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The Academy Produces More PhDs than the Academy Needs, and That's Just the Way the Academy Likes It
October 29, 2009 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Average time to an MBA: 2 years. Time to a law degree: 3 years. To an MD: 4 years. Average time to a humanities PhD? 11.3 years. Then there's only a 50% chance you'll get a job somewhat related to your field--and odds drop to a 25% chance that you'll ever become a tenured professor. The life of the Academy and its myriad institutional problems, from Harvard magazine.
posted by jefficator (130 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
"So, you're an English Major, huh? What're you going to do with that, go to graduate school and teach English?"

Uh...no.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:14 AM on October 29, 2009


Average time to an MBA: 2 years. ... Average time to a humanities PhD? 11.3 years.

You (and apparently Harvard) apparently think that the problem is the second sentence. I think it's the first. If business degrees required as much thought, and business leadership required as much merit, as academics, a lot of our problems would be solved.
posted by DU at 10:15 AM on October 29, 2009 [40 favorites]


Not to nitpick or derail, but after someone gets their medical degree, they have a residency of one to seven years (depending on the specialty) before they qualify to be board-certified in their specialty.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:15 AM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


Also, with regards to my own field: library schools are currently producing four times as many graduates as there are jobs available for them.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:17 AM on October 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


You know, I'm going to be very interested to see the effect the cumulative attitude of "DO NOT GET A PhD IN HUMANITIES NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU THINK YOU WANT ONE" is going to have in 20-30 years. I really do wonder how many talented people have been talked out of the Academy, scared and bullied to no end by an endless stream of advisers and others. I know at least a dozen people from my undergrad and MA days who were given that attitude who gave in, who sought lives elsewhere than the discipline they loved simply because they were told so many times it was impossible for them or anyone else to get anywhere in it.

We may be our own undoing in the end.
posted by strixus at 10:18 AM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


You (and apparently Harvard) apparently think that the problem is the second sentence. I think it's the first. If business degrees required as much thought, and business leadership required as much merit, as academics, a lot of our problems would be solved.

Yes, the world needs more tenured profs. We could eat the papers they churn out, or use them as some sort of alternative fuel.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:19 AM on October 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


Oh yes, I'm curious - how many MBA's go on to get jobs that require MBA's?
posted by strixus at 10:19 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The world needs more plumbers and electricians.
posted by HTuttle at 10:19 AM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm begining to be wary of all advanced degrees as some magical key to high salaries.

MD's typically graduate so far in a black hole of debt that it takes two decades for light to escape from it.

Lawyers are a glut on the market.

MBA's are a dime a dozen and usually get to the same level of indebtedness as doctors if they got their degrees from a diploma mill, sometimes even if they didn't.

THERE IS NO JOB GUARANTEE for any degree. None at all. Nor is there a guarantee that once you have a job that you'll get to keep it, through no fault of your own.

Stop applying old market thinking to new market economics.

Get only the education you need to exploit your earning power. You owe no corporation or employer your loyalty, they certainly aren't loyal to you.

If I had it to do all over again, I might not have got a BA in English or an MBA. I might have become an RN, and then a Nurse Practitioner--If I was primarily interested in future earning potential as a return on the cost of education.

But there, I just used my MBA, so maybe I've got it all wrong.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:21 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Numbers somewhat different, quoted from the article:

"You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years."
posted by darkstar at 10:22 AM on October 29, 2009


You (and apparently Harvard) apparently think that the problem is the second sentence. I think it's the first. If business degrees required as much thought, and business leadership required as much merit, as academics, a lot of our problems would be solved.

Doesn't have to be an either or, really. Longer for an MBA, shorter for a PhD could be logical, too.
posted by jefficator at 10:24 AM on October 29, 2009


You can become and MD-PhD in 6 years if the clouds open god hands you a plate of Science x5 worthy data and simultaneously smites your PI with boils until he graduates you. The idea that medical socialization / dehumanization is somehow less than humanities PhD makes me want to cry.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:26 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I talk to students all the time who want to become profs in the humanities and social sciences. I tell them it is a very bad idea. In history, 50% of people who start PhD programs don't finish; 50% that finish never teach; 50% of those that teach never have a tenure track job.

The problem is graduate programs that accept too many students. I've been writing about this for years and I'm not confident it will ever change. Profs like big grad programs because it gives them TAs to do their teaching for them. Administrators like big grad programs because they can take them to provosts and say "Look how productive we are over in Arts and Sciences!" Provosts like them because they can do the same with regents/overseers.

The only people who don't benefit from the over production of PhDs is the PhDs themselves. I know dozens of them from very good programs who wrote very good dissertations and who would have been great teachers and scholars who, sadly, are out of their fields. Don't get me started on hiring process, which is unimaginably arbitrary.
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:27 AM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


You (and apparently Harvard) apparently think that the problem is the second sentence. I think it's the first. If business degrees required as much thought, and business leadership required as much merit, as academics, a lot of our problems would be solved.

This is a fantastic point.

Also, I went on a bit of a rant about this issue recently on AskMe, which I won't here repeat, and in which I had some figures wrong. But regardless, there are serious issues with the academy, especially in the humanities, and its survival as a relevant and sustainable institution is unfortunately doubtful. At its best, the academy is skeuomorphic; at its worst its just silly and absurd.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:28 AM on October 29, 2009


(and apparently Harvard)

Uhm... No. Harvard Magazine is an independent entity, and does not peddle the University's points of view.

---

Q: What is Harvard Magazine’s relationship with Harvard University?

A: The magazine was founded independently by alumni more than a century ago, and is published today by a separately incorporated nonprofit affiliate of Harvard University. We have excellent access to University news and news sources, but are written, edited, and produced—like any independent news medium—with readers’ interests foremost in mind. That is to say, the magazine is not published with the aim of promoting financial donations to the University, as development and other publications properly are.
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:28 AM on October 29, 2009


Keep in mind that academic institutions have a need for PhD students. They need essentially disposable workers as sessional lecturers and as TAs to make up for the shrinking faculty to tenure-track faculty ratio. While I think there are jobs for any students we might graduate, in my own institution the need for qualified TAs has one of the elements behind a push to develop a new graduate program in my own discipline.
posted by sfred at 10:29 AM on October 29, 2009


I meant: "student to tenure-track faculty ratio." d'ho!
posted by sfred at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2009


You know, you could always get an advanced degree in the sciences. You remember those, right? They're that general area in which everyone's so worried about the United States' rapidly diminishing stature. You'll likely emerge quite employable in academia or industry.

Oh, wait, I forgot. Math is hard and boring.
posted by xthlc at 10:32 AM on October 29, 2009 [9 favorites]


If business degrees required as much thought, and business leadership required as much merit, as academics, a lot of our problems would be solved.

Well, part of the strength of the capitalist system is that any idiot with some money can start their own business, and since the success or failure of any given business has as much to do with luck as it does with skill, it actually works pretty well. Contrast that with the more academic and systematic attempts at running industries like the methods of the Soviets, and it's not really clear if having a smaller set of expert technocrats in charge of things would be any better. I actually think the best way to improve economic systems is to dramatically lower the barrier to entry for people who want to run businesses, rather than to raise it.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:34 AM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


My sister received her PhD as a research scientist about a year ago. It took her about 12 years to accomplish. Here in Canada she ended up earning about $36k a year - the starting salary of a teacher with a basic teaching diploma, and about $15k less than the starting salary of a BComm grad.

The only logical way for her to make use of her degree to earn a higher income would be to work to become a tenured professor.

The problem with the tenured professor system, and with most universities in general, is that the focus is on pure research, rather than applied research. Only about 5-10% of the IP generated within universities becomes commercialized, and thus generates wealth, or provides practical assistance to the public at large.

My sister's comment, once she had accomplished the longterm goal of getting accepted into the PhD program, and once she realized the sparse career opportunities she could look forward to, was "Gee, I wish I had never listened to Mom and Dad when they told me to pursue my PhD way back when I was an undergrad. They didn't know anything."

There needs to be better career training in high school and university undergrad. Often, teachers and professors themselves (and parents as well) have little clue about the job market. All they understand is the academic career path, and that's what they teach students.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:35 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Profs like big grad programs because it gives them TAs to do their teaching for them.

You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.
posted by Rumple at 10:36 AM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


This discrepancy makes perfect since when you realize that for most humanities graduate students, the process of getting the PhD is way more appealing than actually having it.
posted by Nelson at 10:37 AM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


and since the success or failure of any given business has as much to do with luck as it does with skill,

The successful businesses you see out there are all built on hard work and skill. It's the hard work that creates the luck. Let me repeat: success is based on hard work.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:37 AM on October 29, 2009


I'm going to start a new university curriculum. It'll be called "The Talk," where I sit down with kids and tell them the truth.

"English major, huh?"
"Yep."
"Why?"
"I don't know. I guess I've always just liked reading."
"You know you can do that for free at the library, right?"
"Yeah, I guess..."
"All right, you like reading. I suppose you like a nice pumpkin latte, too?"
"I more of a chai tea girl, actually."
"OK, cool, cool. So, how do you pay for that chai tea?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:37 AM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


A college student who has some interest in further education, but who is unsure whether she wants a career as a professor, is not going to risk investing eight or more years finding out. The result is a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals. Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. Liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.

