Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thinking About Graduate Studies? Have You Considered A More Humane Form of Suicide?

This story is not really a new one to us graduate students, but I was surprised to find it at the top of the New York Times most emailed list: End the University as We Know It.

Columbia Prof Mark Taylor just comes right out and says it:

"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)."

Here from my fox hole at final-year PhD student ground zero, I can tell you Mark is not suffering from tenureship delusion. He's right on the money. The demise of graduate school spans disciplines, countries (at least in North America) and affects both core university departments and satellite institutes alike. This painful reality is worth a hard look if you're considering getting into graduate school:

"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."

Kudos to Taylor for having the kahones to speak the truth in this rather public forum. I remember several years back an Ottawa journalist, Tom Spears ran a similar story on the plight of the graduate student/biomedical researcher after hanging around our research institute for a couple of days: "Hunting For Miracles at Minum Wage":

"A PhD student will work more than 60 hours a week in the lab, in return for a salary near $19,500, and sometimes payment of tuition. The salary portion is worth about $6.25 an hour -- less than minimum wage, for someone who might hold a key to heart disease, or cancer, or diabetes."

Needless to say, the Directorship of our institute tried to run him out of town. A flurry of follow-up discussion took place here on the Bayblab. See:

"Mr. T. Pities the Fool Who Does Graduate Studies"
"Are Graduate Students Exploited?", and
"More on the OHRI Salary Scandal"

I guess Spears can have the last laugh now with the knowledge he scooped the NYT.

Anyhow back to the original article. Taylor doesn't stop at just nailing down the problems. He proposes some reasonable ways to fix graduate programs. For example:

"Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs."

"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."

Good ideas but I don't think any of his proposals would address the most serious problem, which is the supply-demand/slavery issue.

At any rate, it's clear that research training is broken. We need to fix it. Any other ideas?


romunov said...

Hat tip to Kevin Z for sharing this on his Google Reader.

I feel like I must vent on this subject. While I don't have in depth information on the state of supply and demand of qualified university rank profession, I do have some for biologists seeking work in their field.

Where I come from, it's "hip" to go to college to get higher education which will, anecdotally, yield a better paying job. This has been false for the most part. It turns out that qualified work is not as sought after as previously thought. And the saddest things about all this is that people spend 4-5 or more years at the University (luckily college is publically funded and proportionally goes the quality) only to find themselves working in a copy shop, xeroxing 8 hours a day.

This is one of the reasons that is keeping me from doing a PhD. Besides receiving low quality education of post graduate studies and wasting precious resources and time, the chances of attaining a high paying job are bleak.

While I do not regret studying to become a biologist, I sometimes do have second thoughts whether I should have taken up something more... handy.

Rob said...

I thought the article was quite good, however it lacked any quantification.
We've talked about the lack of academic jobs relative to trainees before on the Bayblab, so I'll just restate some of the points I thought were good from the last time.
I definitely think that graduate school, at least in science, needs to quit being sold as a route to a good job. The academic science career path is a poor one. However, I have really enjoyed graduate school, and I got paid to do it. I learned some really great stuff, met interesting/interested people, and did not have to work at a crappy job for 5 years. And at the end of the day my prospects for academic science are slim, but I will have a piece of paper that says I'm smart, I can read and write at a high level and think critically.
Also some responsibility has to be placed on the students. Check into the program before you enter. If it's a job at the end of the day that is your priority, go to professional school instead. Realize the career path is extremely difficult. And perhaps PhDs, and Masters degree holders need to be a little more creative in using their degree. Have a little more imagination than the academic career path. We need science entrepreneurs and science policy makers ect ect. And at least in science there is some industry employers.
Feel for the graduate students in archeology or something. For them it is academics or nothing (I think) and in many art disciplines you don't even get paid as a grad student unless you TA.

Bayman said...


Pretty much nailed it right on the head.

About the last point, about graduates using their degrees creatively, I totally agree from the individual student point of view. I'm all for taking personal responsibility to do what you can with what you got etc. etc.

That said, from a general viewpoint, it's clear that unemployed graduates are in a poor position to create jobs for themselves out of thin air, no matter how creative they get. Like it or not, job creation magic is the domain of senior academics, uni bureaucrats, policy-makers and people with a fat wad of private sector cash.