tell the truth about academia whenever you have the opportunity. People who go to grad school (particularly in the humanities) need to go in with their eyes open, not with their eyes closed. You don’t want them waking up one day when they’re 31 and blaming you for ruining their life by not warning them just so that you can have an extra teaching assistant.

That doesn’t mean nobody should go to grad school. You might hit the lottery (even though it’s not like you’ll never have to work again if you do). Or perhaps you just want to live off of student loans for a few years. That’s not exactly a smart career move, but at least if you do this with no expectation of future employment you do understand the system. It’s the people who don’t understand the system that worry me.

One of my former undergraduates just got a tenure track position at our local community college. It’s not a lottery ticket, but it is a safe spot in the (lower) middle class. I told that story the last time I had the “So you want to go to grad school….” discussion, but I also explained everything else I know about our broken academic employment system. I will never say “Don’t go,” but I will forever resolve to tell it like it is. As the profile page for 100 Reasons explains:

Many of you will choose to go to graduate school despite these admonitions, but it would be good for you to bear them in mind so that the things that can make graduate school difficult and frustrating do not come as a surprise to you.

After all, we’re talking about people’s lives here.

* This may be the first time I’ve included all the links when I’m quoting someone else’s post. It’s worth it. Indeed, anyone who’s considering grad school really should read ALL of 100 Reasons.




One response

3 05 2011
Tilting at windmills. « More or Less Bunk

[…] Start with what you can change, I always say and that’s the people right in front of you every day. History majors do have great skills, but don’t sugar-coat reality for them. That includes telling the truth about grad school. […]

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