Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Ph.D. Problem (as if there was only one...)

When I read Laura's well written and creatively titled post (which it departs from two smart "metaphors" before introducing the subject of this post in a comparative framework) mentioning Louis Renand's recent article in the Harvard Magazine (in pdf, if you so prefer) I felt almost sick to my stomach. This problem is just too close to home for comfort (well, it's not merely close, but inside my house and family, which has two PhD recipients either under or unemployed as current readers already know). I waited patiently for over 24h to find some time to read it carefully and to comment here. Let's see if I can manage to do so without shedding any tears or ending up trembling with rage/nervousness (you can see many of my previous "academic rants" here).

Note: This is not a coherently organized essay or review, but a collection of personal reactions to the article.

The first tidbit that effectively caught my attention:
the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system.
I'm quite sure that I actually produced knowledge with my dissertation, but that doesn't matter, because my topic/methodology is not something that fits in with the system at all, it's just a bit too unorthodox. So, the fact that I'm not reproducing the system means that I probably won't enter it. Neat, no?

This statement: "the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years" [11 if one counts the stops] was truly a consolation to me, since it took me "ten years and two sons" to get done -- and I imagine those nine years on average don't generally involve two sons, right? [precisely -- I wrote that before reading the explanation about the 11.3 years average counting the breaks, which means that I actually beat the average!].

Next, I learned in no uncertain terms that independent scholars are "the strongest non-professional[s]," i.e. people who don't have a Ph.D. but still attempt to produce scholarship. Now, if one assumes that "independent scholars" necessarily do not have the degree, what happens when one does have the degree but not the professional affiliation and then has to be relegated to the despised rank of "independent scholar" as I was at my latest conference/fiasco (ironically in Harvard itself)? I guess they should create another term to define this pathetic "other" -- the credentialed researcher without the job (insert contemptuous snort here). Credentialed, but non-institutionalized, "profession-less."

The historical analysis of the problem, whose root lays in the disproportionate (to undergraduate enrollment) creation of doctoral programs, was common, logical knowledge to me from the times in graduate school. I was also aware of the problem with the humanities (my area, obviously...) -- less and less undergraduates enrolling, however, seeing the numbers was really scary.

Reinstating the obvious, but still worth articulating:
What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available. The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates.

And here's an interesting idea that would do away with dissertation troubles (and which could be adapted to fit in with different areas, say, two or three peer reviewed papers):
If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.

Now comes the part that Laura alludes to when comparing us -- maimed human beings with a Ph.D. -- to dogs formerly used in dog fighting and former football players:
One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time-to-degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. (italics mine)
The italicized part hits close to home again. My husband is weary that he still doesn't have a "real job" a year and a half shy of 40 years old. His job search feels like a race against the clock. Sigh.

The obvious (and very familiar -- this describes my life!) again:
Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes.
And here goes my shout out to "the graduate-student union movement" -- a consequence of this appalling problem -- which allowed me to have full health and dental care (and not pay a penny for each of my son's delivery) as well as almost decent wages. Lucky me that I went to a state school. Those graduate students in private universities are often barred from unionizing, in case you didn't know.

And, YES!!! That's just what I thought and felt, given my rather "iconoclastic" research: "The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. " The biggest problem, Menand argues, is that because it's already so hard to pursue an academic career in the first place, there is a "self-sorting" process that goes on before students even enroll and only those who already fit in enter. "If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms."

NOW, here come the foreign graduate students/Ph.D. recipients like myself!!!

Some of us, perhaps many of us, do not fit in to begin with, but enter graduate school precisely because it's not that hard, really (at least for those of us who are/were well prepared by our education abroad -- WHICH WAS FREE to begin with, at least in Brazil at top state or federal universities) and thus, we could signify some change, if only we were given the chance to get TT jobs.

I don't feel I fit in with what Menand says here: "Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry." I don't already "talk the talk" or "walk the walk" thank-you-very-much! I long to be "ferment," if given the chance. And I most definitely was NOT and am NOT "neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo." I guess that's the main reason why I haven't yet given up on this whole academic idea!!

How interesting! Reading this essay and finding more about myself and my previously uncovered motivations to remain an academic. How refreshing! And I thought I would be depressing...

Anyhow, Laura, I don't think we need to be rescued, really, perhaps we just need to fight harder, particularly those of us who are slightly "misfits." I'm not saying that I'm changing my mind about not pursuing a tenure track job, I just want to recognize that I'm not done with academia just yet and that it feels comforting to have an insight into the reasons why I'll keep trying a bit longer.

1 comment:

Rene said...

Sounds like a great article. I really liked the idea of making the process shorter and getting people into a legitimate work force faster.