Stop admitting Ph.D. students?

Psychology professor Leslie Harris published a provocative column yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, in which she explains why she no longer accepts Ph.D. students into her lab at the University of Kentucky:

After a few years of watching the academic job market collapse into a seeming death spiral, I also started to wonder whether my “full disclosure” strategy of trying to scare off prospective graduate students was adequate. I started to entertain the possibility that if the problem was too many qualified applicants for too few jobs, then perhaps the responsible – even ethical – course of action would be for me to stop contributing to the oversupply of applicants.

So, a few weeks ago I revised my departmental web page to include the following statement: “Notice to prospective graduate students: I will not be accepting new students in my lab for the indefinite future.”

.       .       .       .      .       .      

I think academia shares many of the classic elements of a social trap: It is in most faculty members’ and departments’ best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out Ph.D.s is one of the major metrics of departmental “success.” Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues. I have served as chair or co-chair of 13 Ph.D. students in my career, a number I’m guessing is typical of most research faculty. Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn’t sustainable. We’re not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today’s economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well.

The comments on her article at IHEare all over the place–from people accusing her of deciding not to do part of her job and of patronizing grad students, to people who applaud her decision.  After all, she stands to lose prestige among her colleagues in her university as well as within her profession generally if she doesn’t work with Ph.D. students.

My department doesn’t have a Ph.D. program, but we have a strong M.A. in public history as well as a department with research emphases in environmental history and U.S. Western history that seems to do well by our students.  Our students have been admitted to Ph.D. programs at Southern Methodist University, UCLA, and Notre Dame, for example, and our public history grads are fully employed.  Even my former M.A. thesis students who didn’t concentrate in public history have jobs they enjoy, which is a big relief.  And now that we have the funding to provide most of our graduate students T.A.-ships for two years, that means that many of our students can get a free M.A. degree and be fully employable as a public historian, which seems like just about the least exploitative graduate program around.  (Most History departments with Ph.D. students treat the M.A. students as cash cows, because they usually pay full tuition and are not eligible for T.A.-ships or other graduate fellowships.) 

So I’m just fine with training our M.A. students, and will participate as fully as I can in our graduate program.  There’s a real limit to that, since I’m neither an environmental nor a U.S. Western historian, but there are a few people who are interested in my fields in every class.  I’m not working nearly as hard with graduate students as some of my colleagues, but I reap the benefits of a T.A. whenever I teach a large survey class.  But I’m also fine with Harris’s decision not to accept Ph.D. students–after all, nous devons cultiver notre jardins, n’est-ce pas?  (As the Isley Brothers have taught us, “it’s your thing, do whatcha wanna do!”)

If you teach in a department that grants graduate degrees, have you (like Harris) re-thought your work with graduate students?  What do you think about Harris’s decision, whether you teach graduate students or not.?

0 thoughts on “Stop admitting Ph.D. students?

  1. The only thing that struck me as uncool with Harris’s piece was when she said that she intended to use data collected by other people’s grad students for her research, which, I don’t know, seemed sort of a problem in her whole principled stand. (I haven’t read the comments to her piece, but I did read the piece itself yesterday.) I suppose what I’d say, though, is that while it’s her prerogative to make the choice (and I think it’s fine that she do so), I also think that the teaching load (in terms of courses taught) at a research university assumes that one has a further teaching responsibility to supervise and serve on committees for graduate students. If you don’t do those things – for whatever reason – I’d imagine that you should take on a teaching responsibility in its place. Working with undergrads on research (as she noted) would be one way to do that, or perhaps taking on an additional course. Perhaps I’m thinking this way especially because I’m imagining in a single-author field like mine there are pretty much no consequences to one’s research for not having graduate students, and I don’t think reputation would be adversely affected if one was still employed at a place with a PhD program. Although your local colleagues would probably hate you at your place of employment….

    As to the gesture she’s making, I think it’s fine. I don’t think it solves the problems with graduate study and use of grad students in the US on a large scale, but maybe if more people did it, too? I don’t know.


  2. I think she’s making a very principled stand and really one of the few ethical stands in this day and age. (Other such ethical positions include faculty members who won’t accept students if that professor is going to be on leave their first year and those professors who take no more than one student any given year but then go a few years without taking a student.) This doesn’t solve the problem of graduate study or the issue of not turning adjunct positions into valuable tenure track lines but while those problems aren’t being solved, I think professors should do what little they can to avoid herding countless numbers of people into a sinking ship.

    (And yes, I know there’s a counterargument about how there are students who feel like this is the only thing they can do with their lives and how can we crush their dreams and their pursuit of a calling but frankly, there will always be a university that needs said students to teach its composition and intro courses so somebody will take them. Plus, and I suspect this is a bit controversial, I think the argument that “it’s a calling” is really just a way of refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything wrong with graduate education and the jobs supply line. Hey, if it’s a calling, it doesn’t matter how much time/life is wasted or how degrading the work conditions are, does it?)


