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.)

Grad-school dropout

Chris has already commented on Drezner's post about low retention rates at graduate school, but as a bona-fide grad-school dropout myself (ABD in philosophy, 1997, University of Rochester), I just have to put my two cents in.

I dropped because after five years my funding ran out, my dissertation on Kant's Theory of Substance was going nowhere, and the job market was looking awful. Why put myself through it anymore, when the newly-minted PhDs I saw were teaching multiple part-time gigs at Monroe Community College and St. John Fisher, and making less than I was making as a TA? So I ditched it all to become a computer geek, and seven years later, I’m doing better financially than I would have teaching. I’m making an upper middle-class income according to the Calpundit scale, and I’m living in a city that I like where there’s very little snow.

I’m not bitter, and I have no regrets except for not shooting higher in terms of what schools I applied to. I had the chance to study with a brilliant metaphysician, who was also an excellent teacher, and even got two footnotes in his book. (Even if, due to a typo, one of them reads “Sider (1997)” instead of “Sides (1997).” Grrrr.)

I could have spent 1992–1997 working some job I hated, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Grad school was a fun way to kill some time, and it’s better to drop out of grad school with very little debt than graduate from law school with a huge mountain of debt, only to discover you hate practicing law.

So go on and go to grad school. But don’t get your hopes up about a career in academia. Have a back up plan.

Wednesday, 28 April 2004

Dubious distinction

I discovered today that I am (or, rather, this blog post of mine is) the number one result returned by Google for ”grad school dropout.”

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Bitter much?

Arnold Kling and Megan McArdle have generated some discussion concerning, in Margaret Soltan’s words, “why American university professors are bitterly jealous status-obsessives.” I tend to think the following reasons identified by Megan are the most important:

It’s so hard to switch jobs. Job mobility is so low that you can’t salve your ego by telling yourself that your current job is merely a waystop en route to something better.

Academics have virtually no control over where they live. They usually seem to go where the best job is, regardless of whether or not the local area suits them. In many cases, this further focuses them inward on academia, because there aren’t all that many other people around who share their interests.

[I]t’s all terribly zero sum. Any article a colleague gets into a good journal is one less slot for your articles; any good tenure-track job secured by a friend is one less job you an apply to. All industries involve competition for market share, of course, but few have such a fixed supply of both jobs and customers.

Another important factor identified by one of Megan’s commenters is the incentive structure of the position itself:

People with PhD’s are [not] trained to be teachers. They’re trained to research—whether that research be population migrations in sub-Saharan Africa or Syriac poetry. The only way one has any possibility of “moving up’’ in the academy is to publish books or articles that few will read but those who do read them have a good amount of control over your future employment. This research is a job in itself, and it easily consumes 80 hours a week.

Yet within the broader world (and among your students) you are known primarily as a teacher. You teach graduate and undergraduate courses, you grade essays or problem sets, you meet with students, you participate on committees. Many academics find this quite meaningful and another job unto itself, but it has little or nothing to do with promotions, ability to change jobs, etc.

Certainly as I’ve considered tenure-track positions over the last four years these issues have been at the front of my mind. At the low end of the perceived status hierarchy, the incentive structures for gaining tenure and getting another job are almost entirely non-overlapping (to the point that some items that count as tenurable “research” at my future institution wouldn’t count at all in any category when being considered for a position at another institution)—in large part because there are no external metrics for anything but research. Another employer has no real way to determine whether or not I’m a good teacher except (a) by reading the teaching evaluations which I provide to them (and which are inevitably cherry-picked to include the most positive evaluations) out of any institutional context, (b) by presuming that if I weren’t a good teacher I wouldn’t have a job, or (c) by bringing me in and having me teach a class (which has its own problems). Service has even less in terms of definable metrics.