And the obstacles at the other end of the process, the anxieties over placement and tenure, do not encourage iconoclasm either. The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms. And the gap between inside and outside academia, which is partly created by the self-sorting, increases the hostility of the non-academic world toward what goes on in university departments, especially in the humanities. The hostility makes some disciplines less attractive to college students, and the cycle continues.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:40 AM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Does anyone else question the numbers cited...like maybe they're using only the graduate education time for lawyers, MBAs, and doctors, but including the undergrad years for the humanities PhDs? I dunno, maybe it really does take 11.3 postgraduate years, but if so, then all the humanities PhDs I know did it in far less time...and agonized if their ABD status spilled over into a second year.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 10:43 AM on October 29, 2009


Average time to a humanities PhD? 11.3 years.

Wow, four year undergrad and one or two years Masters plus 11.3? That's a lot of years!

Or is somebody not counting a first degree required for the overwhelming majority of law, medicine, and business grads? (civil law grads excepted, you crazy kids)

So law: 7 (in Canada 8 with articles)
Medicine: 7 plus residence
Business: 6-7 (4 year undergrad not usually required)

Still an impressive gap. Why pad the numbers?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:44 AM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


It took her about 12 years to accomplish.

I don't know your sister and the following is a pure generality, but, FWIW, PhD students who take an inordinate amount of time to finish almost always have themselves to blame. Ones who treat the student experience as, in effect, a 9-5 job or who are highly self-motivated and can work independently or can learn to do so, finish in a timely manner. For every student who for reasons beyond their control took an immense amount of time to finish I can point to a dozen who fucked the dog for years then complained their supervisor didn't take them seriously. In any discipline in Canada with which I am familiar it is entirely possible to get a PhD in 4 years. I recently had one finish in 3 .75 years, with a young family of three and working part time. Again this is not about your sister who may well have had legitimate reasons for her slow progress through her program.

Students make choices all the time and the cumulative effect of those can be assigning themselves to an extra few years of graduate school. That's fine, they're adults, notionally.
posted by Rumple at 10:44 AM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Profs like big grad programs because it gives them TAs to do their teaching for them.

You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

Are you being sarcastic or does that not seem true to you?

A friend of mine who is a non-tenure-track faculty member at the U of Michigan just found out she will probably be laid off at the end of this academic year. The U wants to try to get tenured and tenure-track faculty to teach their own courses. Turns out--I never knew this--that faculty who get outside grants can "buy out" of their teaching commitment by remitting half their salary to the U, and those who have that option usually take it. The U then hires adjuncts to teach the courses, paying them less than half of the non-teaching-faculty members' salary. I had no idea that was possible! Live and learn.
posted by not that girl at 10:45 AM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


The problem with the tenured professor system, and with most universities in general, is that the focus is on pure research, rather than applied research. Only about 5-10% of the IP generated within universities becomes commercialized, and thus generates wealth, or provides practical assistance to the public at large.

Oh, come on. Basic research is very important for the generation of wealth and for the public at large. Just because you don't see the direct link between research and profit, doesn't mean the research isn't important. Science builds on itself.
posted by ssg at 10:46 AM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


What I get out of this, and of many discussions like this, is that education is worthless if it can't be translated directly into a job.

The best things in my life can't be transformed into profits. I'm proud of an enjoy a great deal of education that is of no instant, apparent financial benefit to me. The world isn't just a marketplace, and value isn't exclusively determined by how much something can be sold for. Give us a world of MBAs, and I'll show you a world without pleasure or imagination.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:47 AM on October 29, 2009 [28 favorites]


In any discipline in Canada with which I am familiar it is entirely possible to get a PhD in 4 years.

It was 12 years from the start of her undergrad to the completion of her dissertation.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:47 AM on October 29, 2009


What I get out of this, and of many discussions like this, is that education is worthless if it can't be translated directly into a job.

This becomes a very compelling argument when the mortgage payment is due at the beginning of the month.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:49 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh, wait, I forgot. Math is hard and boring.

Well, math is hard. I found the difference between high school math (up to pre-calculus) and introductory college calculus to be nearly insurmountable, and I went to a private high school on an AP track.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:50 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just to add: if you're interested in a snapshot of how pure-science PhDs do, the American Institute of Physics has some useful employment and salary stats (mostly self-reported) on their website. Physics is probably the most "academic" of the science fields, so it may serve as a useful point of comparison.

Median time to degree seems to be 5-6 years, and there's commonly a 1-2 year research postdoc after finishing your PhD. The majority are academics, but about 40% are employed by industry and government.
posted by xthlc at 10:50 AM on October 29, 2009


I guess I'm a freak. I'm getting my Phd in a humanities/social science (Public History) and I'm not really concerned with the job market or whether I'll teach or not. In fact most of the students in my program have no desire to teach at all. We all want to do something different. Really, I'm just getting the degree because I really want it. I love to learn and be in class. The whole process is just an excuse to continue to learn new stuff.

Of course, I'm also a fulltime librarian with tenured faculty status, so the job thing isn't something I'm sweating.
posted by teleri025 at 10:52 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm assuming all numbers are post-undergrad. I got my (English) Master's and PhD in about 9 years, and at my school, that was considered pretty fast. Not lightning quick, or anything, but definitely faster than average. 11.3 doesn't surprise me.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:52 AM on October 29, 2009


I'm going to start a new university curriculum. It'll be called "The Talk," where I sit down with kids and tell them the truth.

The truth is a little more nuanced than you're making it out to be. There are plenty of careers that you can get with an undergraduate degree in the humanities. The problem is, unless your goal is teaching or law, there's not a lot of point in going further with it than a BA.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:52 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you RTA, it addresses the "including undergrad?" point. Short answer: no. While it's true that medical residency is indentured servitude at craptastic wages, you are functioning as a doctor in that time, so it's not just sitting in school. You see and counsel patients and write orders. The senior residents in my ED practically run the place.
It is not nine years from the receipt of the bachelor’s degree, either; it is nine years as a registered student in a graduate program. The median total time it takes to achieve a degree in the humanities including stop-time is 11.3 years.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:52 AM on October 29, 2009


In any discipline in Canada with which I am familiar it is entirely possible to get a PhD in 4 years. I recently had one finish in 3 .75 years

In my experience, the student who finishes a PhD (post MA) in a humanities field in less than 6 years is pretty rare. I would question the depth of study of anyone completing a PhD in 3.75 years.

Then again, the Canadian collegiate system is arguably more efficient than ours - not necessarily better, but certainly more efficient.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:53 AM on October 29, 2009


This becomes a very compelling argument when the mortgage payment is due at the beginning of the month.

I'd argue that this points to a problem with society and not with advanced degrees. We are going to become rapidly culturally impoverished because people don't see the value of education unless it can be eaten like food, spent like money, and used as a shelter to cover us when it gets cold.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:55 AM on October 29, 2009 [10 favorites]


It was 12 years from the start of her undergrad to the completion of her dissertation.

Ah, grade 24. The article notes the effect of time off, which may or may not be productive time as well. One common route would be 4 yr undergrad, 2 year MA (common in Canada) and then 4 year PhD, stretching to 5. That's 11 years right there.

Are you being sarcastic or does that not seem true to you?

It seems not true to me. For one thing, having a big graduate program is a lot of additional work for the professors, who have to supervise all those students, find money for them, read their thesis chapters again and again, etc. That can be rewarding, but it is a huge time suck. To the extent the students do some work as TAs (for which they are paid, and often not in peanuts) there may be a benefit but I would say, on average, from the perspective of the professor, it balances out: more students mean less work in some domains (marking) and more in other domains (supervision).

The situation to which you refer, normally I would expect a grant buyout, sabbatical buyout, this sort of thing, for the position to be filled by someone with a PhD in hand, or very close. In US - "adjuncts" I think, in Canada - sessionals. This is not necessarily a side effect of having a big graduate program. In fact, the person could be anyone and these buyout positions are often bundled and advertized and people compete from afar for these positions, which are an important source of job experience for junior scholars. So I am serious that in my experience and from everything I know about the university system in North America, having a big graduate program does not in any sense translate into less teaching for the professors. In fact, since graduate supervision is itself teaching, it often translates into more.
posted by Rumple at 10:57 AM on October 29, 2009


Another data point--my (now ex) wife got her Master's/PhD in Math in 6 years. But then, she sped through undergrad in 3 years (making her a 26-year-old PhD), so her experience wasn't typical.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:58 AM on October 29, 2009


Btw, in case anyone wants my numbers:

5 years undergrad to finish two complete degrees at the same time, BA and BBA, with an undergrad thesis in one of my two humanities minors.

2.5 years to finish my MA, with thesis, discounting a year and a half I took off between the end of my undergrand and MA work.

One year to teach as a VI.

Have just started a PhD program that projects for students to finish in 5 years. I plan on being done with my course work in 2 (average is 3), and finished with my research and writing by the end of year 4. We actually regularly put students out who are done in 3, but those come in with a masters in that area, which I do not have, therefore, I have to do more course work.
posted by strixus at 10:58 AM on October 29, 2009


PS I'm sorry about your friend, not that girl, that sounds like a shitty situation.
posted by Rumple at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2009


I'd argue that this points to a problem with society and not with advanced degrees. We are going to become rapidly culturally impoverished because people don't see the value of education unless it can be eaten like food, spent like money, and used as a shelter to cover us when it gets cold.

My work involves public policy that shapes pure/applied research at universities, and I would say that there is a definite trend towards implementing a more pragmatic approach to post-secondary education. There are a number of challenges: an aging population means there are fewer dollars for education, so there has to be more of a focus on actual, tangible results; other regions in the world are graduating more and more skilled workers, so there is a perceived need to remain competitive and increase productivity. There is also the very real need to build a knowledge economy, especially in ruralities, and the way you do that is to create entrepreneurs right in the university system.

