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Author Topic: Don't send students to grad school--PhDs on welfare  (Read 144380 times)
fiona
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« on: May 07, 2012, 1:35:52 AM »

These are deeply, deeply sad stories. Everyone who blithely advises people to go to grad school in the humanities should be forced to read this article in a dark room, with no food or water.

http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/

The Fiona
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lucero
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« Reply #1 on: May 07, 2012, 5:07:15 AM »

Thank you for posting the link to the article. I wouldn't have seen it otherwise. Not the best thing to read in the morning. It's so sad. I sympathize since I have been an adjunct and I'm now on a renewable contract. This could be me or some of the 70% of the faculty across the nation who are adjuncts. People will try to blame them (as they already are on the comments) for their plight but it really dismays me to see any grad students or faculty ending up being underpaid and worse, having to go on public assistance.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #2 on: May 07, 2012, 6:15:09 AM »

Sorry lucero, I agree that it is sad to see college faculty on food stamps, but I'm also going to lay some blame on their shoulders.

The PhD is a necessary but far-from-sufficient credential for an academic job.  Would-be PhDs should have educated themselves on this before they made it far into a grad program, maybe by reading news stories ("unemployed PhD" has been a popular meme for at least 40 years) or asking their advisors about careers in the field or looking at their professional organization's website or main journal.  (Perspectives on History regularly runs articles on the History job market, did the subject of the CHE article ever look at it?  Even I know about this, and I'm not in History.)

Assuming they've somehow avoided taking responsibility for their future before entering grad school, students can then just open their eyes and ears to find out  what is happening with the senior students in the program, the ones who are graduating and looking for jobs, or see if the postdocs in their department are having any success.  Or, start going to their association's annual meeting (the one that has the field meat market) and listen to the buzz. 

I agree that departments could be less optimistic in their recruiting materials, but if you have any ability in the humanities at all you should be able to parse the language in something like the UC-Irvine web page to see that they aren't really suggesting their graduates are getting jobs:

Quote
We believe that history is fun.  The History Channel, movies like Ben Hur, Gandhi, and Gladiator, show that the past still entertains us all.  For students, we also know that the study of history is both useful as well as being rewarding in and of itself.  Over the years, we have prepared a number of students for professional (law, teaching, business, etc.), graduate, and academic careers.
("Rewarding in and of itself" clearly suggests "not with cash," and "we have prepared a number of students for professional (law, teaching, business, etc.), graduate, and academic careers" doesn't say anything about the prepared students actually getting careers.  If someone misreads this, well, maybe their inability to land a top job 5 years later is a second consequence of reading comprehension deficiencies.)

Honestly, I'm getting a little tired of these stories.  The academic job market in most fields has been very very bad for 30 years or more.  Far from a secret, this is very visibly discussed in the kind of media grad students or even senior undergraduates should be reading, including newspapers.  It takes a real effort to avoid getting this message as an undergrad, let alone before the first year or two of grad school, and anyone who is surprised by the market by the time they get a PhD is frankly a little stupid.

Are adjuncts underemployed/underpaid?  I think there is no doubt that the ready supply of PhDs has made it possible to hire contingent faculty on the cheap.  Regular faculty (like me) should be doing everything we can to make sure that courses are taught by regular faculty, not adjuncts.  This might increase the availability of full-time jobs for some fraction of the current adjuncts, but would create permanent unemployment for the majority, probably including the small number that are on food stamps.

We don't grade our students on effort; similarly, any suggestion that the hard work involved in getting a PhD should be reflected in the salary is specious. - DvF
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lucero
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« Reply #3 on: May 07, 2012, 8:06:27 AM »

I can't dispute anything you wrote nor will I attempt to. All I can say is that it is a tremendous waste of human talent. 
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zharkov
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« Reply #4 on: May 07, 2012, 8:31:39 AM »

I can't dispute anything you wrote nor will I attempt to. All I can say is that it is a tremendous waste of human talent. 

Yes and I would expect that most people who are smart enough and driven to get a PhD in a low-demand field could have pursued careers in areas where there were much better employment prospects.

I would speculate that the combination of a low-demand field and a doctorate from a middlin' school is the killer.

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Adapting Zharkov a bit to this situation, ignorance and confusion can explain a lot.
bash217
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« Reply #5 on: May 07, 2012, 8:46:36 AM »

Thanks for posting. Very sad. Despite some complexities that are maybe overlooked, it's something good to share with parents and others, who have no idea what the market place is really like, and often assume you must be a real moron to have a PhD and not be raking in the dough.
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #6 on: May 07, 2012, 8:47:16 AM »

I can't dispute anything you wrote nor will I attempt to. All I can say is that it is a tremendous waste of human talent. 
I completely agree. - DvF
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spinnaker
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« Reply #7 on: May 07, 2012, 8:59:12 AM »


Are adjuncts underemployed/underpaid?  I think there is no doubt that the ready supply of PhDs has made it possible to hire contingent faculty on the cheap.  Regular faculty (like me) should be doing everything we can to make sure that courses are taught by regular faculty, not adjuncts.  This might increase the availability of full-time jobs for some fraction of the current adjuncts, but would create permanent unemployment for the majority, probably including the small number that are on food stamps.


