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Good-bye to all that

I read Marc Bousquet’s recent post on the academic labor market with chagrin and recognition:

Today, [only] 1/4 of faculty are tenured or in the tenure stream. Less if you address pervasive undercounting of nontenurable faculty, teaching by staff employees and graduate students. The trend line points steeply down.

All of the under- or un- employed scientists with doctorates could be employed overnight if more science, and more science education, was done by persons holding the PhD. Instead, we do science and science education with persons who are studying for the PhD, or who gave up on studying for the PhD simply because they can work cheaper than persons who actually hold the doctorate.

If the percentage of faculty working in the tenure stream were anywhere near what it was at the high point of US scientific and technical dominance, we’d actually have a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with the PhD. Hell, just one large state system could absorb most of the so-called surplus doctorates in a few years–and as I’ve already noted, taking students out of the workforce and working toward full employment for faculty would be an actual stimulus plan.

But what do we do to try to fix the system? Michael Drout maps some of the options (all bad):

This situation cannot be fixed as long as there exists the mismatch of the number of people who want to be professors with the number of paid positions to be a professor.

There is no solution that can solve this problem, just as there is no solution to solve the ‘problem’ of the number of people who want to be famous authors, movie actors, rock stars or professional athletes being far greater than the number of job openings for authors, actors, rock stars and athletes.

Making it easier to get tenure once hired does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision back from the tenure process (where the candidate is known and has a six-year track record) to the hiring process (where the candidate is less known and has only a grad school record).

The desire to make it easier to get tenure once someone is hired may seem kind to the particular person (whom you know as an individual), but it is unfair to the many, many other people who would like that job, who may be more qualified, but who haven’t had a chance, possibly because they were passed over in the hiring, possibly because they entered the job market a few years later, etc. So by reducing the requirements for tenure–whatever they are–you are doing an injustice to all of these people.

Reducing the number of Ph.D.s awarded, a proposal mooted frequently (usually by people who already have Ph.D.s; people applying to grad school who want to get Ph.D.s. are usually less keen on the idea) does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision process back from the hiring process to the graduate school entrance process, where the candidate has even less of a track record.

I began graduate school in 2001, during a global recession, and finished in 2009, in the middle of another one. I dangled on the job market twice (pre- and post-diss completion), with no luck. There’s clearly greater pressures than ever for undergraduates to complete their education, and pay more money to do it, but that has never (and it appears will never) translated to an increased demand for more non-casual faculty. I’m thirty years old — a husband and father. I barely survived a terrible accident this year. I can’t wait any more. It’s time to walk away.

February 24, 2010 / Uncategorized


Alan Jacobs says…

I hate it when smart, imaginative people can’t find a place in my discipline.

My experience is that when smart imaginative people can’t find a place in one discipline, that the discipline that they move in to tends to benefit a great deal.


I’ve tried to comment on this post about 5 times since you put it up, and each time I’ve failed b/c of the chaos that is my own strange current experiment with academia. Maybe that is comment enough.

First of all, I think you are also walking towards something that is just less self-involved, not omphaloskeptic enough to have named itself yet.

Secondly, I am sorry to hear this, because that means it’s not going well for you, and transitions are hard and frightening and draining (I can say that, since I’ve been in one or another my entire adult life) and break-ups always hurt. Academia seems a little more vivacious with Tim Carmody in it, and I liked the idea of sending students on to you.

Regarding the topic of the posts: I think Drout has a point with his analysis of the economic dynamics of the system–pinching the pipeline at a different point will only have other, equally bad consequences for the business of creating and disseminating knowledge–but that his conclusion (essentially tarring all would-be reformers as self-involved whiners) misses a key point. I can’t make that point for other fields, but I can make it for the one I am best acquainted with, which is laboratory science: unlike entertainment, sports, & business, laboratory science (and academic knowledge in general) is fundamentally a public good, and one which the public often desperately requires. At some level, if the “gene pool” of people producing new rock styles or better batting averages is thinned out, it’s not a big problem and I don’t actually care; if a narrow “gene pool” of innovators in antiobiotic-resistance research is slowing down research, it’s a big fucking problem for all of us. The public (often directly) pays for the training of these Ph.Ds and if that investment is being wasted, it’s the public’s duty to figure out how and why.

I think his dismissal of dutifulness and the resulting bitterness in this context is equally brusque. Ph.D. students are often exactly those people who could make a lot of money doing something else, but their sense of duty impelled them to try and do something for society. This can be significantly different then the motivations of those pursuing the risks of entertainment & sports. Essentially, they bet on helping society and society gave them the figure. That may be foolish on their part, but merely dismissing them as whiners makes me wonder what’s the point of paying him to be a cultural critic?

Alan Jacobs says…

Another thought: Drout is probably right that all the options are bad, but some are less bad than others. When I applied to grad school, many years ago, it was common for the elite departments to admit new college grads directly into a PhD program, with something close to a promise of full funding all the way through. Because of a slightly shaky academic record at a mediocre university, I had no chance to get into those programs. But one elite English program, Virginia, did things differently: they didn’t allow anyone directly in to the PhD program, but rather made everyone apply, usually after three semesters, for “permission to proceed” to the PhD. I believe they have since abandoned that model, for a variety of reasons, among them the anxiety and atmosphere of cutthroat competition the model generated among students. And those were real problems. On the other hand, I’m not complaining because that model allowed the department to discover that I was a good candidate for doctoral study, while others who had more impressive undergrad records weren’t, after all, so well suited for the work.

Maybe a model similar to this would allow grad programs to give chances to people from non-elite backgrounds, but also to cut back on the number of people allowed to pursue doctoral degrees. Not exactly the best of both worlds, but maybe a less-bad world than the one we now have?

The walls of publishing house are crumbling.
Now we can all be authors and publishers but we cannot rely on it being scarce to be an author or publisher.

The foundations of the university are crumbling.
Now we can all get more information and learning than ever before, but we cannot rely on the scarcity of that knowledge and their is a surfeit of well-educated people.

All is in upheaval, and those who recognize that will not build their houses on sand. But there is nowhere anything but sand…

Sometimes it is nice, because we are sleeping outside in the summer and seeing the stars. But winter is cold, and we have no walls, no roof.

But there is nowhere any­thing but sand…

That is the sound of a hammer hitting square on the nail.

ah for fuck’s sake.

s/publishing house/publishing houses/

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