Are PhDs a Waste Product?

How the University Works

How the University Works

This week, I began reading Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. Bousquet is an academic labor activist, and blogs at both the Chronicle’s Brainstorm and at his own site. (A side note: Bousquet is now a prof at Santa Clara, but he first received tenure at the University of Louisville, my alma mater, at the same time I was a student there. He and I did not cross paths, as far as I can remember, but I witnessed firsthand many of the same things he saw, including UofL’s deal with UPS (PDF) to employ students at UPS’s graveyard shift in exchange for financial aid.)

Bousquet views the current academic economy as systemically corrupt. Here’s his description of graduate education:

Under casualization [of academic labor], it makes very little sense to view the graduate student as potentially a “product” for a “market” in tenure-track jobs. For many graduate employees, the receipt of a Ph.D. signifies the end, and not the beginning, of a long teaching career. Most graduate students are already laboring at the only academic job they’ll ever have – hence, the importance for organized graduate student labor of inscribing the designation “graduate employee” in law and discourse.

From the standpoint of the organized graduate employee, the situation is clear. Increasingly, the holders of a doctoral degree are not so the products of the graduate-employee labor system as its by-products, insofar as that labor system exists primarily to recruit, train, supervise, and legitimate the employment of nondegreed students and contingent faculty. (21)

Do you agree with Bousquet’s assessment? Is the difficulty in finding employment for Ph.D. recipients due to a flooded job market (the standard explanation) or due to an academic system that prefers cheaper, usually non-degreed contingent faculty to degreed tenure-track faculty?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    PRT commented on October 3, 2008 Reply

    I’m beginning to agree with Bousquet, though he’s not the only one who has identified this trend. Nelson and Watt argued something very similar in /Academic Keywords/. However, I will say that the flooded job market is a symptom of the same problem: there more graduate students than there are eventual jobs for them in part because grad students are cheap labor compared to tenured faculty.

    Especially in the humanities, where grad students and adjuncts often teach a high percentage of classes, it is telling that this is one of the few places Universities make money off of tuition dollars. The University needs cheap labor in most areas in order to make a profit so they can funnel the money to the projects/departments that are not self sufficient.

    Tobin commented on October 3, 2008 Reply

    Tough call.

    Many grad students are employees, but all grad students are, well, students.

    I would love to know:

    The percentage of PhD’s who don’t get a job in a profession that doesn’t value the PhD (so include both faculty and also administration jobs and other expert positions)

    The same percentage for grad students with assistantships.

    In other words, there may be a glut, but is it really true that being a funded grad student is the last academic job for most/many students?

    David O'Hara commented on October 4, 2008 Reply

    This is old news. Here’s William James’ take on it over a century ago:

  • Tom Grosh commented on October 9, 2008 Reply

    Related, visit What am I doing? Shouldn’t seven years of graduate school have helped me avoid taking a job just to have a job? for a humanities PhD candidate facing a “crossroads” in her “Choose Your Own Adventure! book” life. I taste the angst through the writing, but I agree with Tobin that stats would be helpful. Anyone have such information at their fingertips? If not, I’ll rummage/google on Monday. BTW, here’s the conclusion of the Chronicle Careers piece:

    “I am at a crossroads. I could apply for faculty positions or go the nonacademic route. I could look at postdocs or think about getting a master’s in public health. I could give it all up, continue to teach the dance classes that have helped pay the bills, finally plan my wedding, become a trophy wife, and be the most interesting person at every cocktail party.

    My life is my own Choose Your Own Adventure! book. And I really just want to read ahead to make sure I’m not on the path that leads to me tripping in the abandoned mansion and falling into the never-ending pit.”

    Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D. commented on October 9, 2008 Reply

    I see several incongruities on campuses:
    1) I find it amusing how academic institutions process students like cattle. My institution has 160,000 of these. Most students, in my opinion, are lost and barely figure out their way almost right up to graduation. Colleges and universities promote their products and recruit the students. Somehow, the student joins a bunch of Lemming-like followers who are at the mercy of whatever happens. In a moment of rare destiny, a student might encounter a caring and loving professor who takes interest in providing enlightening wisdom. He figures out the game and how he can change the world. Meanwhile the masses of young learners are still bouncing around without a compass.

    2) You take the previous scenario and add to it that on many campuses the great majority of professors/instructors are only part-timers with little or no benefits. Never mind that these are some of the most current, creative, exciting, and progressive individuals due to being in the actual real world applying their craft. As an adjunct professor of some years now, I get frustrated applying for full time positions and clearing interview hurdles only to find out that a younger, less experienced, and sometimes prettier person with smaller CV’s and no Ph.D. gets hired. We adjuncts often feel like we are at the bottom of the feeding chain. Consequently I am seriously thinking about staying on the non-academic track as my main career. I have a successful private psychotherapy practice.

    3) If you happen to be in a research institution you will see the Arts being sliced right out of existence in favor of making room to build the new pharmacological intervention experimentation lab that will bring millions in grants and royalty fees collected. You’ll also see narcissistic professors abusively using their slave labor of graduate students to prop up their massive egos. I have a good friend who was a department director on a large campus. He would tell me how he would be evaluated by department chairs mostly on whether he could publish and attract dollars. Hardly any points were given to him for the fact that he was the favorite professor of undergraduates and graduate students. He is an amazing instructor. He would also inform me that tenured professors would show up only one time to classes and that was to give the only exam to the class. In the meanwhile these classes were handled by graduate students if at all. When comparing research institutions to community colleges, most of my former students tell me that they hate the fact that professors in research institutions “don’t give a hoot.” about teaching well or about them. That is their perception.

    In the end, I think that the system needs a revolution from within or be replaced with a better model.

    Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on October 9, 2008 Reply

    I am now three chapters into the book (I must confess – labor theory is not part of my background, so it is heavy treading for me), but I am becoming bothered by a lack of statistics. No question, there is an ample case by Bousquet for the poor treatment of graduate students and the lack of respect for teaching at research universities, but Tobin’s questions above are not addressed so far.

    A friend who has spent his career at denominational liberal arts colleges, meanwhile, told me last week that his schools have tended to have the opposite problem. When they post an opening, they receive very few applicants who meet the minimum academic requirements, and positions often come down to just two or three candidates who have the right degrees. (Which may explain Christian colleges’ willingness to hire ABD, which, in turn, leads to the ABD faculty member having a very hard time removing the “AB” from their “D.”)

    What have others experienced?

    Tom Grosh commented on October 9, 2008 Reply

    An interesting question regarding denominational liberal arts colleges. I did not experience issues with long term ABD’s at Grove City College or Geneva College, but I’ll ask around some friends from some other denominational liberal arts colleges.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on October 10, 2008 Reply

    Bousquet provides a helpful analogy. He compares the academy to other highly educated professionals, like lawyers or doctors. The receipt of the JD or MD signals the beginning of “real work” for lawyers and doctors, and their admittance into “the guild.” He contrasts the PhD, and notes that, by the time someone receives their PhD, they may have already been doing the “real work” of academic instruction for 7 or 8 years.

    LABH SINGH commented on January 7, 2009 Reply


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