But if you're worried that culture is taking a back seat, don't. Universities are tremendously powerful, both in terms of culture and in terms of organization. They tend to set their own course.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:01 AM on October 29, 2009


Oh yes, my institution has put into place a bit of an end to that perpetual PhD student stuff - if you have not shown sufficient progress in 2 years on your research and writing for your dissertation, you are pretty much drummed out of the program. Some departments say 3-4, but if you are lingering, you are done for.
posted by strixus at 11:01 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


We are going to become rapidly culturally impoverished because people don't see the value of education unless it can be eaten like food, spent like money, and used as a shelter to cover us when it gets cold.

While I completely agree with this sentiment, you need to have a certain amount of disposable income to worry about this on an individual level in the first place. Education for its own sake is awesome. I would absolutely go back and get another undergraduate degree or three if I had the cash reserves to do so. However, I think it's completely reasonable to consider future value (in terms of the salary, available jobs, etc.) before forking out the time and money – not to mention probably taking on a lot of debt – required to get an advanced degree.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:02 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


In another 20 years the world is going to be comprised of MBA cyborgs and a small band of ragged outsiders fighting for their freedom to get high and recite poetry while listening to Cat Stevens albums.
posted by The Straightener at 11:03 AM on October 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


I did my PhD in the UK, after doing a 2 year MA in Canada (which was great preparation to have already written a substantial thesis.

But the standard route was for students with a 3 year BA to go directly into an MPhil/DPhil program (a lot of places encourage the 1 year taught MA now I understand) So there were lots of 21 year olds starting PhDs, and getting them by the time they were 25. No coursework -- you were expected to learn what you need to know. If you couldn't handle independent research you found this out at age 23 rather than age 33 and could move on.

The advantage of this system was there were plenty of 20-something PhDs with all that 20-something energy, still passionate about the subject, not jaded, not burnt out, not cynical, all wound up and ready to go. I s skeptical at first and I do understand there was a cost to that system (some fresh young things imploded, some lacked "wisdom" I guess you could say) but all the same, I support that model because the key element in a PhD is the demonstration of capacity to do independent original research of the highest quality.

The North American model, with elaborate course work and comprehensive exams, to my mind, is embedding something tangential and un-necessary to the PhD - a sort of "training to be a professor" which could easily be handled in other contexts or implemented for those who actually become professors. In the process, they have created a paint-by-numbers system in which a series of minor accomplishments can be strung together meaning almost anyone can finish a workmanlike PhD through tenacity but at the cost of greatly undervaluing or even stunting sheer creativity and those few, often noncomformist, folks who possess it.
posted by Rumple at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2009 [11 favorites]


I do agree that it is problematic that professional degrees become the standards by which academic degrees are judged. They are quite different animals. Here I speak from experience, as I'm one of those who went the academic route after completing a law degree: a 2 year MA and a 6 year PhD.
posted by sfred at 11:10 AM on October 29, 2009


The successful businesses you see out there are all built on hard work and skill. It's the hard work that creates the luck. Let me repeat: success is based on hard work.

I agree that a successful business requires hard work, and I almost mentioned that in addition to the luck part. But hard work is independent of skill, and being skilled and working hard doesn't guarantee success or even always give you a good shot at being successful. From the perspective of the people who actually are successful, it does seem like it was just hard work and skill with no luck involved, but they are ignoring all of the people who worked just as hard and were just as skilled but failed. It's like football players that explain a win in a close game by saying they "wanted it more" or some such nonsense, even though what really won the game for them was the dumb luck that one of their players was in right place to make an important play. Life is more of a game of chance than most people give it credit for being.

The fact that luck is involved is why the stock market is so difficult to predict. If it was just a matter of finding the companies that had the smartest people or worked the hardest, you could find out how many PhDs a company had on the payroll and what the average number of hours everyone worked or other such metrics and put all of your money on the best one. But a lot of times the things that really make or break businesses are completely unpredictable, and the best anyone can do in predicting future success is to give a vague estimate that changes constantly based on random external factors (like the state of the overall economy). I think it would be hard to argue that people like Mark Cuban got to where they are by being exponentially exponentially more skilled and hard working than other entrepreneurs rather than getting there by randomly being in on the beginning of a massive investment bubble and cashing out before the whole thing collapsed, because there were certainly many similar hard working and talented people who didn't get in early enough or didn't get out before the crash who ended up as failing.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:10 AM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


I would question the depth of study of anyone completing a PhD in 3.75 years.

I would evaluate them on the basis of their accomplishment and in this case, I'd put the student up against anyone. I should add, that was 3.75 years after MA so it probably would translate (all things considered) to about 5 after completion of Bachelors all things considered)
posted by Rumple at 11:11 AM on October 29, 2009


In fact, since graduate supervision is itself teaching, it often translates into more.

We whistle this tune as if it were valid, and graduate supervision is a lot of work, but you can ask any professor at a research focused university the following question:

In the sciences, which would you rather teach:

i) A large introductory class of 50-200 students, half of whom are neither qualified nor motivated enough to even be in the class, grading the same paper again and again, dealing with grade grubbers, office hours brimming over with students who just want that point, your syllabus hampered by the lowest-common denominator requirements of your non-majors,.....

or

ii) A group of 12 graduate students, self-selected for (masochistic) hard work, most genuinely intellectually interested in the topic, working on your pet problem (often with real-world implications, or personal prestige, or money associated with it) that has driven you through grad school and postdoc life, in a community of scholarship that is your lab?


I guarantee you, it ain't 1, and this is why teaching buyouts & the rise of the adjunct/TA teaching model are so common.The professoriate views 'real', prestigious work as scholarship, not introductory level teaching; the administration sees providing 'content' can be done on the cheap through said TAs/adjuncts and the professor makes the university money through indirect costs that they bring in through grants.
posted by lalochezia at 11:11 AM on October 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


You know, you could always get an advanced degree in the sciences.

Or an undergrad degree in engineering. 4-some years. Most engineers I know start somewhere north of $50K and are earning into the $100K level after 5-10 years. The US lets 100K+ foreign engineers in annually on H1 visas and similar and while we're really grateful for the opportunity it's kind of embarrassing that the US can't turn out that many more engineering graduates by itself.

Also, as others have pointed out, you need some sort of undergrad degree to get an MBA. So it's more like 6 years. And in an ideal world they wouldn't make an MBA take 5 years but they'd simply prohibit anyone from going directly from undergrad to b-school. If you've never had a real job you're really wasting your time in MBA school.
posted by GuyZero at 11:12 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


It was 12 years from the start of her undergrad to the completion of her dissertation.

Ah, grade 24. The article notes the effect of time off, which may or may not be productive time as well. One common route would be 4 yr undergrad, 2 year MA (common in Canada) and then 4 year PhD, stretching to 5. That's 11 years right there.


So, to compare apples to apples, as they say, an MBA actually requires 6 years (4 undergrad, 2 grad), a law degree 7 years (4 and 3), and an MD 8 (4 and 4, and then the additional time spent in residency). That 11.3 year figure seems a lot less extreme in this context.
posted by briank at 11:13 AM on October 29, 2009



I'd argue that this points to a problem with society and not with advanced degrees. We are going to become rapidly culturally impoverished because people don't see the value of education unless it can be eaten like food, spent like money, and used as a shelter to cover us when it gets cold.


This is true and it isn't. I mean, the state of the academy is just as symptomatic of the "money is the greatest good" prerogative of our money obsessed world. I mean, Harvard has a clothing line now for Christ's sake. Most universities chief priority is not their students or the education they give to them. It's their endowment, their capital projects, their lobbying activities, etc.

I would also argue that the notion of certain advanced degrees IS a serious problem with society. We've created a society where certain credentials give one unwarranted clout, where the lay person can no longer have a respected opinion on literature or music because these things are saved for the elite, as Beethoven and Proust of course can only be appreciated after one has achieved a certain level of expertise, where most courses of study have been so removed from relevancy that they are laughable, where the interesting discourse, breakthrough findings and vital information are saved for the locked rooms of the ivory towers.

I agree that the value of an education far exceeds simply its ability to earn one a high salary; however, I have also read some of the hackneyed dissertations of doctoral students who will go on to jobs that will be funded by raping undergrads of cash through insanely high tuition fees financed through incredible debt. And for what? Another book on existentialism that no one will read except the students of the author who requires them to purchase it for their class on Existential Trends in the Music Morton Feldman, Phil306??? A book funded through the debt of the working class?

This issue far extends merely the debate over "do what you love vs. do what is practical," for the two are not so nearly dichotomous as they may seem.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:16 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


It was 12 years from the start of her undergrad to the completion of her dissertation.

Ah, grade 24. The article notes the effect of time off, which may or may not be productive time as well. One common route would be 4 yr undergrad, 2 year MA (common in Canada) and then 4 year PhD, stretching to 5. That's 11 years right there.

So, to compare apples to apples, as they say, an MBA actually requires 6 years (4 undergrad, 2 grad), a law degree 7 years (4 and 3), and an MD 8 (4 and 4, and then the additional time spent in residency). That 11.3 year figure seems a lot less extreme in this context.


By that standard, mine took 15 years (4 year undergraduate degree, 3 year LLB, 2 year MA, 6 year PhD). Keep in mind that most science PhDs also spend many years on the Post Doc circuit. My impression from those in the area of bio-med sciences is that 4 years of post-docs is common.
posted by sfred at 11:17 AM on October 29, 2009


In another 20 years the world is going to be comprised of MBA cyborgs and a small band of ragged outsiders fighting for their freedom to get high and recite poetry while listening to Cat Stevens albums.

