People are talking about a recent article in The Economist on why obtaining a Ph.D. is supposedly “a waste of time.” The author—who confesses that she “slogged through a largely pointless Ph.D. in theoretical ecology” more than a decade ago—makes the usual argument that universities are overproducing Ph.D.’s (though some would counter that the problem isn’t too many Ph.D.’s but rather too few tenure-track jobs) and chastises universities for using doctoral students as “cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour.”
She also points out that the interests of doctoral students, for many of whom the pursuit of a Ph.D. is a labor of love, conflict with those of their professors: “Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away,” the author writes. Which is why, despite the fact that good academic job opportunities in many fields are dwindling, many Ph.D. programs still aren’t admitting fewer students, she suggests.
Over at The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker says he thinks it would be a mistake for universities to slash doctoral-student admissions. In academe, as in baseball, the only way to get the best and the brightest is to cast a wide net, he writes. Otherwise you risk missing out on potential gems in the rough, like the legendary New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who was “drafted in the 62nd(!) round of the 1988 baseball draft,” and went on “to become one of the (if not the) game’s best hitting catchers, and is a sure bet for the Hall of Fame,” Tucker writes:
Without a minor league system that allowed many, many more people to play some level of professional baseball than there were spots for in the major leagues, Piazza would never have made it to the majors. Being picked in the 62nd round shows that the talent evaluators at that stage of the process would have missed him as a potential star.
Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old that is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I’d rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don’t think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics. Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make. I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into—the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors—but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that’s the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to Ph.D. programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.
But Andrew Gelman, another blogger at The Monkey Cage, isn’t convinced. He says he doesn’t believe meritocracy exists. And he points out that the main argument for cutting doctoral admissions “is not just that Ph.D. students are competing for a fixed number of jobs, but that the ready availability of low-paid Ph.D. students allows universities to reduce the number of faculty positions” by either getting students to teach or hiring adjuncts.
Tucker counters that “clamping down on the supply of potential adjuncts,” isn’t a good way to deal with this problem:
Indeed, cutting the number of admitted Ph.D. students seems to me to be one of the least effective ways of doing this. First of all, the supply is already out there, so it would take years if not decades or generations to affect policy this way. Second, it is not even clear that reducing the number of Ph.D’s would reduce the supply of available adjuncts. If universities want to hire adjuncts to cuts costs, then not having enough Ph.D. applicants is not necessarily going to stop them from doing so. Bottom line: my guess is the issue of using adjuncts instead of full-time faculty is driven by demand for low-cost teaching, not by an over-supply of extra potential teachers.
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