the grad trap

John Schwenkler has some wise words about the college debt trap. As I said in the comments at his blog, I think that there are some pieces missing from that version of the story, but he’s absolutely correct that the college equation is by no means always or even usually a good one for the students involved. I don’t see the situation changing drastically in the future, though; college is sold as a really fantastic time in your life, and in fact very often is, and when you can wed that to at least the possibility of higher wages– or, maybe more commonly, the ability to pursue an advanced degree that provides higher wages — well, most 18 year olds find that an irresistible combination.

What that post really makes me think about, though, is the current doctoral program problems, which to me are worse and more intractable. It’s particularly problematic because all of the actors in the system have reasons, or think they do, to perpetuate the current system– except those that are most hurt by the system, who have been cut out of the ability to reform it.

To a degree that I think most people just don’t understand, colleges and universities run on graduate student labor. Graduate students teach class, do research, perform administrative and clerical duties, and generally provide an enormous amount of basic labor for the university system. Despite what you might think, this actually tends to be more pronounced at the elite level of universities, not less. A number I have seen banded about for a school like Harvard, for example, is that about 55% percent of their undergraduate classes are taught by graduate students. (Frequently, the graduate assistant does the teaching and some of the grading, while a professor’s name is included on the transcript.) I don’t know if that figure is exactly accurate, but it’s close. And it makes sense, financially. It’s just much cheaper to have grad students handling units of freshman comp and Stats 1010, getting funded at maybe $14k a year, than an adjunct making $40K. This is particularly the case because, while it’s often overstated, it is true that tenure-track professors resist carrying a course load of more two courses a semester/three courses a year. So giving eager grad students what amounts to a pittance and a doctoral degree in exchange for this kind of work makes simple financial and practical sense for the U’s.

And there’s no shortage of willing applicants to join up. Grad school, despite the workload, competition and stress, is generally regarded as a good time. If you can survive the vicious competition for a job, even if you don’t end up on the tenure track, it’s enjoyable work for decent pay, with great benefits and lots of vacation. If you can get on the tenure track at a competitive university, then it’s a great job in almost all of the respects that we talk about, although the ceiling for pay is much lower than for people of similar post-collegiate training.

The problem is that not everyone gets a job, in fact very many don’t, and that’s the elephant in the room when it comes to grad school. There are just too many applicants for too few positions. This is indeed particularly a problem for the humanities, and there are more opportunities outside of the academy for sciences students. I do worry that this gets a bit overplayed, though, as make no mistake, the job market for your average doctoral-level physicist is still quite daunting. Tough job prospects aren’t in and of themselves disqualifying, of course, but there’s the additional fact that the average PhD takes something like six and and a half year to complete. Even if you start your doctorate at 25, a pretty young age to start pursuing one, you are going to end up on the other side of your thirties when you finish. That’s a major commitment, and during those years you are unlikely to be doing very well financially. Even if you have a generous fellowship package, a part-time job during your “masters years”, get a guest-lecturer position during your dissertation years– you are still not going to be making much money, certainly less than many of your peers who got jobs immediately after undergrad.

In a perfect world, more potential grad students would self-select themselves out of the grad school chase. But the fact that it takes so long to get your doctorate acts as a kind of buffer for looking at the reality; I think a lot of people just say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” And they are following their passion, after all. People really do care about contemporary Portugeuse novelists and the effect of absentee fathers on child literacy rates and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s politics and allelic variation as evidence of sexual reproduction in the opportunistic human parasite “Candida Albicans”. God bless them for it. I think academic interest is a wonderful thing. The problem is that often the passion for those things seems like a small solace when people have emerged from six or seven years of school and work and can’t get employed. And now they’ve got a wife and kids, and they’re behind on the mortgage, and contemplating getting a job at the mall….

Look, I’m not asking for sympathy for these people above and beyond the sympathy I ask for anyone who can’t find work. But as I said before, only the people outside of the system have a genuine interest in seeing the system reformed, the graduated and unemployed doctorates. And by that time, they’re out of the system and easy to ignore. The administrations of the various colleges have financial pressure on them to expand the number of grad students they take in. The would-be grad students are caught in a depravation model, where they just desperately want to be in the system and see it as a gift from university to student, rather than as a two way interaction that they should evaluate as they would any financial, professional arrangement. The only people who are really hurt no longer have the influence of being in the system.

Part of the problem too is that it can’t help but seem hypocritical or self-serving of those most rewarded by the system, tenured professors, to denounce the system and tell potential grad students to suck it up and get a job at some insurance company. Michael Berube is a really bright guy and says all the right things on this subject, but it’s hard not to think that it’s a little cruel for a tenured professor with a great reputation and a position as a pundit that trades on his academic cred to turn around and say “Don’t try and get what I have.” (Berube is one of my real favorites, and I loved his latest book, but he can be really frustratingly inconsistent. For example, in What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? he makes a show of being annoyed by people dissing Penn State’s academic status, but turns around and insults everyone who, like me, went to a “directional college”; because apparently dissing people at Happy Valley is an unforgivable crime, but dissing the thousands at West U. is cool.)

