May 22, 2003

Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Underemployed PhDs?

"The Invisible Adjunct raves and foams at the mouth upon encountering Laura Vanderkam's 'System Wastes Ph.D. Brainpower.'"

So writes Brad DeLong with reference to my "Tough Love for PhDs" post. Egads! Maybe I need to crank down the volume: I'm coming off as an absolute nutter. The academy did this to me. (I wonder if I could cop a plea using this as my defense? "Formerly mild-mannered and law-abiding history PhD driven to the brink and beyond by the vagaries of the academic job market..."). Though indeed, Brad DeLong says he's raving and foaming, too, and he has tenure at Berkeley. As he points out:

it's not enough for the 35% of humanities departments that give their prospective students the straight poop to do so, for the prospectives will say, '1/3 of us will get tenure track jobs? I'm good at academic pursuits, so that must mean that the odds for me are pretty good.' They don't think--or most of them don't think--Wait a minute, everybody else here is good at academic pursuits too. I've been in the top quarter of academic distributions all my life, but I have only one chance in four of being in the top quarter of this one.

I agree that this is not enough. Graduate programs in the humanities need to take the next, admittedly painful, step and limit their enrollments to more realistic numbers. Some of them need to shut down altogether. Otherwise, the proletarianization of humanities faculty will continue to intensify.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 22, 2003 12:29 AM

IA, I got told I was foaming at the mouth too. Even when I wasn't. I *started* foaming at the mouth because I was so sure no one was hearing what I was saying.

You are not mad, and do not let anyone tell you you are. And don't stop calling 'em as you see 'em, not for anybody.

As for actual subject of post: Hardly a new idea, but if graduate departments stopped thinking of themselves as purely professor-creators, enrollment would decline on its own (because there would be less of the "I am one of The Elect" thinking around) and those who *did* enroll would be far better off long-term.

If the lure of professorship is really all there is attracting people into graduate departments -- well, I'd be worried if I were a professor. Truth be told, I'm worried now.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 22, 2003 12:41 AM

Many of those within the academy are remarkably resistant to any sort of criticism. If you identify a problem, you've identified yourself as a "problem."

But I don't apply this observation to Brad DeLong, who wasn't really calling me mad -- er, right, Professor DeLong? :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 22, 2003 02:23 AM

It is nice if departments limit enrollment, but which department has an interest in this? And wouldn't the people who no longer get accepted just apply to another department or field? Many people who apply to history departments might be as happy in political science and sociology.

Posted by: boban at May 22, 2003 03:26 AM

I always thought that an academic advanced based on their ideas and the quality of their research and that ones academic peer's had a large role in pointing out quality. What am I missing here. If you've truly got the ideas who is going to hold you back?

Posted by: tr at May 22, 2003 07:33 AM

What powerful body of work is being held back? Who are the serious thinkers not being promoted?

Posted by: tr at May 22, 2003 07:36 AM

TR, hon, you've got us in a catch-22. How are we supposed to point them out to you if their peers aren't letting their work through, hm?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 22, 2003 12:47 PM

I'm also curious how we got from discussing a tight (impacted?) market to failing to recognize academic worth -- at least, that's how I'm interpreting tr's comments and questions. Did I misread something?

Posted by: Rana at May 22, 2003 03:19 PM

IA: I think DeLong was overreacting and making your tone more extreme than it was. Just assign it to some "hyping" he is involved in. The link sure created an interesting discussion over there. The posts by sd and zizka (who I think have never agreed with even once so that is a first:) ) are particularly interesting. Anyway, don't think you are coming off as a nutter; you are quite sane.

Posted by: JT at May 22, 2003 03:41 PM

Of course graduate programs are not going to limit their admissions, for two reasons. First, because graduate students provide free teaching assistant labor. That's the most important reason. The second reason is, that only if they admit many students do they have a chance of getting a decent number through the program and into jobs.

Posted by: RA at May 22, 2003 04:14 PM

"...Only if they admit many students do they have a chance of getting a decent number through the program and into jobs."

I'm not so sure about this. Say you enroll 100 students into a program, and only 10 of them get jobs, because there are only 10 openings out there. So you have a 10% success rate. If you enrolled 50, your success rate would double, fewer students would be in the fix of having degree and no prospects, and more resources could be spent getting those 50 through the program. While I don't think this would be the case if 10 were enrolled (attrition and changes in the market would begin to enter the equation), reducing the enrollment to 40 or 30 or even 20 doesn't seem unreasonable if the goal is indeed as you describe it.

The TA factor, obviously, complicates the equation, but that's at least as much a problem of the university as the department (I know, as a graduate of a program that both farmed out its graduates to writing programs during enrollment gluts and imported TAs from other departments during periods of in-department shortfalls.)

On the foaming at the mouth issue, that image gets deployed when your critic thinks you are either insane or rabidly hostile, and I don't think IA or any of us is either. We are sane people who are justifiably angry at a situation that is insane and who choose to point out both our anger and the system's insanity.

Posted by: Rana at May 22, 2003 05:53 PM