January 14, 2004

Followup to PhD Attrition

Just a quick post, as I'm down with the flu. A couple of fellow bloggers have taken up the question of graduate school attrition, which I posted about below.

Erin O'Connor notes that "there's a reason most departments and schools don't keep data on attrition--the numbers and the reasons behind the numbers are truths they just don't want to know." I think that's exactly right. My guess is that many of those directly involved in humanities graduate programs do not have even a rough sense of the numbers when it comes to both attrition rates and employment figures. And John Bruce (scroll to "Ph.D. Program Attrition Rates") writes that he's "always thought that English departments took in exactly as many graduate students as suited their purpose." Both are worth reading.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 14, 2004 02:39 PM

Ugh, flu. I hope you are feeling better soon!

Meanwhile, thanks for the links!

Posted by: Rana at January 14, 2004 03:37 PM

Oh, dear. My turn to say "Get well soon!"

Posted by: Miriam at January 14, 2004 05:46 PM

While I am not happy about the current Norwegian system, there are advantages to it. One of those is that the Universities and specifically the supervisors get paid for the PhD students when they finish! This means that it is in the interest of the University, the department and the supervisor to make sure the students get through and out at the other end.

Now this may lead to PhD unemployment in a few years, but it hasn't happened yet.

Posted by: torill at January 15, 2004 01:30 PM

John Bruce's comment "I've always thought that English departments took in exactly as many graduate students as suited their purpose" would (unfortunately) be true of the department from which I got my Ph.D.
I did crunch some numbers, late in my own program, when I was feeling almost completely alienated. I multiplied two numbers: 1) the number of students in English classes taught by T.A.s and adjuncts 2) the amount of tuition plus state funding brought in by each student in these classes. I then subtracted the amount of the adjuncts' and T.A.s' (miniscule) stipends.
The result, the net gain to the English department budget from classes taught by their Ph.D. students (current and former), covered the salaries of the department's full-time, research-oriented professors. They had their jobs because the department had a Ph.D. program, which was funded on the backs of its own students.
When the number of applications to the program began dropping, the number of students admitted each year did not decline. It remained steady or even rose, in accordance with the department's need to fund itself.
I was at a large state university that had been dying the death of a thousand funding cuts for years. That is to say: the department itself was not the source of the evil; they were responding to an institutional disfunction, though arguably in a corrupt and lazy manner. All in all, it was very dispiriting.
I did finish, and I got a full-time job. The overwhelming majority of students admitted to that program do neither one nor the other. Possibly it would have been more rational to drop out, but I was a returning student, and it would not have been possible for me to start a third career track at my age.

Posted by: charpressler at January 15, 2004 03:21 PM

How did you get the numbers for the following :

1. adjunct stipends.
2. State funding per student.
3. the salaries of the full-time,research-oriented professors.

I dont think even at a state university these numbers are easily avaliable. I would love to know where to get data like this.

Another problem is that your calculation assumes that state funding per student and student tuition ONLY goes to pay classes in YOUR department. Not true. The money goes to pay lots of things and in other departments as well. To approximate the amount that actually goes to your program wont be easy nor accurate.

I notice that your calculations did not include student and adjunct insurace costs and TA tuition costs. Both of this can be sizable.

"They had their jobs because the department had a Ph.D. program, which was funded on the backs of its own students."
Very, very strong statement.
Sorry, I dont see how, based on your description of the calculation, backs this up. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 15, 2004 04:12 PM

"They had their jobs because the department had a Ph.D. program, which was funded on the backs of its own students."

Another tactic used by some universities is to create a two-tier culture made up of M.A. students and and Ph.D. students. The former pay full tuition, while the latter are supported by a tuition remission plus a stipend for teaching. The problem is that the tuition paid by the M.A. students is often calculated into the opporating budget of the department, maiking it in effect a system that supports itself on the "backs of its own students."

By the way, when I was in grad. school this was not a hidden fact. Instead, it was quite well known that this was the official policy -- mandated not by the dept. but by the administration. Faculty and students alike grumbled about it because it often made for very large graduate seminars.