  3. We’re lousy with graduate students here, and it doesn’t help us or them. Not only is it increasingly difficult for them to find jobs – tenure tracks jobs, with the proverbial $100K plushness, or even migrant jobs, held in bunches and paid in banana peels. But, in this Dickensian age, our financial commitment to them also hampers our ability to preserve core teaching areas and hire new faculty. Understandably, no one wants to be the first to cut graduate student support.


  4. I know I’m an old-fashioned curmudgeon, and as things currently stand, I’m unlikely to be put in the position of supervising any doctoral candidates. But it seems that we devalue education if we assume that the “ethical” thing to do is to treat the PhD as specifically designed to lead to a particular kind of job. In other areas (e.g., at the undergraduate level), I’m always inclined to fight against the logic that says education is all about vocational training. So why should I believe that the PhD is all about vocational training, and therefore believe that teaching someone a subject can be evaluated only by the outcome of a job received or not received? But then, I work in English, where at the undergraduate level, English majors almost always take jobs other than “English worker.” But it does seem to me that the “PhD job crisis” is only a crisis if we treat the PhD as a vocational degree. In my utopian dream world, we educators teach those who love to learn, because they love to learn.


  5. Now that I’ve had a good cry, I have to agree Dr. Crazy that Harris’s intention to use data collected by other people’s grad students for her research is off-putting. If the data has been made publicly available (say, if it was funded by the NIH or NSF), then that is acceptable and encouraged. But unless she is going to have an army of undergraduate research assistants, or she’s going to stick with secondary analysis of existing data sets, I don’t see how she’ll be able to produce publications.

    Psychology is rarely a single-author field and requires continued collaboration with other scholars (and their labs) to produce quality data. Will her current collaborators back off if they know she no longer has the graduate students needed to produce data?


  6. But, Tom, the PhD (at least in the humanities) is the qualification for only one job, that of being a professor. Sure, there are tons of things people with PhDs can do but only one job that requires a PhD. So it is, in fact, vocational training: exam fields are supposed to have some relationship to teaching competencies; research papers are supposed to lead, in theory, to journal publications; on and on.

    Moreover, surely there are less financially and mentally costly ways to pursue of love of learning. I just don’t come from a mindset where 7-8 years of education beyond a college degree are undertaken just ’cause. We’re all taking a gamble: the gamble that the years we’re in graduate school not making a respectable wage, not building up savings, not buying houses, not contributing to retirement accounts will translate into a stable job in academia. One of the great points made somewhere in the recent “retire early” debate pointed out that academics really don’t get careers started and/or stable until their mid-30s and early 40s. That’s incredibly costly and enormous sacrifices are being made. If we were talking about romantic relationships in similar terms, we’d all be saying “it’s not just about the love.”

    I’d also like to add that even though professors like to talk about how it’s all about the love, universities are unscrupulously exploiting student labor, to say nothing of the horror stories we all hear (and some of us have experienced first hand) about graduate student/advisor interactions. It’s mighty hard to wax eloquent about the love of learning when one’s being treated grossly unfairly or one’s watching others be treated grossly unfairly.


  7. I teach at a PhD granting institution, but one that is weak in my field (read: I’m the only person in my field, and we don’t have any representation at all in three of the four contiguous fields). Yet, still we receive applications in my area, which I routinely reject because I know that student would not be getting a truly competitive degree at the end of 6-7 years. Who has the better training: someone with a degree from OPU, who has worked with exactly one professor in hir field, with the rest of hir committee being faculty in unrelated areas? or the person with a degree from a program with 3-4 specialists in hir field and all the adjoining ones?

    The only time I have contravened this principle was when the applicant seemed to be looking for training that seemed very close to my own area of specialization. And still I found that it was extremely difficult to train a student all by myself, with no other faculty support or voices. I don’t think I will ever try it again unless the configuration of our faculty changes.


  8. Squadrato–your situation is much like mine, only because I’m an Americanist (at least that’s what they say), there are more people working in affiliated fields around me. (Well, I actually have 2 colleages in early American history–an African American historian who’s also a colonial/antebellum scholar, and an early Republic scholar.) So turning away hoards of students who are dying to work with us is just not in the cards.

    I appreciate the perspective of those of you who have more of a sense of what research in psychology looks like. But, it sounds like Harris is prepared for the consequences that her decision on grad students will have on her research agenda.

    I didn’t get the sense that she wouldn’t work with any grad students whatsoever–just that she isn’t going to be the principal advisor to any of them, nor will they be permitted into her lab. She still can teach grad courses and serve as a second reader on their dissertations–at least, she doesn’t claim that she’s refusing to work at all with grad students. I teach a grad course every few years and sit on the exams for most of those students–but they’re 8 times out of 10 not *my* students.

