A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


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 worldwidemany of whom have sent their best and brightest to usour 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. Its the combination that makes it a difficult path to choose for a single person, much less one desiring to have or adopt children.

Marriage vs PhD


Commenting Guidelines

I tell students who ask me for advice about going to graduate school that the PhD program is its own reward: they should enjoy it while they're doing it, and that should be their primary reason for it. Where it leads is unclear: the future of academic careers is unknown, they should not necessarily expect to have an academic job afterwards, especially not a stable one, and they should have a plan B in case their dreams of an academic career don't pan out.

My respectful response to Claire is that she re-evaluate her advice. Sitting on a Ph.D. can be a liability for those who want jobs in the private sector in two ways. In the first place, many employers in the private sector see a doctorate in a liberal arts discipline as frivolous and a sign of laziness and immaturity ("professional student"). In the second place, having a Ph.D. often brands a candidate as "overqualified." Finally, private sector employers often think that Ph.D.s will ditch them as soon as the first academic job surfaces.Given the astronomical time, energy, and money costs of a Ph.D. and the "adjunctivization" of teaching positions, I have many incredibly smart and well-connected friends who have lived their entire academic lives as adjuncts ... and are now retiring as the same.

Jean, I have the good luck of being in the sciences, where a PhD is typically not a liability. Many employers even consider it a plus.

When I entered Harvard grad school in '56, after three years of defending my country by bobbing up and down over the placid waters of the China Seas in a relatively luxurious naval vessel, the then dean had taken everyone by surprise by suggesting scrapping the PhD thesis and expecting instead what he called a 40 page publishable article instead. The proposal went nowhere. A few years ago, another grad school official at HU suggested much the same thing, unaware apparently that he was repeating the proposal of his predecessor.The American Historical Association talks a lot about alternatives to academia for history PhDs, and while I'm sure they're sincere, somehow their heart doesn't seem fully in it.

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. - Priests: in France their salary, at $15000 per year, is just above the official poverty level threshold, and bishops get 50% more, which is still quite modest- Musicians: many start at a very early age and practice long hours over many years- Sushi chefI tried to search the internet for other ideas but failed. I was repeatedly taken to pages describing the highest paying jobs with no college degree, but there does not seem to be any page listing low paying jobs with the most years in college.

Not having a PhD myself, may I ask a couple of questions of those who do?I note what Claire said above, that the pursuit of it should be its own reward. Is the journey to attain it a rewarding, life-changing sort of event (or is that the ideal, anyway)? I've known grad students who seemed to more or less cruise right through the process; they seem to be among those human beings who have the extraordinarily good fortune to have a strong aptitude for something; to know and understand this; and to be in a position to develop it. It seems clear that it is, in a very real sense, what they've been called to do, and it is a sort of blessing to be able to respond to that call. And I've known other candidates who have floundered. I have several friends who started it, got stuck for one reason or another (perhaps because 'real life' intervened on the journey), and have been diverted into some other pursuit (in one case, eventually obtaining a doctorate in a different, less-prestigious field). It is something that, I hope, they're able to make peace with in their lives, but it seems that this accommodation can take years to achieve.Here is another question: I've noticed that several - perhaps more than several - of the instructors at the local high school that some of my children attend have PhDs. That would have been very unusual in my high school days, at least inasmuch as I was aware of the academic attainments of my teachers. Is this a relatively recent trend? And is it considered "settling" for a lesser position, in the sense that a PhD who is not able to get a permanent teaching position at a college may settle for a high school position?

Jim, yes, it is unusual to have a Ph.D. in a high school outside of an urban area.I have friends in liberal arts with Ph.D.s who looked into teaching in Michigan secondary schools. They realized they would have to earn the equivalent of a major in education (more school and $$) and do an unpaid student teaching gig.Teachers unions require that teachers be paid wages based on their educational levels, and many districts can't pay a Ph.D. And Michigan's educational system is underfunded and programs being cut.So many end up as adjuncts working for a fraction of what tenured profs make. Often they are shut out of the tenured profs' union. And tenured profs perpetuate the fiction that "if they were any good, they'd have tenure like us."Most people I know with advanced degrees sailed throught the degree process. It isn't that they don't have talent; it's that nobody wants their expertise or knowledge anymore.I have a love-hate relationship with my adjunct status. I love teaching and the flexibility it affords so I can take care of my son. My dean and colleagues are wonderful people. And I live in Michigan where I am grateful to have a job.I am learning to suck up the fact that I earn less than $20K per year and cannot buy into the benefits tenured instructors get for free, though it rankles when the students blame "all professors" for high tuition. Little do they know that I'm one of the scabs who keeps it lower than it would be otherwise.

I agree with Jean @ 5/07, 8:04 AM.I spent about 35 years working in HR in private industry (more than one different type of company) and found that situation #2 was definitely true. There is nothing worse than being "overqualified," particularly in this day and age. If the job is for a one-armed, Armenian paper hanger with 2.6 years of secondary school, and you don't EXACTLY match that, you won't be considered. Particularly if you are over 40.Clairs @ 8:31: My last job in which I worked was biotech where a Ph.D. was the STARTING point for a junior level scientist. Having worked in banking prior to that where an MBA was frosting but not necessary to the cake, a Ph.D. as entry level took a lot of getting used to.

Apologies for taking this thread away from the original post, but it should be noted that unions are not panaceas for adjunct faculty. I was involved in three organizing efforts at two different schools, one of which resulted in a union. While a union contract clarifies and generally improves the status of adjuncts to some degree, it also clinches the second-class status of adjunct faculty, whether they are part of the tenured faculty's bargaining unit or have their own.