I'm interested in what options/changes you envision that might have the desired effect, and the event that they were tried and did not, would you consider plan "B," accepting the substitution of adjuncts for some regular faculty as inevitable, and doing what one could to improve the pay for these positions. Or would this not be the responsibility of the regular faculty?
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reener06
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« Reply #8 on: May 07, 2012, 9:06:16 AM »

  It takes a real effort to avoid getting this message as an undergrad, let alone before the first year or two of grad school, and anyone who is surprised by the market by the time they get a PhD is frankly a little stupid.

I would agree, except I am increasingly finding this is not the case. In the last month, for example, two tenure-track colleagues have directed two undergraduates to me for advice about graduate school, and particularly as a woman in my field. I have told them that the job market is abysmal, I have directed them to websites, I have told them the average in my humanities field for a woman is around 9 years to get a PhD. One told me it didn't matter--she wanted a job she loved, and would do anything for it; the other was shocked that her advisor had told her the exact opposite, and I got the impression that both advisors insinuated that I didn't have a job yet because I had not made the necessary sacrifices or done what was needed. When I told them I had multiple peer-reviewed articles, national grants, dozens of conference presentations, and have taught over a dozen courses, they again went into denial mode and told me it wouldn't be true for them.

Advisors are not telling their undergraduates what the market is like. Many have not been in the market a long time, and the few that are new think they got the job through hard work, not chance or luck (both factors are at play). They want to see their legacy continue with another generation. I'm angry because they are doing these students a huge disservice.

On edit, I have the same questions spinnaker does.
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anisogamy
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« Reply #9 on: May 07, 2012, 9:20:37 AM »

I am meeting with three students within the next month to discuss their grad school ambitions.  All three are bright and talented, and interested in my low-demand sub-specialty.  I will pass this article along to them.
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A little compassion is better than kicking people when they are down, regardless of who has suffered more and longer or whose bad job market has the biggest dick.
pournelle
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« Reply #10 on: May 07, 2012, 9:45:52 AM »

This is a foolish article; less than 1% of Phd's are on welfare and yet the title suggests this is the fate that awaits PhD's? Why have the Chronicle's journalistic standards fallen so low? (Cf the Riley piece). And do the posters above believe everything they read?

Go look at the data for average household income for adjuncts. Adjuncting is a terrible problem, but not the kind that this foolish article imagines. In fact long-term adjuncting is for the majority a 'labor of love' supported by spouses; this is not good for the profession, but in a different way.
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snowbound
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« Reply #11 on: May 07, 2012, 9:52:02 AM »

I am meeting with three students within the next month to discuss their grad school ambitions.  All three are bright and talented, and interested in my low-demand sub-specialty.  I will pass this article along to them.

That's a good idea.  It will be more convincing than anything we can say, because it's not personal.  When I try to steer students away from grad school (like when a teacher at my undergrad school tried to steer away me and others), the student gets rather offended.  Students look  put out, and their faces say, "What, you think I'm not smart? You're wrong."  Every successful person ever interviewed on TV has some variation on "I owe it all to my parent/teacher/coach, who always encouraged me to pursue my dream," or "To that rotten parent/teacher/coach who told me I couldn't  do it, and said I should give up on my dream:  Well, suck on this!"  Since we are their models, students expect us to be excited about their plans, and to be their strongest encouragers.  No matter what we say or how nicely we say it, it is hard for students to absorb something that is so much not what they wanted or expected to hear.

We're talking about highly motivated, smart students who have always been at the top of the class.  We're talking about an American culture where there's a sacred mantra of "You can do whatever you want to do!"  We're talking about the widespread notion that education = a decent life.  We're talking about people whose youth means that they have little real-world experience.  

And perhaps most of all, they cannot conceive of an unsuccessful academic, because--although they understand that such poor saps probably do exist somewhere--they have never (knowingly) run across such a creature.  Their professors are the ones who made it, after all.  They don't know our peers who were not so lucky.  It's like talking about the economics of buying lottery tickets at a lottery-ticket-winners convention.
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notaprof
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« Reply #12 on: May 07, 2012, 10:07:09 AM »

I agree, these are sad stories, but so are many of the stories of people on welfare.  Most are not welfare queens either, they are hard-working people as a rule.  They are single mothers with children like two of the people profiled in this article. They are veterans who served our country as I suspect is one of the men portrayed in this story.  They are married couples with children where both are in graduate school or both are struggling to get started in a career although the man is 51 with two very young children which is a bit unusual  in the grad student demographics.  I suspect there is more to that story, he is obviously following a dream but perhaps it is not the most realistic thing for a couple to be doing at that point in life.  They are people who chose not to or cannot move to places where the jobs are when university budgets were cut and factories were closed. The growth in the number of people with graduate degrees on welfare is increasing at lower rates than those of able-bodied and willing to work people who are also on welfare, whose previously middle class sustaining wage jobs have been shipped overseas to be done more cheaply.

