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"A strict academic caste system."
April 28, 2012 11:29 AM   Subscribe

"Sixteen years ago, Patricia (P.J.) Johnston of Des Moines made the front page of this paper for collecting her diploma from Drake University at just 19. “I think I’m probably meant to be an academic,” Johnston was quoted as saying. And she has been, getting a master’s in one institution, going to seminary at another, doing field research in India in her area of interest — Indian Catholicism — and currently working toward a Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Iowa....As it is, she sleeps on her office floor on the days she has to be in Iowa City, riding the Greyhound bus in from Des Moines."
She helps support her mother with the approximately $16,000 she earns as a teaching assistant. But she is in danger of dropping out before getting her doctorate because she has hit her limit on loans, and most likely won’t be able to get a teaching assistant position next year because of cuts in undergraduate programs.

If that happens, she wrote me, she would be this far along, “facing the job market in my mid-30s with no marketable job skills of any kind.”....

The statistics bear out what Johnston describes as “a strict academic caste system.” According to a recent New York Times blog, 74 percent of students at the most competitive colleges have families earning in the top 25 percent. Only 3 percent come from families earning in the bottom quarter, which means higher education is reinforcing rather than negating class divisions.

Disproportionate numbers of kids from working-class families who could, based on their test scores and grade-point averages, be getting a college degree, are either not going to college or not finishing — “relegating them to a life of stagnant or declining wages,” wrote Thomas B. Edsall on March 12 in the New York Times blog.
posted by edheil (116 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
She sounds like a brilliant mind who has made some poor decisions. I don't want to hate on someone like this but it pains me that she has spent the past 16 years working on her career only to end up at what seems to be a dead end. I wish smart and driven people like this would take better care of themselves.

My well-talk-is-nice-and-everything-but-how-do-we-fix-this-situation-right-now solution? Create a donation fund raising (maybe Kickstarter or just plain old PayPal?) so that US citizens can invest in a bright and passionate individual who would probably turn out to be one of its finer educators/researchers. Hers is a good and touching story and I'm sure it would attract enough attention.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:45 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


How did they do it in the olden days? I mean, how was it possible to go to school for $1,000 (or less)/year in the 1960s? Inflation doesn't explain, not by a mile. Public universities, I understand - in a lot of place you're getting less funding. But that doesn't explain the meteoric rise in tuition at private universities. How has the business model changed so dramatically?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:48 AM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's hard to sympathize with professional students, especially one with $185,000 in loans. Yes, the system is broken, but come on, $185,000? And no one wants to work 9-5 at their shitty jobs, but it's time for her to look for one. She can write the great American novel on the weekends.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:48 AM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't think y'all read the article. The point is that if only people who have $200,000 to spare can become academics in humanities, then are we really getting the best and most qualified people to graduate with degrees in these disciplines? Is it turning into a luxury good. Tsk-tsking Johnston for her choices doesn't answer the question.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:52 AM on April 28, 2012 [49 favorites]


Hrm. Sixteen years and she still doesn't have her Ph.D. I really want to know more about that part of the story is. Clearly, that's much longer than it takes most candidates who finish. So, what was the hold up. This story is useless without knowing why she's still without her terminal degree.

Also, I bet she has more marketable skills than she realizes. Some NGO may well snap her up.
posted by anastasiav at 11:53 AM on April 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Actually, strike that last sentence. I suppose in a way, castigating Johnston is absolutely answering the question, just not in a way that makes me feel encouraged.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:54 AM on April 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


I am 100% in favor of English and Philosophy programs in universities and have serious reservations about the idea of college being for job training. That being said, there is a huge gulf between a "Disproportionate numbers of kids from working-class families who could, based on their test scores and grade-point averages, be getting a college degree, are either not going to college or not finishing" and spending 16 years on your Ph.D
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:55 AM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


There could be a lot of reasons why she hasn't finished yet. Some people take a long time to write their dissertations, and if she's had to adjunct the whole time that could explain it too. Obviously she's still in her program, so her supervisory committee doesn't seem to have problems with it.

And I know I shouldn't read the comments, but the very first fucking one was all about "who gives a shit about this stuff, it's her own fault, get a goddamn real job". Jesus.
posted by jokeefe at 11:57 AM on April 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


ActingTheGoat-- she hasn't spent 16 years on her PhD alone; she did her MA during that time as well. That's the length of her entire time in grad school. She may have taken leaves of absence, she may have had health issues, we don't know; I submit that the number of years she has been studying is not wholly relevant to the topic at hand, which is the difficulty of getting an education in America.
posted by jokeefe at 12:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sixteen years and she still doesn't have her Ph.D. I really want to know more about that part of the story is. Clearly, that's much longer than it takes most candidates who finish. So, what was the hold up.

The story suggests that at least part of the holdup was that she's taking care of her mother, who's unemployed and seems to have some kind of health problem. And that she lives in Des Moines instead of the city where she goes to school (and where her library, classmates, advisors, etc. are) presumably for financial reasons. Those are problem sthat twenty-somethings from affluent families usually don't have to deal with.

We really have no idea, from the story, why it's taken her so long to get the Ph.D., but one relatively common scenario that she's been doing tons of low-level teaching, probably at more than one institution, likely without benefits. If that's the case, it doesn't help her much to tell her she should go looking for a shitty 40-hour a week job to make ends meet, because she already has one.
posted by escabeche at 12:05 PM on April 28, 2012 [15 favorites]


This is a topic that similar to one close to my heart.

I grew up in the Midwest. My family was comfortable, but not wealthy -- for most of my childhood, I was raised by a single mother. We did okay, because she had a decent administrative job with good benefits at the local university. However, this did mean that when I was looking to enter college, and important factor for consideration was cost; we couldn't afford to send me to a big-name university, which meant I went to the local university for my general education requirements (in-state tuition), and then I transferred to another college-town Midwestern university to finish (out-of-state tuition, but lower cost of living).

Now I'm entering into a PhD program, at an excellent and competitive school where I think I can get an education on par with any other--but one thing that's hanging over my head is name recognition. I turned down admission into a more famous program in part because I didn't believe I could afford the cost of living without taking out loans. And people in my field talk, a lot, about how it's the people from the famous programs who get the few available jobs. I'm worried.

As for taking sixteen years -- don't judge without knowing the reason. There are many reasons that people don't finish on a traditional time table. And even if she made bad choices, that's not really important, because if the wealthy have more leeway to make bad choices than the less well-off, it's still an unequal situation that will result in more wealthy people earning degrees at these institutions than less wealthy people, which perpetuates overrepresentation of the wealthy (if you think representation should be based on academic merit) in top schools.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:09 PM on April 28, 2012 [11 favorites]


Come onnnn, who did she think was going to repay those loans? I don't want to be hating but let's be at least a little practical. We have to acknowledge that, yes, the current system sucks balls, and therefore have some duty to plan ahead so that we don't end up hopelessly old and skill-less and poor. (Though I'd also argue that she probably has more marketable skills than she thinks).

It's an unfortunate fact that this sort of scholarly work, such as the work on Indian Catholicism that this woman is doing, is not adequately valued/supported by the current educational structure. It's also unfortunate that this is not made blatantly obvious to all prospective scholars in such areas.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 12:09 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


It really sounds like she is an outlier, and if so it is disingenuous to use her as a detailed case study to argue the point. And counter-productive, too, because here we are arguing over her failures instead of the system's. Tell me how hard it is for the typical prospective humanities prof instead -- I hear it is more than hard enough to make your point.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:12 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I mean, how was it possible to go to school for $1,000 (or less)/year in the 1960s?

It was possible to go to school for nothing in many parts of the world (e.g. Europe) and comparatively little in other parts (e.g. California) until a few years ago. The expression 'business model' is perhaps as old as the change away from making secondary education free to anyone who qualified - anyone, not necessarily a citizen of the country providing the education. Advanced education was considered a public good, and was paid for by taxes, like other public goods. It was not directly connected with 'marketable job skills', skills training being another type of (publicly funded) training.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:12 PM on April 28, 2012 [8 favorites]


ActingTheGoat-- she hasn't spent 16 years on her PhD alone; she did her MA during that time as well. That's the length of her entire time in grad school. She may have taken leaves of absence, she may have had health issues, we don't know; I submit that the number of years she has been studying is not wholly relevant to the topic at hand, which is the difficulty of getting an education in America.

That's fair. I'm not trying to say "lol, religious studies grad student" or "she should have just studied business or computers" My own higher education was certainly on a nontraditional timeline. But getting $185,000 into debt with no appreciable way to get a job that will be able to pay that off appears as short sighted as a lot of those law students we've talked about in all all of the law school threads. A lot of people our age were told, "do what you love, the money will follow." But that seems to have been terrible advice.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:17 PM on April 28, 2012


She clearly has picked up some job skills in that time. The problem is that the place they are marketable are probably not even tangentially related to her field. The time comes in everybody's life when they realize that they are going to have to make at least some money to survive. 185k loans sounds totally irresponsible to me. How did she think she was going to pay that back?

As for the larger issue, which is highly relevant (though not well articulated through the subject's case), it is in fact that way. But has it ever been otherwise? Or is it that now, there are a lot more people interested in pursuing these kinds of degrees, but there really isn't a demand for them?

My take on a lot of these advanced degrees is you shouldn't bother unless you are being funded.
posted by borges at 12:20 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The only people who can consider getting a Ph.D in the humanities are the independently wealthy or well connected, or those who can rely on a partner or employer to pay for it, wrote William Pannapacker, an English professor at Hope College in Michigan, in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay. “Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk,” he wrote.

That's not true. Any spot in a Ph.D. program worth accepting is funded. None of the Ph.D.'s I know who are successful now, are independently wealthy. They did it all with institutional funding.