Posted by: Chris at January 15, 2004 05:21 PM

From Passing_through (#5)
"How did you get the numbers for the following :
3. the salaries of the full-time,research-oriented professors."

I can't speak for charpressler, but given that he says he was at a state school, I imagine he got the numbers the same way I would: the undergraduate newspaper publishes them every year, as allowed by law.

I would also imagine that finding out the average payscale for TAs and adjuncts would be fairly simple. You look at your paystub.

Posted by: abd at January 15, 2004 06:18 PM

Passing_through: In North Carolina, I believe all three of the dollar amounts you asked for are public information by law. If I'm willing to put up with the horrible organization I can dig them off of my university's web site.

In North Carolina, faculty lines are directly tied to the count of students you have enrolled in your department's classes. If I recall correctly, in my department, for every 160-ish credit hours of enrolled students you are officially entitled to 1 full-time-equivalent of faculty. (Through some historical fluke we're considered an engineering discipline, so we've got the most advantageous rate; English has to support twice as many students per faculty member.)

Actually, it only took 3 mouseclicks to start finding the relevant information. 2002-3 isn't up yet, but for 2001-2. "Fall 2002 Credit Hours Produced": English department, 39.56 full-time-equivalent teaching faculty, 12509 credit hours. My personal salary isn't up there, but a statistical breakdown of salaries is there. We pay the median lecturer $31k, median full professor $66k. (There were 37 lecturers, 1 instructor (me!), 75 assistants, 111 associates, 86 professors - guess we aren't too adjunctified.) The state publishes the % cost of benefits - it's been long enough since I wrote a grant app that I've forgotten, but I seem to recall 35% for faculty.

Posted by: ABD Instructor at January 15, 2004 09:10 PM


Get well soon!

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 15, 2004 10:30 PM

Passing Through: Well, doesn't strong skepticism require grounds too? Your arguments struck me as nugatory.

Posted by: zizka at January 15, 2004 10:58 PM

Thanks ABD Instructor ;)

I still dont have any idea how charpressler approximates the amount of money that actually goes into his/her(?) department. And the thing about how much insurance costs and tuition. Not to mention the operation costs of a department. Personally, I doubt there is any "profit" at the end of it all.

There is something else that should be pointed out. Current faculty/admin do not get a cut from the "profits" of any given year. Given that universities in general have funding issues, whats more likely is that all departments get an annual budget. Unfortunately, some get more money, others less. Some departments get outside more funding, others less. This all adds up to the disparity. More often than not, department have to work within budgets.

As for Chris
"The problem is that the tuition paid by the M.A. students is often calculated into the opporating budget of the department, maiking it in effect a system that supports itself on the "backs of its own students.""
Why is this a problem? People pay school fees in which some part goes to the department. I dont see your point here. Just as well I can say that since undergraduates pay tuition, the system supports itself on the "backs of its own students." Hardly seems like something like this will be even considered a "hidden fact". I would imagine this is common sense when one applies for a MA program that informs them that they wont be funded.

The humanities suffer from a double whammy. Firstly, as far as college funding goes, I dont think they are at the top of the list for additional funds. Secondly, it is harder for humanities programs to raise outside money.
The fine arts people can put up productions for funds. I dont think poetry readings have the same pull ;).Coporations wouldnt mind pitching in for the engineering and sciences. The social sciences can dabble with public policy which raises their profile. And the humanities does ????

Trying to score points by drawing divisions between tenured and untenured, faculty and student isnt helpful. Neither is tough talk of collective bargaining. The problem isnt more or less grad. students or more or less adjuncts. Instead, making the humanities relevant to todays world is the key. In any college, rarely does one talk about perhaps reducing the psychology department. Is the same true for say literature?