In comparison, according to the figures quoted in the article, less than 2% of people with advanced degrees are on public assistance while  more than 14% of the general population receives public assistance. It is a bad economy and every story I have heard of financial struggles tends to be sad.  I feel for all the people who have become jobless due to the lousy economy, many who had jobs with skills that were developed over many years but are now obsolete.  They at least started in an industry that was robust when they started their careers but the technology has now made many of those skills unneeded. They gave their whole lives to a company who packed up and followed the exodus to cheaper labor elsewhere.  I feel for everyone on welfare, most don't want to be there. Many are grateful that they have that safety net when life is unfair.

I am wondering about the figure in the article stating that 70% of faculty are off the tenure track.  What is the source of that information?
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wet_blanket
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« Reply #13 on: May 07, 2012, 10:29:10 AM »

I agree with Notaprof and DvF.

Now, I say this with the rosy view of someone yet to hit the academic job market, but even the PhD training I have so far without the degree in hand opens up more non-academic job opportunities than I had otherwise.  And then there are the 5 jobs I had between undergrad and my masters, or the job I had between my masters and PhD.  Doing a PhD has not made me less employable for any of those; in fact, for two of those jobs I'm far more employable.  I do accept that there are some employers who would see "PhD" on a resume and dismiss the applicant as overqualified, but my sense is that is the exception, not the rule.

I'm not saying the individuals in the CHE piece deserve their fate or are responsible for it.  But I don't think that the state of the academic job market means most people with humanities PhDs will end up on welfare.  Maybe people shouldn't waste 5-10 years of their life doing a PhD if they will end up with a similar  job as they had fresh out of undergrad, but pretending the outcome of a PhD can only be the TT gold ring or welfare doesn't strike me as helpful. 
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crowie
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« Reply #14 on: May 07, 2012, 10:51:39 AM »

I am meeting with three students within the next month to discuss their grad school ambitions.  All three are bright and talented, and interested in my low-demand sub-specialty.  I will pass this article along to them.

That's a good idea.  It will be more convincing than anything we can say, because it's not personal.  When I try to steer students away from grad school (like when a teacher at my undergrad school tried to steer away me and others), the student gets rather offended.  Students look  put out, and their faces say, "What, you think I'm not smart? You're wrong."  Every successful person ever interviewed on TV has some variation on "I owe it all to my parent/teacher/coach, who always encouraged me to pursue my dream," or "To that rotten parent/teacher/coach who told me I couldn't  do it, and said I should give up on my dream:  Well, suck on this!"  Since we are their models, students expect us to be excited about their plans, and to be their strongest encouragers.  No matter what we say or how nicely we say it, it is hard for students to absorb something that is so much not what they wanted or expected to hear.

We're talking about highly motivated, smart students who have always been at the top of the class.  We're talking about an American culture where there's a sacred mantra of "You can do whatever you want to do!"  We're talking about the widespread notion that education = a decent life.  We're talking about people whose youth means that they have little real-world experience.  

And perhaps most of all, they cannot conceive of an unsuccessful academic, because--although they understand that such poor saps probably do exist somewhere--they have never (knowingly) run across such a creature.  Their professors are the ones who made it, after all.  They don't know our peers who were not so lucky.  It's like talking about the economics of buying lottery tickets at a lottery-ticket-winners convention.

So much of this rings true for me.  I was actively encouraged to go to grad school in the humanities by the professors I had worked closely with as an undergrad.  But one professor, whom I had taken courses with at a different institution, did try to tell me on one occasion that if there was anything I was remotely interested in pursuing outside of an academic path I should do it instead, and told me about a brilliant PhD student of hers who had done all the right things, one of the best students she'd ever had, and who simply couldn't get full time work.  I remember the conversation but I remember just not really taking it seriously, and I do think part of that is because, as snowbound says, all my academically-trained role models, including this very professor telling me not to do it, were themselves the successful ones.  Arrogantly, of course, I just thought I would be the exception, like them.  And I really did not have any alternate career path in mind--I had been prepping for grad school since my first year of undergrad, if not before (I had wanted to be a professor since my mid-teens).  Anyway, I guess it did turn out ok as I got a TT job straight out of grad school, but the financial costs of spending my grad school years (which turned out to be more years than I anticipated) on a stipend, making no retirement contributions, in a high cost of living area, still live with me today.  If I hadn't got a full-time TT job I shudder to think about what my financial prospects might have been.

I thought the article was interesting but there was a weird racial tone to it that I think was meant to be eye-opening or something, like, "OMG a white, educated person on welfare!!!  This goes against the order of things! Where is my white privilege when I need it??"  (not saying that is the attitude of those profiled, but it seems to be sort of the implied attitude of the reader, assumed by the journalist).  At least the journalist eventually found and addressed someone who was both black and educated, and in the same boat.
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