Anyway– it’s a sticky problem. I think ultimately the academy as a whole has to do what it so often fails to do and live up to its ideals, but who knows. Many have predicted a sudden and dramatic uptick in the academic job market when the Boomers retire en masse. We’ll see. I’m interested to see how the financial crisis changes this dynamic. (I wrote about some of the consequence of recession to the academy here.) In the meantime, well. Publish or perish.

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19 thoughts on “the grad trap

  1. Oh, no, not at all. But you make a very important point about passion-following and just seeing what happens at the other side of 6 years, which is not always accompanied by a realistic assessment of what might be available. I don’t know how one assesses that to begin with, of course, and I am unaltered in my pursuit. Anyway, very good post.

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  2. I think I agree with all of this — it’s a very fine post — except the tiny part about me. Last things first, I didn’t insult people who went to “directional” schools; the passage in question actually says, “My friends at small liberal arts colleges tell me of dealing with massively entitled students who drive cars far more expensive than anything in the faculty parking lot, and who look upon their classes in the humanities as amusing or annoying little pit stops on their paths toward world domination. My friends at smaller state schools –- the places that legendary North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano once termed ‘directional schools,’ because they usually include a point of the compass in their name — tell me of trying to teach thoroughly disengaged students who have never encountered a work of literature written before 1900, and will almost surely never do so again after college.” All I can say in defense of this passage is that it is true: my friends at such institutions do indeed say such things. I apologize if it sounded like a blanket insult.

    But the more important issue here, of course, is what lucky tenured people like me should tell prospective students. We can either ignore the state of the market, lie about it, or issue the appropriate warnings. I choose door number 3, and the point isn’t “don’t try to get what I have”; the point is that three-quarters of the people teaching in American colleges are doing so as adjuncts, graduate students, or permanent non-TT faculty. Because of its reliance on introductory writing courses, English employs especially high percentages of NTT labor. The odds against landing a TT job in English are long and getting longer, and they have nothing to do with the talent or dedication of the doctoral candidates now in the system. I’d rather be honest about that, even if it seems “hypocritical or self-serving”; when I was placement director at Illinois I faced too many angry, disillusioned students who felt — rightly — like the system had taken them for a decade-long ride.

    Anyway, thanks for reading my book, and for the kind word. This is indeed a sticky problem, and I don’t always know how to respond to it. One final thing, though: I wouldn’t place any faith in those predictions of an uptick in the market when the Boomers retire. We’ve been hearing those predictions for almost twenty years now, and so far, Godot hasn’t shown up.

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  3. This is all well said. You’ll forgive a certain overly sensitive attitude from those of us who went to Direction State U. It’s certainly true that there are many disengaged and disinterested students. There are very many others who are very much engaged, and passionate, and find themselves rather constantly marginalized as intellects and as students. I also tend to find that disengagement and disinterest are commodities found at all levels of the academy. But as I said– I’m overly sensitive.

    As I tried to say, but probably failed to say, you’re in a tough position– because, as you say, you should be honest with people and try to put them on the right path. The point wasn’t that you are self-serving or hypocritical, only that it can’t fail to seem that way sometimes to people who want very badly to be in your shoes. And that’s an impediment to reform; grad students can placate themselves by saying “Oh, he’s just being a grouch from within the world he criticizes; so I’ll just ignore it.” In other words, the people best equipped to honestly judge the situation are the ones who tend to be ignored out of a sense of petty resentment or professional envy.

    At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the administrations of the universities to have the integrity not to pressure departments to take on more than a certain minimum number of grad students; the departments to not take on more grad students than they have a reasonable expectation could possibly find some sort of related employment; and the students, to take truly discriminating accounting of the job prospects beyond “I really and truly love it”. Many people really and truly love X academic subject and still have had to let go of professorial dreams. I did, although not, it’s true, entirely.

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  4. Speaking for the scientists here, you liberal arts types get screwed. The dirty little secret of graduate school in the sciences is that you get paid to do it (tuition + stipend). Sure, it’s a pittance ($15-25K), but you’ll have a car, roommate and you’ll eat more ramen and less meat than you’d like, but you can live on it and you won’t accumulate massive piles of debt like law students.

    (I took out a couple of student loans in grad school (~$22K), but that was basically for quality of life, not actual tuition/food, etc.)

    Once you leave grad school, you can either go get a job (much better money, but a tough time finding a job these days) or you can go for a postdoc. The physicists and the chemists have been better at clearing out their backlogs of postdocs and the like than the biologists, who toil for years without finding jobs in either academia or industry. You can’t blame it on academia, totally — it’s the industrial job market that just can’t absorb the new entry-level folks.

