Is Grad School a Scam?
In just a few weeks I will begin the next phase of my intellectual career: graduate school. It’s a hazing ritual, rite of passage, cognitive fitness program, and clan indoctrination all rolled into one! But right now in the academic world, there is talk going around about whether or not graduate school is what it should be.
The most interesting argument about graduate education is Just Don’t Go. Particularly pushed by English Professor William Pannapacker of Hope College, he has most recently published an article in Slate on reforming higher education. Briefly, Pannapacker’s argument is the following:
1. Graduate students in the humanities are both naive and typically mislead about the job opportunities available after graduation – namely, that there are very few, and getting one is a matter of luck rather than skill.
2. The academic system is an exploitation racket wherein an overglut of underpaid grad students and Ph.D teach undergrads, who do not deserve inexperienced teachers.
3. As such, the system needs to be updated, through pressure from the grad students (unions) and from the undergraduates (demanding colleges who use full professors for teaching). The system is unwilling and unable to change itself.
4. Graduate school in the humanities does not do an adequate job of giving students skills which are useful outside the humanities, thus trapping them.
5. You can’t make money or get job security from graduate school in the humanities and this fundamentally makes it a scam.
Now, I believe that Pannapacker is making a lot of astute points. He is taking a lot of heat at least in part because he is challenging the fundamental vision of what graduate school is. It is supposedly a place where reasonable adults discuss exciting things and add to existing human knowledge. It is hard work, of course, but very rewarding. Pannapacker bluntly points out that one of the implicit rewards – that the student will get paid to do this sort of thing for the rest of professional life – simply doesn’t exist anymore.
However, he swings the pendulum too far toward a monetary valuation of a graduate degree. Grad school is a scam in his mind both to the grad student (who loses the chance to earn high wages or advance in another fulfilling career elsewhere) and the system in general, because of the resounding negative effect the oversupply of qualified graduates has on wages for everybody. Plus, undergrads shouldn’t be taught by inexperienced grad students. A lot of other grad students I’ve discussed this with are offended by this particular point, because new teachers have to start somewhere. If they are thrown to the lonely front of the classroom with no support from a professor immediately out of the gate, that speaks to bad practices in general at a university and not to grad student teachers in particular. A comparable example is that new doctors perform surgeries under the guidance of more experienced surgeons; ideally, this is the practice in for university teaching as well.
Personally, I think of my TA position as job training, not Pannapacker-esque exploitation. Admittedly, I probably won’t get a job in academia, but if I didn’t go to grad school at all my chances of staying in the academy would be zero, so there you go.
“I can only recommend graduate school in the humanities—and, increasingly, the social sciences and sciences—if you are independently wealthy, well-connected in the field you plan to enter (e.g., your mom is the president of an Ivy League university), or earning a credential to advance in a position you already hold, such as a high-school teacher, and even then, a master’s degree is enough.”
As though only the independently wealthy deserve to spend their time doing things which take up a lot of time/moneyand which may not have a future doing that one activity alone. Replace “getting a Ph.D” with almost any other activity and the inherent arrogance of the statement is clear. Only travel if you are independently wealthy or well-connected. Only develop an interest in producing art or music if you are independently wealthy. Only develop a taste for fine wine and food if you are independently wealthy. You get the idea. Apparently anyone without an inheritence doesn’t deserve to fritter away a few years getting paid to do stuff they like.
One blogger points out that going to grad school is comparable to many other jobs available to people in their early twenties in that they are low paying and require a lot of hours. However, it also results in no bodily harm, which can be a huge increase in the quality of life for working-class students.
I will give Pannapacker credit for calling out the self-serving, and perhaps even self-deluding, element of higher ed. For example, I recently read an article in the local Santa Barbara (where I am currently living) weekly paper about tuition and the distribution of resources in the UC system. A history professor at UCSB, Mary O. Furner, was quoted wringing her hands about the fact that grauate students choose to attend programs which fully provide for their financial needs (as well they should – no one should ever, ever pay for a grad degree in the humanities). She is worth quoting at length:
“UCSB history professor Mary O. Furner echoed Miranze…[is] worried about recruitment of both professors — ‘We are desperately short-staffed in the History Department,’ she said — and graduate students. ‘We might admit [graduate students], and then they get an offer for five years of full payment from a private university, and they go, even though they know they would get a better education here,’ continued Furner. The National Research Council recently rated UCSB’s graduate history program among the nation’s top 10.
Furner is worried about the future. ‘It’s through grad students that fields reproduce themselves… When baby boomer generation professors retire, will there be enough PhDs out there to sustain our commitment to higher education?‘”
It is her last statement which is particularly reprehensible. Only half of all students enrolled in a history Ph.D program in the U.S. will finish; of those that complete the dissertation, only half will find tenure-track (read: more secure than hand-to-mouth) jobs anywhere, much less places they would actually like to live. It is absolutely ugly, even morally wrong, to suggest that there is a shortage of history graduate students in order to manipulate the public. It also misleads potential graduate students.
Part of the reason she wants more grad students is explicitly stated – areas of interest are passed on to the next generation – but part of it is the economics of higher ed. Adjuncts with short-term contracts, high teaching loads, and few benefits are hired all around the country as universities respond to budget crises by cutting full-time faculty positions. They often take the least glamorous classes, and because they are paid per class taught they are much cheaper than full professors, who have research time and service activities like sitting on admissions committees worked into their schedule. Grad students also help ease the burden of teaching. Thus Dr. Furner’s plea for more grad student money is partially a ploy to relieve the pressure from both administrators harping on the budget and the demand for classes from a large student population.
Such disingenuous rhetoric helps no one, least of all the public and future grad students. We should be able to talk honestly about the realities of the market and what the “cut everything” mentality does to warp university behavior. Universities are like hospitals in that they make certain choices guided by ethical principles rather than strict economic analysis, so when they butt up against hard times the problems can be quite tricky. This blog by a community college dean in the northeast is a fantastic example of some productive conversations which are happening right now.
So what do I expect from my graduate education? I expect to enjoy it for what it is, as it is happening, rather than treating it like the first step of my inevitable journey through the Academy. Unlike many unhappy graduates, if I don’t find a job that makes me happy after a few good hard years of trying, I will do something else. This doesn’t make me a failure or undedicated (though I am sure that some of my colleagues will secretly think this of me). Of course, Pannapacker would still call me a fool for getting a history degree anyway, but at least for me, the chance to get paid to read and discuss interesting ideas rewards me more than any alternative could.