An article in the Economist's year-end issue dares to suggest that "doing a PhD is often a waste of time." Some people I know are fuming over it. It's true that it doesn't go as far as one would wish, but I do think there's much truth to it. Not that I'm happy about it. But I find myself rehearsing many of these same arguments to students contemplating graduate studies. Isn't offering inconvenient facts part of our job description?
The argument in essence is that universities produce too many PhDs, many more than they hire back as professors. Indeed, universities are hiring fewer professors all the time, as university teaching is fobbed off on poorly paid part time and term faculty, and research is done increasingly by poorly paid itinerant postdocs.
None of this, alas, is news. But the article makes clear that it's become a vicious circle. Precisely because they glut the market with qualified candidates for academic jobs, universities are able to generate research and instruct the young with ever fewer full-time professors earning a living wage and job security. It might take the eye of the Economist to show us the higher education industry as an industry. The products which this industry seeks rational ways to maximize are research and teaching. PhDs, which might once have seemed our most important product, are increasingly raw material.
Meanwhile promising lives are being wasted. The article seems a call to the huddled masses of PhD candidates to recognize their exploitation and rebel: you have nothing to lose but your chains! Far from being your best friends, the only ones who appreciate your gifts and encourage you to further study, your professors are in fact your oppressors.
That's a bit simplistic - professors don't run the business. If society valued the humanities, research, etc., etc., things might be very different. But we're not just victims here. We have responsibilities, especially to our students - responsibilities which might conflict with our responsibilities to our disciplines and to "the university."
We should certainly do what we can to make the public good of higher education, research, etc. better understood, and available to more people. In the meantime, however, we have to level with students about the current situation.
I usually tell students that there are serious costs and uncertain outcomes to PhD work, but, under the right circumstances, they may be worth bearing. What's not recommended is taking on debt to do a degree you don't find rewarding in hopes of getting a dream job as a professor at a fancy university in a desirable city. If the coursework and research aren't valuable as ends in themselves, and not just as means, think very hard before making this choice.
But our responsibilities to our students and to the university need not be in conflict. Maybe we need to consider that the university is also a means, not merely an end in itself.
What is the greater end? That the life of the mind, learning, research, critique be vibrant and available to many. We believe that to be a mark and a component of a good society, and want to help our students enjoy full lives and careers which contribute to and participate in it. Universities, squeezed between political pressure, corporatist governance, inward-looking disciplines and consumerist students, may not be doing a good job of promoting this, even within our walls. Helping society imagine and reward professions which do this beyond the professorial might be in the best interests of students and universities, too, providing more support for both - and conversation partners throughout society.