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SWPL Culture

Continuing our week of commentary on Mark Taylor’s op-ed, here is Half Sigma:

But the question is, if everyone knows that graduate degrees (excluding professional degrees) are such a bad deal, why do so many enroll?

Well, I guess the answer is that SWPL culture highly values liberal arts graduate degrees, and U.S. society encourages people to have an optimism bias (no one in America likes a pessimist), so if only 10% of graduates get a decent job, 100% of students anticipate that they are going to be in the top 10%.

There’s also the factor that many of these students have rich parents, so they don’t really care if they can’t find a job, their parents will carry them.

Maybe, the real mystery is how can the university faculty look themselves in the mirror each morning knowing how they are screwing over their students?

Indeed. What does Taylor tell students who are admitted to graduate school at Columbia? Does he encourage them to do something else with their lives?

PS. “SWPL” stands for Stuff White People Like, but I prefer to think about it as Stuff Williams People Like.

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#1 Comment By frank uible On May 6, 2009 @ 7:14 am

Shouldn’t it be more like “stuff one hundredth of one percent of white people like”? I know that none of the white people around my boyhood poker table (5 of the 7 of whom would ultimately gain undergraduate degrees – Western Reserve University, John Carroll University, Kent State University, Cleveland State University, your favorite alma mater) would have been aware of (much less knowledgeable about) any of this stuff, and if one would have tried to educate them accordingly, they would have been dismissive, would have laughed (good naturedly if they were winning) and would have said “shut up and deal”.

#2 Comment By JeffZ On May 6, 2009 @ 7:23 am

Frank, that SWPL blog is really aimed at northeast / west coast highly educated, professional, urban-dwelling white people (I’d say yuppies, but even in some ways more narrow than that — as yuppies in, say, Houston are very different from yuppies in, say, Seattle or NYC). When you consider the target audience, the blog is disturbingly accurate (I once decided to count how many items on there characterized myself, and I think once I got to 50 I stopped counting …)

#3 Comment By Ronit On May 6, 2009 @ 10:17 am

Frank, that SWPL blog is really aimed at northeast / west coast highly educated, professional, urban-dwelling white people

I don’t think the urban-dwelling part is a prerequisite. Suburban dwellers definitely qualify as part of SWPL culture – if anything they’re even more aspirational when it comes to doing things like visiting Europe and eating sushi and accumulating non-professional graduate degrees.

(My all time favorite: “the idea of soccer”)

#4 Comment By Sam On May 6, 2009 @ 10:55 am

So, David, you agree with Half Sigma (another Sailer fan) on the point that liberal arts graduate degrees are not only useless but something like fraud. That is how I interpret your “indeed” here, and the follow up questions on Taylor. Thus, it would seem that you believe something like two-thirds of the faculty at Williams have participated in this fraud (by gaining our graduate degrees) and are implicated in the reproduction of this fraud (since we suggest, by our presence, to our students that they will be among that lucky 10%, when we know that will not be true for most of them…).
And then, just to top it off, you suggest that we are self-delusional: it is all merely “stuff Williams people like.”
Thanks for yet another vote of confidence in the Williams faculty! We really do appreciate all the lovely things you say and suggest about us! What a guy!
And, of course, your dislike of Taylor (for those relatively new to Ephblog: David dislikes Taylor because of his anti-militarism…) has blinded you to the obvious answers to your follow up questions. Taylor actually says in the op-ed what he would say to his students: he would encourage them toward interdisciplinarity in ways that push beyond conventional departmental definitions of fields and research questions, and find new forms of expression for their own research, forms other than the traditional dissertation….But you can’t see that….

#5 Comment By David On May 6, 2009 @ 11:36 am

So, David, you agree with Half Sigma (another Sailer fan) on the point that liberal arts graduate degrees are not only useless but something like fraud.

Well, I think that “fraud” is too strong a word. We have discussed many times at EphBlog the fact that the typical applicant for a graduate degree in history or English has, at best, an imperfect understanding of what her job prospects are likely to be. Correcting that market failure is a recurring point. See Derek Catsam and Tim Burke.

As long as people getting graduate degrees in the humanities have the facts, I have no problem with them or the graduate programs they attend.

Thus, it would seem that you believe something like two-thirds of the faculty at Williams have participated in this fraud (by gaining our graduate degrees) and are implicated in the reproduction of this fraud (since we suggest, by our presence, to our students that they will be among that lucky 10%, when we know that will not be true for most of them…).

No, I believe that Williams faculty are excellent and honest.

But, here is a question for Sam: When a student asks your advice about graduate degrees in the humanities, what do you tell her? What do your colleagues in other departments say?