In another 20 years? Look around you my friend...
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:18 AM on October 29, 2009


While I completely agree with this sentiment, you need to have a certain amount of disposable income to worry about this on an individual level in the first place. Education for its own sake is awesome. I would absolutely go back and get another undergraduate degree or three if I had the cash reserves to do so. However, I think it's completely reasonable to consider future value (in terms of the salary, available jobs, etc.) before forking out the time and money – not to mention probably taking on a lot of debt – required to get an advanced degree.

When I was in Europe I experienced that quintessentially American distaste for the realization that many great works of scholarship (though certainly not all!) were produced because someone's father or grandfather or great-great-grandfather had been important enough for that person to receive appropriate training. "What wonderful works we would have today if every great mind had been free to pursue study like in America today."

I was totally wrong. Somewhere in the educational process, you see the odds are stacked against your every surviving financially, and you give up and take a finance job somewhere.

Why else would "writing the great American novel" be such a common cultural trope? Too many of us feel we have to sell-out to survive.

A PhD is not the easy gateway to elite, comfortable, respected life that many of us from the working class assumed it would be upon entering college.
posted by jefficator at 11:21 AM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I was totally wrong. Somewhere in the educational process, you see the odds are stacked against your every surviving financially, and you give up and take a finance job somewhere.

Why else would "writing the great American novel" be such a common cultural trope? Too many of us feel we have to sell-out to survive.

A PhD is not the easy gateway to elite, comfortable, respected life that many of us from the working class assumed it would be upon entering college.


This x 1,000.

I share your cynicism, and your disappointment.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:23 AM on October 29, 2009


We've created a society where certain credentials give one unwarranted clout

And the lack of those credentials makes anyone who utters a word on the subject a "whackjob" or a "crank."

I've never seen such disdain as is held among the scholars I know for "authors" who are interviewed for programs on networks like the History Channel.
posted by jefficator at 11:23 AM on October 29, 2009


Yep, I'm currently applying for the 6-10 year PhD haul for linguistics. I tell people that and they think, a) she's exaggerating, and b) she's nuts. I can verify that they're at least halfway wrong.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:25 AM on October 29, 2009


If 11 years from the start of undergrad then that would mean getting a PhD at 29 which is great -- but seldom accomplished I think. I'd like to see students take a few years away at some point though - preferably after undergrad and before grad, to re-centre themselves and get some life experience.

lalochezia - I agree, graduate supervision is generally more pleasant work and I would trade those situations. But teaching a large intro course is a compartmentalized few hours/week and any university is going to have some TA help for marking with that thus it would be very different work but not necessarily more or less work. I teach a big 2nd year method/theory course and having taught it before I can say that the straight time commitment is equivalent to having two extra graduate students, I would say.

The boundary between graduate teaching and professor research is rightfully a blurry one. This is all in the context of the notional teaching release, though. In many or most cases, the prof is teaching the big course AND has a stable of graduate students and so ends up doing both - or if a teaching release or buyout is obtained, then it is temporary. I understand in the US, where research grants can come with stipends for the PI, it is much more common to have grant-funded teaching buyouts.
posted by Rumple at 11:29 AM on October 29, 2009


Rumple: The North American model, with elaborate course work and comprehensive exams, to my mind, is embedding something tangential and un-necessary to the PhD - a sort of "training to be a professor" which could easily be handled in other contexts or implemented for those who actually become professors. In the process, they have created a paint-by-numbers system in which a series of minor accomplishments can be strung together meaning almost anyone can finish a workmanlike PhD through tenacity but at the cost of greatly undervaluing or even stunting sheer creativity and those few, often noncomformist, folks who possess it.

I did my MA in Australia and I'm now doing a PhD in the US, and I have a lot of friends who are curently either wrapping up or finished with their Australian PhDs in various scientific fields. One of the interesting things (to my mind) is that a growing number of them are getting worried about having their jobs sniped by people who earned their PhDs through the North American model.

I tend to agree with you that the NA model trains people for professordom, but that's essentially a minor part of it. When you're unlucky enough to have to teach a class, you do so. However, the coursework and interaction with supervisor that you get in a NA PhD program is really worth its weight; I was skeptical until I started in on the program but in speaking with people going through an Australian PhD in my field now it's really striking the extent to which I have been exposed to a lot more about the field than they have (and I don't just mean theory) because of coursework. Moreover, I'm getting a lot more interaction with advisors and faculty in my program than they are. They'll certainly be finishing before I do, but that's about all I can say in terms of advantages. I'm not comparing apples to oranges here, either: these are both world-class institutions.

The NA model might have a lot more to it than just "research, fieldwork, write", but I think that's actually one of its strengths. It shouldn't take as long as it does, but I think the big thing that is standing in the way is that many departments still want a 900 page megadissertation.

The PhD dissertation (as I have heard it said) should not be someone's life's work. It should be their license to do their life's work.
posted by barnacles at 11:30 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


infinitywaltz: "Well, math is hard. I found the difference between high school math (up to pre-calculus) and introductory college calculus to be nearly insurmountable, and I went to a private high school on an AP track."

And I took the AP math track from my public school, which included Calculus. Unfortunately my AP test score I got only transferred as a B for something as trivial as Calc I, so retook the course in college for the A.

Besides which, its far more important that you have a good understanding of statistics and their application in the sciences than mere calculus. A given mathematical model of chemistry may include calculus, but the method by which it's accuracy is measured is still statistical. I find it interesting that statistics is treated as a remedial class for people who want to avoid the calc track at my HS. Our best and brightest students are actively being guided away from the area. Of course, as a programmer none of the math I use is taught in schools either. Set theory, graph theory and first order logic are pretty damn vital, but not even on the radar.

I guess what I'm trying to do here is paraphrase Kennedy poorly:
We choose to [do these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
posted by pwnguin at 11:34 AM on October 29, 2009


Besides which, its far more important that you have a good understanding of statistics and their application in the sciences than mere calculus.

But you still need a ton of calculus to get a science degree. The funny thing is that even though I ended up with a degree in humanities, a big part of the job I've ended up with involves statistics.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:39 AM on October 29, 2009


It was 12 years from the start of her undergrad to the completion of her dissertation.
Ah, grade 24.


The best thing about it? Those snot-nosed 22nd graders finally stopped picking on her in the cafeteria.
posted by rokusan at 11:41 AM on October 29, 2009


For one thing, having a big graduate program is a lot of additional work for the professors, who have to supervise all those students, find money for them, read their thesis chapters again and again, etc.

In my experience at big grad programs this isn't quite right. I've taught at places with big programs and without, and I can tell you I'd rather have the grad students around. They do research for me, grade my papers and exams, deal with problem students, and even teach for me--just as I did for my Doktorvater when I was in grad school. It's true that I occasionally have to read a chapter or sit in on a defense, but--IMHO--the benefits far outweigh the costs. I really don't know how I do what I do without them.

I'm grateful, though a bit guilty. The entire situation is regrettable. Would that I could change it.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:43 AM on October 29, 2009


barnacles -- yeah, I hear you on some of those intangibles. I can see where the NA model does some good things, or where at least the impetus to be the way it is came from. The enforced breadth is something I have to enforce myself now, but I am not as committed to it as my colleagues, some of whom did upwards of 20 graduate courses, comps which took a year to prepare for and only then were allowed to start their dissertation research at elite North American universities. So I try to counterbalance that a little.

And dissertations are still basically books -- and often poorly written ones at that. We have an option for a PhD student to submit three peer-reviewed journal articles with contextual chapters on either side in lieu of a dissertation (we have some checks and balances to make sure it is primarily their work), though interestingly few students seem that interested in it. At least in my discipline though, the output of a PHD is a format that most will never indulge in again, instead they struggle with the very different exigencies of the peer-reviewed journal article. Since the dissertation becomes such an albatross (intellectually and emotionally) for a lot of students then breaking it down into useful pieces might well be part of the solution.
posted by Rumple at 11:43 AM on October 29, 2009


The best things in my life can't be transformed into profits. I'm proud of an enjoy a great deal of education that is of no instant, apparent financial benefit to me. The world isn't just a marketplace, and value isn't exclusively determined by how much something can be sold for. Give us a world of MBAs, and I'll show you a world without pleasure or imagination.

Yes, education for its own sake is marvelous. Too bad most people go deeply into debt for it.

Frankly a library card is free and some decent reading can provide most people with a better education than what passes for such at most colleges and universities these days.

As for MBA being devoid of pleasure and imagination, fie on you! I have much of both and contribute to the amusement of many, despite my advanced understanding of business-stuff.

As an MBA, here is what I suggest for those about to embark on higher education:

1. Don't go into debt, start at a JC and work up if you have to, get some of that lottery/education money, work 5 jobs, but don't get into debt to attend good old State U.

2. Study something interesting. For most jobs, the degree is just the pass through the door, it's not integral to a career. Unless you have a passion for engineering, business or computer science, don't bother with any of these as a major.

3. Don't for one minute believe that a college degree means that you are done with learning. Far from it.

4. Your degree does not guarantee you a job. Your degree does not guarantee you a job. your degree does not guarntee you a job.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:43 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


The problem with the tenured professor system, and with most universities in general, is that the focus is on pure research, rather than applied research. Only about 5-10% of the IP generated within universities becomes commercialized, and thus generates wealth, or provides practical assistance to the public at large.

Right, because science is worthless to "the public at large" unless it "generates wealth"

The successful businesses you see out there are all built on hard work and skill.

Just look at Haliburton and Blackwater.

