Megan McArdle on Grad School

13 01 2014

In the last few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion online about whether the academic labour market in the United States resembles the drug gangs discussed in Freaknomics. As a follow up to this discussion, I would like to share a great post by Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle on the state of grad school in the United States. She applies standard economic concepts to understanding the plight of sessional lecturers and the reasons for the recent glut in PhDs. She correctly points out that the professoriate is similar to the world of journalism in the career path is something like a tournament. 

The first is that I myself work in a profession that looks a lot like a tournament: a lucky few at the top, and a lot of hopefuls who don’t make it. That’s absolutely true. But I don’t encourage young people to seek jobs in the profession; I tell them the math is terrible and getting worse, and they should do something else. The economics of the industry are very bad, unless you are lucky enough to work for a place like Bloomberg News, which doesn’t depend on advertising. I certainly don’t get paid to train them for journalism jobs that they probably won’t get.

That said, most people don’t spend five or six or eight years just preparing to be eligible to get a job in journalism, and an additional four years or so cycling through post-docs before it becomes clear that that journalism job isn’t going to happen.Nor, when they are six years into their first permanent job, do they have a committee that meets to decide whether to fire them and put them back on the job market, quite possibly with very poor prospects. They don’t have to move to towns in the middle of nowhere or give up relationships because their partners will never be able to find work in the Ozarks. Female journalists do not have to put off starting a family until they’re pushing 40 because it would be insane to reproduce before the tenure committee approves them. The opportunity costs of trying to become a journalist are quite a bit lower than the opportunity costs of trying to become an academic.

She proposes a number of specific reforms to the US PhD program. At one point, she asks for these programs to become more like British ones: shorter and higher initial barriers to entry. 

But I can think of a way to keep fewer young people from burning a decade trying to get one of these jobs, which is to push the competition back to the graduate school application phase, rather than making them compete for a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs.  [AS: That’s exactly what they do in the UK]. Medical training is also a grueling process that takes the better part of a decade to complete (and it’s ruinously expensive, to boot!). But at the end, almost all of them have decent-paying jobs.

Obviously, that means cutting off some people who really would have blossomed in graduate school. But it also means rescuing lost decades for a lot of others. Alternatively, shorten the grad school process and stop requiring massive dissertations that take years to conceive and execute. [AS: Getting a PhD in the UK is relatively quick, as there one isn’t required to do coursework or comps before starting work on the thesis]. Set deadlines. Institute hard exit points every few years, the way consulting and investment banking do. But for heaven’s sake, do something so that people don’t find themselves at the age of 35 having to start over when their peers have spent more than a decade building families and careers.

McArdle concludes by comparing the ethical standard of grad school admissions committees to the casinos that predate on gambling addicts. Personally, I think that this comparison is a bit harsh, but then I’m looking at the world through the perspective of someone who succeeded in the tournament and landed a tenure-track job. 

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