    I hear what thefrogprincess is saying, but I think in the end I’m with Tom: no one has a gun to hir head, and there are worse ways of spending one’s 20s and early 30s if one is fully aware of the lack of job security that a Ph.D. will afford. Still, I respect the decison that other faculty (like Harris) have made not to participate in graduate education fully.


  9. I think the problem here is that it is an attempt to solve a systemic problem with individual action. I’d be more impressed if the program decided to cut it’s enrollment to say 1/3 of its current level, and cycle among faculty… I’m not convinced that you absolutely need graduate students to do research in psychology; I certainly have colleagues who run their own experiments, and people at non Ph.D. institutions manage to do research. Sure, grad students speed up the process, but you can do it yourself. You just don’t get as much data as quickly, and probably don’t publish as much. But maybe that would be good?


  10. I loved doing my PhD- don’t regret it for a moment, and even if this long line of temporary contracts in academia doesn’t turn into a permanent job, I will have loved the journey. But, and it is a big but, I got funding for my tuition plus living expenses and (being in the UK), I did my PhD in three years so I didn’t give up a huge chunk of my life or earning potential, so perhaps it wouldn’t seem as if I had to make a change as in the US. I think education is worthwhile for it’s own sake and hugely pleasurable- and if you want to do that with your life, and are aware of the potential risk that you’ll not get a job in the field, then why should universities limit that due to a perception that a PhD is just a vocational course?


  11. I have to agree with Susan that a more principled stand would have been convincing her department to accept fewer grad students overall. The system that exploits grad students primarily as cheap labor rather than seeing them as the future professoriate does need to be addressed.

    I have to say, though, that this feels unnecessarily hostile toward prospective students and seems to shift the responsibility for this problem away from the university and onto the student who dares to think that graduate school is the right move for him/her. I also wonder what would happen to the field if this “principled” stand became more common; would there be a resultant brain drain as the brightest students failed to find professors willing to work with them for no other reason than that the professor thinks there are too many PhD students?


  12. There is a joke (but it’s also true) in Scotland that for every person taking a law degree in a single year to get a job as a lawyer, every other lawyer in the country would have to drop dead.

    On thinking about this broadly, should we then argue that as most u/grad students with psychology degrees won’t become psychologists, and most students with history or English degrees won’t become historians or writers of great literature that we should also limit the number of undergraduates? We don’t say this (although some might), because we think that these subjects have value and transferrable skills. Why is it different for a PhD? Is it just the cost and the time?

    And, with the time issue, it does sort of suggest that everybody is on a linear career path with some fabulous goal (riches and retirement) that you need to get on as early as you can to succeed- and if you take a wrong path, woe befall you. But, the reality is that the job market is no longer like that- most people will now change careers at least once, if not more, in their life (and this also seems to have historical resonance according to some early modernists!). Few of us will have a linear path to riches and retirement, and even fewer of us will see riches (and who knows about retirement anymore…) But, what if we don’t think about life like that? What happens if doing some enjoyable is worth being skint for a while (or even forever)?


  13. Feminist Avatar, I think the time issue is key for me. Three years spent getting a PhD and things not working out as one planned strikes me as no harm, no foul. But for all kinds of reasons that probably start somewhere in middle school, US students don’t get the kind of high school education that leads to the kind of college degree that leads to a 3 yr PhD. With a national average of 8-9 years for a history PhD, I just think the glibness about the kind of commitment that people are making, almost always with the sole goal of continuing in the profession, is just as unethical as the other means of exploitation that we all agree on. (Not that I think you’re being glib, FA, but it’s certainly out there.) But also, unlike a college degree, which in this country at least, is a prerequisite for so many jobs regardless of the specific major, PhDs are specifically specialist training. And my question, if we’re taking the idea of getting a job in one’s field off the table, is: specialist training for what?

    And as for whether such a stance as Harris’s would create a brain drain? I don’t think there are enough people who care about the lives of their students enough to take such a stance and as long as universities require graduate students to teach and TA, somebody will take these students when the Leslie Harrises won’t.

    (And, squadratomagico, I wish more faculty members saw things as you do. It is indeed important, for intellectual and practical reasons, to have a cohort of relevant faculty working with a student, rather than having students isolated with just one professor.)


  14. I agree that the time commitment is not something to be glib about, but I guess I think we also need to treat people as adults who can make decisions about the course of their lives. I have a friend who went to art school and 15 years later he works in a supermarket to pay his bills and spends the rest of his time painting (from which he makes a bit of cash from time to time). He had a good degree- he could have got a ‘real’ (ie middle class, better paid) job, but chose to do something he enjoyed and live nearer the breadline. I admit this is a bohemian and romanticised existance and may become more problematic as he ages; it is certainly more problematic if you want to be a parent or have a certain level of income, but he’s happy.