My prediction would be that they give fair and useful advice (as I try to do when students ask me about graduate school), but direct testimony is always better than my assumptions.

And, of course, your dislike of Taylor (for those relatively new to Ephblog: David dislikes Taylor because of his anti-militarism…) has blinded you to the obvious answers to your follow up questions

I don’t dislike Taylor. I dislike some of his ideas. I was sad when he left Williams and hope that he comes back some day. I recommended that students take his class. What higher praise is there?

Taylor actually says in the op-ed what he would say to his students: he would encourage them toward interdisciplinarity in ways that push beyond conventional departmental definitions of fields and research questions, and find new forms of expression for their own research, forms other than the traditional dissertation

Good luck with that! Perhaps some of our academic readers like (d)avid could offer their expert advice on the usefulness of that advice. Even better: consider the last 20 faculty hires that Williams has made. How many “push beyond conventional departmental definitions of fields” versus careful within-the-standard approaches work in the equivalent of Duns Scotus’ footnotes? Just asking!

But, to be clear, my question was not: What does Taylor tell students about how to conduct research? I am ready to believe that he gives just the sort of (awful) advice listed above. My question was: What does Taylor tell applicants about their likely job prospects once they graduate?

#6 Comment By rory On May 6, 2009 @ 11:49 am

kaneblog: where steve sailer posts are followed by posts from followers of steve sailer.

#7 Comment By Sam On May 6, 2009 @ 11:53 am

kaneblog: where David can imply that a large chunk of the Williams faculty are frauds (even if he doesn’t like that particular word) and then say they are excellent and honest…

#8 Comment By David On May 6, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

David can imply that a large chunk of the Williams faculty are frauds

I did no such thing. Have you checked the links in the above? Here is Professor Derek Catsam ’93:

[G]raduate students and those looking at entering this competitive world need to be cognizant of the realities. If you are planning to enter a field like, say, US history, it is probably incumbent upon you to know the odds. Further, it seems to me that it is pretty irresponsible of those of us with the ability to advise students if we emphasize the great aspects of intellectual life within the academy and do not point out the reality — your odds of getting the PhD are smaller than you think, your odds of getting a job are slighter still, and your odds of getting tenure at a place yet smaller, and then all of this happening at a place you would otherwise choose to live? Infinitesimal.

I believe that this is a fair statement about reality, subject to all the usual caveats about different people with different skills in different subfields. I know many people in the class of 1988 who went off to graduate school in the expectation that a tenure track job at a place like Williams was a realistic possibility. It wasn’t. (Whether that was knowable at the time is a harder question since the Mellon Foundation and others were trumpeting the forthcoming increase in job openings.)

As long as Eph students today are getting reasonable descriptions from their Williams faculty about the reality of life with a graduate degree in the humanities, I have no complaint. Knowing several Williams faculty in the humanities (Hi, Joe!), I bet that they are. But I don’t know that.

So, Sam, what do you tell your students?

#9 Comment By Sam On May 6, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

I tell them not to read Ephblog…

#10 Comment By David On May 6, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

Alas, your advice is not working . . .

;-)

#11 Comment By sophmom On May 6, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

I tell them not to read Ephblog…

LOL, Sam…this is what my kid says to me.

#12 Comment By Vermando ’05 On May 6, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

David,

I don’t understand how your mind works.

When I initially read the post, I understand why people are so riled up. You follow this:

Maybe, the real mystery is how can the university faculty look themselves in the mirror each morning knowing how they are screwing over their students?

With this:

Indeed.

That’s endorsing an accusation that the faculty knowingly screw over their students and should have trouble looking themselves in the mirror each morning. Strong stuff, obviously gonna get people riled up.

Then, the predictable deluge comes. Your response?

We have discussed many times at EphBlog the fact that the typical applicant for a graduate degree in history or English has, at best, an imperfect understanding of what her job prospects are likely to be. Correcting that market failure is a recurring point. …

As long as people getting graduate degrees in the humanities have the facts, I have no problem with them or the graduate programs they attend.

What? All you’re saying is students need accurate information? Nobody could argue with that point, and it’s a far cry from the original accusation, that professors are knowingly screwing over their students.

So, what I don’t understand is: if that’s all that you meant, why didn’t you just say so? You could have not said “indeed” and offered your quite modest remarks in the original post. Or, if you only realized the import of the original post later, you could have clarified that you did not mean to endorse such an accusation and so are happy to retract it.

Instead, you do neither, and the result is a predictable mess. I don’t get it. Do you enjoy pushing people’s buttons? I can’t explain it.

Any insight you have into how you approached this would be appreciated, because I’m at a loss.