Further, the first and second factors I borrowed from Megan overlap. There is a non-negligible chance that even if I were to decide the first day I arrived at my future job that I hated it and wanted out, I could nonetheless not be able to secure another job but, because of the non-overlapping criteria for tenure and mobility, get tenure—at which point the potential mobility for academics drops even further, particularly in the upward direction on the status ladder (downward parachutes tend to have softer landings as long as you’re not at the bottom to begin with). This fear isn’t entirely rational, in that there are other job options for most academics (for-profit teaching, community colleges, secondary-school teaching accreditation, and non-academic work), but given that the academic job market is arbitrary and capricious there is no guarantee that merit (which to external observers is generally defined as “count and placement of peer-reviewed publications” and little else) will win out over less merit-based factors, such as perceived political leanings, the status of the institution where the person is teaching at, where the person got their undergraduate degree, etc.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Academic job satisfaction, part deux

Apropos the discussion Tuesday, there are further thoughts on this topic from Ilya Somin (also here; I think the parallels between being a law professor and a professor in most non-professional fields are very weak, however) and Thoreau, while Dan Drezner, Ingrid Robeyns, and Laura McKenna consider whether there’s such a thing as being a part-time academic, at least in a setting where some sort of scholarly development is expected.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Letting go of my baby

I just added two new developers to the reportbug project on Alioth, Sandro Tosi and Y Giridhar Appaji Nag, who seem to be enthusiastic about working through the big backlog of bug reports and wishlist requests associated with the package. Since my Debian-related interests are largely elsewhere these days, mostly focused on R stuff that has a more tangible relationship with my research (and by extension my future job mobility and/or tenurability) and a few other infrastructural things in Debian (primarily LSB support and printing), I think this is a good development overall. But still, when you’ve been hacking away at something for almost nine years it’s hard not to develop a bit of a sentimental attachment to it. I still plan to be doing some hacking away at reportbug, but hopefully the new blood can take the lead in terms of day-to-day maintenance while I work on some of the desperately-needed code refactoring issues with the software.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Academics on screen: not that pretty

In an apparent continuation of my recent movie-going kick, I went to see Smart People Thursday evening. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have rightly praised Dennis Quaid’s performance as a stereotypical “bitter prof” who, for added measure, also bags a former student, just in case we hadn’t wandered too far into stereotype territory yet. Without giving too much away, Quaid’s character (naturally a member of the species “tenured deadwood” who’s too lazy to even remember the name of a student he’s had in multiple courses the prior semester) ultimately gets involved up to his eyeballs in academic politics at its most petty seeking a goal he really has no desire to achieve except to spite his colleagues, who he hates to the last man and woman, and who wholeheartedly reciprocate the feeling. Clearly screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier has spent far too much time around academics.

I thought most of the remaining cast did admirable jobs as well. I’ve seen some criticism of Ellen Page’s character, Quaid’s cynical daughter Vanessa, being essentially another riff on Juno McGuff, which seems a bit unfair to me; other than being high school kids who aren’t as smart as they think they are (that last part may be redundant), there isn’t a lot of commonality; Vanessa strikes me as Tracy Flick meets Mary Richards, complete with the bad dinner parties, with a dash of Alex Keaton for good measure (left unexplained is how Vanessa picked up the apparently-recessive Republican gene in her family), while Juno’s at least a partially-functional wannabe hipster. I also enjoyed Thomas Hayden Church’s turn as Quaid’s loser brother Chuck and the small role played by David Denman, formerly Roy on The Office.

The only character I really didn’t get was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, who to my mind hasn’t done anything worthwhile on the screen since 1995 or so (I count her role in L.A. Story as the ditzy So-Cal skater girl SanDeE* as the apparent pinnacle of her acting career, although she was also pretty good in Extreme Measures); it’s certainly not all that clear why Quaid would be be drawn to Parker’s character except out of sheer laziness in finding someone else to date, although her character’s motivations are somewhat clearer. The vague feeling she’s going to go blab it all in the next scene in graphic detail to Samantha, Miranda, and whatever-the-hell-Kristin-Davis’-character-is-called doesn’t exactly help either. But my Parker issues didn’t detract overly much from the film, which really doesn’t dwell on her character much anyway, as this movie operates on the rule that the female romantic lead has no scenes that don’t in some way relate to her romance with the male lead, a rule which I think I read in the blogosphere years ago but can no longer find. So, overall, I recommend the film.