Editor’s Note. We eschewed a typical framing question and jumped right into the topic so enjoy our in medias res slack chat. 

Erin Bartram: I mean, I think a lot of this, and a lot of what we’re talking about with graduate student funding

It all comes down to one central issue – demanding “expertise” but not wanting to pay people for it

Or rather, that the labor of some people has value but the value accrues to someone other than the laborer

Chris Bouton: And that is a problem that is further exacerbated in the extreme buyers market that is the academic job market


That’s the PhD crisis in one chart

Erin: Do the orange lines include non-TT positions?

Chris: Not sure, this is also in the sciences

But it’s emblematic of the larger funding problems that we’ve discussed.

David Mislin: One thing I wonder, based on my piece yesterday, is whether the solution is to accept fewer Ph.D. students? And for lower-tier institutions to perhaps get rid of grad programs? I’m really torn about this. On the one hand, it seems like the best solution: it’s unfair to accept so many students with no employment prospects. On the other hand, is it fair to deny people the opportunity? I didn’t go to a tier-one institution, I’d been a mediocre undergrad, and I wasn’t accepted with full funding (though that was partly my fault for missing the deadline). But in the grand scheme of things, I’m happy where I’ve ended up. But I’d probably be one of the people who didn’t get to go to grad school if there were fewer spots.

Erin: I think part of the problem with the intersecting arguments is that people say “there aren’t jobs” as though there’s not enough teaching work to go around. There’s clearly plenty, institutions just refuse to bundle it into permanent, full time positions. To me, that reveals that we can’t just say there are too many PhD candidates.

Chris: I don’t think admitting fewer PhD students is the answer because there’s still a demand for labor that grad students are filling. Administrations will find other ways to fill it, either through adjuncting or increasing the teaching burden on current faculty/adjuncts/grad students.

David: I agree, to a point. I think there could be more FT jobs, but I’m still not sure there are enough.

That’s data I haven’t seen and would like to. How many jobs *could* there be?

Erin: If we took the number of classes taught by adjuncts each year at an institution, and divided it by the number of courses that count as a full load for a TT professor, we could easily see how many jobs there could be. I don’t know why no one has done such a thing.

David: I’d do it but I’m terrible at math

Chris: There’s also the decades long trend in decreasing public support for higher education

Erin: Because let’s set aside “flexibility” arguments. If you have someone who’s been VAPing for 6 years teaching the same courses, you just don’t want to pay for a TT.

oh absolutely

Chris: Which is exacerbating this problem. As universities rely more and more on tuition and fees to pay their bills, they want to control costs.

One way to do that is to admit lots of PhD and MA candidates and shift the teaching burden onto them.

The good thing about grad students is there’s a never ending supply of them.

And as long as there are people wanting to go to grad school and fill those spots, there’s a cheap supply of labor.

Erin: Though there are clearly fewer of them now that the economy has improved

Chris: I guess the point I’m getting at is, graduate admissions and the academic job market are markets in the traditional sense and we should treat them as such

Erin: That is true

But they aren’t, as so many academics pretend, markets that exist outside of anyone’s control.

Much like the “pressure to publish more and more” that gets bemoaned at conferences, it’s not a thing that just exists, it’s a thing that people can shape

Chris: Right, like any market, it’s shaped by the people who participate in it

David: Right. We were told in grad school that the job market all came down to luck. Which I guess makes sense given that our own internal rewards often seemed to come down to luck as well.

Erin: Your piece on internal funding competition was Truth. And it echoed so many things we said to those in charge of the system.

Chris: And therein lies the problem in the system. Academia presents itself as a meritocracy, but it’s mostly random

Or at least out of our individual control

Erin: And when it doesn’t function as a meritocracy, those in control reframe it as out of their hands

Chris: I had a throwaway line in my piece about the funding at UDel and how those of us who had to TA all the time wondered what some students did to get scholarships that exempted them from TAing

Since some of those students dropped out, that was our first clue that the people in charge had no idea what they were talking about

David: I think I see things a little differently. I actually think academia is a meritocracy much of the time, but those in charge are uncomfortable admitting that so they try to frame it as something else. I think that speaks to your point, Erin.

Erin: As a former professor would say: “draw that out a little bit”

David: As a former professor of mine would say, “you’re being elliptical.” Do you want me to elaborate?

Chris: Yes

David: What I mean is, I think academia does function as a meritocracy. Not necessarily on objective merit, but on the system of merit that’s existed for the better part of a century. At least with funding in my program, it went to students who seemed to check the most boxes for merit. But because most academics are by their nature uncomfortable with meritocracy, they came up with excuses for why the department wasn’t a meritocracy. The end result was just confusion.

