Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Wall Street Journal

Late last month, the Web site Inside Higher Ed reported that several universities were shrinking the number of students admitted to their Ph.D. programs this year. Emory University is cutting its doctoral students by 40% -- admitting 220 this fall, down from 360 a year before. Columbia is reducing its intake by 10%. New York University is planning a reduction, although a "very modest" one, according to school officials. And the University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments admit doctoral students only every other year.

There are several reasons for this doctoral downsizing. For one thing, teaching graduate students costs universities money -- at least on first glance. Ohio University economist Richard Vedder estimates that schools spend anywhere from five to 15 times as much on graduate students as on undergraduates. Grad students are taught in small classes with senior professors. And students in doctoral programs (as opposed to those who leave after taking master's degree) are generally on some kind of fellowship. They pay no tuition and receive a school-year stipend between $10,000 and $20,000.

But graduates students also act as teaching assistants, doing a great deal of time-consuming classroom work (and grading) that professors themselves are thus not compelled to do. In all sorts of courses, especially in their freshman and sophomore years, undergraduates may find themselves being instructed more often by a 25-year-old doctoral candidate than by the university's full-time faculty members, who, of course, already have their doctorates (and one or two books to their credit, too). It is an odd, upside-down arrangement, but it has an economic logic: By providing cheap labor, graduate students save college administrations millions of dollars each year in salary costs.

So why the cuts? Well, the calculations work out differently for different schools. For instance, universities in lower tiers might not have to do as much because they can get away with having a higher percentage of classes taught by graduate students. But some of the schools making doctoral cuts this year gave compassion as their reason. Catherine R. Stimson, the dean of Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, was quoted in Inside Higher Ed: Given the state of the academic job market, she asked, referring to would-be doctoral candidates: "Is it fair to bring them in?"

It sounds like a logical question, but is it really? After all, the dire academic job market is nothing new. As Peter Berkowitz recalls from his time as a graduate student and professor at Harvard and Yale in the 1980s and '90s: "The departments knew that something like half the students they admitted to their programs wouldn't get Ph.D.s." And, says Mr. Berkowitz (who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution), "something like half of those wouldn't get tenure-track jobs."

In an article called "Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System" (2004), Gwen Bradley notes that an academic job shortage is rarely the result of some surprising lurch in supply-and-demand curves, since "the same institutions both manufacture and consume the Ph.D. product." In other words, universities know very well that they are producing far more Ph.D.s than they need. Compare this situation with the medical profession. Even if medical residents are made to work long hours under difficult conditions, the vast majority of them will get jobs as doctors. The vast majority of, say, Ph.D.s in English literature will not. Given that the typical doctoral degree takes six or seven years to complete (during prime job-training and family-forming years), there is a moral problem here. It is no great exaggeration to say, as Mr. Berkowitz does: "Many lives are ruined this way."

With more and more people going to college, one might reasonably wonder why there hasn't actually been a shortage of Ph.D.s in recent years. Two decades ago William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, predicted as much, claiming that there would soon be far more university teaching jobs than academics to fill them. He co-authored a study foreseeing "a real shortfall" in the humanities and social sciences starting in the late 1990s.

The shortage never materialized. Even during boom times, there was not much of an uptick in job listings for university faculty. Any increase in job demand was met by an overwhelming increase in labor supply. Universities began hiring adjunct faculty members. They typically teach courses at more than one school. (In California, they're referred to as "freeway flyers.") They don't get benefits and, all told, probably earn less than minimum wage.

Not surprisingly, these adjunct faculty members are feeling exploited and getting angry. In recent years, their concerns have been taken more seriously by the American Association of University Professors, which now has committees engaged in rigorous hand-wringing over their ordeal. Marc Bousquet, the author of "How the University Works," sees a couple of key ironies in the academic job market: Getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one; and the American university, which claims to be an egalitarian institution, relies on people who can only afford to take badly paid adjunct teaching positions because they have another source of income, either from a spouse's job or a second job of their own.

One response may be: So what? Is there any compelling reason that universities -- as self-interested as any institution -- should reconsider their employment policies? Why not staff classes with adjunct labor? Why not give customers the same product at a lower cost?

The last question points to a bigger problem, though: Is it the same product? Who knows? Higher education has gone so far off the rails in recent years that parents and students hardly know what they are supposed to have learned in a freshman composition course or in Sociology 101. And as long as there is a degree waiting at the other end, they hardly care.

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste editor.


  1. Here is another idea: instead of all the Ph.D. programs admitting fewer students, how about fewer Ph.D. programs? Maintain the quality and the academic rigor and freedom that come with tenure and close down programs in which it is fairly clear that the graduate students are merely used as cheap labor.

  2. I've seen Becko's suggestion a number of times, mostly on Leiter's site, but I've never seen a list of proposed schools to receive the ax. Nor is it clear to me what could be done to compel these schools to close their program. One suggestion might be to drop every program that isn't ranked by the PGR. However, it's not as if people at non-PGR ranked programs don't get jobs, in fact a number of these programs do quite well in placing their students. After all, someone has to teach at community colleges or be the lone professor in the department of humanities for BFLouisiana.


  3. There is another option and that is to train PhD's (and MA's, for that matter)not to become professors, but to enter the work force in some capacity that would help organizations perform better.

  4. You make a good point, Anonymous. No one is going to be impolitic enough to publicly publish such a list - certainly not me. You indirectly suggest a better method than simply axing those not ranked in the PGR - placement statistics. If a program is consistently under-placing then I think it is an open question whether its admission of graduate students is for the good of the students or for the fiscal good of the school. Someone does indeed need to teach at the community colleges and liberal arts schools (like my own, which does not appear in the PGR of course, being solely undergraduate). And we'd all do well to remember that the market being what it is, those who do teach in these institutions are likely to be very good philosophers. But there remains the problem - when there are too many of us, are some programs complicit in the oppression of students entering graduate school with a naive understanding of the market?


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