And sorry, this article reeks of ignorance. This woman is a fool for racking up those loans. Furthermore, the whole "reading existentialism while others were reading comics" applies to virtually everyone who pursues a humanities Ph.D., so I'm not impressed. She may have been precocious, but Ms.-Sixteen-Years-and-$185,000-and-Still-No-Ph.D. is not terribly smart.
posted by jayder at 12:23 PM on April 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


I came here to say what jayder said. I'm in grad school in the humanities, and I don't know anyone who isn't on a fellowship.

You just don't go into debt to pursue a PhD in the humanities. It's an insane idea. I'm sorry that this woman is so entrenched in debt, but I can't believe that she didn't have an advisor warn her against it.
posted by duvatney at 12:29 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here's a take on graduate education, from a Canadian perspective: Most PhD funding and preferred access to TAships run out after 4 or 6 years, depending on the university. The average time to completion of a humanities or social sciences degree is over 6 years (see statscan. Of course, once your funding runs out, you've got to pick up contract teaching jobs to make ends meet, and this further delays finishing your PhD, so Canadian PhD candidates in the humanities and social sciences end up on a treadmill of contract teaching.
posted by sfred at 12:38 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whoa - this is weirdly similar to my experience and weirdly not similar. I agree that the student loan system is out of control, but $185,000 seems... absurd.

I completed my M.Div. while working a part-time job in my field in a city roughly two hours distant (had the benefit of Amtrak, though). I understand her field is Catholic studies, but there is a lot of work out there for someone with dedication and an M.Div. from a good school - especially in Catholic social services, especially part time. Today I am using that M.Div. to work a full-time job in a city three hours distance from my full-time PhD program in Religious Studies. I couldn't live on my stipend so I work - unfortunately the job is a long ways away and I spend roughly 12 hours a week in the car but frankly, I want this degree that badly.
But I could never do this (would never even entertain the thought of doing this) if the doctoral program wasn't fully funded.

In my (perhaps shitty) opinion - working your field in the humanities means working your field. Unless you're in crit or philosophy or something you should be out there hoeing a row. Psychology departments have people in clinical settings, earning some scratch and doing psychology. Film students make films. If you're a student of religion - especially if you have a practical degree like an M.Div. (which for all intents and purposes is a terminal degree) - well... get out there and religiousize! or religionate. or whatever. Apply for a dissertation fellowship when it comes time.

I am neither independently wealthy nor well connected (nor even particularly clever). I am just willing to slog my way through work and school and forgo weekends for a bit to get what I want. Millions of Americans do it without racking up that kind of debt... I sort of think of it like opening up a restaurant or starting a small business or raising cattle. Starts out hard. Then things get better.

Also, I have literally never even met someone who attempted a PhD in the humanities without funding.

Aaaaaand back to writing term papers.
posted by Tennyson D'San at 12:39 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


It really sounds like she is an outlier

Well yeah, that's kind of the point: very few others from her economic background are able to make it even as far as her precarious situation.

jayder, I'd be interested to know what disciplines the Ph.D.s that you know who are successful now studied. There's a significant different in funding between science programs and humanities programs. This is reflected in average time to degree for Ph.D. programs in different disciplines. Last I looked at the data eight or so years ago, the average time to degree for a science Ph.D. was in the six to eight year range, and for a Ph.D. in the humanities was somewhere in the 8-12 year range, and (if I recall correctly) more than half of humanities Ph.D. students in the U.S. did not have financial support from their institutions. There should be recent data available from the AAUP, or through the Chronicle of Higher Education web site. If I get my marking done early, I'll try to find links:P

As well, others upthread noted that the 16 years was for both her Master's degree and Ph.D. Master's degrees are generally supposed to take two years, though three is not that uncommon even in my discipline (math). Supposing Ms. Johnston took four years to complete her Master's due to only working at it part time so that she could also work (a job) and support her mother, and supposing she is also only working at her Ph.D. part time for the same reasons, the 16-year time frame for both degrees is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately most graduate programs are not set up to be taken as part-time programs, so students have to pay the same amount no matter how much time they actually have to spend on their research project and thesis/dissertation writing. I don't know if humanities programs have started to change this in response to the increasing amount of time their students have to spend working outside of their studies, but there are little or no breaks for part-time students at any universities that I know of.

Now, you may very well say that, given the economics of the situation, graduate school (in the humanities, in particular) is not a great personal choice for a student from a lower-income background who can't rely on the financial support of family for however long it takes them to complete their degrees. The statistics indicate that many smart students from lower income backgrounds in fact agree with this analysis. I think that's exactly the point of the article: that this is a structural inequality that means that higher education in the U.S. (this article focuses on graduate degrees, but I believe the data on undergraduate degrees shows similar trends, though not as stark) reproduces class divisions rather than being a merit-based equalizer or route to upward economic mobility.
posted by eviemath at 12:41 PM on April 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


By the way, yes, obviously, you shouldn't take out a loan to get a Ph.D., and I don't restrict that to the humanities.

But the article is about higher education generally, and Ph.D.'s are a vanishingly small portion of higher education. Would you say somebody was obviously a fool to take out loans to go to college? I wouldn't. But those loans can easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
posted by escabeche at 12:42 PM on April 28, 2012


That came out shittier than I intended. I think her situation is awful. But I still can't even fathom wanting a PhD in humanities so badly that you would take on that sort of debt. It's never been easier to be a public thinker in America. You don't need a PhD in Religious Studies, you just need a good blog.
posted by Tennyson D'San at 12:42 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it turning into a luxury good.

Access to doctoral programs in the humanities has always been a luxury good. It's always been a minority of people who graduate from college in the US and that minority has always been much richer and more privileged than the population at large.

I think that is part of what is behind some of the reactions in this thread: it's not the easiest thing to have sympathy for someone whose attempt to enter an elite profession has failed and has left her indebted when you yourself were never in a position even to make the attempt.
posted by enn at 12:46 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well yeah, that's kind of the point: very few others from her economic background are able to make it even as far as her precarious situation.

This is precisely the point, but I did not get this from the article, and to me it seemed entirely plausible that for every one of her there is someone equally disadvantaged who breezes through in five years with full funding. However, if you're saying 8 to 12 years is average, and half don't have funding, then she is not an outlier at all, and maybe she really is representative of people from her background. If so, her supposed failures aren't relevant at all. Thanks for providing the data -- it's really changed the picture for me.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:53 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


This story is a poor argument against high tuition and the consequent debt. I believe that PJ has made some exceptionally poor choices (the reasons for which are sadly not illuminated in the article). Giving her the education for free would not have prevented her from making these poor choices. On the contrary, it probably creates even more of an incentive to pursue a dead-end educational track, with even less corrective pressure to eventually do something leading to self-sufficiency.

I agree that something is broken with the way education is financed. No sensible lender should give student loans to someone starting a PhD in a field in which they will never be able to repay it (and yes, no unfunded spot in a PhD program is worth looking at). The people providing these loans (likely in collusion with the school) are acting immorally. And, outrageously, they have the backing of the law, which limits how student loans are affected by bankruptcy. But the answer is not to make education free, the answer is to force lenders to take into account the future of the student.

One way of doing that is to restrict repayment of student loans to a percentage of after-school earnings that exceed a agreed-upon floor. E.g. if I start a MA program on loans (also not a good idea unless funded), aiming to increase my post-degree earnings from 40k (what I think I can get now) to something higher, I could get a student loan. The lender would be repaid with (say) 10% of my earnings exceeding 40k. If I make less, they're out of luck (and I am, too). If I make a lot, I'll repay the loan quickly. This would force lenders to think hard about providing easy money for lost causes. One could also start easy by simply making student loans a type of regular unsecured loan which can be shed in personal bankruptcy. Either change would make lenders care about the students future.

Most likely, it would become very hard for people to get student loans for programs that do not lead to an increase in earnings. And yes, that would mean that it would become much harder for people without independent funding to indulge in humanities, especially on a post-graduate level. I think that would be a good thing. PJs life is a lot harder because she was allowed (and probably encouraged) to waste some of her most productive time, at her own, great expense, on something that bluntly spoken, just wasn't worth it.
posted by dlg at 12:56 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


To me it is simple: This is someone who wanted to be a college professor. This person has the motivation, the drive, the intellectual wherewithal and the temperament to be a college professor and to do what must be done to reach that goal. So much so that over a 16 year period she has worked steadily toward this goal in spite of many obstacles. What stands in her way and in the way of many others is not some personal failing, some internal insufficiency, but a lack of resources because of her impoverished background. That should not be.
posted by Danila at 1:08 PM on April 28, 2012 [17 favorites]


One could also start easy by simply making student loans a type of regular unsecured loan which can be shed in personal bankruptcy.

I think just doing this would do a huge amount of good. It would stop student loans from being this inescapable and life-ruining millstone. Probably it would also dry up this indefensible glut of unfunded humanities PhD positions with nothing waiting for their victims at the end of the chute except a life of being ruthlessly exploited as an adjunct professor.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's not true. Any spot in a Ph.D. program worth accepting is funded. None of the Ph.D.'s I know who are successful now, are independently wealthy. They did it all with institutional funding.

This is the one piece of advice I received about applying to grad school. (Seriously. My undergrad advisor told me that I send them application and they send me offers when I asked for advice.) Funding's harder to come by in the humanities, but I believe this is still the general advice.

I brought this up in a conversation about the wisdom of accepting unfunded offers. The person I was talking to argued that perhaps this was a luxury afforded only to those who went to a 'good' university. (Which, of course, tracks distressingly with parental wealth in general.) I never decided what I think about that point. When I was first given the advice, I was in a room with people from all sorts of colleges, who were distinguished from the average undergrad by intelligence and motivation. Not everyone could be dismissed with 'Well, you went to X, of course you'd be told that.'

