Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Try Not to Let Your Head Explode When You Read This

This article was sent out over my department's listserv this morning, from a "star" grad student in my former program. I'm not sure why zie sent it out - as advice? A "useful article" that hir colleagues might find helpful? I ... certainly hope not.

The article is specifically about grad students in the humanities and the potential link between the number of available jobs and their time to degree. This may seem like an odd article for me to get fired up about, since I'm not in the humanities ... but let's not pretend that all of us social science and humanities grads aren't in very similar boats these days. The various social science job markets may not be as terrible as the ones in the humanities, but they're still not good and certainly not going to get any better.

Anyway, it may not directly pertain to my former discipline, but I could not let this pass me by this morning without posting about it. And thought that my fellow postacademic bloggers who are in the humanities might have some further thoughts ... if their heads don't explode first, that is.

The piece starts out okay:
In recent discussions of how to shorten the time it takes to complete Ph.D.s (a pressing concern in the humanities, since many students take longer than a decade to finish), some have speculated that a key reason for the lengthy time to degree in recent years has been the terrible job market.
"Sure," you might be thinking. "That makes sense. If there are no jobs, people are going to postpone graduating for a few years ... because after all, who wants to graduate just to be unemployed??"

The article then goes on to describe a study that was recently completed, which found that it appears that students take longer to finish their humanities degrees when they observe that the job market has weakened when they are in the middle of their programs.

I did look at the full study (it's linked from the article), and based on a quick read, it sounds reasonable. The author does focus primarily on just two variables - years to completion and the number of jobs available in the preceding and current years. However, he does consider how people's gender, citizenship status, what kind of support a student has (a teaching position v. fellowship v. paying tuition out of pocket) and a rough approximation of "student ability" (admissions selectivity at their undergraduate institution) factor into the "time to degree" question. I can think of other factors that might help contribute to this "time to degree" problem (have the students gone on the market before? Did they have to travel to do fieldwork? Do they have a side job? Have they taken a leave of absence for some reason?) But, okay ... researchers are all constrained by the available data. This study is a little individualistic for my taste as a social scientist, but it's not awful.

Anyway, the study author concludes that (1) women take longer to finish their degrees, that (2) students with financial support of some kind finish more quickly, and (3) that students from more selective undergraduate schools are more likely to finish.

None of these things should be surprising to anyone, given our previous discussions of privilege and the fact that if human beings of grad student age would like to have children, the burden falls more heavily on female grad students (thus increasing their time to degree completion).

The study goes on, though, to note that across all groups, students are less likely to finish quickly if there are fewer jobs posted approximately 3-6 years prior to their expected completion date. Of course, I really don't find this surprising - and while I linked to the original study expecting to be pissed off, I actually can't quibble too much with their findings or recommendations. In fact, the study conclusions actually do talk about structural aspects of Ph.D. programs. The study calls for future research to examine how grad programs respond to changes in the number of available jobs (do they cut back on their admissions?) and what graduating Ph.D.s do when they graduate into a weak job market (what kind of employment do they find, if not an academic job?).

So the study itself isn't particularly shocking or infuriating ... students of all types are taking longer to finish when there are fewer jobs, and future research should look at how programs respond and what students graduating into this market do with their degrees. Nothing controversial there - in fact, it seems like just the type of study that would trigger a larger discussion of what grad programs can do to make sure that students know about their nonacademic job options, right?

Hahahahaha ... yeah right.What does the IHE article focus on? The brief suggestion by the study author that students still enrolled in Ph.D. programs might make the conscious decision to slow down their dissertation progress when they catch on that they don't have great job prospects.. And while the study author presents that as a value-neutral choice, the IHE author clearly frames "length of time to completion" in itself as a Serious Problem that Needs to be Solved ... not the fact that there are no academic jobs for these completing students to take:
Groen writes that a good understanding of these issues is key to efforts to help graduate students finish up more speedily.
Excuse me, IHE? It's true that the author talks a bit about the need to speed up students' time to degree completion. And I don't think many of us in the postacademic blogosphere would disagree with that. Very few people think that a bunch of 15th-year history Ph.D.s making poverty wages with sporadic employment is a goal we should strive for.

But this is definitely not the big take-home point of the original study. The author devotes a majority of his conclusion to how future research needs to look at how grad programs are responding to these changes in the job market, and what graduating Ph.D.s in the terrible market do with their degrees once they finally do graduate. You know - he recommends future research into how the structure of Ph.D. education and a Ph.D. career is changing based on the changing market. But the IHE article completely ignores these interesting ideas in favor of focusing on how to get grad students through their programs more quickly ... basically ignoring the other key part of the article - that there are no freaking jobs for them to get, so we need a wider focus on either (1) whether we need to admit fewer students or (2) encourage them toward nonacademic jobs.

