In its year end issue, The Economist makes one of those increasingly familiar attacks (see here and here for other examples) against the academy as an institution for the way it recruits personnel. The article has lots of great statistics (80 percent of Canadian postdocs earn less than the average construction worker!) and great pull-out quotes (A Ph.D. may offer no financial benefit over a master's degree!). But the bottom line is basically that universities are producing more Ph.D.s each year than there are jobs available in academia for people with Ph.D.s.
Why is this the case? According to The Economist, "universities have discovered that Ph.D. students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labor."* And why would anyone ever subject themselves to such "slave labor"?** Well, because these naive young things "are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they've done" and "few will be willing to accept that... even hard work and brilliance may not be enough to succeed." And of course current faculty are complicit too, because "it isn't in their interest to turn the smart kids away."***
As I was reading this article, I was trying to reconcile the horrors of academia**** with the fact that I will soon be slogging through hundreds of applications for potential grad students who will want something like one of the 25-30 slots we will offer for our next Ph.D. class. Could I in good conscience actually admit any of these students? I mean, after all, they must clearly be deceiving themselves into thinking this could lead to a good career. Unless, of course, they turn out like one of our students this year who has job offers at multiple top universities. Or our other students who went on the market this year and landed good jobs. Or one of my students who didn't even apply for an academic job, but wound up at a top-notch consulting firm. Or the excellent Ph.D. students from other universities we've just hired. They've turned out O.K., haven't they? Would they have been better off had some well-meaning admissions offer turned off the spigot at the source and only admitted a quarter of the graduate students to NYU that we actually admitted? Maybe they would have been at the top of their class, but maybe not.
This reminded me of former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Piazza was drafted in the 62nd(!) round of the 1988 baseball draft. He went on to become one of the (if not the) game's best-hitting catchers, and is a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. Without a minor league system that allowed many, many more people to play some level of professional baseball than there were spots for in the major leagues, Piazza would never have made it to the majors. Being picked in the 62nd round shows that the talent evaluators at that stage of the process would have missed him as a potential star.
And this, perhaps, is why it is not a bad thing that we admit more Ph.D. students to programs than we have jobs for as university professors. Because the alternative is that we have to decide a lot earlier who is going to be good and who is going to be bad. If I can admit 20 students to the Ph.D. program at NYU next year, then that is 20 students who have a chance to shine. They may not all make it, but it is worth considering whether we are better off giving those 20 students a chance then picking now -- based solely on their undergraduate record -- only five who will be given a chance.
Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I'd rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don't think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics.
Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make. I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into -- the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors -- but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that's the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to Ph.D. programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.
*Just discovered this? You mean back in the day when people walked both ways to school barefoot uphill in the snow, Ph.D. students were not cheap, highly motivated, and disposable? Interesting!
**Slave labor? Really? Any thoughts on whether the undocumented migrant farm workers featured in an earlier article in the same issue would mind trading places with a Ph.D. student?
***While working with graduate students is one of the great pleasures of an academic job, readers should be aware that this is in no way a one-way street in terms of costs and benefits. Of course graduate students can lighten one's teaching load by grading and running discussion sections, and a professor with a team of good graduate students can often produce more publishable research than he or she can working alone. But make no mistake: advising graduate students -- be it regarding their own research, their collaborative work with you, or their teaching, not to mention their professional development -- takes a great deal of time and effort as well.
****The crescendo of the piece is that some of these students might actually "be better off doing something else"! The horror -- do you think people who don't get Ph.D.s might ever find themselves in a position where they would be better off doing something else? Inconceivable!