In any case, I think we have to take everything in that article with a grain of salt. At the end, the author calls for graduate students to be funded.
posted by hoyland at 1:29 PM on April 28, 2012


Most likely, it would become very hard for people to get student loans for programs that do not lead to an increase in earnings. And yes, that would mean that it would become much harder for people without independent funding to indulge in humanities, especially on a post-graduate level. I think that would be a good thing. PJs life is a lot harder because she was allowed (and probably encouraged) to waste some of her most productive time, at her own, great expense, on something that bluntly spoken, just wasn't worth it.

Well, it's all about what we, the society, values. We don't appear to value studies in Catholicism in India. That might be wrong, or it might reflect correct priorities, in that we'd rather she cure cancer than study Catholicism in India. But regardless of right or wrong, it remains reality: we don't value her studies particularly highly. If that's the case, is she entitled to our support just because those who don't need our support can afford it? I can't afford a Rolls Royce. Is it wrong for Rolls Royces to be monopolized by the rich and privileged? Should I get a subsidy to also be able to buy a Rolls Royce? Or perhaps society says: RR is not important to our common good, and if you want it, you'll just have to get it yourself, because we'll only support things which we deem important for our common good... we may be wrong in what we judge our common good, but that's a different conversation. And if it's put this way, then RRs will naturally be concentrated only among the wealthy - is that wrong from a societal point of view? You want us to support you, do something we deem worthy of support, otherwise pay for it yourself. You want to study 5th century Asturian poetry? Do it on your own dime - we won't weep particularly hard because only the wealthy and privileged can afford to be experts on 5th century Asturian poetry.
posted by VikingSword at 1:30 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The statistics indicate that many smart students from lower income backgrounds in fact agree with this analysis.

This is a good point.

Even if you agree that this woman was foolish not to leave academia rather than take out loans, it's still an illustration of how the deck is stacked against lower-income students. It's just that the message is: Leave or this will happen to you. Should this be a choice lower-income students are forced to make?

None of the Ph.D.'s I know who are successful now, are independently wealthy. They did it all with institutional funding.

Is the situation with graduate funding the same now as when they were in school? I know that when I was looking at schools, many of the best schools were in areas where the stipend would likely be too little to live on due to high costs of living. I chose to go to a school where I have a good chance of finishing without any debt -- but this school has poorer name recognition, which means that I'll be competing with people who could afford to go to a more famous program when I'm looking for a job. And I'll still be in trouble if I get sick or if my research takes an additional year (since funding is only guaranteed for the first five). God knows what I would do if I had a family member to support.

I know things have changed so much, so fast for undergraduate costs that it's useless to compare my undergraduate costs to the likely costs of someone who has just finished high school now.

at would mean that it would become much harder for people without independent funding to indulge in humanities

The point is that when independent funding is a deciding factor in whether you can be successful in the humanities, then the wealthy are those who succeed in the humanities. If you think this is just fine, then there's a fundamental difference in philosophy there. I happen to not think that this is fine, and like the author of the article, believe that who is represented among higher-degree holders should be based on academic merit as much as possible (rather than finances).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:38 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is someone who wanted to be a college professor.

So what? There is probably an unlimited number of fields in which someone could theoretically become a professor. Unfortunately, we have limits on funding. No economy can afford to fund each and every single blessed interest someone may have in becoming an academic.

We - society - must choose what to fund. Choosing means someone will be denied. And what grounds do we deny funding on? Not her economic background, her race or gender. We deny it, because we deem her field of interest as - perhaps regrettably - of lesser priority than one which may result in a cure for cancer. Sad, but true - we live in a world of scarcity and choices must be made.
posted by VikingSword at 1:40 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it wrong for Rolls Royces to be monopolized by the rich and privileged? Should I get a subsidy to also be able to buy a Rolls Royce?

Education, at any level, is not like a Rolls Royce in all the ways that matter. Think of education more like an investment that pays back the student and society more than what's put into it instead of as an expensive luxury car.
posted by euphorb at 1:48 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Any spot in a Ph.D. program worth accepting is funded.

This is what I tell my students: do not do a Ph.D. if you cannot get funded. It's madness in almost any discipline (and not just the humanities). The best programmes won't accept you without funding. It doesn't mean you have to start off at a great school, though: your professor's patronage and connections is as important. There are plenty of people at smaller and lower-ranked schools who went to good schools and excellent connections. But the good places are very competitive; and while the time you get is limited the fees drop enormously when you're not paying for classes.

So, while it's not ideal, it's not as bleak as it might be. If you get funding, that is.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:48 PM on April 28, 2012


There's kind of a significant factor here: She's been taking out loans for school... and yet supporting her mother. At some point, when you have parents who aren't self-supporting and yet you don't have money of your own, you have to cut the cord. You have to start making financial decisions for you. LOTS and LOTS of people manage to get PhD's in the humanities, even with additional schooling on the side, without hitting anywhere near 200k in loans. But those loans haven't really been entirely to subsidize her; they've also been subsidizing another adult who either needs to have a job, or else needs to be getting their support from other social programs, not an adult child who doesn't make very much money.
posted by gracedissolved at 1:52 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Any spot in a Ph.D. program worth accepting is funded.
Well, yeah. But it sounds like she was limited to staying in Iowa for family reasons. So may have been unable to take up paid PhD-ships on offer at other, more prosperous departments. The ability to be radically mobile—to go wherever there's funding—that everyone making this argument here is taking for granted is, yes, just another aspect of class privilege.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:54 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Any spot in a Ph.D. program worth accepting is funded.

Absolutely. The situation is a little different at the master's level, though. We seem to be moving towards one-year coursework master's degrees, and those are rarely funded the way thesis degrees are.
posted by sfred at 1:56 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


And yet, there's funding for all kinds of obscure subjects in the humanities (eg. 3 years of phd funding for Fiscal Culture in Early Tudor England.)

The other thing that grad students need to figure out is how to find and get awards in their specialties. I've seen a number of grad students who figured out how to do that early in their careers, and because they were so brilliant in their fields and supported by their faculty members, they were able to be fully funded, or pretty darn close to it. (Proposal writing as a first-year graduate course, anyone?)

The other key, of course, is to have faculty members who are well-networked in their field, so that when they write a letter of recommendation, it carries a lot of weight.
posted by wenat at 1:57 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Education, at any level, is not like a Rolls Royce in all the ways that matter. Think of education more like an investment that pays back the student and society more than what's put into it instead of as an expensive luxury car.

This is completely unsupported. Not all education is of equal value to society. Curing cancer? Clear value most would agree on there being a payoff for society. It is demonstrably not so for a whole range of things you could spend money on studying - the payoff may be cultural in some very, very, very diluted way, but... the same could be said about Rolls Royces - there may in fact be more value in supporting RR, because sometimes interesting engineering spinoffs happen from luxury goods, they do provide some jobs etc. It's some kind of shibboleth that people don't examine "oh boy, Edumacamation! It's gotta be good!". Some of it is a great investment for society - in which case it is funded. Or should be funded. Some, you may have to demonstrate the value of - and if society doesn't agree, you're out of luck. It's about what society values - and that's something that's not self-evident, it's something that must be agreed upon and something that an argument must be made for.
posted by VikingSword at 1:58 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


VikingSword: We - society - must choose what to fund. Choosing means someone will be denied.
Er, dude. Were you alive during the last fifteen years? Did you see some of the things we spent money (and I mean serious money, not just putting-poor-kid-through-gradschool money) on? The grotesque misallocation of capital and engorgement of the elites that brought about the financial crisis (among many, many other things) is just as much a part of this story as any "poor" choices that this woman may or may not have made.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:58 PM on April 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


Er, dude. Were you alive during the last fifteen years? Did you see some of the things we spent money (and I mean serious money, not just putting-poor-kid-through-gradschool money) on? The grotesque misallocation of capital and engorgement of the elites that brought about the financial crisis (among many, many other things) is just as much a part of this story as any "poor" choices that this woman may or may not have made.

Completely agree. But what's the argument? Even more wasteful things were funded, so this little wasteful thing is A OK? If someone spent uncontrollably enormous sums, and then one day added a $1 pointless purchase, we don't suddenly deem the $1 waste "not waste".
posted by VikingSword at 2:02 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is someone who wanted to be a college professor.

What if she'd wanted to be a pop star? Or anything less reputable than a professor? Even if she'd had the talent, drive, etc., I doubt anyone would have encouraged her to slug away at her dream for 16 years while going $185,000 into debt. We would have said she was foolish and should have known better.

Also, she left a comment on this article defending her decision with what I would argue is not the best logic:

"I was willing to undertake my studies at any cost and at any degree of personal risk because I believe in God and I am convinced that I am doing what God is calling me to do."
posted by duvatney at 2:03 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Education: human right or luxury commodity? Debate at 6:00.
posted by eviemath at 2:05 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did you see some of the things we spent money (and I mean serious money, not just putting-poor-kid-through-gradschool money) on?

You are right in many ways, but the problem in this particular case is not so much the lack of money. Even if her debt would be forgiven right now, she would still be in a shitty situation: after 16 years of grad school, nothing "marketable" to show for it. With that CV she will have a hard time down the road, debt or no debt. The problem has not so much to do with misallocation of money, it's the misallocation of her life. This is something that she is personally responsible for, of course, but I do believe that other people are too. Her school(s) for sure, her advisor(s), her family (depending on their capacity to deal with other people's problems in addition to their own).

I would not want to be responsible for making it easier for people like her to go down that road by making higher education in humanities (in particular) cheaper. In fact, if we could make it harder (by making it harder to go in debt), we would save lots of people a lot of pain. If we also save money, great, but she wasted her own (borrowed) money, so I don't think that's the point.
posted by dlg at 2:10 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Education: human right or luxury commodity? Debate at 6:00.

My fourth degree in Religious Studies: human right or luxury commodity? Debate at 6:00.