#13 Comment By David Kane On May 6, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

1) It seems to me clear from the context that the “university faculty” that Half Sigma is referring to are not professors at Williams or places like it. He is talking about faculty (like Taylor) in humanities department (like Religion) at universities offering graduate degrees (like Columbia). For reference, here is the website for Taylor’s department.

This might apply to the Williams Masters in Art History, but ignore that complication for now.

2) So, do “faculty knowingly screw over their students?” Again, like the word “fraud,” I think that this overstates the case. I think that there is a lack of information and faculty (perhaps including Taylor, perhaps not) are complicit in that problem.

Specifically, in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to pursue a Ph.D. in Religion at Columbia, one would want to know certain things. For example, over the last 10 years.

a) How many students started the program?
b) How many students got their Ph.D.?
c) Of those who completed, how many years did it take on average? What was the range?
d) For all students who started, how much debt did they accumulate? What was the range?

It is impossible to make an informed decision about getting a Ph.D. in Religion at Columbia without having at least a rough estimate of these numbers.

So, does Columbia provide it? No. Should it? Yes. Why don’t they provide it? I don’t know. Partly it is surely laziness. But there may very well be some realization that accurate data would lead fewer students to enroll, especially in things like the Masters program.

Does that failure constitute “fraud?” No. Is it the same as “knowingly screw[ing] over their students?” No. But it isn’t overly ethical either.

3) Perhaps even more important than the time and money data would be information on outcomes, especially relative to expectations. There were X students who started the Ph.D. program in September 1999. Ten years later, where are they? How does where they are compare to where they expected to be?

Now, this information is harder for Columbia to collect. But, they could at least release the names of the students who started 10 years ago and we could discover for ourselves where they are now. I predict that this information would have a significant impact on students enrolling today.

If I were Taylor, I would feel guilty about not making this information available to accepted students. Wouldn’t you?

#14 Comment By anon On May 6, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

“I don’t get it. Do you enjoy pushing people’s buttons? I can’t explain it.”

You just did.

#15 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 9:29 am

kaneblog: where “indeed” doesn’t actually mean “indeed”. (also, you have no evidence that Taylor or Columbia’s religion department does not provide placement information to accepted students. my department’s online list was last updated in 2004(!), but if you apply and are accepted, you can certainly find out we have a very strong placement record in recent years. smh)

#16 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 9:44 am

“you can certainly find out we have a very strong placement record in recent years.”

Knowing nothing about your department (but a lot about graduate school), I bet that this is not true.

1) “A very strong placement record” is not the same thing as “John, Jane and Sarah got good jobs at fancy schools X, Y and Z.”

2) To have an accurate sense of the placement record at your department, you would need to pick a year (or a set of years), get a list of all the people who entered the program in that year, and then find out where (almost) all those people are now. That data would provide a fair summary of the “placement record” for your (or any) program.

Now, for many Ph.D. programs, this isn’t really necessary because everyone knows that there are so many jobs available for Ph.D.’s in, say, Computer Science, that students entering the program can be confident and knowledgeable about their prospects in 6 years. For most Humanities, that isn’t the case.

Rory: I won’t go digging around for the details of your field or your school unless you want to get into specifics. (Happy to, but also don’t want to invade your privacy.)

#17 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 9:50 am

david, THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I’M TELLING YOU. they’ll give you a year, the people who finished, where they got hired. They have it all and they give it to accepted students…not the public, though.

#18 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 9:56 am

So, in 1999, ten people started your program. Where are those ten today? (Your department may not know about all of them, but they know about some.)

If that is what your department is doing, then kudos to them.

But it sounds like they aren’t doing that. It sounds like they are pulling the same bate-and-switch that many departments do. They are giving you a year, say, 2007, and listing the people who got a Ph.D. in that year (regardless of when they started).

You see why the latter gives an applicant little meaningful information on her actual prospects, right? To use the Latin: urvivorshipsay iasbay.

Want an easy way to get a sense of the problem? Easy! How many people started the program with you? How many people does the department list in their nice little handout for 2007?

#19 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 10:16 am

kaneblog: where david has the right to disbelieve the testimony of anyone he sees fit.

There is no nice handout (that was part of my point). you ask about placement of graduates, you get the honest info. you ask how long it takes to get a ph.d, you get the honest info. you ask about how many people finish or drop out, they tell you. There’s maybe one person per cohort or two (of 5-10) each year who leaves after getting a masters and decides not to pursue the ph.d (either of their own volition or with some pushing). they tell accepted students who ask about this. and it was a williams professor who told me to ask that question.

