Tuesday, 3 February 2004

The "dropout crisis" in academia

Dan Drezner has a post looking at a piece in today’s Chicago Tribune on the high dropout rate of Ph.D. students (registration required; use your favorite combo). Dan writes:

So, if there’s to be reforms to ensure a higher yield of graduate school entrants earning their Ph.D.s, there would also have to be a radical change in the culture of most academic departments. Faculty would have to tell their Ph.D.s that it’s OK to get a job in the private sector. That won’t happen soon—for tenured faculty, a key measure of prestige is how well they place their students. The more students that get jobs at top-tier institutions, the better it looks.

I think a higher yield would also require a reduced intake. Certainly at lower-tier schools, programs take in quite a few grad students on “spec,” who eventually wash out because they plainly don’t belong in grad school. That doesn’t happen so much at places like Stanford and Chicago, who have their choice of qualified potential grad students, but out here in the boonies of academia it does.

And, this gives rise to a second question: assuming all these grad students stick around, where are they going to get jobs? It’s a bitch placing the survivors now, even in fields like political science that have good placement rates (on the order of 80% and up for applicants with Ph.D.s in hand). If you think the job market is arbitrary and capricious now, just wait until departments have twice as many applicants per entry-level position—and the burden of that is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of potential professors like me, who have the same (or better) skills as students coming out of “big name” programs but whose degrees come from institutions without that name.

The only realistic solution I can see is to start revoking accreditation from Ph.D. programs to get supply and demand closer to being in check, even though I suspect the results would be monumentally unfair to many potential grad students who have the ability and interest to succeed in grad school. It’s not a solution I particularly like, but if we’re going to encourage students to stick around I think we also have to ensure they have a decent shot at a job at the end of the process.

Update: James Joyner says, “If one doesn’t fit into the academic culture in the comparatively collegial graduate school environment, one is almost certainly not going to be happy as a professional academic. This is a winnowing process that should be hailed, not cause for alarm.” And, Laura McK* thinks Dan underestimates the degree to which grad students are often treated like crap. (Speaking just for myself, I’ve had it much better than the horror stories would have you believe is typical; then again, it’s possible I just have a thick skin.)