Johns Hopkins Gets It Right: Let’s Have Fewer PhD Students

In an effort to begin to address the glut of overqualified adjunct instructors, Johns Hopkins has announced that it is planning to cut its PhD enrollment by 25% and raise the stipend (read: salary) of the remaining graduate employees from $20,000 a year to $30,000.

Hundreds of current Hopkins PhD students are protesting, but they shouldn’t be, and in her writeup at Slate, Rebecca Schuman hits the nail squarely on the head — so much so that I’d like to elaborate a bit on how very right she is.

Generally speaking, a PhD — at least, one earned in the reasonable expectation of getting a “real” faculty job — is becoming a worse bet every year. Schools keep accepting more (and more schools keep creating new PhD programs in more disciplines), while colleges at all levels are relying ever-more-heavily on non-tenure track faculty. This includes adjuncts and (drumroll please) grad students.

This makes tremendous sense as a strategy for a given research university. Adjuncts and grad students (even if you count the tuition waiver) are way cheaper, more disposable, and easier to push around than full-time faculty. The star tenure-track faculty then get to teach more grad seminars. Advise more dissertations. Have more potential co-authors and research assistants floating about. Teach fewer lower-level undergrad courses.

The problem here, though, is that universities acting individually are not acting in the best interests of the academy overall or the nation in general. Collectively, PhD programs are burning through — and burning out — many of the nation’s best and brightest, then turning those same former rising stars into a lurking labor revolt.

Too often today, the people who did the best in undergraduate courses are becoming the burned-out, uninsured, woefully underpaid faces of college education to first- and second-year students. This makes college less valuable in a direct way. It’s hard enough to teach well when you’re paid fairly, have a reliable office, and teach 3 or 4 courses per semester while trying to do research and service. It’s damn near impossible when you’re teaching 5 or 6 courses, on multiple campuses, with little or no office space, little institutional support, and unsure how you’re going to pay your electric bill this month.

This system is also a poor advertisement for the product itself and even the “life of the mind” mentality that college is supposed to foster. If that’s what “too much” college education leads to, students might wonder if they should err on the side of too little. If the mastery of core liberal arts skills like critical thinking, reading difficult texts, and making sophisticated arguments has the appearance of leaving one broke, why should I put my best efforts into reading this book? Writing this essay? The savvy undergrad might think, “Give me the credential and let me get started at a ‘real’ job before your love of knowledge infects me and I wind up in your shoes.”

You know the “correction” the field of law just went through? The one with lots of freshly-minted JDs saying “I just spent a bajillion dollars and 3 years, and there are way too many candidates for every job”? We’ve been doing that in slow-mo in academia for heaven knows how long. It’s taking longer to sink in, of course, because compared to what you earned in whatever crap job you had during your BA, $15k/year and no tuition bill sounds like a great deal. Folks can’t or don’t account for opportunity costs, such as tens of thousands in lost salary, and heaven knows how much in lost opportunity to learn & rise up in other sectors.

More strikingly, nobody (not their undergrad faculty who graduated many moons ago, and certainly not the PhD programs who want as many apps as possible) tells these best-and-brightest about the real costs, benefits, and risks. Undergrad faculty in particular should be much more honest with themselves and their students about how much less repeatable their career trajectory is today versus 10+ years ago and how much depends on raw luck.

We’re also afraid to tell would-be applicants about the importance of the sub-discipline studied. Here, in my jauntiest department chair voice, is what the academy tells PhD students (outside STEM fields):

You there, doing critical cultural studies? And you there, doing detailed historical/archival/anthropological work? Welcome to the adjunct office! You’ll be here until you decide you want to own a home. Or get health care. Or not have your ability to pay rent be contingent on whether a tenured professor gets sabbatical.

You, however… You, with the experience working on a giant grant-funded data-collection-and-article-production machine? With lots of statistical savvy, who can teach the research methods and (field-specific quant) classes that befuddle and/or bore most of your soon-to-be colleagues? We’d really like to talk to you! Pay no attention to those poor souls all crammed into that tiny office there. Their working conditions are the just and fair recompense for their recalcitrant poststructuralism. Now, let me introduce you to our grant support staff.

I’m glad to have postponed my higher earning years to have chosen what is (for me) a highly rewarding career, even with the substantially diminished long-term earnings potential — versus, e.g., becoming a private-sector IP attorney. I love researching in an environment where research productivity is celebrated but not fetishized. I’m happy to have the chance to shape students’ lives, despite students’ highly varying levels of college readiness. I love teaching, despite the occasional class disruption due to our building’s mouse infestation. (Wish that was a joke.) That should be the expectation for more faculty, further up and down the prestige chain, and it should be a more likely outcome for a smaller set of PhD students.

Even though I’m quite happy where I’m at, there was a point where I realized how very in-doubt this outcome was. I was lucky to have picked communication; I believe we hire a larger portion of our PhD grads as tenure-track faculty than pretty much any other comparable discipline. I was lucky to get into Penn — by acclamation, the top program in media studies in the country, and the co-sponsor (along with Annenberg USC) of the party that all party crashers crash at the conference.

Despite this good fortune, even during my coursework at mighty Annenberg U Penn, I realized that I had only the thinnest grasp on what a Plan B (other than law school — and even more debt and postponed earnings) might look like. I realized that most potential Plan B employers would see my PhD as having little additional value versus an MA. More stunningly, I realized how very far from certain Plan A was from working out.

I don’t blame anyone for not telling me all of the above, not least because I think awareness on this point was much lower when I started my PhD program ten years ago. But today, in late 2013, programs and research faculty and teaching faculty and would-be students all need to come to the same conclusion as Hopkins. We should have fewer, not more, PhD students.

And while we’re at it, how about we work on making a BA more valuable, more broadly taught by tenure-track faculty, and (the horror) harder to earn?

2 thoughts on “Johns Hopkins Gets It Right: Let’s Have Fewer PhD Students

  1. One thing I failed to discuss is the real source of the problem here: Schools aren’t hiring enough tenure-track faculty in general. Even as enrollments have ballooned, they’ve generally covered most of the extra classes with non-TT faculty — adjuncts and grad students. Largely, this extra money has gone to administrative bloat. Which is why we surely have thousands of PhDs in admin jobs that really only require a BA or MA; when you apply for such jobs with a PhD, the private sector looks at you like you have 3 heads, but the academy welcomes you back with open arms. Just not to teach. We hire desperately underpaid drones to do that.

    Still, until that broader problem gets corrected, it’s sadistic to prepare folks for playing a high-stakes game of professorial musical chairs — one with way more contestants than chairs.

  2. Schools are using adjuncts and online courses to manage with less full time instructors. Some years ago student teacher ratio used to be a concern. But it seems no one worries about it at all. Teaching has taken a back seat and we will pay the price later when poorly trained graduates will not be acceptable by the employers.

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