This doesnt mean "selling out". Only a small portion of engineering is actually commercially viable at any given point. The majority is academic stuff. Same goes for the social sciences, sciences and even *gasp* business programs. Lots of the stuff done is academic, only a small portion isnt.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 15, 2004 11:11 PM

I think the problem with charpressier's comment is that he or she didn't have enough numbers to crunch. The skepticism some have expressed arises from the paucity of data. I mean, look at the things that don't get figured in there:

1) the difference between adjunct pay and grad student stipends. Many of the grad students will be getting small stipends because they already receive tuition reductions or waivers. They are students themselves, after all, and are receiving an education as well as teaching experience that can benefit them later. So there's at least some value there that needs to be figured in.

2) And who's teaching the grad students? The "research-oriented professors." So they're earning at least some of their keep, and their teaching loads need to be factored in also.

3) Then there are the other financial factors that others have called attention to already.

And so on. charpressier just didn't have enough data to draw a conclusion about "net gain" for the English department. Now let me be clear: there's no doubt in my mind that English (and other) departments abuse their grad students and adjuncts in ways that are utterly indefensible. But really "crunching the numbers" is a much more arduous task than what charpressier did. The academy is a very complex economy.

Posted by: Ayjay at January 16, 2004 09:36 AM

Several posters have asked how I arrived at the salary and stipend numbers in my earlier post. Here's the method:

1) Salaries at my (public) university were a matter of public record, as mandated by state law. Current salaries for all employees, including full-time tenured faculty, were kept in a ledger book in the University Archives, and were accessible to any member of the university. Some salary enhancements (from discretionary funds) might not show up there, but a little discreet questioning would elicit the amounts of most of them.

2. Salaries and stipends for adjuncts and TAs were actually more difficult to determine. Some adjuncts, for example, were considered part-time unionized faculty. (The faculty at my university were UUP.) They were supposed to be paid a percentage of the full-time Lecturer or Instructor pay scale established by the union contract. In practice, the percentages were manipulated to arrive at the desired salary amount. Thus, although a full-time tenured faculty member carried a teaching load of two courses per semester, an adjunct teaching three or four courses would be considered to be carrying a .5 load, in order to manipulate the stipend down to the amount the department was able and willing to pay.

Other adjuncts and TAs were paid on lines that were intended to be used only for independent contractors performing one-time jobs for the university, with no definite end date. Salaries for these positions did not increase when the union part-time lines went up. This was an abuse, and our local UUP chapter was finally able to stop it.

Finally, as to operating costs: yes, they will be there in any department's budget. They are virtual costs; the department doesn't actually write a check to the university, but they are charged against the department's budget. The same "Deep Throat" methods can elicit a figure in round numbers for these. Let's assume that operating costs are spread equally across all classes taught in the department. (Does it cost more to keep the lights on in a class taught by an adjunct?) Then the net gain to the department from having classes taught by TAs and adjuncts can be reasonably figured.

I should add that my department chair eventually admitted that my figures and perceptions were accurate; this was exactly what was going on. The faculty saw it as the only way to save their Ph.D. program from the ax.

In the year I produced these figures, 97% of all introductory English department courses (100 and 200-level) were taught by TAs and adjuncts.

I was devastated -- this is very demoralizing stuff -- but I think that in order to clean up the mess graduate education has become, we have to look at it clearly and see every bitter detail for what it is.

(PS: I'm not a man...)

Posted by: charpressler at January 16, 2004 12:15 PM

For what it is worth, I started as a full payinig MA student and was able to get a tution waiver and stipend after my first semester. I enjoyed grad school and did well but eventually decided that I could continue to pile up debt knowing that to get a job I would have to be willing to move anywhere and take any job. I stopped at the MA and taugh at a community college for a short while. Eventually I got a job in the state legisalture and had to answer students questions about the slashing of higher ed funding!

I would really love to go back and get my PhD but simply can't make it work money wise as I simple make too much money to return to a student life (house, cars, student debt, etc.)

One thing I found interesting in grad school at a MAC state university was that many of those accepted looked very good on paper but lacked many skills to succeed (interpesonal skills, mental toughness, original thinking, etc.). Perhaps it is just my own bias but a system that provided for determined but not neccesarily traditionally qualified students might make the system more balanced.

As I said, take it for what it is worth . . .