I think that happens a lot in job searches too. Really hiring committees just want the recent grad from Harvard, Princeton, etc. But they don’t want to admit that. So they obfuscate and come up with all sorts of explanations that just leave people confused.

Erin: That makes a lot of sense.

David, I think your explanation of the meritocracy as “checking the boxes we’ve decided show merit” is pretty key

And pretty damning

Chris: So David, you see the system of funding as a meritocracy in the sense that it has institutional rules or principles that have existed for decades and people try to follow them?

David: Right. Just to be completely clear, I don’t think it’s an objective system of merit. It’s just an agreed-upon set of rules.

Chris: Gotcha, and I agree with that

Should we call it merit in that case?

(As I get really pedantic)

Erin: I mean, what would we call it in the “real world” – social capital? privilege? power?

David: I mean, it’s really no different from “merit” in most other contexts.

Chris: In true seminar fashion, I don’t know that I have answer to that question, but I wanted to raise the issue. I suppose as you point out David that this definition of merit isn’t any different from it in other contexts

But it’s also not an accurate descriptor of the process that it represents.

Erin: I have often heard faculty say that they’re clearly not good at picking who’ll be successful

I wonder how many take the serious next step and consider what they (incorrectly) see as signs of future success and what they might be missing that would be better indicators

Chris: And that’s not a problem unique to academia, human beings suck at prediction in general

David: It’s hard to do though. Even in my own teaching, I often find that the students I expect will be the all stars at the beginning of the semester turn out not to be, and people I didn’t expect turn out to be some of the best.

Chris: It would take some rigorous testing

Erin: But we don’t assign the grades at the start of the semester

We can adjust

David: Fair point.

Erin: But so much of the assessment of your quality in grad school is front loaded

Meaning that if you’re a surprise star or a surprise dud, your CV still reflects what they assumed you’d be before you started

Chris: Yes, to think of this from a Bayesian perspective (sorry I just read a book on Bayes), much of our future outcome relies on the prior

Those priors rarely get updated as we go along

Or it’s harder to readjust those priors

David: I also think that there’s a problem in grad programs of advisors not being comfortable talking to their students candidly about where they are and what they could do better.

Chris: Absolutely

David: One thing that I think could help would be a larger role for outside evaluators at various points of grad school — either internal or external. It’s hard when you are friendly with your advisees to give them tough counsel.

Chris: We had a review at the end of two years from the grad director, but it was nominal at best

David: That’s more than we did.

Erin: I think that would be really beneficial in lots of ways. Often someone external can see merit that the adviser/committee can’t or can’t make the case for to the wider department

Chris: It was, I think, a way of giving the dept the option of kicking someone who was clearly floundering out

I also wanted to further Erin’s point about front loaded academic careers, those first prestige markers–an Ivy League education for example–beget further prestige markers

Who gets the NEH grants? Fellowships at the big research institutions? etc. Those who have the right markers in their CVs, and one you get one, it’s easier to get more.

David: That is certainly true

Chris: So I think that reality reinforces Erin’s point about the priors being especially deterministic.

Erin: Much of this intersects with the unspoken class divisions within the academy, which often correspond with “generational” lines.

When many of the faculty members had parents who had PhDs and many of the grad students have parents without anything higher than a high school diploma or associate’s, there are going to be problems.

Chris: I found that whole 1st generation PhD thing that went around a few months ago fascinating.

I hadn’t really thought about academia in those terms.

Are we all first gen PhDs?

David: Yup

Erin: Yes indeed

David: Though my mom has a masters and did PhD coursework, so I’m not sure I totally count as one.

Chris: I think you’d still count

My parents both have bachelor’s degrees and my mom has a masters, my uncle has a doctorate in divinity, but I don’t think any of my grandparents had college degrees

Erin: My father has a BA and my mother has an associate’s

Sorry, a BS – they don’t give BAs in meteorology

Chris: My wife on the other hand, her grandfather on her dad’s side was an engineer who worked on the Saturn V rocket, and her father and sister have PhDs, her mother and brother have masters degrees.

And she’s almost done with her PhD

Erin: I think all of this contributes to the learning curve that shapes the first few years of grad school.

It’s not that you can’t do all of these things, it’s just that you don’t even realize how important they are, especially when your advisers are saying “don’t do too much, don’t get ahead of yourself”

David: Right. I felt like a fish out of water my first year. Fortunately I was in a smallish department, and by the time I figured stuff out I was able to make a second impression on faculty.

But in larger departments I imagine people don’t have that luxury

Chris: Right it’s more about how easily you can acclimate to the culture

Much of what we’re talking about here is not wholly deterministic. Academic fates aren’t predestined. Rather we’re talking about the factors, some in our control and some out of our control, that shape and narrow our paths.

And many of those issues, like funding, are often out of our hands and beyond our realm of understanding.

And much of that isn’t presented up front.