You seem think all ph.d programs have a reason to pull the wool over applicants/accepted student eyes. They don’t. They still have low admissions rates (we’re at something like 7% i think). Perhaps its true at schools with lower-tier ph.d programs, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, considering Taylor’s at Columbia.

the department wants informed applicants and accepted students. too much time and energy is spent on each grad student to pull a con on us.

#20 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 10:32 am

If you ask for a list of the students that started the program in 2000 and where those students are today, do they tell you?

If they do, then kudos to them!

If they don’t, then there are two possibilities. Either a) they don’t have that information in any organized way, in which case all the answers to their other questions are vaguely suspect. (How can you know how long it takes if you don’t know who started when?), or b) they prefer not to release that information.

What I find most charming about this discussion is that Rory would express an appropriate amount of well-founded skepticism if institutions X, Y or Z declined to make this sort of information public. But, as long as the institution is academic, everything must be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Academic institutions and the people that run them are all moral and honest. And so is Goldman Sachs and the Defense Department!

I agree with you that a) At elite schools like yours and Columbia this is much less of an issue than it is at second and third tier schools and b) that your field (and especially folks who work at the technical end of things) is not really part of the humanities that are Taylor’s (and Half Sigma’s) focus.

Indeed, for anyone who spends as much time crunching numbers as you do, the future is bright. Seriously.

#21 Comment By Sam On May 7, 2009 @ 10:41 am

Kaneblog: where academics, Williams faculty included, are considered guilty of unprofessional behavior until proven innocent….

#22 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 11:03 am

“pull a con” and “unprofessional behavior” are not good descriptions of the dynamic that I am describing.

Let me try again.

No one individual is pulling a “con.” No professor is guilty of “unprofessional behavior” — if only because the practices I am describing are universal. In many/most graduate programs, at least in the humanities, students simply do not get accurate information about likely outcomes because it is noone’s job (in in noone’s particular interest) to gather and supply that information.

It is not like the faculty in Rory’s program is sitting around a darkened room, rubbing their hands together in nefarious glee, cackling about how they are going to “con” the graduate students.

It is simply that no one a) Gathers the names of the people who started the program in 2000, b) Figures out where those people are now and c) Presents that information to applicants.

There is no conspiracy, just a lack of information.

And then, given that lack, an all-too-human tendency to focus on the good stuff, or even the readily available stuff.

Let’s say that someone asks Rory, “Where do students from the program end up?” Rory gives an honest answer. He describes three or four or five jobs that people have gotten. And he is telling the truth. Those people exist and they have gotten those jobs. But those five jobs are not an unbiased sample of outcomes from all the students who started the program. Rory does not know where the students who didn’t finish are. Moreover, he is unlikely to know the fates of those who did poorly.

Rory isn’t consciously conning anyone or hiding anything. He (and the faculty from his program) are all just much more likely to know that X just got an assistant professor job at Yale than they are to know that Y got zero academic job offers.

#23 Comment By Sam On May 7, 2009 @ 11:13 am

Kaneblog: where faculty nonfeasance is “universal”….

#24 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 11:17 am

Sam: Instead of trying to be funny, why not try to be useful? I have quoted Derek Catsam ’93 above in #8. Do you think his description of the prospects for graduate students in humanities is accurate? If so, do you think that Williams students who go to graduate school understand what they are getting into?

#25 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 11:37 am

whatever…i should have quit. You’re hypothetical is wrong. We mention those who leave as well.

#26 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 11:38 am

whatever…i should have quit. You’re hypothetical is wrong. We mention those who leave before finishing. We mention people who had disappointing job placements. We make it clear: you need to do some seriously good work to get a good job. we might be an exception (small department, no weeding out after year one, etc.), but we aren’t biased in our answers, even subconsciously like you say.

#27 Comment By Jay On May 7, 2009 @ 11:54 am

People go to grad school to either put off the “real world” for a while, or to increase their job prospects or salary at future jobs, or both. Is this news?

#28 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

An interesting example of transparency comes from my (and James Burns’) own Ph.D. program: Political Economy and Government at Harvard. They provide a listing of all graduates (pdf) and (all?) job placements (pdf).

Any program that does the same can fairly claim to be following best practices.

Good luck finding out the same information from even elite graduate programs in the humanities. Does anyone know of one that meets this standard? I couldn’t find anything like that for Harvard graduate programs in history. Perhaps some of this is available for English, but I couldn’t get any of those downloads to work.

Note that, even in the case of my own PEG program, they don’t provide a list of everyone who started nor where they are now. I can provide more details of anyone cares . . .

#29 Comment By JG On May 7, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

I personally find Sam’s shortened versions of your comments quite helpful, but maybe that’s just me.

