Monday, April 04, 2005

Are there too many Ph.D. programs (and if so, is this ethically problematic)?

I know for prospective grad students, applying to schools and hoping to get a slot, this seems like a ludicrous question. However, to recent Ph.D.s looking for jobs (especially academic jobs) the problem is real.

An entry at In Favor of Thinking takes up this issue quite eloquently:

... the ethics of this profession are crap. Realistically, half of the PhD programs ought to shut their doors -- there's no point in churning out so many PhDs (a particular problem in English) when there aren't enough jobs.

(Yes, this is a professor in the humanities writing, but as I've noted before, a similar problem exists in the sciences. In my second year of graduate study in chemistry, I discovered, from Chemistry & Engineering News, that there were about 30% more chemistry Ph.D.s than the market could employ. I discovered this while I was in school to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. Did this leave me feeling warmly toward my graduate program? It did not.)

Anyway, playing devil's advocate, I responded:

I have a bit of concern on the market-argument for fewer Ph.D. programs ... It assumes that everyone who gets a Ph.D. plans to use it to profess, and that becoming a professor is really the only sane or sensible thing to do with a Ph.D. Even in the humanities (hell, even in *philosophy*), that's not the case. That said, it wouldn't kill graduate programs to give their students more accurate projections of their academic job prospects!

The estimable New Kid on the Hallway added the following response:

I wanted to respond quickly to Janet's comment about the market/PhD program issue - personally, I'm pretty cynical, but I tend to think the only reason anyone should enter a PhD program (at least as PhD programs stand) is if they do want to go on to become an academic, defined as a professor. Being a professor is about the only job I know of that you HAVE to have a PhD to do. I could also agree with someone who knows for sure that they DON'T want to profess, who has deep personal reasons for learning more, entering a PhD program, but I think that as they stand, such a person stands a deep risk of getting sucked into the academic (tenure-track) rat race, or of being looked down upon (and not supported) for not wanting to be part of that rat race. My personal feeling is that if you love a subject and want to continue learning, there are LOTS of other ways to do so than entering a PhD program. So I would go along with limiting the enrollment of PhD programs because I don't actually think getting a PhD benefits anyone much unless they actually do want to profess.

This is based on PhD programs as they stand, mind you, not what they could and probably should be. I guess I think it would be easier to restrict enrollments and for those with interest in something to find other ways to learn about it, than it would be to change the structure/attitude of PhD programs so that they would give students more realistic ideas about employment options. Because the people running grad programs are the ones perpetuating/benefiting by the kind of hierarchy that Mel describes here.

I think this is an interesting response -- and interestingly different from Shrader-Frechette's take on what one ought to do with a science Ph.D. The argument here hinges on what one ought to do to fulfill one's duties to oneself. Basically, doing a Ph.D. might put you in a position where you are limiting your choices and placing yourself under significant duress that may be bad for you. (It sounds strange ... but not so much to someone who has been part of a graduate school cohort going on the market when jobs are scarce and your self-worth hinges on getting an academic job.)

For the record, here was my reply to New Kid:

I completely agree with you that, as things stand now, most Ph.D. programs (especially in the humanities) are set up to groom more rats for the academic rat race, and to look at you as a very odd duck indeed if you make noises about doing anything else with your Ph.D. Because, you know, doesn't *everyone* want to be a professor? So, yes, the undertow toward an academic job is pretty strong, especially for those who haven't, in the mad dash to finish writing up their dissertation, paused to reflect on what it is they might *really* want to do.

But I'm inclined to think that reflecting on what you really want to do is something you ought to be doing at regular intervals (especially given that it's a moving target for some of us). A lot of people just can't tell, until they're in the belly of the beast (or of their graduate department, anyway) whether they'd want to profess. Undergraduates don't see enough of what it's really like to be able to assess the option fully. And, given the sort of personal growth (or trauma) a lot of people seem to go through during a graduate program, I'm not sure most undergraduates have enough data about *themselves* to know whether professing would be a suitable career. This is not to say that there aren't people who could, given 5 minutes' honest reflection, figure out that they should be doing something else without sinking a few years of their lives into a doctoral program. But for a lot of people, kind of "trying it on" is the only way to make a sensible decision.

The next question becomes what one should do, say, after 3 or 4 years of "trying it on" in a Ph.D. program and getting the strong impression that joining the professoriate would be a bad move. Do you walk away and cut your losses? Maybe, but I know some people who, in this position, said "Dammit, I'm seeing this project through!" If nothing else, the Ph.D. was a personal victory, tangible evidence of triumph over adversity. That has a certain kind of value.

As far as the pursuing knowledge for personal growth angle, I'm not sure it's always so easy to really pursuit a subject on your own in the same way without a Ph.D. program. Certainly this is the case in scientific fields. As a college senior, I decided to go to grad school in chemistry because I could certainly pursuit philosophy on my own. Well, four years later, I was quite certain I didn't want to be a chemist, and I was applying to grad school in philosophy because I craved the sort of intellectual community one hardly ever finds outside a graduate program. Granted, there was no philosophy-rich blogosphere back then, but I still think a flesh-and-blood community of fellow thinkers coming together in graduate seminars and over beers gives you a different kind of experience.

Perhaps my experience in grad school was odd, given that a large number of my classmates (in both disciplines I pursued) were fairly certain at the outset that they'd be doing something else with their Ph.D.s besides professing. I worry a little that restricting Ph.D. enrollments might have meant that I wouldn't have encountered some of these folks in my programs, and that this might have made it easier for me to get sucked into the mindset that a Ph.D. can or should only be used to become a professor.

Maybe Ph.D. programs in the sciences are a different matter ... but maybe not.


At 11:34 PM, Blogger johngalt said...

Nice blog.... A little perspective: I'm a Ph.D. student in organic chemistry (3rd yr), but I almost went for molecular biology, or math. Given the topic of "restricting" the number of advanced degrees granted I just have to say... For the "sciences" (ie: the results could earn someone money) this is just silly. If you earn a Ph.D. (or masters for that matter) in a hard-core science program you will get a job. That job may be academic or industrial, but those that really care and want to be professors will take the extra effort (grades and research) in order to secure said position.


future professor

At 5:56 AM, Blogger Anna said...

The problem is that people who consider themselves very smart, cannot make simple job because of some psychological limitations. Clenbuterol


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