Posted by: Kevin Holtsberry at January 16, 2004 12:19 PM

Thanks for clearing that up charpressler.
However, somethings doesnt seem to add up. A recap of your original formular was

dept. surplus = (# students taught by TA/adjuncts) * (amt of money brought in by state and tuition per student) - (cost of stripends)

So with your additional information, we can deduct the running costs of the department. I suppose with some digging we can get the insurance costs and grad student tuition waver as well. Therefore we get this :

dept. surplus = (# students taught by TA/adjuncts) * (amt of money brought in by state and tuition per student) - (cost of stripends+insurance) - (cost of TA tuition) - (running cost)

1. The main thing that I dont get is how do you approximate the amt of money that goes into YOUR department from each student? Say each student pays 3000 a semester for tuition. How much of it goes into your department? This money goes to pay lots of stuff. We cannot simply look at a dept. operating budget per fiscal year and claim that this is the tuition & state funds brought in by the students into the department. Departments which have smaller enrollemnts can have a larger budget because their faculty are world renowned. Departments which have outreach programs or other special programs are allocated more money even if their enrollements are small. There are many more reasons. Thus the approximation of the "amount of tuition plus state funding brought in by each student in these classes." is I think rather diffcult.

2. I am unclear of what consistutes number of students taught by adjuncts/TAs. Perhaps an example will be easier to explain. Say there are 100 students in a class. This class is headed by a faculty prof and 10 TAs. Hence # of students taught by TAs is 100. However, it is also true that the number of students taught by tenured prof is also 100. Simply plugging 100 into "# of students taught by TA" ignores the fact that the prof teachs the same 100 students as well. Thus the calculation will be accurate only if you considered # of students taught EXCLUSIVELY by TAs/adjuncts.

Now in effect, almost ALL students can be considered "taught" by TAs in one way or another, since almost every class has TAs (grading etc). Problem is when classes are taught ONLY by TAs with no faculty at all (this means that 1 professor lecturing to 500 students 3 times a week with 25 TAs with 10 students each doesnt count), which incidentally I dont think that actually happens. Thus I think that any analysis shouldnt lump TAs and adjuncts together since to have adjuncts completely resoponsible for a class is more common. One can make a stonger case using only adjuncts.

I am not trying to be diffcult here, but numbers can be misleading if we are not careful.;)

Posted by: Passing_through at January 16, 2004 01:55 PM

"Problem is when classes are taught ONLY by TAs with no faculty at all..., which incidentally I dont think that actually happens." Really?

Let me give you some hard numbers. I spend 6 years getting a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. From the moment I set foot on campus (or "grounds" as they say at Jefferson's university) until my fifth year, I taught 2 courses a semester, as did every other student in the department. That's 20 independent section that I taught, with 25-30 students per section. No faculty were involved in any way, except for a non-tenure track language coordinator who helped with the syllabus. By the end of my graduate career, I was teaching 300 level classes unsupervised. Some of my peers taught 400 level courses.

Judging from the offers I received atother Spanish programs, this type of teaching load is a little higher than most but not by much.

Posted by: Frolic at January 16, 2004 02:39 PM

The Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan has compiled a lot of the figures over the years, and since the economics grad students do most of the data gathering and crunching they account for a lot of variables (including health care programs, administrative costs, etc.). When I was there, the biggest shift in dollars was from teachers (both professors and TAs) to administrators, it even outpaced health care increases!

I taught 1 history course completely unsupervised as a "TA." My English and Language housemates taught every semester completely unsupervised in comp and languages.

Posted by: David Salmanson at January 16, 2004 03:04 PM

"Problem is when classes are taught ONLY by TAs with no faculty at all ... which incidentally I dont think that actually happens." - Passing_through (#15)

Almost every single 100 and 200 level course in the English dept. at my large, state university is taught by a graduate student. For many years at my school, the "assistant" in TA has been a misnomer. Teachers of Comp are trained by other TAs through a series of pedagogy meetings and have a rather nice set of guidelines to help them out. 200 level teachers are given a 'faculty mentor.' In some cases, the mentors provide helpful suggestions. In others, the TA never hears from their mentor.