Also Rory flat out told you that he was given info about the numbers who didn’t finish and who got employed where and the quality of that employment (some of which was negative)…you then said he wasn’t given info. Seems like he was given more than your precious program provides. What info wasn’t he given? Does he need their shoe sizes and full financial records? I’m confused.

#30 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

the goalpost has moved now to only humanities programs, eh david?

#31 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

I’m confused.

I am here to help. Way back up in #16, I wrote:

To have an accurate sense of the placement record at your department, you would need to pick a year (or a set of years), get a list of all the people who entered the program in that year, and then find out where (almost) all those people are now. That data would provide a fair summary of the “placement record” for your (or any) program.

Does Rory know the names and current locations of the 10 (or whatever number of) students who started his program in 2000 (or whatever year)? No. I bet he doesn’t. And that is what a bunch of the confusing back and forth is in 17, 18, 19, 20, 25 and 26 are about. Note Rory’s phrasing:

We mention those who leave as well.

“Mention” is an interesting word, and no doubt accurate. In other words, his program does not say, “Of the 10 students who started in 2000, 3 did not finish.” Nor do they give out names, nor current locations. Instead, they “mention” that some students start the program and do not finish.

But a “mention” is not enough to give an applicant an accurate sense of what lies in store for her in the future.

I also like the description of “one person per cohort or two (of 5-10).” So, that is either 1 person per 5 (20%) or per 20 (5%). What’s the difference between a drop out rate of 5% or 20%? More or less the same right?

Again, this is not Rory’s fault! He does not know the exact numbers, either because his department does not gather them or because they do not share them.

Mentioning that some people do not complete the program is hardly the whole truth.

Also Rory flat out told you that he was given info about the numbers who didn’t finish and who got employed where and the quality of that employment

“Quality of the employment” covers a lot of ground. Rory mentions a page that list employers. And, indeed it does. But reporting that Yale is an employer of graduates is like reporting that one lottery winner is a millionaire. It’s true! But perhaps misleading. In order to decide whether or not to play the lottery, you need to know more than just, “Sarah won!” You need to know how many people played and over what time period.

Again, I am not denying that Rory has a rough and ready sense of what happens to graduates from his program. He does. But his program is a) top tier and b) not in the humanities. Many/most suckers at non-top tier humanities programs have much worse information. That’s one reason they keep on coming.

Does he need their shoe sizes and full financial records?

No. But is it too much to ask that he know (i.e., that the department tell him) whether the completion rate is 95% (unlikely!) or 80%? Shouldn’t every Ph.D. program publish that information?

#32 Comment By JG On May 7, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

I should know better than to engage, because the goalposts keep moving. So are we talking just humanities now, or are we back to grad schools generally again (or just the “universally” misleading faculty in thos programs?). By the way, did your program suddenly start to be really really terrible? Since you’ve told us this is perfectly wonderful full-and-complete information, why did only one grad find a job in 2007? And did nobody graduate in 2008 or are they just unemployed?

I also have no idea how many started the program. In that area, I think my simplification of Rory’s comment on the type of information he was provided/does provide still gives more information than is provided in those pdfs so how is that some magical standard to which all schools should aspire?

#33 Comment By rory On May 7, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

honestly, david, this is childish and demeaning.

quoting myself: “you ask about how many people finish or drop out, they tell you. ”

quoting myself again: “they’ll give you a year, the people who finished, where they got hired.”

and they’ll give you the last five years too! or ten (well, they might not have that data. we suck at keeping records).

you, david, are being completely obtuse and not arguing in good faith at all. it is 1 per cohort or two because sometimes its one each cohort (the two above each had one drop out), while my cohort did not (and this is a problem of small sample size description. a 5% and a 15% drop out rate are the same in effect if you only have a sample size of 7 on average. i thought you were a statistician!). you like my description? you’re really being extra-obnoxious today. and that’s saying a lot.

I don’t know where those who entered in 2000 are because I DON’T CARE. I could find out if i wanted with one email. but there’s no reason to do so.

seriously, is this about the fact that I used the word “mention”. GTFOH.

and to clinch, now the goalpost is:
-non-top tier
-only humanities.

man, that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

all of this administrative work is done by one extremely overworked and wonderful administrator. On the bottom of her list of important things to do (like make sure our funding goes smoothly, etc.) is publish data for you david.

in short: if you, david, were an accepted student at my program, you could get any of the info you’ve asked for. I’ve told you that multiple times in this thread. stick to your smaller goalposts and stop insulting me.

#34 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

Let me take a step back and try to reframe this debate.

