Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Louis Menand: The PhD Problem

Must-read link of the day: The PhD Problem (excerpts from The Marketplace of Ideas) by Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard.

Here's Menand on the academy's attempt to monopolize not just the production of knowledge, but also the production of knowledge producers:

It is easy to see how the modern academic discipline reproduces all the salient features of the professionalized occupation. It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field. The history department does not ask the mayor or the alumni or the physics department who is qualified to be a history professor. The academic credential is non-transferable (as every Ph.D. looking for work outside the academy quickly learns). And disciplines encourage—in fact, they more or less require—a high degree of specialization. The return to the disciplines for this method of organizing themselves is social authority: the product is guaranteed by the expertise the system is designed to create. Incompetent practitioners are not admitted to practice, and incompetent scholarship is not disseminated.

Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers. The academic disciplines effectively monopolize (or attempt to monopolize) the production of knowledge in their fields, and they monopolize the production of knowledge producers as well.

Here's another quote; this one comes from the section on perverse incentives that encourage institutions to be unconcerned by the long duration of the doctoral programs, as well as by they overproduction of doctorates (this, despite the huge drop-out rates among doctoral candidates):

One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time-to-degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, overproduction of Ph.D.s also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor. These circumstances explain the graduate-student union movement that has been going on in higher education since the mid 1990s.

Aren't these problems -- loooong doctoral programs, huge drop-out rates, and overproduction -- common to some sub-fields of the sciences (theoretical physics, for example)?


  1. Rainbow Scientist said...

    Overproduction is a serious problem in almost all scientific disciplines (not only in theoretical physics), specially in the fields where more hands are needed for experiments. The reason is that it is cheaper for universities and for PIs to have graduate students and post-docs than to hire instructors and technician with salary and benefits. They also don't have any liabilities after student finishes, so it is very cost effective. Excepts jobs in academia, actually there is no need of PhD for any other job and many students realize it and leave. I like the models of business schools where there is strict check against overproduction of PhD and they make sure that everyone is in place after finishing degree, but it is hard to replicate this in science.

    Of course these are the realities of American academia, in India things are completely different.

  2. Abi said...

    @Rainbow Scientist: I agree that overproduction is a concern in the sciences too (and not just in theoretical physics). However, it's particularly problematic in humanities and some sub-fields of science because students with doctoral degrees in these areas have mainly one option before them: faculty position in a university.

    On the other hand, doctoral degree-holders in experimental condensed matter physics, chemistry, biomedical sciences have many options open to them (including industry jobs, and not just in R&D).

  3. SS said...

    >>because students with doctoral degrees in these areas have mainly one option before them: faculty position in a university.

    Don't actually disagree with that (though it's not uncommon to find PhDs in English in editorial jobs, working in publishing houses, as journalists, etc.) But I wonder if this is largely because universities are the only places where PhDs are still respected?!

  4. Anonymous said...

    I believe it is all about perspectives. Some students enter graduate schools with an interest to teach while others are practioners with research interest. in my case I do have a PhD in applied technology and since completing my PhD I am to be back in the industry as an in house expert. It allows to look things detached from the routine operations while looking at the larger macroeconomic aspect of industry evolution.

    People who entered graduate school with faculty positions as their ultimate destination will be disappointed when no jobs are available at the end of their course. Those who undertook research that was solving real life problems will have no problems integrating with the industry.

    I have two examples; Harish Khare the former editor of The Hindu and Arun Shourie the former editor of Indian Express. Both have PhD and have been successful outside academia