    I’ve always worried about academia basically being a pyramid scheme, where folks are recruited to teach students. What will the students do when they’ve graduated? Why, teach, of course! Who will they teach? Why, students, of course…

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  5. By the way, have I ever told you how much I love you for this quote?:

    “What’s the problem? The problem, first of all, is that college is not and should not be Club Med with classes. By focusing so much money and attention on buildings and facilities, the universities play into a vision of college that is damaging to the educational mission. You need facilities and buildings. But nice basketball courts and cafeterias are rather peripheral to the core project of the academy. Money should principally be spent on better faculty and better academic services and facilities. Sadly, those things have little of the obvious “curb appeal” that new buildings and new amenities have. (“Did you see how big the dorm rooms are?”)”

    So true, so true.

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  6. I wonder if there is no more insidious example of this pyramid scheme idea than that of theatre/acting grad programs. There are few industries in which the supply so overwhelms the demand, and actors become a-dime-a-metric-ton, but still countless schools charge enormous tuitions to teach armies of young actors the finer points of their craft, all so they can graduate, starve, flood the marketplace, and then eventually do something else. I say this as one who abandoned work on an acting MFA, and I have never regretted it, though I certainly still bear the debt of that one year.

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  7. Thanks, Freddie. Fie on me for citing Valvano’s line — it clearly sounds dismissive. The context for those conversations, btw, was that various interlocutors were taking me to task by saying, “that’s all very well and good for people like you who teach at flagship institutions, but we here at Eastern U,” etc. Besides, it’s no secret — and I think I admitted as much — that Penn State has plenty of disengaged and disinterested students.

    And I agree completely with your final paragraph. The problem is that too many administrations don’t have that integrity, and lots of departments depend on that cheap labor. I’ll try to find ways of saying so that don’t sound too grouchy or self-serving. . . .

    Nice blog, btw. Bowler hats never go out of style.

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  8. Let’s not forget one of Freddie’s original points, which is that people REALLY love doing what they get to do. I love doing chemistry every day, which is something you get to do (and do and do) in graduate school. Paul, I’m sure you loved learning how to act well…

    But when you’re asked to bear huge financial costs (anything over 50k aggregate, IMHO), you need to have a “Schumer box” of some sort to get informed consent.

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  9. To be fair, graduate students in the sciences get compensated because said compensation delivers a distinct tangible benefit to society. I do not wish to be dismissive of the humanities, but from the government’s perspective, you get what you pay for.

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  10. Sorry, this all reminded me of the opening lecture in my introduction to music composition class many moons ago. The professor decided to tell us about the career of a music composition major:
    “You arrive and begin your studies. Either you got a head start in high school or take a few years in another major, but you are accepted into the music composition program. After four to five years, you get your bachelors degree in music composition.
    “There is no work for you.
    “So you go back to school and spend a few years until you achieve your masters degree in music composition.
    “There is no work for you.
    “So you go back to school and spend a few years until you get your doctorate in music composition.
    “There is still no work for you.
    “So you go back to school and get a job as a professor in order to teach other people to do the same thing you just did. Perhaps along the way you will write some pieces that people will enjoy and remember.”

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  11. Well, this is distressing — from a Nature news article in 2004:

    “US graduate programmes, especially in life sciences, have grown excruciatingly long in recent decades… In 1973–82, the average in biosciences was 6.3 years; for 1993–2002, the average was 7.7 years. In physics, time to degree increased from 6.6 to 7.4 years, in chemistry from 5.8 to 6.7 years.”

    Wow. I knew it was bad, but not this bad. But wait, it gets worse, much worse:

    According to this NSF white paper, registered time-to-degree (the time you were in school minus breaks) was as follows: 6.8 for physical sciences, 6.9 for life sciences and 9.0 for the humanities.

    Oh, the humanity.

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  12. Fantastic post. When I think of liberal arts grad programs I think of that quote from Randy Pausch’s ‘Last Lecture’ about how the walls we come to in life are not meant to keep us out, but to force us to prove how much we want something. I like that line in the philosophical sense, but I think there has been a sort of conscious and unconscious collusion on the part of many in the liberals arts to erect those walls as a way of keeping liberal arts majors out of the job market.

    Once upon a time, if you had a BA or a BS there were a lot of open doors after college. Now that’s just the first small step. The point is that this entire culture has been created around the ‘grad-school experience’ as you accurately point out. Your undergrad professors start preparing you for it with romanticized tales of late-night drinking and thankless work for tyrant professors. You are told it’s completely normal to have 2-3 jobs while in grad school. No one tells you to avoid the lure of easy college loan money (if you have loans to pay off you might take a corporate job rather than asking for a liberal arts career). I always picture those who actually have good jobs in the liberal arts field as being extremely ticked every time a kid makes it through the gauntlet they created and asks for a decent-paying job. That’s why now those jobs that use to be found for those with a Master’s are slipping towards requiring a PhD. One more brick wall to filter out those job seekers.

    I’m not bashing the notion of grad school either, but the reality is that most people with liberal arts degrees end up in completely un-related jobs. I have a BA in history and anthropology and after giving up on grad school in the short term I took a corporate job for way more money. 9 years later the thought of taking a 75% pay cut to pursue my dream is painfully depressing.

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