1) We all agree that any institution (Williams College, Sullivan & Cromwell, Graduate Program in School X, et cetera) ought to give its applicants a fair and accurate summary of what they can expect if they attend/enroll. Around 5% of the people who enroll at Williams never graduate. Williams should tell people this.

2) We all agree that many institutions do a fine job of this. I am happy to grant that Rory’s graduate program is one of those institutions.

3) We all agree that at least some institutions do not, that they paint too rose a picture of the likely outcomes. (I think that some for-profit colleges are especially misleading in this regard.)

Now, Mark Taylor begins his op-ed with:

Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

The word “most” is doing a lot of work in this paragraph. Is the above true of some graduate programs? Yes. Is it true of all graduate programs? No.

So, on one level, we can have a discussion about just which programs this is most true for. It, obviously, depends on the field. If you get a Ph.D. in statistics from almost any program in the US, you can get a perfectly nice academic job. The market is that good. Taylor is wrong if he claims that, for statisticians, there “teaching positions … do not exist.” Similarly, Taylor is right for many other fields, especially in the humanities, especially if your degree is from a non top-tier school.

I like to think that these are fair statements about reality and that Ephs of goodwill could iterate to agreement. Again, read Taylor, Catsam and Burke about the wasteland that is the search for tenure-track academic positions in the humanities.

Having come to agreement on actual reality, the next step is to discuss how accurately applicants/enrollees in these programs perceive that reality. Again, if we did enough surveys and collected enough data, we might come to agreement on that. Is every student misled? No. Is no student misled? No.

There is a certain amount of misunderstanding of the facts on the part of students.

If we can agree on all the above, then we might be able to make progress on why students suffer from this (almost always optimistic) bias, whose fault it is and what, if anything, might be done about it.

#35 Comment By Sam On May 7, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

Kaneblog: where any attempt at being “useful” is, given David’s obtuseness, essentially useless; thus the only meaningful response is ridicule…

#36 Comment By David On May 7, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

Sam: Given that several hundreds Williams students read EphBlog everyday, you might want to write something that would educate them.

And, to the extent that you don’t want to waste time in the comment threads (and many fewer students read them) you could put something in a new thread, either by joining us as an author or just writing on your blog. SophMom, JG or any other author could then just cross-post it here.

I’ll ask again: What information do your students have when they apply to graduate school about their likely prospects? What about other students at Williams today?

Context: I think that there were around 25 students in my graduating class at Williams who went to (try to) get a Ph.D., the vast majority of us with dreams of making a comfortable tenured living and teaching smart students in subjects that we learned to love at Williams. How many of us ended up with such jobs? Probably around 5 . . .

#37 Comment By Sam On May 7, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

To those students who talk to me about pursuing graduate degrees in political science, I say that they are absolutely assured to get tenure at Harvard in ten years…
That’s the caricature you are painting here.
In fact, I tell them the academic job market is horrible, has been bad for a long, long time, and is getting worse. I tell them that getting a job like the one I have is unlikely. I tell them that they should go on for a Ph.D. only if they truly love the learning, because that is something they will be certain to have for a lifetime, regardless of what job they find themselves with. And for some of them, that is what it is about. Love of learning, regardless of whether they get an ideal academic job. But I suspect that is something that escapes your consideration…
And, by the way, don’t tell me about educating Williams students. I am, I believe, a bit more involved in that process than you are.

#38 Comment By Parent ’12 On May 7, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

Thank you, Sam! I think what you tell your students about why one pursues a Ph.D. is really the only reason.

The only thing I would add is describing what is involved in being a “successful” graduate student, i.e. one who manages to complete the degree.

#39 Comment By kthomas On May 7, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

Gals and guys,

There is an acrimonious tone here which makes it difficult to discuss the issues without appearing to take sides in personal conflicts.

I would, however, like to answer the question of what Prof. Taylor has told his students by a quick appendage:

Mark Taylor was one of the few (if not only) Professor I knew at Williams, who seriously questioned the choice of graduate study.

When Esa Saarinen’s students came from Finland during Winter Study, I remember Mark carefully questioning them about their studies, their plans, the economic situation in Finland, and their chances of finding employment after graduation.

Visiting a few years later, speaking about the situation at Berkeley, Mark commented that he had started to advise his students against graduate school.

Throughout this period, Mark followed many of his students’ paths and the value of what Williams taught to various pursuits “in the world.”

That’s about it; if you look closely at the Religion curriculum at Columbia today, I think you’ll see a progression.

Nine years, though?

P.S. To P’12– a suggestion– in some programs, getting a Ph.D. may be failing to learn; or learning to fail to learn.