This setup is changing slightly. Due to slashes in the budget, the dept. is shifting towards a model where several (about 5 or 6) of the most common 200 level classes are going to be taught by one professor as a large lecture (instead of several sections) - 150-225 students - with 3 TAs for grading.

All other 100 and 200 level courses are still taught by graduate students.

Incidentally, in our dept., a TA is on a limited timeline. Usually after 4 years of TA support, they become "lecturers." For this, their teaching load *increases*, their pay *decreases*, and they have absolutely no job security from semester to semester - the dept. is under no obligation to renew their contract.

Posted by: abd at January 16, 2004 06:13 PM

I'm sure PassingThrough means well, but when he asserts that he can't believe TAs teach classes without supervision--he's showing he's out of touch. Trust me, PassingThrough, a huge number of classes are taught solely by TAs, or by advanced grad students who have been deputized as "Instructors" or "Lecturers" but are still finishing their PhD. At the Big 10 school I attended a large number of the lower-level classes in the history department were taught by grad students--many just entering their 3d year, ie, students who had just gotten their MA degrees. In English and composition it was, frankly, worse. And even when Professors teach these classes, they are chiefly delivering lectures; the instructors who students actually have contact with are, again, graduate student TAs.

Posted by: at January 16, 2004 06:22 PM


As a (nearly finished, thank God) grad student, I've been a TA for 12 quarters (about 50 students per term), and I've taught a total of 12 independent courses at my PhD institution and two other schools as an adjunct. In that time, my supervision has consisted of the following.

One ambitious assistant Prof. for whom I TA'd came to my section one day, and wrote up a detailed wonderful report on my performance. He was quickly socialized into spending his time in other ways.

A less ambitious professor came to my section to observe and immediately slept through the whole thing.

That's it.

My independent courses have never been observed by anyone--department chairs, faculty advisors, anyone. No professor has ever reviewed a syllabus I've used. My committee members don't really even remember what courses I'm teaching (and they're not negligent or dismissive when it comes to supervising my research). Occasionally, to make conversation, a professor will ask how a class is going. If I say something other than fine, their eyes start to glass over.

In addition to the TAs who fill out the big courses (and the ratio of 10 students to TA is way off--we're lucky to have 50:1 in our department), graduate students payed as TAs teach about 1/3 of the undergraduate courses independently. To the best of my knowledge, they only get any supervision if there are multiple complaints.

Finally, I'm teaching my department's biggest introductory class right now, with four TAs working under me. No faculty have anything to do with this course in any way. One of my roommates is doing the same thing for the economics department.

On a personal level, this doesn't really bother me--I know I'm a better teacher than most of these faculty anyway. But the practice you assume couldn't actually happen is quite common.

Posted by: DJW at January 16, 2004 08:02 PM

The statement "Problem is when classes are taught ONLY by TAs with no faculty at all ... which incidentally I dont think that actually happens.". was wrong. Let me clarify.

In the calculation, a vital component was the amount of money undergraduates bring into the program. In point #1 in my previous post I have raised questions why this number was difficult to estimate. That aside, from the equation, it is clear that charpressler was refering to students taught by the ENTIRE english department, not just introductory english classes. Otherwise, approximating the amount of money will be even more complex. (Yes I know that english classes are mandatory, thus consitute large number of students. However, english is also a popular major/minor which I believe required one to take more than just intro. writing.)
Since all classes have TAs. Thus it follows that the statement: '100% of classes are taught by TAs' is also true. From the formular given by charpressler, it is unclear if she adjusted for classes taught ONLY by TAs without any profs at all. In a case of 1 prof lecturing to 500 students with 10 TAs, # students taught by TAs is 500. Number of students taught by faculty is still 500. Actual number of students taught only by TAs is 0.
(incidentally, I made a math error. 25 TAs with 10 students each dont add up to 500. My bad.)