Fixed that for you.
posted by dlg at 2:12 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, yeah. But it sounds like she was limited to staying in Iowa for family reasons. So may have been unable to take up paid PhD-ships on offer at other, more prosperous departments. The ability to be radically mobile—to go wherever there's funding—that everyone making this argument here is taking for granted is, yes, just another aspect of class privilege.

Not everything is an example of class privilege. It sounds like she has specific, family issues that keep her from leaving. An out of state school offering to fund a student in financial need seems more like correcting an imbalance than perpetrating privilege.
For hundreds of years, if not longer, poor people have moved to cities or migrated across oceans in an attempt at a better life. Aren't the privileged the ones who can afford to stay put? I know this isn't really relevant to her situation, but I don't see it as a matter of privilege.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:13 PM on April 28, 2012


We need a better model of financing higher education so that people without means, but with her kind of promise, aren’t kicked to the curb before they can fulfill it.

The context of the article is not about Ms. Johnston and her passions per se but more about the inability of poor people to rise above their station regardless of the talents they possess because of the financial model that institutions of higher learning have adopted. She's merely an example and probably a poor choice for the argument.
posted by jsavimbi at 2:16 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Given that starting businesses and getting professional degrees are the more typical ways of raising one's station, I should say that is quite so.
posted by borges at 2:30 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm ambivalent about her academic endeavors' inherent wastefulness, VikingSword, well seminary sounds pretty wasteful. Yet, she has managed to "put in her four hours a day" via the useful activity of teaching, meaning society could justify supporting her, minimally perhaps, but food, shelter, health care, etc.

I'll reiterate that nobody should do a PhD without financial support or continue past when their support expires, but I'd strengthen this statement to : nobody should continue down an academic career path beyond when their salary drops below what they feel a reasonable standard of living requires. Academia's inherent pyramid scheme like quality ran out four+ decades ago, even for students with funding, even in the sciences. See Goodstein's The Big Crunch.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:33 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Education: human right or luxury commodity? Debate at 6:00.

But again, not all education is equally valued by society. What that means is that some is valued highly, but some not. So it's wrong to lump all education into the same category of support.

By analogy, if society decides to fund public transportation, and someone demands a Rolls Royce, denying the Rolls Royce would not be characterized as:

Transportation: human right or luxury commodity? Debate at 6:00.

Rolls Royce is transportation. A bus is transportation. But both are not seem as an equal to each other as public good that needs taxpayer subsidy.

This is what her reason is:

"I was willing to undertake my studies at any cost and at any degree of personal risk because I believe in God and I am convinced that I am doing what God is calling me to do."

God may be telling you to study Godly things. God may be telling you you deserve a Rolls Royce. Fine. Let God pay for it.
posted by VikingSword at 2:39 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


the useful activity of teaching, meaning society could justify supporting her, minimally perhaps, but food, shelter, health care, etc.

I certainly agree that she should be paid for her work. It becomes an argument about how much we value which work. Personally, I think people trapped in this are an equivalent to forced labor in academia, they're underpaid and exploited. I would like them to be paid more, and have better working conditions. And I'm not opposed to funding studies in f.ex. theology or comparative religion etc. - and I'm an atheist. I think we should pay for such studies. But it becomes a question of how much of the funding pie should go to such disciplines. It may be that we can afford to pay for relatively few such positions. Maybe we can afford only 5 such positions yearly, or whatever, and only the most brilliant will be lucky enough to be funded. I'm sorry she didn't make the cut, but life is filled with disappointment for millions upon millions of people. And call me crude and prejudiced, but I've been around long enough, that I believe that if you are truly exceptionally brilliant in academia, no matter how obscure your subject, you WILL get funding. She just didn't make the cut.
posted by VikingSword at 2:55 PM on April 28, 2012


"I wouldn't counsel any of my students to embark on an unfunded graduate degree because I don't think that's a wise personal choice" (statement 1) is not in contradiction with "the economic structure of higher education, and graduate school in particular, inherently reproduces the current class structure, and that is a bad thing" (statement 2). However, there is a big difference between "I wouldn't counsel any of my students to embark on an unfunded graduate degree" (statement 1) and "anyone who embarks on an unfunded graduate degree is stupid and irresponsible" (statement 3). In any event, the point of the article was statement 2. Perhaps we could discuss that?

Relevant to statement 2: sure, "society" doesn't value all lines of inquiry in education equally. "Society" arguably also doesn't value providing equal voting rights to everyone, or ensuring that everyone is housed, or providing some minimal base level of medical care to everyone, or ensuring that everyone (or at the very least, every child) has a minimal adequate level of nutrition. At least, if we judge based on what "society" currently does and does not spend money on. The fact that our current society doesn't provide basic human rights to all of its members does not negate the fact that housing, adequate nutrition, basic medical care, and voting are deemed human rights - that's not how rights work. You may disagree that education is a human right, or that education beyond some minimal stage is a human right, and there do indeed seem to be viewpoints both for an against in this discussion thread.
posted by eviemath at 2:57 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I believe that if you are truly exceptionally brilliant in academia, no matter how obscure your subject, you WILL get funding

Interestingly, there is at least one counterexample to this among Mefites in this very discussion thread (and no, it's not me).

Unless your metric for exceptional brilliance is ability to attract funding, I guess.
posted by eviemath at 3:01 PM on April 28, 2012


The main thing this article makes we want to do is to write an annoyed letter to Gannet, and let them know the Des Moines register gladly grants column inches to people who have no idea how to report (even the reporting that underlies an anecdotal opinion piece) and clearly has no one in the editorial suite with the slightest care or clue for education policy who read this, given the complete ignorance of norms that should have been investigated.

I suppose that there are a couple of policy points to care about. No responsible academic institution should indulge a 16 year odyssey of directionless graduate study, even if the perma-student is a millionaire doing it out of her own pocket. Simply unethical. Undergraduate school may have a place for creating well-rounded and -read citizens, but graduate school has a simpler purpose: create practicing professionals and productive scholars. The loan-making authorities should of course be a back-stop on this judgment and cut people off after some reasonable interval. Heck, you can go from an English BA to an attending neurosurgeon in 13 years. (2 years post-bac, 4 years MD, 5 years residency, 2 years fellowship).
posted by MattD at 3:03 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


She just didn't make the cut.

But why didn't she make the cut? When you have Heidi Montag underwriting what amounts to a doctoral thesis for $2M of fail, you have to question where our priorities as a society are.

Regardless of the field they decided to pursue, if we have a brilliant person going off the rails like she had, are we able to sit there in judgment when the very program that we're underwriting is the very one responsible for her current situation? Did we set this person and many like her up for failure?
posted by jsavimbi at 3:05 PM on April 28, 2012


The loan-making authorities should of course be a back-stop on this judgment and cut people off after some reasonable interval.

Employees of a university would never cut your off from obtaining funding as it is how they survive. They'll bend over backwards to get you those loans. All $185K of them. Or $300K @ 10yrs/5% or $490 @ 20yrs/5% as the loan originator would have it.
posted by jsavimbi at 3:12 PM on April 28, 2012


"Do what you love, and make bloody sure you love it, because the money is pretty fuckin' unlikely to follow."

Love,

Carpenter with PhD in Art History
posted by crazylegs at 3:12 PM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


The fact that our current society doesn't provide basic human rights to all of its members does not negate the fact that housing, adequate nutrition, basic medical care, and voting are deemed human rights - that's not how rights work

And I keep repeating: it's not all equal. Adequate nutrition - YES, a right. Caviar on demand - NOT a right, but you're welcome to pay for it yourself. Housing - YES. Golden Palace - NO, but you're welcome to pay for it yourself. Basic medical care - YES. Vanity Plastic Sugery to make you look like a Vulcan - NO, but you're welcome to pay for it yourself. Education is no different. Education in a field deemed highly beneficial by society - YES. Education in some religious subject merely "because God told me to study this subject" - NO, but you're welcome to pay for it yourself. So yes, that is exactly how the concept of rights works. Oftentimes society will get its priorities wrong, and then it's time for corrective action. This, is not one of those times - not in her case.
posted by VikingSword at 3:22 PM on April 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


If that woman is considered "brilliant", then I have known a wrong definition of "brilliant" all of my life.

Actually, I do know correct definitions of "brilliant", and that woman is the opposite, and so is the writer of the article.
posted by caclwmr4 at 3:36 PM on April 28, 2012


That clarifies a bit, VikingSword. Your earlier comments sounded like you were arguing that the value to society determined whether or not a certain level (not field) of educational achievement was a right. I disagree on the education point, still: I think that people should contribute some value to society depending on their abilities, but that we should all have the opportunity for ongoing engagement in intellectual pursuit and inquiry. Also, determining the relative worth of specific lines of inquiry I think is quite tricky in general. You seem to be advocating the opinion that this worth should be judged based on what currently gets funded; yet that would only serve to further current class divisions even more as topics that benefit those currently with money get funded more than topics that benefit those without, or that at least fail to benefit those currently with money.

All of this is a bit beside the point in terms of the larger issue of who gets funded to pursue higher education, though, and the strong class disparity that currently exists.
posted by eviemath at 3:44 PM on April 28, 2012


this thread is proof that the worst thing in america is to actually act as if you were free, free to study religion (or mathematics, or non-micro biology, or gravity physics, or...) instead of planning your whole life around what you think businesses will reward you for (and better hope you choose wisely, peon.)

there's actually a simple solution: allow bankruptcy judgments to include student loans. but that doesn't solve the problem of how to properly punish someone who didn't choose lucre over knowledge.