#40 Comment By Will Slack ’11 On May 7, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

There is an acrimonious tone here which makes it difficult to discuss the issues without appearing to take sides in personal conflicts.

Endorsed.

I think that there’s always a bit of a conflict of interest that will inevitably occur – academia (and especially a liberal arts college) is supposed to prepare students for the wider world and success in many areas. Yet, the people who teach me are almost all academics who made the decision to pursue the field, with rare exceptions like Gov. Swift.

There’s an inherent bias here – we all want to feel good about our decisions in life (there’s a Social Psyc term for this), and faculty will thus feel positive about people pursuing academia, even as they caution about how easy it is to end up either without a job or in a place substantially worse than Williams. A tenured faculty member here recently said that faculty quality at a school like Williams isn’t substantially higher than at a school of “lower quality” – because academic job openings are so specific and rare. The differences lie more in the students and institutional resources.

Point being, going to Williams is going to cause a bias among any student about what will happen if we go into academia. That’s frankly unavoidable, even with all of the caveats that professors offer, and I don’t think the moral judgment in the OP is warranted – the bias is systemic and inevitable.

I also think that people have natural dispositions. Something in my mind registered when I first heard that my cousin majored in “public policy,” even before I was thinking about leadership and politics. I’ve known that I didn’t want to be a doctor or businessman since middle school. We know that happiness in life isn’t correlated with income in the way that we might expect – why not rely on nurturing each student’s ability, and preparing him or her for most any field in the way a liberal arts education is supposed to?

#41 Comment By sophmom On May 7, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

We know that happiness in life isn’t correlated with income in the way that we might expect – why not rely on nurturing each student’s ability, and preparing him or her for most any field in the way a liberal arts education is supposed to?

IMO, this is one for the Quote Wall.

#42 Comment By kthomas On May 7, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

Will:

Thanks.

There are a lot of things that are important to me here– and you add a lot to this by bringing an idea of perspectival bias.

My own experience of graduate school was closer to what David describes “in some ways–” in fact, I remember our department head grilling us that we were now in ‘professional school,’ and telling everyone that their goal was to do ‘whatever it takes’ — ‘take out the loans’ — to finish.

Given the tone here, I hesitate to go on.

I think we can do better, whatever that means. I also think there have been some changes in perspective, since David and I went to Williams.

I know the situation at Berkeley in the 90s well– I can talk about many departments (including Math and Comp Sci and Engineering)– and get it 60% or 70% right. I know surrounding institutions a bit; I think I have a decent overall picture.

But all I can do is report data and suppositions and my opinion and perspective. I know I’m going to get a lot wrong; I certainly can’t make sweeping generalizations, without having my tongue in my cheek and knowing I’m going to need to revise anything I state.

Speaking of the lessons of thought taught by Religion at Williams.

In any case, the conversation I want to have– like in so many other things– boils down to, what’s really going on, and what should we do about it. (Some of you should hear Bob Jackall there).

Hearing about ‘rory’ and others perspectives, and what’s really going on in their Departments, having a conversation and trying to develop some Perspective– an overall Picture or Pictures which explicate the state of academia– and give us decision points, possibilities, an understanding of where action may be initiated and change affected–

that would be valuable to me. This form of quibbling about…

I’ve been spending the past few weeks discussing founding a New School or University– from the ground up– along the lines of Deep Springs, and Tim Burke– but different. How you would do it, what it would take– what it might be. What as an institution; how it might affect some of the issues above; what it’s place in the world could be.

(Excuse me for being so general.) For what it’s worth, it’s a conversation that began at Williams– with Ethan Zuckerman, on the second floor steps of Williams C, — and that was nurtured through discussions with Bill Darrow and Steve Fix and Mark Taylor, and many others.

The last email I have from Mark– ends with the postscript, “why haven’t we done it?”

With respect to David, one doesn’t live to accumulate money, one lives to act– to do and achieve things– to build a narrative, a history, a character. And Mark’s shots in the NYT– which have now been read by about 15 million people — well, there’s that old question of the pen and the sword.

And in any case– the university system was made by men, and what is made by men, can be remade. As Mark reminds us, the university system has been rebuilt, reframed, many times in the past. And I, as others, have some will to find our way through these questions, and the path to build something different.

In such matters– much of the conversation above dismays me.

#43 Comment By kthomas On May 7, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

AddendumTo the above:

I’m going to mention —— ——: actually I’m not, evidently.

In the third iteration I saw, of the ‘initiation’ of incoming graduate students (and ‘reminder’ for the ‘eleves’), ——, as a young and inexperienced Department Chair, put it this way:

“The ‘device’ here is that you are being trained to be Professors. Everything that happens here, happens under that assumption. We are socializing you to that role.”