The are good reasons not to lump TAs and adjuncts together. For one, the job scope of a TA is wider than that of an adjunct. Some TAs grade more, others teach more. Some do a little of both and bring the video. (I have taken intro english class where we watch parts of some movies and the prof's assistant showed up with the movie. Hey it was a lit. type movie.) If the hypothesis is that departments accept more grad students than necessary as a means to support the program, why lump adjuncts in as well? If majority of intro classes are taught exclusively by TAs, why lump adjuncts in as well? Clouds the analysis.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 16, 2004 10:03 PM

Rana, Miriam, Robert,
Thanks very much! Feeling much better :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 16, 2004 10:10 PM

Passing_through: A further clarification.

The situation at my university's English department was like the situation explained in a number of other posts. The possibly misnamed TAs were instructors of record for the English classes they taught. They chose the readings, set the syllabus, taught each class themselves and turned in the final grades. However, their syllabi were reviewed by the faculty member in charge of composition classes.

A one-semester training course was provided for new TAs, and again, the impetus for the training, and most of the lesson plans and lectures, came from other graduate student TAs. While I was there, no graduate-level seminars in the teaching of writing were offered, except for that first semester orientation course for new TAs. This may have changed.

Graduate students and adjuncts typically taught 100 and 200-level courses, but a number of dissertation-stage graduate students (myself included) taught 300-level courses, even courses that were requirements for the English major. I was paid $4000 per semester for teaching one such course, and had a hard time prying health insurance out of the department. I was told it was a honor to be asked, but it has since become regular practice.

"Adjuncts" at my university were, for the most part, graduate students who had outlived their funding without getting a full-time job. I don't think there was an important difference between the two categories, except that adjuncts were paid less than than graduate student TAs (who had less experience at teaching than they did), and they did not get tuition waivers, though they were required to pay one credit hour of tuition per semester to keep up their graduate student status.

The status of adjuncts may be different at smaller colleges. One smaller state college (at which I also taught) hired mainly retired high school English teachers to teach its first-year writing courses. No full-time faculty member taught the first year writing course, though they all complained that their students couldn't write.

As far as tuition: Our university, like many state universities, figures undergraduate tuition on a per-credit-hour basis, with a lump sum tuition being charged for a full-time course load (defined as, if I remember correctly, 12-15 credit hours per semester). Using a per-credit-hour figure for the tuition makes it easier to estimate the dollar amount of tuition paid per student per English course.

Hope this helps explain the logic of my figures further. Yes, it really is that bad.

Posted by: charpressler at January 17, 2004 01:39 AM

Thanks charpressler, but there lies the problem.
"Using a per-credit-hour figure for the tuition makes it easier to estimate the dollar amount of tuition paid per student per English course."

Imagine that there are 1000 students and each takes a 3 credit hour english class. Each credit hour costs $1. Does this mean that the english department rakes in (1000*3*1) $3000? Nope. The money goes to pay lots of different things. If it was the case:

The richest departments will be English. While this department probably has more faculty than say aerospace engineering, perhaps even 3-4 times more, they can easily rake in more "credit hour dollars" than anyone else. Besides, english professors are relatively cheaper to hire than engineering profs. A young prof on the tenure track in engineering probably makes approximately what a full tenured prof in english makes.
Gee higher income (more credit hours dollars) and lower expenditure (profs are cheaper to hire), the english dept must be flushed with cash!

But this doesnt happen does it? Nope.
The problem isnt so much which group is exploiting another, but that departments are not well funded to start with. Tweaking with how to split the pie isnt productive when there isnt that much to go around. Does anyone actually believe that paying everyone in the english department salaries according to how many hours they teach is going to sovle anything? Big name academics (nobel,etc) dont usually teach many classes, but they attract resources to the departments they are affiliated with.

How many writing instructors tell their students that the ablility to write well is a valuable skill highly sought after by employers? Dont see many of them profs raking in the big bucks. And I am sure that they can write really well. Why is that? Why do we not value them as much as we should? More importantly, what can they do to make us "value" them more?

Posted by: Passing_through at January 17, 2004 11:34 AM