Education is no different. Education in a field deemed highly beneficial by society - YES. Education in some religious subject merely "because God told me to study this subject" - NO, but you're welcome to pay for it yourself.

you just have no idea. the whole modern world is built on the notion that higher education is not a luxury. in particular, the theoretical sciences, most of which have less relevance to the world we live in than catholicism in india. imagine the world of the 19th century, where most everyone was working as a farmer. why should anyone study electro-magnetism or thermodynamics when the practical thing was to hitch yourself to the plow and hope for good weather. the conclusion in the 20th century was that only allowing rich gentleman to dabble in the sciences held back everybody.

there's no criteria for what sort of knowledge is a luxury or not and the cost of "over-educating" a few people is small compared to the cost of under-educating the majority. right now, in the sciences, people are choosing academic subjects, not based on their inherent intellectual worth, but based on what will get them a job, either in academia or industry. right now, many basic topics in *science* are a luxury and the opportunity cost for the future isn't measurable because there's no way of knowing what will remain unknown as a result of people choosing safe careers over following what they (or God or whoever) thinks needs to be understood.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:47 PM on April 28, 2012 [13 favorites]


Working 40 hours a week and trying to moonlight a PhD degree is a brutal row to hoe and 16 years with an incomplete seems quite possible to me. Acquiring a bunch of debt in the process seems pretty reckless, but this is a very unusual case. I don't think I have ever known a person who could maintain the necessary focus for a 16 year interval. My guess is that this would be a really impressive person if I ever got the chance to talk to them.
posted by bukvich at 3:50 PM on April 28, 2012


If she was doing research in India, she was able to leave Iowa. She went to seminary after getting her MA? Or was she using the loans to support her mother and herself, as well as go to school? I think this seems more like obsession than thirst for an academic career.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:00 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


you just have no idea. the whole modern world is built on the notion that higher education is not a luxury. in particular, the theoretical sciences, most of which have less relevance to the world we live in than catholicism in india. imagine the world of the 19th century, where most everyone was working as a farmer. why should anyone study electro-magnetism or thermodynamics when the practical thing was to hitch yourself to the plow and hope for good weather. the conclusion in the 20th century was that only allowing rich gentleman to dabble in the sciences held back everybody.

there's no criteria for what sort of knowledge is a luxury or not and the cost of "over-educating" a few people is small compared to the cost of under-educating the majority. right now, in the sciences, people are choosing academic subjects, not based on their inherent intellectual worth, but based on what will get them a job, either in academia or industry. right now, many basic topics in *science* are a luxury and the opportunity cost for the future isn't measurable because there's no way of knowing what will remain unknown as a result of people choosing safe careers over following what they (or God or whoever) thinks needs to be understood
.

That's a "know-nothing" argument. It's an abdication of responsibility - a complete cop out. In a nutshell, your argument is that since we can't be absolutely certain what the return in any field of endeavor is, we should fund them all. It's patently absurd, and dishonest to boot. Because that's an argument that collapses of its own weight very quickly, simply by virtue of the fact that funds are not unlimited. We simply cannot fund everything. Therefore, the answer is: yes, absolutely, we must and furthermore have no choice but to - make choices.

Responsibility. We have an obligation to choose what to fund in eduction (as in everything). To say "we can't be certain" is a cop out. This doesn't mean we'll always make the right choices, but it's the price we have no option but to pay in a world where we don't know all the answers ahead of time. A scientist picks the direction of his inquiry. He may be wrong, and it may not be fruitful, but he has no choice, given that time is limited, as are funds. Is "higher education a luxury good"? No, but some most definitely is. You refuse to choose which. But that's merely avoiding responsibility. Society must choose, and often will choose well.

in particular, the theoretical sciences, most of which have less relevance to the world we live in than catholicism in india.

And I feel pretty comfortable in disagreeing with this. Take something regarded as the epitome of ivory tower pursuits - pure mathematics. The history of mathematics is filled with sudden crossover applications in physics and all sorts of real-life applications in analysis etc. I would much rather fund 100 mathematicians than 1 researcher in "Catholics in India". And so on for almost any of the "theoretical sciences" you care to point to.

Which is not to say that humanities are somehow not worthy. We fund them for very good reasons indeed, and it's of great relevance to society. Including theology.

But we must make choices, and while we'll always make mistakes - not having a crystal ball and all - we'll also keep getting better at it. And along the way, we may drop or deprecate the occasional phrenology, even if some may think that a mistake.
posted by VikingSword at 4:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


VikingSword, you're avoiding the issue of how your much-vaunted societal choices get made at present, and whether or not that process is based on merit or perpetuates class divisions.
posted by eviemath at 4:22 PM on April 28, 2012


That's not true. Any spot in a Ph.D. program worth accepting is funded. None of the Ph.D.'s I know who are successful now, are independently wealthy. They did it all with institutional funding.

This. I went to grad school at a fairly high-end place, and I knew of no one (and I think word would have gotten around) who was self-funding a phd program. People mostly had institutional funding (generally combinations of fellowships, TAships, and RAships, with all kinds of variations), public or private fellowships (eg NSF, Ford, etc), or came with support from their company or home country. None of these (with the exception of some of the corporate and foreign government programs that continued people's salaries) were hugely generous, but they paid enough for one or two people to live modestly.

I did know people who took out loans on top of that to support a fancier lifestyle, and I knew a very large number of people from poor countries who were cutting their living expenses to the bone to be able to send money home every month -- those stipends that other people liked to complain about were sometimes supporting large extended families in other places. And many people I knew who were from middle- and upper-class families would get intermittent or regular support, things like free airplane tickets home, a gift of a used car, or money for the dentist, that of course are simply unavailable to poorer students and over the course of a lifetime represent a huge intergenerational transfer of wealth.

So in one sense institutions like that are extremely open and egalitarian, since everyone receives enough to live on and admittance is not based on income. The real barriers happen earlier -- who goes to the kinds of undergraduate institutions that prepare you for top tier grad programs? Who can afford to live on a grad stipend for five years instead of needing to immediately get a job to help support their family? Who comes from a family that unreservedly supports educational attainment, versus getting a job immediately?

Anyone taking out big loans to support a humanities phd is doing it wrong, but she sounds more like she is using student loans to support her mother. That's also doing it wrong, but says nothing about the value of humanities education; it's probably more a reflection of how crappy our national safety net really is, and an expression of how intense the need to support those we love is.
posted by Forktine at 4:24 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Take something regarded as the epitome of ivory tower pursuits - pure mathematics. The history of mathematics is filled with sudden crossover applications in physics and all sorts of real-life applications in analysis etc. I would much rather fund 100 mathematicians than 1 researcher in "Catholics in India". And so on for almost any of the "theoretical sciences" you care to point to.

If by "sudden" you mean 50 to a couple thousand years later. (Not that I want to argue against funding pure mathematics!) And yet still, the success of people that I went to graduate school with has been primarily tied to how applied their field of research is (or can be described as on applications), not at all based on how smart they were relative to the other quite smart people in our program.
posted by eviemath at 4:27 PM on April 28, 2012


Here's a source for some actual data on "Student Financing of Graduate ... Education", data from 2007-08 and earlier.
posted by eviemath at 4:34 PM on April 28, 2012


VikingSword, you're avoiding the issue of how your much-vaunted societal choices get made at present, and whether or not that process is based on merit or perpetuates class divisions.

"How much" - I can't say simply because I'm not qualified. I don't have the data. I have not spent any time analyzing or studying the issue. I would feel stupid opining on the subject. In very general terms, yes, it stands to reason that most likely there is quite a bit of class division going on, and privilege entrenchment. I have many strong objections to how education is funded. If I were king for a day, yes, I'd cut the defense budget by 90% and throw a lot of it into education, including funding theology. But that's not addressing the heart of the argument.

if by "sudden" you mean 50 to a couple thousand years later. (Not that I want to argue against funding pure mathematics!) And yet still, the success of people that I went to graduate school with has been primarily tied to how applied their field of research is (or can be described as on applications), not at all based on how smart they were relative to the other quite smart people in our program.

Not at all. Staggering amounts of math was relevant to physics alone in the last 100 years, not to mention technology, biology and systems analytics. How much of theological study in the last 100 years was as directly relevant to society? And I support theology being funded! I just think the funding levels should reflect our best guesses as to what will give us a decent return on investment of LIMITED funds.
posted by VikingSword at 4:34 PM on April 28, 2012


I dropped out of a very good Ph.D. program in philosophy. Everyone in my class who finished has a good job. When I was applying, I was a "finalist" (not sure what that even means) for a fellowship at another good school, but ultimately didn't get it. Being ignorant, I was on the phone with the graduate chair at that school and I openly mused about taking out loans to attend that school. He said "you absolutely do not want to pay to attend a Ph.D. program."

In my experience, people who are rich do other things than get Ph.D.'s in humanities fields. I have a suspicion that it's sort of taught to rich people from the cradle that you Just Don't Do That. They go into banking, law, business, etc.

Furthermore, I think getting a funded slot in a Ph.D. program is to some extent a self-selecting endeavor. If she's as brilliant as the article makes her out to be, it shouldn't have been a problem. Funding is available.

I'm thinking there's a lot more to this story. Like, the $18,500 per year available in student loans made it really easy to support her disabled mom when she probably should have sought SSI payments or whatever is available for people with disabilities.

Whatever is the case, this story stinks. The moral of it is not what the reporter thinks it is. It's definitely not about some imagined "caste" issue.
posted by jayder at 4:37 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


And to be clear, I don't think $185,000 is money well spent, studying Catholics in India - if these were public funds. I think we could spend that money much better funding other fields of inquiry. If she's spending her own cash though, well, it's her's to burn.
posted by VikingSword at 4:41 PM on April 28, 2012


We have an obligation to choose what to fund in education

We fund the institution, and it makes choices, for example as to what departments are set up. The departments chose what areas should be studied. Would you like to see referunda on what is taught and studied at schools that receive public funds?
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 4:43 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have an M.Div. from a pretty prestigious American university, and I will eventually get a doctorate. I love my life and vocation. I love learning, and will look forward to going back to school in a formal way. I don't mind paying for my education, because I believe its worth it.

