Saturday, January 11, 2014

Should universities rethink some of their PhD programs?

January is peak season for the academic labor market, as graduating PhDs await news of whether they will get on-campus job interviews or come up with a Plan B.  In business and economics the market for PhDs is very strong.  In most scientific disciplines new PhDs move on to post-docs.  Then we have the humanities and liberal arts, where tenure-track jobs are few and far between and those with academic aspirations face years of one year appointments.  

Bloomberg's Megan McArdle had a stimulating (as always) post last week where she points out that academic labor markets have become tournaments, where a lucky few get great positions but most people miss out.  The performing arts and professional sports are two prime examples of tournament markets.  Potential athletes learn at a relatively early age whether they are going to make it or not.  Aspiring actors or rockstars end up devoting their best years to the pursuit of fame, and McArdle thinks academic labor markets are like this as well.

Her suggestion will be viewed as heresy inside the hallowed halls of academe: start shutting down PhD programs in disciplines where there is a glut of doctoral candidates compared to available positions.
That constant flow of grad students allows professors to teach interesting graduate seminars while pushing the grunt work of grading and tutoring and teaching intro classes to students and adjuncts. It provides a massive oversupply of adjunct professors who can be induced to teach the lower-level classes for very little, thus freeing up tenured professors for research. 
Unfortunately, I’m essentially arguing that professors ought to, out of the goodness of their heart, get rid of their graduate programs and go back to teaching introductory classes to distracted freshman. Maybe they should do this. But they’re not going to.
I agree that the professorate is not going to do this on its own.  But will state-funded universities start to see pressure?  Will those private schools who are cash-strapped see opportunity?

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