(not to be to snarky here, I just found those statements a bit silly)
posted by delmoi at 11:44 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


MarshallPoe -- there may be some cultural differences here. Elite Graduate programs often are principally focused on graduate students and undergraduate teaching is delegated. But most or many universities are "comprehensive" in their goals, such that having a lot of graduate students does not lessen undergraduate responsibilities. Meanwhile undergraduate colleges or places with, say, terminal MA programs, emphasize teaching. There is a lot of variability in the university world, but I think the most common species is the comprehensive university where everyone does everything, and sometimes nothing gets done.
posted by Rumple at 11:47 AM on October 29, 2009


Right, because science is worthless to "the public at large" unless it "generates wealth"

What's the old joke about advertising?

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is that I don't know which half."

A lot of university research really is useless. Unfortunately, no one has a way to tell before you do it.
posted by GuyZero at 11:48 AM on October 29, 2009


The successful businesses you see out there are all built on hard work and skill.

Just look at Haliburton and Blackwater.

(not to be to snarky here, I just found those statements a bit silly)


Heh, I'm not sure which is sillier, to make a statement that successful businesses are built on hard work and skill, or to make a blanket statement that indicates that Haliburton (sic) and Blackwater are representative of of most businesses. FWIW, mathowie's MetaFilter is also a successful business. Just something to think about.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:05 PM on October 29, 2009


I actually have an MA and am currently embarked on an MBA, so I'm reading this thread with a great deal of interest.

I got the MA for fun. It is sad how many cockeyed looks I get when I explain that, but I had no illusions whatever that it would earn me a cent. I got funding through my program, too, which is essential. If you don't get funded, don't go.

The MA was wonderful and my mentor encouraged me to continue, but I knew better. I am not of the professorial class, and it was made clear in a thousand subtle social ways. I had no desire to spend the rest of my life, assuming I could scratch out a living, being condescended to by people who could afford a pied-à-terre in London to facilitate their research and who had family money to buffer their way through a R1 PhD program. I was not fool enough to think that I could expunge my working-class origins with education, so I took my degree and the invaluable critical reasoning skills it taught and walked away from the academy.

I am getting the MBA because I was flatly told by multiple people in my organization that I could not advance without it. I think it's ridiculous; I have a good grounding in statistics, catch on fast, and a number of the people in my prospective departments don't have MBAs, either. But if I have to jump through some hoops to make a living wage that is what I'll do. And you know what? I am being challenged in the program. It's not debating the Foucauldian implications of public policy in Victorian England, but it requires a fair amount of intellectual effort. One could argue that since the mental models required in the MBA program are somewhat foreign to me it is requiring more work. And work refunds a significant amount of the costs, so I'll be out with minimal debt from the MBA, too.

We'll see a further stratification of education as the cost continues to skyrocket, and the unspoken class requirements continue to tighten. Education as a marker of class is becoming almost as useful as the amount of orthodontic work a stranger appears to have.

Anyway. Back to activity-based costing models.
posted by winna at 12:14 PM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


(Why) Are MA/MSc's still common? I knew, entering grad school, that I wanted a doctorate. The Canadian system I went through allowed entry into the MSc stream. Following the comprehensive examination at the end of year one, successful candidates were invited to switch to a PhD stream, skipping the master's entirely. Less successful candidates (or people who just wanted Master's) would continue in the Master's stream and graduate in the normal 2 years. Doctorate students typically graduated in 4-5, no Master's required.

Unless one wants to do multiple degrees in multiple fields, I don't understand the purpose of a Master's level degree if one intends to go on to the doctorate. It doesn't appear to add anything to the student's final competence or knowledge, I know, because I now hire at least one post-doc a year into my lab. I see both master's and non-master's having doctarates from the Canadian, US and Chinese systems, and honestly, the Master's degree doesn't seem to make any difference other than delay the completion of the doctorate. Maybe things are different in the humanities, but I don't see the benefit at all of a Master's degree for doctoral candidates in the Sciences.
posted by bonehead at 12:14 PM on October 29, 2009


infinitywaltz: "But you still need a ton of calculus to get a science degree."

I just checked, and you can get a Biology degree from both Big 12 unis in my state with Calc 1. After talking with an Bio undergrad a few years back, I was under the impression they only needed College Algebra, but perhaps times have changed or they were simply wrong. Apparently KU even offers a Calc I for dummies course type course that Biology accepts (but does not recommend for grad school bound students).

I'd argue this is not "a ton." But I don't want to derail into an argument about whether biology is a "hard science" or not, when the schadenfreude of the humanities is so much more entertaining.
posted by pwnguin at 12:19 PM on October 29, 2009



infinitywaltz:
But you still need a ton of calculus to get a science degree.


This is simply untrue. I know folks in the biology department who get all fluttery whenever they get to do a t-test.

Not saying that math isn't useful - it is, incredibly so. I didn't appreciate how useful it is until I suddenly needed it for my degree. Based on years of really just awful math teachers, though, I really figured I just wasn't a math person. When I saw how calculus could be used to solve actual problems (i.e., instead of a series of formulae to memorize), however, I got religion in a big way.
posted by logicpunk at 12:22 PM on October 29, 2009


These numbers do not include years spent working on an undergraduate degree. Usually, they do not include years spent working on an MA at another institution either. These are years spent enrolled in a graduate program in the humanities at one university. According to this older survey it takes an average of 9.7 years to get a PhD in history. I know it sounds crazy but I have looked into it a few times and it is true and so are the studies about the dismal job prospects especially for those not graduating from one of the top 20 programs
posted by Tashtego at 12:44 PM on October 29, 2009


During my undergrad as a religion BA we used to joke that the only thing more useless than a BA in english was a BA in religion. It was gallows humor that was only funny for all the same reasons this is. That being said though, while I agree with Dr. Menand that the PhD process needs serious rethinking I'm suspicious of the reasons for the precipitous fall in the humanities from 1970 onward.

This post stirred up a conversation between myself and a friend of mine working on a PhD and we both expressed the legitimate fears about our career prospects post-doc and our larger life choices. As far as English Lit goes, much as been written about the shift away from the book and the towards visual culture and I can't help but feel like this has less to do with expediency and more to do with our cultural shift away from producing to consuming. We buy stuff instead of making it. Generally we let television and cinema construct worlds for us instead of building worlds of our own from the books we read. If the crumbling numbers of humanities departments are any measure of this the fault should lie not only with the mass production of self referential academics, but with the failure of us as academics to sell our fields.

Joking about the one or two students who make it worth only exposes the extent of the decay in the infrastructure. If we, the believers, can't make our fields relevant within our institutions then why sign up for the work at all? As discussed here before it's not really enough to consume and redistribute knowledge - the measure of success ought to be how capable are we of transferring our passion as well as our knowledge.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 12:54 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


You know, I'm going to be very interested to see the effect the cumulative attitude of "DO NOT GET A PhD IN HUMANITIES NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU THINK YOU WANT ONE" is going to have in 20-30 years. I really do wonder how many talented people have been talked out of the Academy, scared and bullied to no end by an endless stream of advisers and others. I know at least a dozen people from my undergrad and MA days who were given that attitude who gave in, who sought lives elsewhere than the discipline they loved simply because they were told so many times it was impossible for them or anyone else to get anywhere in it.

We may be our own undoing in the end.
I think that attitude will pay off some good dividends, actually. Look, I know a guy who got the top undergrad award in his department for his undergrad thesis in English. He should get an English Ph.D., and maybe the 1st and 2nd runners up for that award, and only because it was an elite university. Most everyone else should probably not get an English Ph.D.

There are some fields in the country that have room for only a few people (eg, museum curator). We need to start looking at the position of "tenured English professor" as being something like that. Medical residency programs limit their enrollment as a means of only producing as many doctors in a specialty as they feel the market can absorb. Doesn't it make sense for some Ph.D. programs to do the same thing with an eye towards the number of professors required in a field?

I have a Ph.D. in the sciences/engineering. It took me too long to finish. But I have a job that I like, and it has worked out for me. I have a job that I enjoy more than I would have if I had worked straight out of undergrad. The thing is though that I'm in a field where people graduating straight out of undergrad make good money as it is, so there just isn't a big flood of people getting Ph.Ds because they figure "I don't know what else I would do."
posted by deanc at 12:56 PM on October 29, 2009


This is simply untrue. I know folks in the biology department who get all fluttery whenever they get to do a t-test.

Huh...always thought the math requirements were harder. I stand corrected.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:16 PM on October 29, 2009


Spouse of ABD (10 years and counting) here. There are a couple of bons mots that really made me laugh (a little hysterically, maybe?):
-The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs.

-The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself.
Oh, well. It's a distopia everywhere, amirite?
posted by No Robots at 1:23 PM on October 29, 2009


This plays into my irrational dread of getting an advanced degree. I'm not kidding. Every time I start looking over websites about getting some kind master's degree, I end up having nightmares, that night, about classes, failing them, dropping out, etc.

It's ridiculous, I know, but just reading this will give me bad dreams tonight.
posted by adipocere at 1:32 PM on October 29, 2009


Every time I start looking over websites about getting some kind master's degree, I end up having nightmares, that night, about classes, failing them, dropping out, etc.

Eh. Master's degrees aren't so bad. The classes are pretty easy, and a Master's thesis is usually a pretty straightforward endeavor.
posted by deanc at 1:38 PM on October 29, 2009


I just started a PhD (albeit not in the humanities), and already, there is a readily visible division among the students. Some of them are working insane hours, trying to juggle TA assignments, required coursework, and the research that they actually came here to do. Some of them are just sort of going to class, doing their homework, and reading the occasional article or two. I ain't no soothsayer, but I'd be willing to bet that the ones who are in the lab until midnight every night are gonna be the ones who land sweet postdocs (if the hours don't kill them) and, eventually, tenure track positions, while the ones who are acting like they're in some sort of extension of their undergraduate education are going to be the ones who end up bitching about how there aren't any jobs for folks with PhDs. Of course, this is much less a problem for those of us in the sciences.