However:

In the 4ster household, we have a saying, "No new degrees until the old ones are paid for and there is a plan for paying for the new degree that does not force us to make cuts in necessities (like saving for the kids' education).
posted by 4ster at 4:55 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the interest of footnoting my sources, my wife is the author of that saying, but still.
posted by 4ster at 4:58 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey, I'm in contact with Ms. Johnston, who read these comments and wanted to drop a few facts in here just to clear up misunderstandings.
There are a few facts that probably would have helped the earlier part of the conversation. First, no academic (advisor or otherwise) has ever told me not to persevere on my Ph.D. because the job market is too risky. When I started the conventional wisdom was that there would be massive Baby Boomer retirements so there would soon be a great demand for humanities Ph.D.s. There was a major report to this effect in 1993 which was still the industry standard in 1996. Since then, I have been consistently advised by everyone that I am the most brilliant and passionate and capable student that they have ever met in their entire careers so I certainly must persevere and get the degree. This included my professors at the University of Chicago (the top school in the field) and a pair of the foremost scholars in Catholic Studies today.

Their opinion has not translated into full funding because even the best programs in our field generally do not have the money to offer full funding to anybody. I have not been a grad student for 16 years. I managed to take three or four non-consecutive semesters off at various points between programs. I left the top-ranked school in my field over money and my advisor's departure - every other student at my level at that time left as well, and some are just now nearing completion of their degrees.

Asian religions takes longer than other programs because of languages and fieldwork - my advisor took 14 years and the director of graduate srudies (a scholar in Chinese religions) took 13. And they were at better schools with much greater financial support.

My seminary degree did not lead to a job because of a heresy investigation.

I have not been able to leave the Midwest because I had promised to look after my elderly grandmother who supported me; then I got saddled with my mom. I picked the UI specifically because my grandmother was dying in Des Moines and Iowa City was close enough to drive. I think almost all of these things were asked about at some point.
(I chopped her response into paragraphs but otherwise that's verbatim. Also if it's of interest, her GREs were 800/670/630.)

I don't want to carry on a discussion by proxy or anything, just wanted to clear up things that might have been unclear.
posted by edheil at 5:10 PM on April 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


And I feel pretty comfortable in disagreeing with this. Take something regarded as the epitome of ivory tower pursuits - pure mathematics. The history of mathematics is filled with sudden crossover applications in physics and all sorts of real-life applications in analysis etc. I would much rather fund 100 mathematicians than 1 researcher in "Catholics in India". And so on for almost any of the "theoretical sciences" you care to point to.

the funny thing is that you are embracing a criteria "luxury" which guarantees that pure mathematics will get continue to lose support. Right now, public universities in the U.S. are classifying departments by their revenue potential and relegating revenue (revenue meaning external grant support) negative departments to teaching or worse (see the discussion of "computer science".) For mathematics this means statistics, yes!, algebra or geometry, no! And, these cuts fall heaviest away from the elite public institutions. Should it be a luxury to study "computer science" at the University of Florida but not at Harvard?

Universities are full of people who are absolutely certain which fields of study are relevant (starting with their own) and which aren't. I'm sure the computer science department at UF didn't shed a tear when departments in the humanities were shut down.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:11 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


there's actually a simple solution: allow bankruptcy judgments to include student loans.

That's not actually a simple solution. Loans exist to make money. Simply allowing people to wipe out student debt might not have the effects you want.

One likely outcome would be a decrease in loaning to students who pursue non-profitable degrees. If the lender is capable of losing their money, they will have to evaluate whether the studies are likely to lead to a job capable of paying back the loan. Private enterprises exist to make money and would start focusing on engineering and the like. If you're suggesting that the government would be making these loans and just expect to write a number of them off, then you're effectively advocating for government subsidies of certain intellectual fields. That has its own class/race issues and in any case it would be far more honest to simply support more grants if the taxpayers should chose to fund those fields.

Whether or not bankruptcy law should be modified regarding student loads is a good question, but it is far from simple, and there are many unintended consequences that should be guarded against.
posted by Candleman at 5:13 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


One likely outcome would be a decrease in loaning to students who pursue non-profitable degrees

I'm not sure I understand this. Just because you have managed to obtain a "profitable degree" does not mean you aren't a tool who bombs job interviews.
posted by 4ster at 5:16 PM on April 28, 2012


True, but if you are of average employability in a field that pays well, then the probability is that you will be able to pay off your loan. If you are expert in a field that has almost no well-paying jobs, then the probability is that you will not. Which would you rather bet on?
posted by anigbrowl at 5:25 PM on April 28, 2012


I hear what you are saying and appreciate it, but I'm not sure it is so black and white.
posted by 4ster at 5:26 PM on April 28, 2012


Just because you have managed to obtain a "profitable degree" does not mean you aren't a tool who bombs job interviews.

That doesn't disprove the fact that engineering graduates on average (and median) earn far more than religion or philosophy graduates.

But you're right, actuaries love to feed in as many data points as possible so long as the cost of evaluating them doesn't outweigh the benefits they provide, so you might also see a decrease in loans to people who test poorly or fumble an interview with a bank. Again, beware of simple solutions to complex issues.

I'm not sure it is so black and white.

I've worked with actuaries. The important thing is they do.
posted by Candleman at 5:28 PM on April 28, 2012


Society does not reward being educated, pursuing knowledge for the sake of understanding and sharing that understanding. Society rewards you for becoming one more cog in the machine. I have a BA in religious studies and almost an MA in philosophy. I earned money as a software engineer and as a trainer. It was just a job and not a passion. My education was a passion.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:40 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


there's actually a simple solution: allow bankruptcy judgments to include student loans.

another problem with this is that student loans don't have much backing them like, for example, mortgages. you can discharge a mortgage in bankruptcy if you give up the house. what do they get if you want to declare bankruptcy?

regardless of the major of a person, i think it would make private lending worse because they would be even more hesitant to lend to someone who doesn't already come from a wealthy family.

re 185k in debt and her update, i want to make a few points:

- drake, where she did her undergrad, is a private and relatively expensive school.

- i get that she got lots of encouragement, but she chose a field where she knew she wouldn't get support.

- she chose a sub-flied where she knew that it would take a long time for her to complete her degree.

... so, while it sucks she's in a bad situation, it's a result of decisions she made, which she could have chosen a different path. so, i don't have much sympathy.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:52 PM on April 28, 2012


Also, she left a comment on this article defending her decision with what I would argue is not the best logic:

"I was willing to undertake my studies at any cost and at any degree of personal risk because I believe in God and I am convinced that I am doing what God is calling me to do."

Considering her field of study, is it surprising that she's religious? I hear PhDs in Art History like art too and writers are slaving away on their Great American Novel.
posted by ersatz at 6:04 PM on April 28, 2012


There's got to be some obscure Vatican scholarship for her degree. Unless they don't award it to women.
posted by wenat at 6:05 PM on April 28, 2012



One likely outcome would be a decrease in loaning to students who pursue non-profitable degrees. If the lender is capable of losing their money, they will have to evaluate whether the studies are likely to lead to a job capable of paying back the loan. Private enterprises exist to make money and would start focusing on engineering and the like. If you're suggesting that the government would be making these loans and just expect to write a number of them off, then you're effectively advocating for government subsidies of certain intellectual fields. That has its own class/race issues and in any case it would be far more honest to simply support more grants if the taxpayers should chose to fund those fields.

student loans for income qualifying students are already backed by the federal government. it's a scandal that they are serviced and originated by private lenders at all since the loan is bought by the feds if the student defaults.

a simpler solution would just build in true income based repayment into federal student loans. but honestly, the simplest solution would be to restore levels of funding for public universities so that a student could reasonably fund a degree by work during the summer: say $3000 total cost per year.

another problem with this is that student loans don't have much backing them like, for example, mortgages. you can discharge a mortgage in bankruptcy if you give up the house. what do they get if you want to declare bankruptcy?

student loans were dischargeable through bankruptcy prior to 1976... what changed?


(Ph.D. in Differential Geometry, 33K in student loan debt, no job prospects)
posted by ennui.bz at 6:12 PM on April 28, 2012


But you never know where your degree might take you. Example: Google's in-house philosopher: "From Technologist to Philosopher: Why you should quit your technology job and get a Ph.D. in the humanities"

But he's probably also an outlier, the other way.
posted by wenat at 6:23 PM on April 28, 2012


- drake, where she did her undergrad, is a private and relatively expensive school.

The article says only $12K of the debt was from undergrad, which is much less than people I know accrued at a public university paying in-state tuition.
posted by hoyland at 6:26 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Considering her field of study, is it surprising that she's religious? I hear PhDs in Art History like art too and writers are slaving away on their Great American Novel.

I happen to know two people who do things that could be called Jewish Studies. One is Catholic, the other an ex-Catholic atheist. Liking or being interested in religion isn't the same as being religious.
posted by hoyland at 6:29 PM on April 28, 2012


Considering her field of study, is it surprising that she's religious? I hear PhDs in Art History like art too and writers are slaving away on their Great American Novel.

That's not the issue. It makes sense for a religion person to study religion, yes. But it does not make sense--at least, in my eyes--for a religious person to undertake a program of study with no regard to its mounting costs because they believe it's "God's plan" for them.

If someone went bankrupt because they had faith--not in God, but in their own ability to write the next Great American Novel--I wouldn't think they'd made the right decision, either.
posted by duvatney at 6:32 PM on April 28, 2012


But you never know where your degree might take you

A professor once told us a story about a sheriff's deputy job posting in "Jobs For Philosophers". It turns out the Sheriff of a rural county in the West was a philosophy PhD, and he wanted someone for the job that he could talk Hume and Kant with. But I don't think that means the job market is looking up....

cue 'Officer Kripke' jokes
posted by thelonius at 6:35 PM on April 28, 2012


it's a scandal that they are serviced and originated by private lenders at all since the loan is bought by the feds if the student defaults.