    I personally could never see myself in a nine to five in an office type of life, so my alternatives to academia will never be opting in to that sort of middle class career ladder. If need be, I would prefer to work in a supermarket (where I have quite a number of years experience!) part-time and write history (and feminism), which is my passion. So for some people, if history/ English/ whatever is you passion and you want the experience of mastering the field then the time commitment may be less of an issue. And, I do think the PhD is more than just reading that could be done in your spare time- it is having access to mentors who read and comment on your work- who push and direct you to think bigger and more complexly. It’s about engagement with other scholars- these things aren’t available unless you have some sort of foot in the door of academia. And, for some people that might be worth the time commitment even without the end goal of a job; it might even be viewed as an experience worth having for it’s own sake (which is not to say it should be an exploitative experience).


  15. I dunno. Aren’t there non-academic jobs even for social psychologists?

    Believe me, even though I was the graduate coordinator of our M.A. program for more than a decade, I’m not a huge promoter of grad studies for everyone. An M.A. or even a Ph.D. in the humanities isn’t only for academics — we see a number of people go for this who’re combining it with public health, education, government or NGO positions.

    Even without that, I have seen many students who’re genuinely pursuing the M.A. without wanting an academic career. Sometimes we’re a stopgap as initial plans go awry (bailing out of the B.Ed., enrolling because a spouse or partner has relocated to our region) or, as I said, we have students who wish to advance beyond what a B.A. will offer. A fairly small percentage of our graduates go onto the doctorate, warned as best we can of the perils of planning on an academic career.

    If we just cut off all admissions, that’s as short-sighted a response as mindlessly admitting any plausible applicants. As academics, we need to consider what we’re teaching and how it relates to matters beyond higher education, itself. Historiann’s public history program is one example of how we’re already breaking out of the “grad school only for future profs” paradigm.

    The heartbreaking fact of the matter is that someone as caring as Dr. Harris appears to be would probably make a very good mentor for graduate students. But by ending her personal investment in the program, unilaterally, she’s not solving the problem for any of them.


  16. Both of my sisters are doctors. They spent four years in medical school, and upon graduation, were ‘matched’ to a job. The better they were as students, the better the job (and the more likely that it would be in the city of their choice), but no matter what, they were guaranteed a full-time job as a doctor. Because the American Medical Association makes sure that there are no more students admitted to medical school than there are solid positions for them on graduation.

    I wish we did the same by discipline. Or at least made some kind of vague coordinated effort towards such.


  17. three thoughts:

    First, I’m in grad school for the job. If there were no chance at all of me being employed after graduation, I’d be gone so fast you’d just see a me-shaped blur. As it is, I’m working my ass off to ensure that I’m as employable as possible. I’m going to get one of those unicorn tenure-track jobs, and god help anyone who gets in my way.

    Second, I think my adviser has unofficially adopted a policy like this. He often frets about the problem of getting jobs for the students he has now, and I don’t think he has plans to take on any more. He hasn’t come right out and said he’s out of the game, but that seems like what he’s doing. So this isn’t an isolated incident.

    Third, on the problem of solving systemic problems with individual action, “Things have their root and their branches.” No solution is going to come from above. Every individual adviser is going to have to solved the problem for hirself.


  18. rustonite–That’s a good point. Susan’s right that a systemic approach would be more meaningful, but you may well be right that if enough faculty go the Bartleby route and “prefer not to” take on grad students, they could effectively shut down a program.

    Don’t close yourself off from other career opportunities than being a professor. Whatever you do, you’ll be a scholar in the world and you’ll apply your training to your work. For example, based on some of the search committees I’ve been on in my department, real training and experience in public history on the CV of an active researcher is always a plus. So on your way to a backup plan if you don’t get a tt job, you might make yourself indispensible as a tt hire by pursuing the same training you could use outside of a classroom.


  19. I wouldn’t train my graduate school experience for anything. But I didn’t have to take on debt to do it. And I knew it wasn’t necessarily going to lead to the tenure track job. I made a lot of decisions that pretty much condemned me to being out of the profession (working on an obscure topic that many people told me was a second book topic, wanting to teach at a SLAC, being a white guy who did multi-cultural history/feminist inspired history that didn’t match-up with any clear department needs) I think the PhD in general needs some rethinking. I would have been happy to have been on a teaching track and all of my colleagues in my Upper School department are grad school refugees and probably would still be interested in doing degrees in history beyond their MAs or finishing their PhDs if there were a way to do it without giving up their current jobs.