So while the study author calls for research that might help balance out the supply and demand in the academic job market and help humanities Ph.D.s identify other types of jobs they could do, IHE completely ignores that part of the study. Because it's much more fun to point fingers at the lazy slacker grad students than to figure out how the system is broken and how they can do better by their students.
The conclusion? Groen writes: [...] "…. [T]he presence of an association with listings in prior years suggests than an effect operates through choices made by students earlier in their graduate programs, such as the dissertation topic and the research plan for the dissertation.

The author of this IHE piece has basically cherry-picked the study author's conclusions (which are far wider than simply questioning individual students' motivations), and has instead painted the audience a picture of grad students in their fifth year who look ahead and think think "oh, there are no jobs, so I might as well choose a looooooong arcane dissertation topic and take forever to finish while suckling at the teat of grad school funding. Because it's fun!! Yayy!!!"

Personally, I think the calculation students make is probably more like (in their seventh or eighth year) "oh crap, I didn't get a job this year. Well, I better not defend my dissertation yet because then my student loans will come due and I'll lose my health insurance. I'll just apply for a grant or adjunct at the college next door and wait to defend next spring."

Then, the next year when they don't miraculously land another job out of the 75 total jobs (hint: see the comments) available in their field, they might put off defending for another year in order to keep their institutional affiliation alive so that they can write a few more articles to improve their CV and better their chances of getting a job (because remember, adjuncts don't always have access to library resources or even an office to work in).

And suddenly, they're an eleventh year grad student still affiliated with the department, even though they presumably could have finished up a few years ago if only there were some freaking jobs available to humanities Ph.D.s, or if only their department and academia in general would help them see what other types of jobs they could get with their experience.

But of course, why would the IHE pay attention to the structural constraints of the job market, the lack of reasonable responses to this job market by Ph.D. programs, and to the nonacademic jobs humanities Ph.D.s get (again - all things discussed in the source study) when you can cherry-pick quotes to blame those slacker advanced grad students for their plight???


So what is the grand conclusion at the end of this piece? Surely, it calls for institutions to work with their students to help them find gainful employment after graduation, right? So that even if there are "fewer jobs advertised," these students won't feel it necessary to linger in grad school year after year?

Hahahahahahahaha....yeah right.
Several efforts are ongoing to cut time to degree for Ph.D. students. At the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association this month, a committee presented ideas for revamping the dissertation, and the president of the association called for time to degree rates to be cut in half.
This is your academic job market and academic structure, everyone. Working hard to get grad students through our programs faster ... terrible job market and lack of prospects be damned. After all, it's not like they're supposed to be preparing students for gainful employment. Nah ... as long as they've got grad students enrolled (thus justifying the continued existence of the graduate department) and teaching fodder to make sure that they can teach the most students for the lowest costs? Who cares what happens to the grad students once we're done with them. Let's just figure out how to shoo them out the door faster so that we can bring in some new students who haven't figured out how bad the market is yet...

I ... I don't even know anymore.


  1. Kablam!

    OK, now that I've scooped up the brains from my exploding head, I can say the following...

    I know this is definitely true in my case. Within 6 months I'd written my dissertation, but I stuck around another 2 1/2 years in the hopes that I'd leave with a TT academic job.

    Something about graduating with no income, no health insurance, and no institutional affiliation while on the market left me, let's say, terrified.

    Silly, silly me.

  2. I'm glad you found this as obnoxious as I did. UGH. I got it first thing in the morning and basically sat at my desk for an hour, fuming, while I wrote this post. In fact, I just re-read it and made about 1000 edits, because it was so sloppily written out of anger. UGH.

    I'm getting so tired of the structural problems in academia being blamed on the behavior or motivation of individual grad students and adjuncts who are nothing more than cogs in this screwed-up system. The victim-blaming has to stop.

  3. I had a combination pre-doc post-doc, way back in the day, that was designed to get people to graduate faster. It was a generous two-year fellowship where the stipend jumped by $10,000/yr as soon as you defended, and I was fortunate to get it. I defended as soon as I could -- success story! -- got my raise, and still didn't have a job at the end of the two years. Since post-docs were almost non-existent in my field (in the humanities), whereas pre-doc fellowships were plentiful (in my field, at that time), I realized that I had cut myself off from lots of potential funding for the sake of a few thousand extra dollars. Foolish me. I adjuncted for one semester, struck out again in the job market, and then went to law school.


    1. Indeed, Ken. What people like the author of this piece don't understand is that grad school (in the humanities and social sciences, at least) has a lot of incentives to keep people hanging on in grad school rather than graduating into uncertain and unstable futures.

      It's not hard for any of us to understand. Why is it so hard for people writing at the *Chronicle of Higher Education* to understand??

  4. Well, and then there's that other recentish piece (Chronicle or IHE, don't recall ATM) that talks about how difficult it is for people who *do* graduate quickly to compete with the kinds of CVs built up by staying in the program those extra few years. So...?