True, but a different question.

student loans were dischargeable through bankruptcy prior to 1976... what changed?

Tuition and fees have increased, grants and scholarships have decreased, public financial support of universities has dropped, and the job prospects for graduates are pretty bad. Qualifications for the nicer white collar job have also changed. I know people in the baby boom generation who went on to have highly successful office jobs with history and literature degrees. No one I know from Gen X/Y with those degrees has been able to do so, partially because boomers are still holding onto them and partially because there are far fewer of those positions now.
posted by Candleman at 6:43 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


honestly, the simplest solution would be to restore levels of funding for public universities so that a student could reasonably fund a degree by work during the summer: say $3000 total cost per year.

Maybe I'm wrong (the article isn't clear), but I don't get the sense that tuition is the only source, or even the primary source, of her post-undergraduate debt. At least the University of Iowa website I found says graduate tuition is $9,313 annually, while she makes $16,000 as a TA, with which she also helps to support her mother. Living expenses are estimated at $14,945, and that excludes family expenses. Maybe public support for post-graduate education should be expanded (I can think of plenty of worse things the government funds), but honestly I think VikingSword has a point--in a world of limited resources, paying for this person's living expenses for a decade and a half so she can get a Ph.D. in religious studies is not very high on my list.
posted by dsfan at 6:47 PM on April 28, 2012


Maybe I'm wrong (the article isn't clear), but I don't get the sense that tuition is the only source, or even the primary source, of her post-undergraduate debt. At least the University of Iowa website I found says graduate tuition is $9,313 annually, while she makes $16,000 as a TA, with which she also helps to support her mother. Living expenses are estimated at $14,945, and that excludes family expenses.

I would proceed from the assumption that she is not paying tuition. I wouldn't swear that it doesn't happen, but I've never heard of someone having a TA-ship and having to pay tuition.

(That I have to pay 'fees' would be considered outlandish at many universities and my situation may deteriorate now that the university has discovered they can invent fees and not raise the actual 'tuition'. This past year, they charged us a $300 fee (the better part of a paycheck) in the fall semester, invented to avoid raising tuition, only to pull back and waive it days before the due date. I strongly suspect this happened only because the grad students were threatening unionisation. I fear what fees they'll have invented come August.)
posted by hoyland at 7:04 PM on April 28, 2012


I have a suspicion that it's sort of taught to rich people from the cradle that you Just Don't Do That.

Hardly. Archaeolgy, anthropology, medieval studies, art history are all packed with upper class types--they can afford to endow a wing at a museum so they can have an office ther.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:09 PM on April 28, 2012


Hoyland, it was in a master's program, but my ex had to pay tuition, which the program did as a way to make their TA salaries look better, I'm convinced. They could have just done fee waivers, but it would have looked much less impressive to say they were paying $8000 a year instead of the $15k or so they claimed. Not saying that's happening here, though, just that it's possible.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:13 PM on April 28, 2012


After reading her bio as well as the extended answers above, I think there's far more to this scholar's tale than was printed in the paper. Heresy?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:15 PM on April 28, 2012


student loans were dischargeable through bankruptcy prior to 1976... what changed?

Tuition and fees have increased, grants and scholarships have decreased, public financial support of universities has dropped, and the job prospects for graduates are pretty bad. Qualifications for the nicer white collar job have also changed. I know people in the baby boom generation who went on to have highly successful office jobs with history and literature degrees. No one I know from Gen X/Y with those degrees has been able to do so, partially because boomers are still holding onto them and partially because there are far fewer of those positions now.


I think primarily what happened is that banks successfully lobbied the government to guarantee their loans and keep them from ever going away for the borrower, which turned on a spigot of tuition money that incentivized schools to increase their costs and develop things like business schools that were traditionally considered not really the purview of Big Education.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:28 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with all the criticism leveled at this woman is that it assumes that "anyone would know" that taking on an unfunded doctorate program is not a sound economic decision. But, based on the information in the article, how would she know? She sounds like she was the first person in her family to go to college - so who were her role models? It is doubtful that she personally knew a buch of Phd's that told her all the ins and outs of grad school. It is doubtful that she grew up around many people who knew about higher education, period. So when the loan officers tell her that she's just making an "investment," and when the school accepts her to the program unfunded, and when her advisors imply that getting a tenured position is no big deal, where is she going to reality check this information? And who would have ever told her that a university might not have her best interests in mind?

This stuff is not, actually, intuitive. It's part of a carefully coded set of "things that are known" to one class and not to another. I know students who come from impoverished backgrounds who are the first in their families to go to college who are killing themselves working full-time retail positions and trying to get through undergrad at mediocre schools because they have been indoctrinated that a college education is the American dream and that the debt is all worth it and they have literally no one to tell them otherwise. And they support their families and miss semesters of school and fail classes because they get scheduled to work during their tests and will literally be fired if they don't show up to work. It's terrible because they get no counseling about appropriate programs. They often went to under-funded public high schools so they don't have a great perspective about the different educational standards at different college/universities, which also leads them to choose programs that are not really useful if you want to move on up the socio-economic ladder.

It is so depressing because one thing many of these kids have in common which makes them awesome is that they know how to work extremely hard. They have a tremendous amount of motivation paired with sufficient talent that would lead them to succeed well at universities in the Ivy League and alike, but no one wants to invest in that because it is easier to take their money through loans and then completely abandon them without fulfilling a single educational promise.

So I mean, this woman is maybe not making the best choices, but I do not think her situation is so extreme as people are suggesting. It actually represents a larger pattern where we create mythologies for the poor about how to best use their limited resources and then make fun of them when they fall for it.
posted by newg at 7:29 PM on April 28, 2012 [13 favorites]


This stuff is not, actually, intuitive. It's part of a carefully coded set of "things that are known" to one class and not to another.

This. And it's not just restricted to higher education. One of the more recent experiences I had was in estate planning, where it was screamingly obvious that spending a few thousand on a lawyer now could save me, my spouse or my children nearly six figures later, because the way things like probate and inheritance tax are set up in our state and the U.S.

(The whole time we were setting up our trust, etc., I was thinking that the people who can least afford an estate lawyer are the ones who would likely benefit from that professional's work; it's the difference between an estate that's worth $50K and one that passes through probate and might be worth as little as $35K.)

This sort of thing -- set up your estate so you pass on as much wealth as possible -- is just one thing to tick off the to-do list if you've been raised in a family where your parents modeled this kind of behavior or explained the benefits of a family trust vs. letting the estate pass through probate.

Anyone who's bright, observant and incredibly motivated can notice the restrictions/gaps in the cultural codes and sniff out the beneficial data they didn't get transmitted via family culture. But really, the majority of the time, it seems like the best way to maintain class status in the U.S. is to be born to the right kind of parents. That is the dirty little secret of academia -- you can rack up the degrees, but if you don't have the corresponding social and financial capital, you are going to be working very hard for comparatively little return.
posted by sobell at 8:48 PM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


How about this: Let's have Ph.D. programs that don't require a freaking decade to finish. If the point of a Ph.D. program is to learn how to do independent research and teach competently then the emphasis should be on doing that and getting out. You shouldn't have to spend 20% or more of your adult life jumping through endless academic hoops to achieve that goal. Major portions of people's lives are being wasted and academic departments don't appear to give a shit.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:08 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


They have a tremendous amount of motivation paired with sufficient talent that would lead them to succeed well at universities in the Ivy League and alike

I'm not sure if I entirely agree with this statement. At my big-name, Ivy League university, I noticed two distinct post-grad options amongst my friends. Many of us lower-class students work prime time (~ 30 hours a week) to pay rising tuition rates and fees; I personally can't afford to pay fees to even consider joining a sorority (loss of social potential social connections). In addition, my financial situation leaks in to many resources I once thought I had access to: unpaid or part-time internships; study-abroad opportunities; and (some) spring break trips. Compare my resume to kid who can afford such luxuries.

Four years ago, I had the choice of entering a state school in architectural engineering. I qualified for their educational assistance program for first-generation students. Through this opportunity, honors students (3.0 GPA and above) are granted 4-year full tuition scholarships, book stipends, and yearly refund checks to help cover miscellaneous expenses. Their $5000 annual tuition is nothing compared to the $70,000 that my family and I have to help fund. Let alone I may not have a job by graduation. I truly sympathize with PJ.

Sometimes, even well-meaning, educated adults fail to have your best interest at heart; but at 18, let alone 16, how does a student know this?
posted by nikayla_luv at 9:14 PM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've heard this "conventional wisdom .. that Baby Boomer retirements [should] increase the demand for [science] Ph.D.s", but quite frankly that claim is bullshit.

Academia went through a phase of exponential expansion after WWI as society educated most of the population, permitting academics to reproduce at an exponential rate, i.e. average professor has more than one graduate student during their career.

As The Big Crunch by David Goodstein explains, the exponential expansion ended when the baby boomers graduated, well even before really, yet academics have kept reproduction high.

As academics aren't subject to predation, we conclude that their population obeys the logistic equation dA/dt = r A (1 - A/K) with this (1 - A/K) term representing environmental constraints, i.e. K is maximum number of professorships. It's clear that once A approaches K then around (r-1) K academics cannot get professorships.

All those (k-1) A academics must "emigrate" to industry or an expanding educational system, like China, India, Middle East, or South America, but taking a low paying job abroad is a one way ticket in that you cannot afford to return to the U.S. or E.U.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:48 AM on April 29, 2012


"I have been consistently advised by everyone that I am the most brilliant and passionate and capable student that they have ever met in their entire careers "

Wow. Just wow.