  20. Susan’s comment @ 110.02 really resonates with me. The conversations about jobs, grad students and the meaning of the PhD in the humanities/social sciences remind me of the conversations about global warming. The problems are similar in that they require collective action at an unprecedented level of social organization, and yet we can only muster individual acts of virtue like refusing to take on new PhD students, installing fluorescent light bulbs or driving a hybrid. Personal virtue cannot solve problems of collective action.

    The problem is not whether or not Leslie Harris takes on new graduate students. The problem will not be solved by her program cutting admissions of new PhD students by 2/3rds. The problem of surplus grad students will only be solved if the universities and academic disciplines agree on the national level on how many PhDs will be needed in the future.

    The vast quantity of ink spilled on the subject for the last twenty years might be a step towards capping the number of History PhD students, but I seriously doubt it.


  21. Harris’s “personal virtue” may not accomplish what collective action would, but I don’t think that’s a reason to dismiss it as unimportant or ineffective. It sends a cautionary message to prospective graduate students that doesn’t seem to be getting through fully in other ways. It’s too easy to read IHE articles on the state of the job market and believe you will be the exception. It’s also very tempting to react to a mentor’s cautionary advice by taking it as a personal challenge to defy the odds.

    Harris’s action communicates to prospective students that it’s not about them, that the system in which they hope to succeed is broken, and that neither their brilliance nor motivation nor persistence — nor having Harris for an adviser — may be enough to overcome the odds.

    That’s an important message that a lot of us don’t really internalize until we go on the market for the first time and see things firsthand. I don’t see what she’s doing as “an attempt to solve a systemic problem with individual action.” It’s an attempt to refuse to be complicit. And it’s a statement about the problem addressed to an audience that, in spite of all the information out there, needs to better understand how the problem affects them. Unlike in the global warming analogy, her individual action may have a direct and positive effect on other individuals.


  22. Deborah’s right on here. It seems to me that Harris’s conscience won’t allow her to continue to herd a continuous stream of students into a broken system she’s powerless to fix. Deborah’s also right to note that graduate students (who are generally high achievers and hard workers) most frequently turn messages about a broken system into a challenge, if they don’t dismiss them altogether. I don’t know anybody in my program who doesn’t believe they will get a tenure-track job. It might be two years down the road (but not five to ten or never). In fact, I know people who are convinced they will get a job in their first year on the market and that said job will have a ludicrously low teaching load (as in less than 2-2).

    Even I would agree that, if somebody embarks on a PhD program and doesn’t care about the outcome, then there’s no problem. I just don’t know those people, I’m not convinced they really exist, and I really struggle to believe that the thousands of early-20-somethings who start graduate programs each year are all doing so without full or strong conviction that they’re going to get a job in the field. For what it’s worth, every single person outside academia that I’ve explained our time-to-degree rates and the less than great chance of getting a job after said time has been shocked and appalled. At some point we have to stop saying that it’s all okay b/c we’ve all chosen to be doing what we do, as though that makes the current situation fine.


  23. I have always been honest (or should I say blunt, since most are hopefully honest) with graduate students about the fields I teach, the tenure availability & likelihood it will be awarded to certain kinds of research, the struggles marginalized academics have, and honestly, where I teach, the issues they will have with “being over-educated” if they leave academe. I tell them, if you are here because you love learning and your willing to risk indefinite poverty, disappointment, and feeling caught in the inbetweenity then let’s do some work, if you really need to escape that trailer where your dad cooks meth (and yes, I do have students who do), then let’s talk about how you can follow your intellectual passions in school while also working on a profession-related degree like the MPH, law, SW, etc. that will still integrate the course work that drew you here. At the end of the day, students need to make up their own minds about what they want and how they will get it, part of our jobs is to empower them (through honest information and supportive/creative advising) to do it. In my mind, not taking grad students doesn’t really help them in this process because they can always find someone who will.

    I’ve never had a student come back to me and say “man, you were really negative and unhelpful” but I have had many, including one’s who stopped talking to me after I gave them the above advise, come back and say “thank you”


  24. The thing that prevented “collective action” back in the first great wave of the longue-duree job crisis was–and I’m not sure there’s a specific global warming analogue here, maybe there is–could have been expressed in the old Cold War metaphor about “unilateral disarmament.” No program of reputation trusted any of the others not to just take up the slack they might be creating, admit the students they declined to, and position themselves for what everybody expected to be the “next boom.”

