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Putting the Ph.D.'s to Work

Putting the Ph.D.'s to Work

January 21, 2010

Even old news can be dismal, and that is the case at hand. For about 40 years, by my calculation, American universities have been admitting too many candidates for doctorates in the liberal arts and the social sciences and, startling attrition along the way notwithstanding, have produced too great a supply of Ph.D.'s for a dwindling demand. There are proposed remedies for this injustice that prepares people exclusively for work that will not be available to them, but I want to address a different problem. What can we do with, and for, the Ph.D.'s and those who dropped out short of the final degree that will be useful for them and, not accidentally, provide a benefit to the nation?

Those who have earned or at least pursued doctorates in the humanities or social sciences, or professional degrees in law and business, whom I want to include in my argument, have learned how to learn, how to conduct research, and in many cases have acquired a second language. Field work or study abroad may have further informed them about other cultures. Thus, although their training has been geared to turn them into replicas, if not clones, of their former professors and reportedly has not prepared them for competing in the world outside the academy, they have useful skills, which could also be marketable. The question is how to bring them to market.

My proposal is for a national program that combines some of the elements of Works Progress Administration programs from the Great Depression, the Peace Corps, and the Fulbright Awards. I mention the WPA not because we have entered another depression — so far so battered, but also so far so good — but because its various programs took the unemployed and found them work which, with some notorious exceptions, the nation needed done. And this effort included support for writers and artists. The Peace Corps and the Fulbrights, with their histories of sending Americans abroad (and bringing foreigners here as Fulbright scholars) have proven their intellectual worth, their pragmatic value, and their foreign policy bona fides. I am, however, suggesting them as models of successes, not as templates.

Volunteers for this new program, after training most plausibly sponsored by the State Department, would be sent abroad, chiefly to developing countries where they could teach at high levels, in some cases study (especially languages), and work in civil programs according to their abilities and training, for example, in court administration and in the organization of self-help associations and business start-ups. The actual work will need to be directed by the skills of the volunteers, not from an arbitrary menu of projects or by ukase, though selection of the volunteers for the program will have to contribute to the shaping of its execution.

The work, as I imagine it, would not replicate or overlap with the work of Peace Corps volunteers. First, the program would recruit from the limited pool that I have described. Second, the work needs to be white-collar — educational at a high level, administrative, or organizational; volunteers will not be making bricks or laying water pipes or teaching in primary and secondary schools. Third, depending on the interest of the host country and the volunteers, periods of service could be longer than the 27-month tour in the Peace Corps. Fourth, mastering a new "strategic" language will be a primary requirement of volunteers, no matter their specific daily work — a point I will return to shortly. Fifth, at the completion of a tour, volunteers will be encouraged to maintain the linguistic skills and the cultural information they acquired while abroad. This may be done through the kind of employment they find, ideally in government service, but industry and academe could serve as well. (I say encourage rather than require because we no longer have conscription, and the unwilling are never very happy or useful.) It seems obvious to me that banking people competent in language against a future when their skills will be needed will be a good investment.

The short-term benefits are clear enough. Like the Peace Corps and the Fulbrights, the program has the potential to increase the familiarity of a generation of young Americans with other countries, their languages and cultures. Like them, it is a way of conducting soft diplomacy in which the character of the participants could complement and, I expect, enhance our national policies and interests. Those who expand knowledge or help to improve civil institutions tend to command respect, even affection, while revealing — perhaps to the astonishment of many abroad — that Americans are not the horned minions of the Great Satan. These are the expectations that the program I suggest must have, maintained rigorously with supervision and review. I have no interest in a program that enables young or even middle-aged people to find themselves or that simply keeps them out of the job market for a few years.

The longer-term benefits are, I think, more interesting and more valuable. If, as I have said, mastery of language is a primary requirement, returning volunteers will be available who know languages that are neither widely taught nor spoken in the United States; one principle guiding the placement of the volunteers should be the importance of the languages spoken where they are posted. Thirty years after we learned, in the aftermath of the assault on the American embassy in Tehran, that the Central Intelligence Agency did not have a single Farsi speaker there, we still have intelligence and military services that sorely lack people who can speak and read the languages of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine, has recently pointed out that only 13 percent of CIA employees speak a second language. He tells a more bleak story. In March of 2009, the administration wanted a "civilian surge" of 300 experts in language and administration to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. A month later, State and USAID could not find the people, and the over-committed military commands had to find the staff.

The program I am proposing, had it been established five years ago, might have been able to provide that missing expertise, at least a good part of it. Assuming only a couple of thousand volunteers a year in the program — a number that could certainly grow as it ripens and perhaps broadens according to needs — it would be manageable and not very expensive. As benchmarks, and these are only points of departure, the practices and the budgets of the U.S. Scholars Program of the Fulbright Awards and of the Peace Corps are instructive. Both offer transportation to the host country and "maintenance" or "an allowance" based on local living costs; Fulbright expenses are higher because their scholars generally live in high-cost countries. The Peace Corps offers deferral of student loan payments and in some cases cancellation of Perkins Loans, both of which would be attractive to the volunteers I have in mind.

If, then, we want a rough-and-ready baseline of costs to fund a pilot program of, say, 1,000 volunteers to begin with, we can simply take the approximate cost per volunteer for the Peace Corps, since I envision them living in conditions more like those of Peace Corps volunteers than of Fulbright students. This offers a cost per volunteer of about $45,000. Given the number of unemployed academics, recruiting this many should not be difficult and would permit selectivity.

When the economy improves a bit, imagine some of the alumni of this program entering academe not bitter from four years of adjuncting without health insurance, but energized by new experiences, and bringing unusual combinations of knowledge to their universities. Imagine if every English or history department had someone who had recently lived in the Middle East or Africa?

There is another benefit that could actually respond to a serious, if only simmering or festering, problem heading right at us now. In the next several years, approximately 250,000 federal employees, many of them at the top as GS-15 or SES workers, will be retiring. How to replace them or, more to the point, where simply to look for their replacements, is already proving to be vexing and nerve-racking. My belief — it is more than a hunch — is that many of these returning volunteers would be interested in federal service or perhaps in service with state governments, which also are facing the same problems of baby-boomer retirements as the federal government. They will already have been exposed to the terms and the values of working as public servants. They will have acquired, at the government’s expense, new skills and may have a sense of obligation or loyalty, which would be welcome. Perhaps offering student loan forgiveness or reduction in return for government service after the tour abroad would be a strong inducement.

Many, if not all, will have the academic credentials that public agencies routinely look for. If the program I propose could be established soon and quickly grow to several thousand new recruits every year — and recruits are available now and will continue to be until we change our policies of graduate education — we would have made a respectable down payment on this human capital obligation. Instead of mortgaging our future, as many programs often appear to do, we could actually be paying down the mortgage by drawing on the skills we have banked.

Beyond the value of sending “missionaries” or soft diplomats abroad, the two additional goals I have presented — the acquisition of strategic languages and the restocking of the public sector — are distinct, but not at odds with one another, nor do I worry that having more than one goal clouds the mission or makes the program unwieldy: both are worthy and important, and neither excludes the other. Moreover, by turning to the supply of unemployed or underemployed men and women, we will be putting to work minds that have been trained and skills that have been raised at great expense. This may seem an exercise in good works and foreign policy, but no less, in my opinion, a matter of thrift and profit for the nation.

Bio

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University.

 

 

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