That always disturbed me; in retrospect, it strikes me as terribly irresponsible and shortsighted.

In Mathematics at Berkeley, at least– it was perfectly acceptable to imagine, and prepare for, a career in industry. And so the Department did just that. And– best of all from my perspective– certain individuals moved back and forth.

In Political Science– I knew more that one person who maintained the guise of pursuing an academic career, while, in actuality, preparing for a career in think tanks.

What’s going on here? We might say it’s about the governing definition of what a Department does– does it produce professors (in the narrow and somewhat tautological sense of one who teaches in an academic department, just like…); or does it produce something … else?

In “top-tier” departments, there has been the removal of the “terminal MA:” the idea here is that since the Department produces Ph.D.s as a ‘raison d’etre,’ there’s no point to admitting M.A. students.

In Political Science at Berkeley– I think this generalized to a lot of other contexts– you couldn’t say that your career goal was to work in think tanks. That disqualified you. End of story.

In Mathematics, in Computer Science– well, walk through Evans and Tolman, talk to people, get to know them and their projects (it’s a good week’s exercise). They’re involved in the world, — I mean, just practically connected to projects, people and events outside the University– in a way that the people over in Barrows and Dwinelle are not.

In Political Science– how close are the Professors, the staff, to the people in the think tanks, the PR agencies, the papers and media? (Left as an exercise to the reader).

As I moved– rather quickly– from the closed world of Dwinelle, to the startup arena of the Bay Area in the latter mid-90s– and business–

I was always amazed, by the interaction that occurred when people ask the “qualifications” question about school and such–

… “in Rhetoric.”

Usually they’ve heard that; the guys on Sand Hill Road, or in the Angel firms, etc., are reasonably educated; they don’t have to ask, “what’s that?”, except to keep the conversation going.

That conversation moves quickly to details– the people are usually quick and sharp, quite capable of getting to core issues in seconds of conversation– “persuasion,” “part of the study is the literal ‘techne’ of language– how do you do things with words, communications in general– how do you convince– how do we build politics, community, belief– how can particular expressions shift these things?”

The PR people are the best, because they get it the most–

“Fascinating. That must have so many uses. I wish I had the chance to do that.”

Maybe I should be working on a curriculum in Rhetoric and Persuasion for PR agencies and executives.

Anyway– over in Dwinelle and Wheeler– while we disagreed with him on a great number of technical issues– Stanley Fish’s idea that the academy– what we do– is totally separate– ruled. I had the conversation again and again– except for the few renegades (mostly from Williams), none of the graduate students I knew (even after the NYT article) thought they could possibly get a job, anywhere but in academia.

And ——- : well. What I wanted to say– what I tried to say was– here you are with a series of people, with skills that are desperately needed “in the world”– there are hundreds of thousands of places where people are struggling with these issues, practically– and those situations, in the world today, those instances of language doing things, of action, — are what you really study. Stop engaging in the narrow and tautological language game of writing to each other– get out there, and deal with what’s happening and the difficult task of understanding.

#44 Comment By Ronit On May 15, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

Contribution from Laura McKenna

#45 Comment By Aidan On September 2, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

ran into an interesting annecdote that for the Biological Sciences PhD class of 1981 at Yale, only 1 / 21 is in academia, though all have very interesting jobs.

that is, in and of itself, an interesting fact.

#46 Comment By bfleming On November 24, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

Louis Menand in the new Harvard Magazine:

http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/11/professionalization-in-academy

But the main reason for academics to be concerned about the time it takes to get a degree has to do with the barrier this represents to admission to the profession. The obstacles to entering the academic profession are now so well known that the students who brave them are already self-sorted before they apply to graduate school. A college student who has some interest in further education, but who is unsure whether she wants a career as a professor, is not going to risk investing eight or more years finding out. The result is a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals. Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. Liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.

And the obstacles at the other end of the process, the anxieties over placement and tenure, do not encourage iconoclasm either. The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms. And the gap between inside and outside academia, which is partly created by the self-sorting, increases the hostility of the non-academic world toward what goes on in university departments, especially in the humanities. The hostility makes some disciplines less attractive to college students, and the cycle continues.

Read the whole thing.

#47 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On November 24, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

It’s really simple. You cut professors’ salaries to something comparable to here in the UK, and pay people a living wage for teaching (ie, the masters students, assistant profs, etc). This is how it has worked for a millenia or two.

#48 Comment By rory On November 24, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

man, didn’t think i’d see this thread rise from the dead.

#49 Comment By kthomas On November 24, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

Perhaps…