    *That* such a thing would happen seems certain, what its ramifications would be are less clear. I mentioned in the “Dead Wood” thread Alfred Young’s 1978 “tirade” in the AHA _Newsletter_, the precursor to _Perspectives_. He was pushing back at the Harvards and Yales who had broadly suggested that the crisis was the result of all of the “upstart” history programs in the 1960s and 1970s that were pumping out supposedly second-tier degree holders to roil and becloud the market. Young’s own pedigrees were Northwestern and Columbia and then a job at Northern Illinois, where he helped to create a very distinguished program whose graduates had indeed competed effectively with the Ivies. He made the point in the article that Harvard and Yale were still overseeing dissertations on obscure Puritan ministers while programs like his own were taking the New Social History’s “history from the bottom up” both literally and seriously. So why should they just abandon the field? Nobody had an effective answer to that.

    If I remember correctly, Ph.D programs after that *never* specifically *decided* to get smaller. Many did get somewhat smaller as the mid-1980s came on because undergraduates, if only glacially, began to reject the rhetoric that “by the time you’re out there will be lots of jobs,” and they stopped applying in huge numbers. Then there was a very modest uptick in retirements by around 1985, and indeed, the programs that had positioned themselves to do so quickly upped the rate of degree-granting to the point that the “uptick” was only discovered when Robert Townshend began doing statistical analyses for the AHA in the mid-1990s. [So that Historiann, for example, recalls the early 1990s, when she started graduate school, as job market dark days, whereas I remember it as the time when rain came back to the desert. Both perceptions have some evidence].

    My worry about “collective action” would be that it would end up reifying, and reinforcing, various existing heirarchies: individual, institutional, programmatic, sub-field, and others. It’s also worth noting that well-after 1990, anti-trust analysis began to be applied to what had long seemed like innocuous academic customs (like tuition *price fixing*) and academic institutions would be likely hesitant about anything like holding discussions to determine “how many Ph.D’s will be needed in the future.” There are already enough ambiguities around this issue in an industry that effectively manufactures its own applicant pool.

    My big question is: in other credential-intensive fields, like law, engineering, medicine, even business, whenever there is even a hint in the popular discourse about employment “gluts” (and these happen regularly), smart undergraduates quickly adjust, switching from one to another within a few years, such that the “market” for smart young talent almost seems to operate rationally. What is it about humanities majors that has made them so resistant to that kind of behavioral response, except over decadal-long curves that are almost impossible to even see until somebody like Townshend goes to the raw data and begins doing calculations? Such cohort adjustment practices are the only things that are likely to discipline the amoral institutions (and disciplines).


  25. @Historiann: “Don’t close yourself off from other career opportunities than being a professor.”
    @Tom: “But it does seem to me that the “PhD job crisis” is only a crisis if we treat the PhD as a vocational degree.”

    I just spent 1.5 hours yesterday talking to a student about to start grad school in history, going through a bunch of the negatives. A good 20 minutes of that was dedicated to alerting him to the notion that the dept WILL try to brainwash him into thinking that teaching is all he can do with a phd, and if he doesn’t get a tenure-track job, he’s failed. To counteract that, I suggested that he read—by at least his 4th year if not now in his first—So What Are You Going To Do With That?

    I think actually depts need to treat the PhD MORE as a vocational degree—but as one that trains for more than simply teaching. Historiann, I flagged your comment because it seems to imply that these are students closing themselves off, rather than professors saying “he’s not planning on an academic job so he’s not worth my time” and similar things, which I think it common.

    I didn’t give this student the full spiel at time of application, because then he was interested in a diplomatic job. Now he’s much more focused on academic jobs, and I can’t help but think it’s the effect of the process and the message he is getting from the schools.

    Tangent re size of programs: Around 1995, a few years before I arrived, my grad history dept decided to only admit the 20 students/year they could fund (plus maybe a few locals/extras), instead of the bring-in-35-and-weed-them-out that had been previously the practice. But that didn’t change the number they graduated (far less than 20/year).


  26. p.s. dance is right. When major programs went to the “full ride funding or not at all” admissions model in the mid-1990s, they did, in fact, begin belatedly practicing a kind of planned parenthood approach.


  27. Pingback: What is the Purpose of Grad School Anyway? « Like a Whisper

  28. Pingback: “Morality” guru guilty of research misconduct : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  29. Indanna,

    I hear what you are saying about the history of this problem. I also agree that none of the degree granting programs are likely to see each other as reliable negotiating partners. Thats totally a break on collective action.

    but don’t professional cartels (oops I mean guilds), like Medicine & Law, put a cap on admissions? They also put other bottlenecks into the process of professionalization (internships, residencies, etc.). In light of these practices, I don’t see anything wrong with a national cap on PhD admissions. Run all the applications through a central clearing house, like the law schools do (you know like the AHA, they could finally do something useful). That would simplify the application process for students, the AHA could adjudicate who gets what. The problem is getting Harvard/Yale to play nice with Michigan/UCLA.