I also know humanities PhD students who work their asses off, and I know some who just sort of float through grad school, doing whatever they have to in order to keep their advisors at bay. I know there's a huge shortage of jobs even for the imminently qualified, but I think there are a lot of grad students in all disciplines who think of their current position as 'still in school.' If you want to become a successful academic, I think it's probably much wiser to think of your time in grad school as 'the advanced training portion of your career.'
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:38 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


"In the natural sciences, time-to-degree as a registered student is just under seven years."

7 years still seems a bit long for a Doctorate.
I mean, assuming you start the fall after your undergrad, that's a degree Ph.D by the time you're 31. Add in a (almost required these days) 2 year postdoc, and you're looking at not getting a real job until you reach 33.

That's...what, 28 years of straight schooling? Jeez.
posted by madajb at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2009


Huh...always thought the math requirements were harder. I stand corrected.

I imagine this depends on the school. At science-focused universities, the core curriculum can include a lot of math and other sciences. I guess at more generalized schools the core is probably smaller and thus it's up to each department (at Caltech, everyone had to take 2 full years of math, regardless of major).

I would hope Biology students would have to cover a reasonable amount of statistics, regardless of whether thats in the general core or a major requirement.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:17 PM on October 29, 2009


The fantasy that academia is a meritocracy cannot survive the harsh reality of Ph.D.s to jobs. Even if you imagine the lazy/incompetent/ugly/abject candidates are somehow weeded out, the year-on-year accumulation of successful Ph.D.s hoping to land a job so outnumber available jobs that the reality is many qualified candidates search for a tenure track job years and often unsuccesfully.

Keep telling yourself that if you work hard, you will land that job. And then watch what happens as candidates with published articles and creatives with published books cannot land a job. Some of these people will be among the smartest in your class. Some of them will be you.

At risk of oversimplifying my on-hold-for-now academic career, I took 8 years to earn my doctorate. I landed a tenure track job in and thought myself lucky. The reality of just enough pay to keep me in debt and out of foreclosure, subpar students who were in college to binge drink and drive-by fuck, the mind-numbing homogeneity of the population of a small Midwestern more than an hour from the airport, the crushing dearth of friends and dates due to political/sexual/emotional incompatibilities among professors in a small college town, and the city's crumbling infrastructure and lack of bookstores/shopping/and-pretty-much-anything-besides-a-fairly-good-library-and-two-dozen-bars-in-a-quarter-mile-stretch: all these things enervated me. I ended up not pursuing tenure because I no longer believed the tradeoff between doing what I loved and hating where I lived was worth killing myself over.

That's not to say that I didn't love anything about the job and academia. I really enjoyed (and was good at) teaching and I loved my colleagues and the dedicated and thoughtful students. There is much about academia I miss.

But now I'm in a part of the world I have loved ever since childhood and since I left it 17 years ago. I am "out of school" for the first time in my 41 years and I am in love.

So, yeah, this is all a long of saying that sometimes the bargains one makes in one's late 20s and early 30s, no longer seem like bargains as one approaches middle age.

Academia has convinced thousands of academics that living in the middle of shit nowhere working for low pay and scrabbling for bits of prestige is better than winning the lottery. All the theories of labor (Marxism/material dialectics), psychoanalysis, popular culture, semiotics, new media, etc. do not seem to help many academics see that they are the living contradictions to the maxim that "knowledge is power." So many academics (and non-academics) trade their lives for states of being more closely resembling being undead than being alive and breathing.
posted by mistersquid at 2:23 PM on October 29, 2009 [15 favorites]


Academia has convinced thousands of academics that living in the middle of shit nowhere working for low pay and scrabbling for bits of prestige is better than winning the lottery.

This is the big problem-- students are inculcated with a value system that can work against their interests: in many places, the culture of graduate school convinces you that you're a failure if you don't finished your Ph.D., and if you do finish your Ph.D., you're a failure if you don't become a professor. And a failure if you don't get tenure. And a failure if you do get tenure and your department does not replace you with someone else who works on the exact same research you do when you retire.

I cannot dig out the reference right now, but one of the most valuable things I read was an essay about how this was all part of the academic value system. Your worth in academia is determined by your ability to publish lots of papers and train lots of graduate students. That's great, actually (the world needs its professors). But the thing to remember is that this is their value system and that the world is large enough to accommodate lots of different value systems. Realizing that the value system and determinations of professional "worth" lauded by a certain subcommunity is not an objective determination of your worth is a valuable thing in these situations, but you spend so much time insulated in the departmental culture that you forget this.
posted by deanc at 2:37 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


in many places, the culture of graduate school convinces you that you're a failure if you don't finished your Ph.D., and if you do finish your Ph.D., you're a failure if you don't become a professor.

The guys over in evolutionary biology should wander over to the grad lounge in the English Dept some day I guess. Entities evolve to maximize reproductive fitness, be they biological or bureaucratic.
posted by GuyZero at 2:40 PM on October 29, 2009


Woman: Oh, there you go bringing class fitness into it again.
Dennis: Well, that's what it's all about! If only people would...
posted by No Robots at 2:45 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'd argue that this points to a problem with society and not with advanced degrees. We are going to become rapidly culturally impoverished because people don't see the value of education unless it can be eaten like food, spent like money, and used as a shelter to cover us when it gets cold.

I've been saying that ever since Fox canceled Arrested Development.
posted by Slap Factory at 3:01 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd argue that this points to a problem with society and not with advanced degrees. We are going to become rapidly culturally impoverished because people don't see the value of education unless it can be eaten like food, spent like money, and used as a shelter to cover us when it gets cold.
The solution here is to make sure that people with advanced degrees can afford food and shelter, not to try to convince someone that spending 12 years in grad school and and signing up for a life of genteel poverty and an horrible job market because he chose to become a college instructor is a noble calling.

I worry here when I see poorly run graduate programs chaining students to school for 12 years with no regard for their employability and poorly paid job markets and then see the reaction to all of this being, "people just need to realize that a decent-paying job that affords food and shelter is overrated."
posted by deanc at 3:18 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


7 years still seems a bit long for a Doctorate.
I mean, assuming you start the fall after your undergrad, that's a degree Ph.D by the time you're 31. Add in a (almost required these days) 2 year postdoc, and you're looking at not getting a real job until you reach 33.


Most people finish their undergraduate work at 21. 21+7=28.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:59 PM on October 29, 2009


Mistersquid -

Right on. As someone who has constant anxiety about having NOT pursued a PhD for the aforementioned reasons, this made me feel a bit better.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:23 PM on October 29, 2009


First, let me say that I don't want to just favorite DU and Astro Zombie's comments. I want to marry them and live with them in a free love commune type setting, where we all make love all day, and they make babies with me.

My stats: 5 yrs. for a BA (double major/double minor), some time off, 3 years for an MA (going part-time the first year), and currently ABD in year 5 of a PhD (with 2 grad certificates) and on the job market right now. I plan to be one of those motherfucking 25% getting a tenure-track job (I'll invite you all to celebrate with me if/when it happens).

Anyway, a few points for the discussion, some of which have already been said:
1) Grad students are necessary for departments (and universities) to function, because they provide cheap, exploitable labor. However, I think that most faculty feel at least conflicted about this, even if they realize its economic necessity.
2) Grad programs admit far, far, far too many grad students, many of whom are unqualified, but they have little choice as they need people to teach writing 101 and such.
3) There are too many undergrads. Now, I think that the US should cut its defense budget in half and use that money to provide everyone with free healthcare and education, but we, as a society, need desperately to do something about the narrative that structures most people's lives. A lot of people are simply not ready for college at 18. Some may never be ready. There need to be realistic opportunities for these people to actually be able to support themselves and their families that do not involve them getting a degree they don't care about. If college became about adding value rather than about needing to make ends meet, many of the problems faced by the academy would be gone (presuming, of course, that higher ed is still properly funded). Fewer, more dedicated students; fewer low-paid adjuncts & grad students; fewer unemployed phds; fewer faculty who have been turned off to the idea of teaching because they have to lecture to 500+ students texting or sleeping or chatting on Facebook.

Hey, I can wish, right?
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:05 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The world needs more plumbers and electricians.
posted by HTuttle at 10:19 AM on October 29

Eponysterical!
posted by alexei at 8:26 PM on October 29, 2009


> 1) Grad students are necessary for departments (and universities) to function, because they provide cheap, exploitable labor. However, I think that most faculty feel at least conflicted about this, even if they realize its economic necessity.

SO happy I requested to TA a class I knew would have micro-enrollment. I get paid well to do what I do because of that.

As for the rest, well, hopefully my field's a good enough growth field and hopefully the fact that as the end of my MA approaches, I'm clearly in the top of the class, and hopeully the exemplariness of this school in the field will matter a little. And then, hopefully I can do what I'm passionate about and have a talent for.

If not? There's always selling blood.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:02 PM on October 29, 2009


I ended up not pursuing tenure because I no longer believed the tradeoff between doing what I loved and hating where I lived was worth killing myself over.... Academia has convinced thousands of academics that living in the middle of shit nowhere working for low pay and scrabbling for bits of prestige is better than winning the lottery.

There are definitely schools in bumfuck, but there are also plenty of schools in major metropolitan areas. You know, the prestige of being able to put a title in front of your name or a couple of letters behind it is nice and all, and I'm sure it's great to think of yourself as a highly educated person who influences bright young minds, but not everyone pursues a life of study because they want prestige.

