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If you haven’t seen this article yet, go read it. I’d advise skipping some of the comments  -- they’re about as enlightening as internet comments on polarizing issues tend to be – but the story itself is really disturbing. It’s about a study recently released showing tens of thousands of Ph.D.’s across the country,  and hundreds of thousands of people with master’s degrees, who are on food stamps. Most of them aren’t unemployed per se, but they’re badly underemployed, often making about the equivalent of a graduate student stipend by adjuncting in multiple places while trying to raise kids.

The general idea isn’t new, of course, but the numbers are.  The story notes a threefold increase just from 2007 to 2010 in the number of people affected.

I have to admit that my first response was “there but for the grace of God.”  Anyone who clings to the myth of the academic meritocracy is invited to explain the speed of the increase in people in this position.  Yes, I work hard at my job, but so do plenty of other people; denying the role of luck is just ungracious.

That said, though, I wonder if this article – and others like it – will reach the audience it should reach.  The target audience should be talented and ambitious undergraduates.

It’s hard to break free of what William James presciently called “The Ph.D. Octopus” once it has its tentacles around you.  Years of socialization into the narrow and unsustainable professional norms of the guild make it all too easy to deny the economic realities of the situation.   And the outside world has little respect for graduate study outside of the STEM fields, so even though one could make a strong case for the transferable skills developed through intensive graduate study, many employers simply don’t want to hear it.  (And in this economy, they don’t have to; most of the time they can have their pick of people whose training or background is an easier fit.)

But if good people can be dissuaded from getting too close to the octopus in the first place, they can avoid a terrible fate.

I know the objections to this.  But none of them strike me as persuasive, whether separately or together.  They don’t pass the “I’d send my kid” test.

Some will trot out the old “let’s just fire all the administrators” canard.  Others will suggest that a strong social democratic revival could be just around the corner, if we just try hard enough.  A few will even try the old “the academic job market isn’t really a market” line, not realizing that the first illustration of their point is the institution of life tenure.  Others will argue the need to diversify the faculty, which presumes that all those diverse candidates would actually become faculty.

But those don’t add up to any reason to believe that ten years from now, new Ph.D.’s will be in high demand.  If anything, I foresee the situation worsening.  Public colleges and universities are being underfunded to make room for tax cuts, health insurance costs, and prisons.  None of that falls under the purview of local administrators.  The backlog of underemployed graduates is growing, not shrinking, so even a significant uptick in demand would be more than swamped by people already in the system.  Twenty years of academic activism on this issue haven’t reversed the direction; I don’t know why ten more suddenly will.

No.  The best we can do is to prevent the next generation from falling victim to the issues that did such damage to this one.  We need to prune both the number and the size of graduate programs.  We need to actively dissuade bright young students from jumping into the sausage grinder.  We need to support unionization of adjuncts, though with a clear-eyed view of the limits of what that’s likely to achieve.  (My own campus has unionized adjuncts, and has had them for years, so I know of which I write.)  Yes, we need all the macro-political stuff that would help, but let’s not mistake hope for expectation.  Offer me Swedish-style social democracy and I’ll happily vote for it, but I’m not holding my breath for it to win in America anytime soon.  In the meantime, let’s at least save our students from becoming the second generation of adjuncts on food stamps.

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