    Sure its price fixing /tampering with the market. but hey, thats the main idea of capitalism: capture the state and run the regulatory system for your own benefit. If it works for pharmaceutical companies whats the harm of applying it to academia? (oh, wait, never mind)

    I think history programs should make their relationship to the prospective PhD student as clear as possible. There needs to be a disclaimer on the program’s application materials that says something like this: “You are labor. Your first function in this program is to TA discussion sections, grade exams and help out as research assistants for $10 an hour. Your cheap labor frees up people who already have PhDs from doing the scut work so that they can get on with the business of research. Your graduate training always comes second. If you finish the PhD after ten years great, we’ll give you a big hug, a letter of recommendation, and listen to your pissing and moaning about the job market. If you don’t finish, thats fine too, your funding runs out after four years so just be ready to move over to adjuncting in comp to make room for the fresh meat.”

    I think a clear explanation of their roles as productive members of the university workforce should help prospective PhD students make better decisions for themselves.


  30. I commend the author of the IHE article. I really shudder when people say “well look at all these other things you can do with a humanities PhD.” People who are realistically okay with doing “any job” in exchange for the “learning experience” of the PhD are probably 2% of the PhD population.

    I had a humanities BA in 2005. A time when the job market was supposed to be pretty good, better than the ’01 recession and certainly way better than now. I would have been happy continuing to do clerical work for a non-profit, or any job for the county, city or state, or teaching, or any kind of writing or editing. I was willing to scale back my $10/hour student job to a $7/hour (the minimum wage then i think) if it was at all part of what I saw as a “good cause.” I couldn’t find ANYTHING. Nobody would employ me. I found plenty of non-profits and political organizations who wanted me to work full time FOR FREE for them for about a year, and then MAYBE I’d be eligible for a paycheck the year after. I ended up getting in somewhere (at a good company) doing data entry. Later on that led to higher level admin work. And now of course I’m a few months away from a career shift to engineering.

    My problem was I had worked all through college. And needed A JOB, ANY JOB afterwards. I suspect a lot of people going through PhD training will be in the same boat. Yes it’s nice to say “there are a lot of options” out there, but truth is anybody but academia values experience over education. I don’t think students have their hearts set on tenure-track, but I do think they assume they can make a living post-PhD. And many, especially in the humanities, might find they can’t even get wages to match that of their grad student pay. They would probably be happy having a job at anything remotely related to their discipline and like me in ’05 are going to struggle with just that.

    All the people who say “I wouldn’t trade my PhD…” are biased. If you invest a lot of time and or money in something, you start to justify to yourself why you did that. You convince yourself you made the right decision because it’s mentally easier that way. I think humanities education is wonderful, and maybe there’s some way we can broaden it to the masses without making it such a time consuming career-training option only. I think it would be fantastic if we could all learn to be better scholars and voracious readers and “do research on the side”. Supporting that kind of pro-education attitude is completely different from believing the current indentured-slave model of graduate students is the right thing to keep perpetuating.

    I do think if grad students are cream of the crop, and those that go after PhDs even more elite, they are definitely the type who when they hear “there are no jobs in tenure, there are no jobs in adjuncting, it’s hard to get a job in industry related to this” still think “not me”. They still think they will be the exception. And many academic professors perpetuate tis by saying “there are other options.” Does Google hire linguistics PhDs? Sure. But industry does not hire enough PhDs to account for the current overpopulation.

    I rant at this from a point of sympathy because having a BA I couldn’t use, and being unable to find a job remotely related, or that even aknowledged my degree was not possible for me. And that was after a mere three years, and it’s still obviously a soft point for me. I can’t imagine the pain of investing more time, and seeing no one appreciate it.


  31. I don’t agree with this whole “don’t admit any more grad students than there are tenure-track jobs available for them once they graduate” rigamarole. Academia is like many other pyramid-shaped winner-take-all pursuits: professional sports, literature, fine arts, performance arts, etc.

    There are substantive reasons why you take in many many more people at the lowest levels of the pyramid than can make it to the top. First, because working one’s way up the pyramid provides training, seasoning, and toughening. Second, because it weeds out those who can’t cut it at each higher level of the pyramid. These training and selection processes actually work extremely well in winner-takes-all pyramid structures.

    If you don’t like the odds, don’t pick this kind of profession. Every single minor league baseball player to have ever played the game started as a minor leaguer because they have hopes of making it to the majors. They are all training and striving to achieve that goal. They get paid like shit, live in horrific conditions, and a vanishingly small percentage make it to the majors.

    Being a tenured professor is an extremely desirable job, as is being a professional baseball player, symphony orchestra musician, and rock star. For this reason, there will always be a fuckton of people willing to take a shot at achieving these unlikely goals. What this faculty member is doing refusing to take grad students makes about as much fucken sense as the New York Yankees shutting down all its farm teams.


