Mary Ann Mason on the future of the Ph.D. degree
Last year I wrote a short piece for Commonweal that combined sociological data with personal observations in order to address the question of the lack of conservatives in academia. While some took issue with my observations, none of the dissenters bothered to address the data about what conservatives self-report about their lack of inclination toward academia (published by the American Enterprise Institute, 2007).
I bring this up because Mary Ann Mason, the country’s leading expert on the status quaestionis of women’s path through graduate school and academia, has written a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It treats some well-known themes — the unrelenting length of Ph.D. degrees, the distinct difficulties faced by women in the process, and the awful academic job market due to the casualization of academic labor — and offers a few remedies that can help “for starters”:
Envied, and now emulated by countries worldwide—many of whom have sent their best and brightest to us—our model of graduate education is durable but in need of serious revision. We need doctoral programs that take fewer years to complete, and ones that enroll fewer students if the jobs in that field are scarce. At the same time, we need an academic environment in which young adults with family responsibilities can thrive. We invest a great deal of money and hope in these young colleagues and we can’t afford to lose so many of them.
Her first and second recommendations will be difficult to satisfy without significant changes in academic staffing: many Ph.D. students are increasingly the ones doing the teaching, so universities benefit from larger-than-necessary Ph.D. programs; thus the students’ time-to-degree increases due to their workloads as teachers. Her third recommendation, about a family-friendly career path, is more feasible, and brought to mind one of the popular “Ph.D. Comics” from a couple years ago (see below and their website). While it’s true that work-family balance is a challenge in many careers, I still think that academia is almost unique in the coupling of (1) extreme length of apprenticeship years and (2) very little money relative to educational level and age bracket. Many other careers have one or the other, but not both. It’s the combination that makes it a difficult path to choose for a single person, much less one desiring to have or adopt children.