I'm sorry to hear that you put in a lot of time and effort for a career that you eventually found dissatisfying. It sounds like you found something (or somewhere) that makes you happy now, and I'm happy for you. Just because you decided that academia wasn't for you doesn't mean it's not for anybody, however. I think everyone who starts a PhD knows that the job market isn't so hot, and that one's chances of getting a tenure track job involve a lot of different variables, many of which are essentially a crap-shoot (if they don't I would have to wonder whether they fully considered the ramifications of their chosen career path).

Getting into grad school is sort of the same way. It's not all about your credentials or your experience or your ability to craft a winning personal statement. A lot of it comes down to some casual conversation you had with a faculty member during which you happened to make a good or bad impression. It concerns how well you seem like you'd be able to get along with your future colleagues. I know plenty of qualified people that would make great grad students who just didn't know how best to interact at their interviews. It sucks, sure, but the whole damn world is like that. Success in almost any field isn't just about how hard you work or how good you are, but about how well you can communicate that fact to others

All the theories of labor (Marxism/material dialectics), psychoanalysis, popular culture, semiotics, new media, etc. do not seem to help many academics see that they are the living contradictions to the maxim that "knowledge is power."

Some of us want knowledge because we just fucking want to know. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind goes into academia because they think it's going to make them rich and powerful?

So many academics (and non-academics) trade their lives for states of being more closely resembling being undead than being alive and breathing.

If you aren't driven by an insatiable curiosity that you believe can be satisfied (at least partially) by an academic lifestyle, that's cool. You can do whatever you like. I'm under the impression that following one's dreams is an important part of being alive, but I know not everyone has a passion for whatever it is they do to pay the bills. I still don't go around calling them zombies.

Keep telling yourself that if you work hard, you will land that job. And then watch what happens as candidates with published articles and creatives with published books cannot land a job. Some of these people will be among the smartest in your class. Some of them will be you.

I don't know why you would want to tell me that I'm not going to achieve my own personal goals. There are plenty of bitter people in the world, both inside and outside of academia. A lot of my favorite professors, in fact, were bitter people who didn't seem to derive very much enjoyment from their jobs. Just as many of my professors, however, seemed to truly enjoy what they do.

I love what I do and where I live. I don't work so many hours that my salary ends up being around three bucks an hour because I'm under the impression that I just have to get that PhD or else I'll be a failure. I work hard because I really like the work. I've had plenty of different jobs, but this is the first one that makes me feel like I'm putting my skills to their best possible use. Call me naive and hope with all your heart that the academic machine grinds down the optimism of my will if it helps validate your choices.

I know damn well that most people start grad school with a lot more idealism than they leave it with. There's something to be said for willfully accepting the prospect that all your work might be for naught, and trying anyway. If I knew of something that made me happier than what I was doing now, I sure as hell would go do it. The fact of the matter is, I don't.

The fact that it didn't work out for you doesn't mean that you need to promote the sort of discouraging attitude that plays a big part in many people's disillusionment with academia. How does that help anyone?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:06 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ah, I guess it's good for people who decided not to go down this path. Perhaps I took your comments a little too personally. I still think grad school is hard enough without someone who's been through it telling me that I've made shitty choices.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:12 PM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


I did my Phd in 3 years, and then qualified as a lawyer. I loved being a graduate student, and because I am English, it didn't cost me a penny - education is free here (well, it was when I was a student).
posted by Major Tom at 2:11 AM on October 30, 2009


This might be bordering on an AskMefi question, but is there any point in applying for graduate level studies if you have no plans to leverage said degree? I'd love to get a Masters in History but it has no bearing on my current career, and I would be doing it purely for personal reasons (love of history and research, wanting to keep the brain juices flowing, personal achievement etc...).
posted by smcniven at 3:14 AM on October 30, 2009


I did my Phd in 3 years, and then qualified as a lawyer. I loved being a graduate student, and because I am English, it didn't cost me a penny - education is free here (well, it was when I was a student).

This is true. Them Brits get all their education and health care for free and then come to the US to steal the best, highest-paying jobs we have. Razza frazzin jealous! :)

Eh, education is education (it should all be free). A job is a job (pay between top positions and bottom positions should be less stratospherically diverging). That's all I take from this. Oh, and the ranking systems have to go - all of them, but especially in education, they're meaningless.
posted by peppito at 3:36 AM on October 30, 2009


This might be bordering on an AskMefi question, but is there any point in applying for graduate level studies if you have no plans to leverage said degree? I'd love to get a Masters in History but it has no bearing on my current career, and I would be doing it purely for personal reasons (love of history and research, wanting to keep the brain juices flowing, personal achievement etc...).

A Masters? Sure, if you love the subject - contingent on some other factors. You don't say where you are but you have to be comfortable with the debt you may incur from study, and also with †he opportunity cost. It can grate to see your cohorts "sailing ahead of you" because you took a few years off. The length of a masters (1-2 years) is probably an acceptable length of time to indulge your interest. However, be careful about your choice of program: some Masters consist little more than throwing you a research topic and making a appointment to see you in 12 months. You're probably looking more for coursework, with some helpful advisors.
posted by outlier at 7:44 AM on October 30, 2009


It's so interesting to me, as a new academic, to see this discussion. I'm a new professor in the arts, and I think the whole process just works a little different on this end. It's not about research and publishing, but creating original artistic work that's going out into the world.

For me, I got my MFA to become a professional in my field, worked for years, and now have gone back to teaching. The majority of my professorial colleagues have taken a similar path. We've all worked for a long time in our fields (and continue to work in our fields), which gives more perspective to our students, both undergrad and grad, whose intentions are not to remain in academia, but to go out and become working artists.

This seems radically different from someone who stays in school for an extra decade, and then goes right into a teaching job without the application of their skills in the "real world." It seems kind of incestuous within the academy to not want to see their professors out using their skills in the marketplace. All that's happening is that information is being traded between colleges, but not with the larger capitalist system.

But, I guess the challenge is that with many advanced humanities degrees, like English, there isn't much of a "real world" outside of the academy to work in.

This is a fascinating discussion for me.
posted by MythMaker at 9:15 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Some of us want knowledge because we just fucking want to know. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind goes into academia because they think it's going to make them rich and powerful?

A library card and an internet connection might have been a lower-cost provider. Add free podcasts from iTunes U, and you're already saving thousands of dollars and major scheduling issues.
posted by Slap Factory at 5:40 AM on October 31, 2009


When I was in grad school (in Canada; biology) one of the other labs had a post-doc from England. There, it seems, one typically goes right into the PhD from undergrad, and the scope is constrained such that it is possible and expected to get the degree within about 3 years.

Contrast that to here, where it is rare to go right into the PhD - you normally have to do at least one year of a masters program first - and then the PhD program drags on because graduate committees here have quite demanding expectations -- e.g. a dissertation is the equivalent of 3-4 publishable papers.

So, at 26, this guy was already starting his post-doc career whereas in Canada he'd have 2-5 more years just to graduate. And the job market doesn't distinguish between a UK PhD and a Canadian PhD.

I myself did finish the masters program first before starting the PhD. In retrospect, one of several significant mistakes I made during grad school. By the time I finished my PhD program I was burned out and broke, and I left the academy. I'm still recovering from the debt and the opportunity costs. They were some great years but in hindsight I don't know if it was worth it.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:04 AM on October 31, 2009


In another 20 years the world is going to be comprised of MBA cyborgs and a small band of ragged outsiders fighting for their freedom to get high and recite poetry while listening to Cat Stevens albums.

Have you ever seen the movie Equilibrium, starring Christian Bale?
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 8:41 AM on November 1, 2009


A library card and an internet connection might have been a lower-cost provider. Add free podcasts from iTunes U, and you're already saving thousands of dollars and major scheduling issues.

That'll get you content, sure, but most learning comes through the interaction with other people, whether your peers or instructors.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:12 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


A library card and an internet connection might have been a lower-cost provider. Add free podcasts from iTunes U, and you're already saving thousands of dollars and major scheduling issues.

Interaction with other people aside, you can't find something out at the library or on the internet if no one knows it yet. The whole reason to do science, in my opinion, is to discover new things, and then share these discoveries. Sometimes, no one has written down the answer to your question. If you're doing a good job, no one has even asked the question yet (or at least they haven't figured out a way to empirically demonstrate the answer).

I'm not sure what it's like in the humanities, but I imagine the kind of education you get whilst obtaining a PhD of any kind is not one that you could get yourself just by reading a lot.

As far as the "lower-cost" issue is concerned, I guess I could be saving thousands of dollars by instead working at a more lucrative job, but I'm under the impression that most people don't pay to get a doctorate. You're more like an employee of the university than a customer.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:37 PM on November 1, 2009


I'm not sure what it's like in the humanities, but I imagine the kind of education you get whilst obtaining a PhD of any kind is not one that you could get yourself just by reading a lot.

Definitely. Part of getting an education is learning how to learn, something that requires interaction and modeling.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:55 PM on November 1, 2009


I'm not sure what it's like in the humanities, but I imagine the kind of education you get whilst obtaining a PhD of any kind is not one that you could get yourself just by reading a lot.

Actually, that's probably the number one requirement, at least in CS. A PhD represents your capacity to push the state of the art in your field, so your first goal is to start reading journals and doing research on what's already been done. This is why every student research program schedule starts with a month or two of literature review. And the go to person here isn't so much your professor as your university librarian.

