Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Someone is Wrong on the Internet (about higher education)

Reform the PhD System or Close It Down - Slashdot

This article, and pretty much everyone commenting on it in slashdot, is entirely wrong. Okay, not entirely wrong, it's pretty well documented that the market for tenure track professorships is a lot smaller than the pool of applicants, but the proposal for repairing this problem (if it is a problem) is hilariously wrong. Proposal in a nutshell:

Problem Statement:

This is actually in three parts:
1. Communication is deeply inhibited by overspecialization and university politics
2. Schools are under financial pressure
3. Graduate programs admit and graduate more people than the market for Ph.D. level jobs will support.

Proposed Solution:

1. Fire everyone - Our Columbia religion professor wants to join all the country's universities into an online meta-university and outsource disciplines to their best in breed programs.

Why this is hilariously wrong:

For starters, his "solution" solves exactly one of the problems he identifies: financial pressure. Incidentally, that's the least important and least discussed of his problem points. I see no conceivable way in which going to an online, geographically distributed academic environment would help inter and intra departmental communication. As someone who works on a highly geographically distributed academic project (http://www.vectorbase.org) I can vouch for the difficulty of communication, even in the Internet Age. Universities deal with financial pressure in the same way that businesses deal with financial pressure, they fire people. They have been dropping departments for some time due to financial pressure. They've also been turning tenured professorships into research positions, and hiring piles of post-docs and increasing, you guessed it, the number of graduate students in the university. The problem's being identified are due in large part to financial pressure. Grad students do some of the same stuff professors do, but for a lot less money. If there are a good number of them, they can free up professors for their real jobs: securing large amounts of external funding. The whole reason this system continues is because it makes so much financial sense, so let's just go ahead and admit that financial pressure isn't the problem here.

In the interest of keeping this post readably short I wont go into my thoughts on the communication and "too many ph.d." problems, but here's a brief teaser for the next post, which will inevitably be a long and irate discussion of precisely those thoughts:

1. Communication - I've long thought that in this universe of extreme specialization, we might need a new class of thinker whose primarily role is to help people communicate and work together effectively and efficiently. I imagine that a good use for a lot of unemployed ph.d. students, especially from broad/abstract fields like philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and english might do well in these sorts of roles with mild changes to their training regimes. Something to think about.

2. Too many Ph.D. - It's not entirely clear to me who is being hurt here. Universities certainly benefit from a big pile of eager indentured servants to the ivory tower. Said indentured servants might not get enormously well paying jobs, or even jobs in their fields, but my A&L Ph.D friends aren't exactly ignorant of that fact, and they seem to enjoy the whole doing the thing they love most at a living wage for a pleasant stretch of extended adolescence. Hanging out with smart people thinking about interesting things for 5 or 6 all-expense-paid years isn't a bad gig, really. If you do happen to get a job in that field then you get to, you know, hang out with smart people and think about interesting things forever. Otherwise, you get to join the big pile of B.A. and M.S. people in the general rat race for jobs. You lost 4-6 years of your youth doing something awesome and fun and probably met great friends and your future spouse. Oh, Darn. My only concern with that is really from a truth in advertising perspective about the prospects of employment for Ph.D.s.


  1. Crap, I wrote a nice long response and it somehow got lost when I tried to post it. Fuck you, blogger.

    The short version: I think you are not putting enough importance on how much we need "truth in advertising". I'm not sure I agree that it's a nice 4-6 year diversion that may result in your dream job but otherwise doesn't hurt that much. Also, it's much worse in the humanities than in science/engineering, which may be why you see it so differently than the original author.

  2. I'm not sure how the pitch is for humanities people, but at least in my undergrad no one thinking about english lit or philosophy ph.d.s seemed really optimistic about their job prospects, and I think they have more fun than STEM people during their work. I'm not saying the situation is great, but these are smart people we're talking about. They're not confused about their situation, and they are doing it anyway. Unless people are saying things like "you are guaranteed job prospects as a result of this humanities ph.d. you are pursuing" I just don't really see how spending your early twenties being supported through a hobby is really that bad.