  32. I wish this job were more like pro ball or rock stardom! (Or even 1/10 as well compensated–I’d settle for that.)

    I see what you’re saying about a “weeding out” process, but there’s weeding out the weak shoots, and then there’s throwing perfectly good plants under a brush hog.

    That said, anyone embarking on a Ph.D. program is an adult, and so long as they’re well advised beforehand about the state of the job market, then dog bless ’em. They should plan for the best, but expect the worst, and if the worst happens and they don’t get a tenure-track job, then it’s up to them to have a plan “B.” I am sympathetic to my junior colleagues looking for tt work, but as we have discussed here many times over the past few years, the crap job market has been a fact for 40 years, and it’s highly unlikely to change in our lifetimes.

    A Ph.D. program can offer vocational training, but it’s more than that. It’s a research degree, and it’s designed primarily to produce successful researchers. I wonder if a lot of people who enroll in humanities Ph.D. programs would really be much more satisfied with intensive training in a M.A. program like the one in my department, which will offer them much of the same kind of coursework plus training in a field (public history) for which the M.A. is still the terminal degree. They get the intellectual experience of grad school plus a degree that qualifies them for more jobs than a Ph.D. does, which seems like a pretty good deal to me.


  33. I am a doctoral candidate in history at a school with a buffalo as its mascot. This academic year they cut our measly stipend by twenty five percent. So we are making roughly what a part-time worker at the BK Lounge would be making. Maybe less.

    Talking with someone on the “money” committee, he said that it was either everyone taking the pain or some people getting completely chopped. Then we asked why they continue to let in candidates when they could not afford it. He replied that it would make it appear as though the program was not healthy. And then I thought, um, well, it isn’t if you have to cut the poorest people the most!

    He then told us he didn’t know what was going to happen the next fiscal year, meaning no money or you get a letter saying your welcome to continue on your own dime. Maybe they will give us lollipops!

    So my question is: How about tenured faculty who make six figures take a twenty percent reduction in pay and put that money toward existing grad students? I reckon you could fund all the cohorts at my school with that cash!

    I just hear a lot about economic justice from these people. Well, how about a little redistribution of wealth for the graduate students- the wage slaves of the Ivory Tower. Then break it to us later that we will indeed be working at the BK Lounge with our PhD!

    I am just so utterly frustrated and hate living in fear about my funding and my life.


  34. Wow–that stinks. I agree that it’s a strategic and moral wrong to continue to admit grad students while cutting funding. Why shouldn’t the undergrads and the administration know that there are consequences to “excellence without money?” You can’t get blood from a turnip. Squeeze something else, whydon’tcha.

    I hear you on the six-figure faculty members, but there are none of those in my department. *None.* Also, I don’t know what they’re doing up in Buffaloville, but we haven’t had raises for 2 years, so I don’t know if anyone in my department will ever crack $100,000.


  35. I would also like to thank you for mentioning public history. I graduated from Buffalo school Denver, which emphasizes that and is under no illusion that there are zero jobs available at research one institutions.

    So when I got up to buffalo school Boulder, I found ZERO courses in public history – courses that could get you a job at an archive or other historical institution. I know you have blogged about this before, Historiann, but they seem to still be missing the point that the jobs that are out there are in public history institutions, not universities.

    And the funny thing is, I mention this to the profs and they take no initiative to change things. In professional development courses, it is about publishing, publishing, publishing. Now, I have that covered with some good peer reviewed articles in my field. But even with that, I doubt I will be able to get a job. First, I am not coming from a brand name school, and we all know that most senior faculty come from the League of Extraordinary Schools. Would it kill them to hire people who they train?

    I know I am ranting and sound angry, but things have to change.


  36. Multanemo–I hear you, but because there are other PH programs in the state, Buffaloville U. isn’t going to develop them. (And as you note, they have a Denver campus that does that.) I don’t particularly want BU to develop PH courses either, because that’s Baa Ram U.’s niche. Anytime we contemplate revisions to our grad program, we’re lectured that there’s a comprehensive Ph.D. program at the Flagship University in Boulder, so anything we do can’t compete with your uni.

    So I would prefer that BU send students down to Baa Ram U. or to Buffalo-Denver to get some training in PH. In fact, some of you grad students should insist on it! I’m sure you’re probably all more aware of the programs at Baa Ram U. and Buffalo-Denver than most of your faculty are.


  37. I think the point that I am trying to make is that there is no place in our training for such courses. And there is no emphasis on them whatsoever in our core areas. So even if I chose to go to CSU or UCD to take those PH courses, I would be hard pressed to fit them into any of my areas of study, i.e. the things I need to graduate.

    And even at UC Denver, they are mainly focused on historic preservation. I am not sure what CSU has to offer, but I do know it is substantial. Anyway, thank you for this forum and I am proud to know a few of your former students!


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