I went to a top-10 graduate program in English. Did my MA, dropped out before even really starting my PhD disseration. I have to ask -- what planet is her graduate program on? Because real, live, breathing professors do not talk like this. Yes, the good ones give encouragement but always, always followed by the caveat of "finish your fucking thesis and move on." If you actually get a tenure track position, awesome. If you don't, you're only in your late 20s/early 30s and tracking into another field is not impossible.

Sorry, but there's a lot of self-delusion going on here.

And really, 16 years? Shit or get off the pot, honey.
posted by bardic at 2:50 AM on April 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


How about this: Let's have Ph.D. programs that don't require a freaking decade to finish. If the point of a Ph.D. program is to learn how to do independent research and teach competently then the emphasis should be on doing that and getting out.

The Ph.D. programs that traditionally take a really long time to finish are usually the ones with heavy language requirements and those can't really be axed without compromising research. As far as I can tell pretty much no one gets out of a Ph.D. on the ancient Near East quickly because you're usually picking up those languages from scratch in graduate school. I am sure there are other equivalents for programs that require you to learn several skills from the beginning. You can do a non-taught Ph.D., for example, in the UK and get out faster, but there funding is even tighter and you'll suffer horribly on the job market if you can't get teaching experience. (In my discipline UK Ph.D.s even from Oxbridge have had a harder and harder time getting jobs in North America over the passing years; there are exceptions but the North American market is getting harder and harder to crack for them.)

So I mean, this woman is maybe not making the best choices, but I do not think her situation is so extreme as people are suggesting. It actually represents a larger pattern where we create mythologies for the poor about how to best use their limited resources and then make fun of them when they fall for it.

You're certainly right about this, though I hope I didn't come across as making fun of her above. I come very much from a non-traditional background and I had no clue what I was doing. Though I did know that I didn't want to pay any money of my own; that was an easy decision because a) I had no money and b) I didn't even know people would lend you money to do graduate school. (This was all in Ireland quite a while ago). I don't think I even knew what I would do with a higher degree, but I knew that this one thing was about the only thing I'd ever been really good at, so I wanted to keep doing it.

All of this would be easier if there weren't also huge pressure especially on departments in second and third tier schools to admit people to programs at any cost, and whether or not there is funding because of the prestige factor (strangely it's more that sometimes than the money: schools who want to move up rankings see more graduate students as part of a sign of their quality, whether or not they can serve them well). This also occurs because less and less money is spent on third level education and graduate student fees in some countries can be far higher than the undergraduate ones. This has led to an explosion of programs and graduates, which even in the best of circumstances no university system could absorb as teachers or researchers. Add to that a terrible job market and you have a recipe for disaster.

At the same time, however, even with good advice and with the situation being laid starkly out in front of them students will make terrible choices to enter programs without any money. Many people think they're special and that it will be different for them. It doesn't matter how many horror stories you tell them, how you point out that there are no jobs and that you got yours mainly by luck, how you list of the names of vastly more talented people than yourself who are now either jobless or doing adjunct work and crying into their cat's fur during the night. It doesn't even matter if you point out that they're not really suited for the degree. Trust me, I have tried everything to persuade people not to spend their own money, not to go to colleges where they haven't a hope of getting a job afterwards, and not to start down a path for which they are not suited. It has never worked. It's like how a certain portion of people are convinced that if they move to Los Angeles they're bound to be discovered and make it in the industry. Yes, a few will, but far, far more will be ground up and spat out. And if you're convinced that this is God's plan for you...well, then it's going to be near impossible to convince you otherwise no matter who intervenes.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 3:11 AM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree we must communicate the academic jobs prospects more "effectively" to prevent exactly this self-delusion, but that doesn't sound pretty.

We should probably end all federally backed financial aid for institutions that employ any instructional staff without health care, or pay any instructional staff less than $50k per year. We'd need exceptions for retirees and current students of course, but the exception for current students should punish institutions who exploit graduate students. You might cut their federally backed financial aid if more than half the instruction supported PhDs failed to find "relevant" employment offers or took longer than seven years.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:26 AM on April 29, 2012


There is another milder change that might improve STEM academia dramatically : stop hiring exclusively academics.

Instead, you provide an affirmative action for PhDs who made significant research contributions beyond their doctoral dissertation but while working in industry.

Any the brilliant people could follow their traditional academic career paths, but your average academic would benefits from spending time in industry, thus ending the temptation amongst STEP postdocs to "overstay their welcome" (funding).

I believe academics who spent time in industry often posses a better work ethic anyways, making this change fairly natural.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:43 AM on April 29, 2012


Honey?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:43 AM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I have been consistently advised by everyone that I am the most brilliant and passionate and capable student that they have ever met in their entire careers "

Wow. Just wow.

I went to a top-10 graduate program in English. Did my MA, dropped out before even really starting my PhD disseration. I have to ask -- what planet is her graduate program on? Because real, live, breathing professors do not talk like this. Yes, the good ones give encouragement but always, always followed by the caveat of "finish your fucking thesis and move on." If you actually get a tenure track position, awesome. If you don't, you're only in your late 20s/early 30s and tracking into another field is not impossible.

Sorry, but there's a lot of self-delusion going on here.


Yes, absolutely. I was a high-performing grad student, and I think about the nicest thing any professor ever said to me was once or twice someone noted that I was in the upper tier of grad students in recent years. At least at top tier programs where expectations are uniformly high, people simply don't talk like that.

But if you look at the final paragraph of her departmental profile linked above, you'll also see her talking in ways that (in my experience) top academic performers simply don't talk. Sure, everyone is down on themselves and has to deal with imposter syndrome, but unless you can put up a believable front of competence and confidence, you aren't going to be taken seriously.

(There have been plenty of previous AskMes about the job prospects of someone leaving a phd program; I have told my story a couple of times of being very surprised at the high value people turned out to give an ABD, and how it has been, if not easy, at least fairly smooth to demonstrate that I have employable skills and find interesting and decently-paid work. I wouldn't want to, but assuming that the repayment time is similar to a mortgage, I could even make payments on $185k in student loans on my salary, so it's not like life is over for her.)
posted by Forktine at 6:37 AM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


The problem with all the criticism leveled at this woman is that it assumes that "anyone would know" that taking on an unfunded doctorate program is not a sound economic decision. But, based on the information in the article, how would she know? She sounds like she was the first person in her family to go to college - so who were her role models?

You get told as an undergrad, by your professors. Class and availability of role models plays into it in a similar way as it does for undergraduate education--your family is less likely to see what you're doing as worthwhile and to provide encouragement if they don't have experience with it.

I think it's an issue everyone whose parents aren't academics has in grad school, but it's drastically magnified for some, particularly those whose parents didn't 'get' going to college. There's an advantage to having parents who have some idea of what you're doing and there's an advantage of having parents who support what you're doing, even if they don't understand it and those advantages are certainly heritable.

For example, my grandad left school at 16 and is a massive cheerleader when it comes to higher education, but he doesn't have any idea about how it works. So that was some tiny advantage for my mother, even if she got hit by a load of disadvantages. But some of the people my mother met at university became academics, which is a big advantage for me now, even though they're in totally different subjects (and I don't think any did a PhD in the US). My mom is way more supportive of me than my dad (who's from a more privileged background) and it's probably down to them having different friends.
posted by hoyland at 6:47 AM on April 29, 2012


I hesitate to comment on Johnston's life and choices. Of course there is more to her story, no news article is going to be able to capture the totality, so there's no need for me to pile on with the judgement.

I do hate articles like this, though, which use extreme examples to highlight the problems with the university and student loan systems. Many people -- those who come from a long-line of independently wealthy intellectuals, or the first in their families to reach higher education, or middle-class business majors, or any and all sorts -- will read this and feel confident that they'd never get into $185,000 debt for a humanties PhD. But the real problem is convoluted and a little boring to read and write about -- many young people slide into advanced degree programs because they don't really know what to do with themselves professionally. Or they do know that they want to get a degree and get out into the workforce ASAP, but the debt they accumulated to do so will limit their choices for another 10 - 30 years, and will likely have a negative impact on the economy. It's easy to take on debt when you don't know how it feels to pay off debt.

I don't buy into the idea that this is a caste system that is keeping the impoverished intellectuals down because they don't have some super-secret knowledge passed down from their educated families. The individuals I know who have the biggest problems with educational debt are those that came from middle class (or upper middle class) families, whose parents had college degrees. These individuals were told, at age 17/18, things like, "College debt is good debt. You should follow your dreams." But no one stopped and crunched the numbers. And again, most students know how much debt they are taking on, they just don't really understand what that debt means in the long run. And by the time they are 22, they are already invested in a certain idea of themselves and the debt.
posted by stowaway at 9:57 AM on April 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Asset-backed securities cover houses, automobiles, credit cards, and student loans, should make life interesting. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 11:05 AM on April 29, 2012


Yes, absolutely. I was a high-performing grad student, and I think about the nicest thing any professor ever said to me was once or twice someone noted that I was in the upper tier of grad students in recent years. At least at top tier programs where expectations are uniformly high, people simply don't talk like that.

At my top-ranked graduate program, the greatest approval anyone could have gotten was funding.

Our funding was reviewed/renewed annually (or not) depending on whether or not the committee actually found students' work satisfactory. It took one of the PhD students in my department five wholly unfunded years -- and at least $80K in student loans before he finally got the message and left.
posted by sobell at 4:16 PM on April 30, 2012


"My seminary degree did not lead to a job because of a heresy investigation. "

I would love to know more about this.
posted by crinoidgirl at 8:29 AM on May 1, 2012




Ahh, that's the article this thread should've discussed, thanks homunculus.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:45 PM on May 11, 2012


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