Sure, there's programming, but that's knowledge you should have going into a PhD program in CS. And the grad level algorithm analysis class was basically the same as undergrad with "double star" difficulty questions pulled from the book in the homework -- undoubtedly a problem someone published a paper on, if you care to violate academic honesty and look it up. So again, reading and comprehension. Your main task here isn't to learn from other students -- they're mostly as ignorant as you!
posted by pwnguin at 11:02 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Actually, that's probably the number one requirement, at least in CS. A PhD represents your capacity to push the state of the art in your field, so your first goal is to start reading journals and doing research on what's already been done.

I don't understand how this statement isn't contradictory. Of course you have to become familiar with the literature before you start conducting research. How else would you know where to start? Conducting effective research, however, is something that you have to learn by watching and doing. You can't become a good research scientist just by reading, and I would imagine that the same is true of computer programming.

Likewise, in the humanities, you have to learn to write effectively about what you've read. Getting the background material under your belt is important, but very few people just automatically have an innate sense of how to push their discipline forward without some sort of evaluation as to the quality of their work.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2009


What I'm getting at, poorly, is that you don't need a university or corporate R&D lab to do research in CS. Or peers, or instructors, or a classroom. I guess your main point was that PhD's involve research in addition to reading, but I see no need to pay tuition for that privilege. Damien Katz effectively lived the grad student life without the student loans, for example. (Technically, you'd be certifiably insane to do CS grad work without a stipend, but I'm not sure how to compare this fact with English grad programs.)

The fact that this is possible on a bachelor's degree education and a shoestring budget distinguishes CS from the hard sciences who need particle accelerators or gene sequencers to push the state of the art. All he needed was a library card, an internet connection and maybe a couple computers (I assume he had a few lying around to test network scalability?)

Perhaps my view is distorted in that its easy to verify most CS output. We have tests and proofs to rely on, and objective goals rather than the unknown facts that scientists and philosophers face. CouchDB works when systems run faster than without it. Or perhaps CS is a very weak discipline that allows individual researchers to define their own version of success without regard to standards of others in the field. I'm not out to place my field above another on a hierarchy. Just to dissuade anyone who thinks the university is the only place education can take place.

I don't really want to pursue this discussion further though, because what I have to say about "the humanities" isn't very constructive and would add to the pile of already hurt feelings in this thread.
posted by pwnguin at 11:05 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I see no need to pay tuition for that privilege.

Again, who the hell, aside perhaps from underqualified but wealthy dilettantes, pays to get a PhD?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:55 AM on November 4, 2009


What I'm getting at, poorly, is that you don't need a university or corporate R&D lab to do research in CS. Or peers, or instructors, or a classroom. I guess your main point was that PhD's involve research in addition to reading, but I see no need to pay tuition for that privilege. Damien Katz effectively lived the grad student life without the student loans, for example.

Ph.D. students in engineering and the sciences do not pay tuition or take out student loans. Not in the United States, at least.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:06 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Again, who the hell, aside perhaps from underqualified but wealthy dilettantes, pays to get a PhD?

Tuition? Not so many people. You're right about that. But associated living costs that go above and beyond the pittance most graduate students receive for teaching/TA work? That isn't often covered--hence, debt for graduate school.

Ph.D. students in engineering and the sciences do not pay tuition or take out student loans. Not in the United States, at least.

Many NSF-funded tuition grants and waivers that look like free money are actually structured as loans that can either be (1) forgiven when the recipient works 'in the field of study' for two years for every year of funding, or (2) repaid. In a bad economy that forces unfortunate choices, option two happens more often than you think.
posted by yellowcandy at 5:05 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Many NSF-funded tuition grants and waivers that look like free money are actually structured as loans that can either be (1) forgiven when the recipient works 'in the field of study' for two years for every year of funding, or (2) repaid.

I've never, ever heard of these. What programs in specific are you talking about?

In general, Ph.D. students in the sciences and engineering are funded either by 1. Doing TAs, 2. Fellowships (not loans) through their school or department, 3. Fellowships (not loans) through external funding agencies, most prominently the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which definitely does not have to be repaid, or 4. Research funding from their advisor's grants.

But associated living costs that go above and beyond the pittance most graduate students receive for teaching/TA work? That isn't often covered--hence, debt for graduate school.

We're usually talking ~$20-25,000 a year. Not a lot of money, granted, and you'll probably need to share a place. But I don't know anyone who went into debt.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:07 PM on November 4, 2009


That $20-25,000 is on top of a tuition waver, and includes health insurance.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:08 PM on November 4, 2009


Many NSF-funded tuition grants and waivers that look like free money are actually structured as loans that can either be (1) forgiven when the recipient works 'in the field of study' for two years for every year of funding, or (2) repaid.

I've never, ever heard of these. What programs in specific are you talking about?
Neither have I. I think yellowcandy is just trying to scare people away from getting a Ph.D. for their own good.

Unlike most people, I grew up around university professors and scientists and when I was in college, I counted graduate students among many of my friends, so I knew what getting a Ph.D. in the sciences is all about. It seems that there are some people who must have thought that all that time I was in graduate school I was paying tuition, taking out loans, and/or getting big checks from my parents every month. In fact I was just working at the equivalent of a low-paid, sub-entry-level job; the sort of thing people who extol the value of "real work" seem to think everyone should have when they're first starting out.
posted by deanc at 12:57 PM on November 5, 2009


Neither have I. I think yellowcandy is just trying to scare people away from getting a Ph.D. for their own good.

Yes, because clearly that's the most logical conclusion.

What's actually the case is that I had one of these grants and was, myself, surprised to find out that the fine print required me to work in science or repay the grant. The 2:1 ratio is standard, and according to a friend at the NSF, this still applies to any NSF stipends that are not part of a dedicated scholarship program (i.e. not to the GRF or to IGERT). NSF and NIH both offer R1 institutions subsidiary funding for incoming PhD students in their first three years of study, and some of these funds come with this restriction.

The point isn't to scare people away--come on now, most people want to work 'in the field' when they finish their studies, so this isn't generally an issue--it is to encourage people to read the fine print of their funding agreements.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:42 AM on November 9, 2009


NSF and NIH both offer R1 institutions subsidiary funding for incoming PhD students in their first three years of study, and some of these funds come with this restriction.

What are these programs called?
posted by mr_roboto at 10:20 AM on November 9, 2009


The 2:1 ratio is standard, and according to a friend at the NSF, this still applies to any NSF stipends that are not part of a dedicated scholarship program (i.e. not to the GRF or to IGERT). NSF and NIH both offer R1 institutions subsidiary funding for incoming PhD students in their first three years of study, and some of these funds come with this restriction.
Let me be as up front as I can so you don't get the idea that I'm beating around the bush: I do not believe you, and of fellowships like that which do exist, they are not the source of grad student funding and stipends for any significant number of Ph.D. students. Almost all science graduate students are funded via their advisor and/or department/university with TA/RA fellowships, and a few are successful enough to win an NSF GRFP fellowship, which, as you point out, don't have those strings attached. There are exceptions, I'm sure, but that's not a typical grad student experience.

McKinsey & Co. hires hundreds of science and engineering Ph.D.s every year, as do many hedge funds and finance companies. If a significant number of prospective employees were bound by an agreement to pay back more than $100,000 because they went into management consulting, then you'd hear of lots of Ph.D.s and their prospective employers worried about this restriction. But you don't.
posted by deanc at 11:27 AM on November 9, 2009


any significant number of PhD students

What's that number, exactly?

Listen, it makes no difference at all to me if you believe me--your belief isn't making any loan payments.

The upshot of what I said is clear and pretty non-controversial: Read the fine print on your funding, as it may come with unsavory strings attached.

That's it.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:19 PM on November 9, 2009


The upshot of what I said is clear and pretty non-controversial: Read the fine print on your funding, as it may come with unsavory strings attached.
That's different than engaging in out-and-out scaremongering. I'm sure that someone, somewhere had a rider like that attached to a fellowship (and you say it happened to you!), but you haven't even bothered to answer mr_roboto about what these programs are named. You described this as being the case with "many" NSF-funded tuition grants. But for most everyone who doesn't get a GRFP fellowship, you apply to grad school, get supported by an RA out of your advisor's and the department's funding, and graduate, never having had to worry about tuition or loans.
posted by deanc at 1:43 PM on November 9, 2009


Read the fine print on your funding, as it may come with unsavory strings attached.

In general (i.e. outside of fellowships), RA or TA stipend payments are a term in a contract between the student and the school. This contract typically takes the form of an annual offer letter. The student has no formal relationship to the funding agency; the funding agency has a contractual relationship with the institution (and with the PI as an employee of the institution).

If you do know the names of some NSF- or NIH-sponsored programs that offer additional funding for students, bizarre terms or not, I would really like to know what they're called, and would appreciate if you could provide a link to a web page describing them. This is, as they say, relevant to my interests.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:42 PM on November 9, 2009


From what I can find, forgivable loans are the domain of professional societies, not NSF/NIH. It makes an amount of sense, given their funding source and mission, to structure them this way. Example: SAE Doctoral FLP. I bet if you used one of those Financial Aid books that goes over thousands of money sources, many are in this form, so that's one way this myth may have started.

In my CS experience, most students had a TA or RA position to cover tuition / expenses and paid well enough. To direct this back to the article at hand, I'm not certain this is true for say Philosophy or English departments, where it doesn't rain DARPA grants.
posted by pwnguin at 10:06 PM on November 9, 2009


What's actually the case is that I had one of these grants and was, myself, surprised to find out that the fine print required me to work in science or repay the grant.

If you really were pursuing science at the graduate level, then you should know better to state a claim without providing the data to back it up. Cite it or smite it.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:23 PM on November 18, 2009


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