Defining the walls around you: Piled Higher and Deeper.. or sinking into a hole?

Is graduate school worth it? Depends upon what you plan to get out of it.

In my years of teaching undergraduates, I’ve been a consistent supporter of the value of pursuing one’s passions through graduate education. I’m a higher-ed lifer myself and a true product of the idealized imagination that student life holds. I love the university and all that it represents. But, as a working-class kid who may have to face queries from other First Generation university attendees, I’m considering tempering my enthusiasm a bit these days.

First I saw this PhD Comics, about what your research desires really ends up becoming (hint, not necessarily about your interests).

Then I read this blog post by Piece of Mind that describes the funding breakdown by NSERC and Canadian Graduate Scholarships. It expresses some surprise about a drop in funding for post-doctoral researcher slots. Yet, at least in hard science, a couple of years of post-doc experience is the hoop required in most job posts to even be considered for the dwindling number of full-time teaching/research posts. Even in fields without a post-doc step, Canadian doctoral candidates aren’t necessarily going to fare well upon graduation. Take this investigation into philosophy departments in Canada, published in University Affairs in 2009, that demonstrates a national tendency to hire non-Canadian PhDs in philosophy to work in departments that continue to actively train PhDs. Louis Groarke and Wayne Fenske write:

There is a deep incoherence here. If a department considers a Canadian PhD a liability, how can it, in good conscience, busy itself producing more Canadian PhDs? Surely, individuals enrol in Canadian graduate programs with the understanding that they will be advantaged, not disadvantaged, when they graduate with a PhD from that institution. They may be encouraged to believe this by departments eager to attract the very best students.

With this in mind, I reflected upon what Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction had to say on her blog about the costs of making a name for yourself in the academic millieu as a grad student. The piece is entitled “Knowing Your Value”.

The “academic economy” I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don’t really do these things (publishing, conferences, and so on) for “free”. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job. On the other hand, graduate students and early-career academics—particularly those who find themselves doing a lot of contract teaching or other part-time work—are less likely to have the time and resources to fully develop their CVs; and as the academic job market has tightened, the bar has been raised in terms of the level of professionalisation required.

I’m sure most people accept that academia isn’t that mythical, 1960s Hollywood ideal of elbow-patched tweed jackets. Lives aren’t as commonly lived in the leisurely pursuit of knowledge as one might imagine. It is getting more and more competitive to acquire and persist in academe. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But if so much ‘free labour’ is required up front by those who seek to gain fewer and fewer post-graduate opportunities, then perhaps it is time to admit that higher ed, at least in some Canadian programs and disciplines, has an accessibility problem. The journey is becoming steeper, less affordable and the carrots students are chasing (those vital post-docs and the Holy Grail of a tenure-track job) are disappearing faster than my Twitter feed can manage.

And it saddens me to imagine that the freedom to pursue your intellectual dreams, the freedom I’ve enjoyed, is fast becoming a life risk possible only for the privileged.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem, although I believe it should be solved. In the meantime, as someone from working class roots, it strikes me as deeply worrisome that the reality of the economic landscape isn’t being effectively communicated to young people considering graduate school right now. All too often, pursuit of a PhD is framed as worthy in and of itself for those being groomed inside the bubble of the academy. And that’s not fair.

Maybe it is time that the relevant ministries and funding agencies do more to counterbalance the universities’ drive to get more ‘bums in seats’ to boost their own revenue. At the very least, some good journalism is called for that provides some comparative data about outcomes, funding levels and research directions to help prospective doctoral candidates tailor their trajectories accordingly.

I’m not calling for a planned economy approach to higher ed (far from it). But I agree with Groarke and Fenske that universities have an ethical responsibility to the students they accept, funded or not. Unlike professional programs, master’s and doctoral-level education requires an investment of close to a decade of prime, income-earning years from young people, often capitalizing on their presence to provide cheap teaching and research support.

I fear that the trends of late suggest my hallowed academy is at risk of committing an ethical breach here. Are we wasting years of the lives of a good swath of Canada’s brightest and best from the working and lower-middle classes, the ones from families that might not have extensive means to support the journey or support the graduate if jobless at the end of it all? Are universities pushing students into routes to nowhere? How effectively are the economic risks of pursuing certain trajectories within higher ed through to the PhD being communicated? And whose responsibility is it to tell those stories?

Until the facts are out there, I have two words for prospective students intending to follow a dream into the ivory tower: caveat emptor. Do your research before you start doing research, figure out if your passions will be matched by decent prospects and keep a critical attitude toward what others might be trying to persuade you to do.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Defining the walls around you: Piled Higher and Deeper.. or sinking into a hole?

  1. Excellent advice. Also, governments are actually pushing the development of new graduate programs through funding incentives for universities. They are doing this in the name of the need for more highly trained “knowledge workers” but without (it appears) a clear understanding of what graduate degrees actually train students for.

  2. drakmar

    To a certain degree I think you missed the most important and (arguably) best part of Melonie Fullick’s blog post:

    “Because academe presents itself as a meritocracy, often those who “fail” tend to blame themselves for it. But “pure” meritocracy is a myth. This is why knowing your own value means understanding not just what you have to offer in multiple contexts, but also that you have real choices, that there are fruitful possibilities, and that given the kinds of sacrifices involved, “traditional” academic work may not be the best among them.”

    When I think of some of the best researchers, individuals both inside AND outside of academe come to mind. Naomi Klien, whether you agree with her views or not, is an excellent researcher, her work has had impacts far beyond that of most academics, and did all that without so much as finishing her undergrad! I also suspect she is both passionate about her work and rather well paid to boot!

    Alternately, a great within-academe researcher I know once told me that in order to do science well, you had to love it enough to do it for free, or get out of it (his back-up plan was long-haul trucking or sheep farming). While this philosophy may not pay the bills, it certainly pays the soul. In the PhD comic, the first mistake is made when the rosy-faced undergraduate sacrifices what he wants to research for what their professor wants him to research – and so the slippery slope begins. Your major professor should certainly influence the way you work, and you should have a fit within their overall program, but if one finds themselves doing research they do not want to do, there was a thrown switch on the tenure track that leads straight to hell!

    A tenure-track position in academe is not, and should not, be the point. If it is, the only two possible ends are a) the job you want with the perks you want doing what you don’t want, or b) disappointment over not having “made it”. Those who both have the T-T position and do what they are passionate about tend to have reached that point by following the latter, and the former happened to come with it. A tenure-track position does not necessarilly follow, but if you love what you worked on in grad school, who cares? (as long as you find something you enjoy to pay the bills).

    When it comes to the higher-higher education world, following the passions of your research heart is the only viable option, both economically, philosophically, and spiritually. We all end up with tasks or research questions that have less appeal, but without pet projects, topics and hypotheses, the world ends up consisting of nothing but bedpans.

    • Agreed, Darren, for the most part. Where I’d quibble is with the quality of non-U job acquired. There are many jobs outside academe that are great places to land in lieu of the tenure track (if not better, in some cases). What I’m worried about are those that end up with few (if any) job skills or employment possibilities, resulting in the sort of jobs that make it difficult (if nigh impossible) to keep up research as a hobby. Or, you end up with no time at all (or incentive) to keep up all those years of specialized immersion/training. We’re asking those folks to serve as collateral damage for these times of austerity when enrollments are inflated (to bring in revenue to the Us) and research posts are fewer out the other end.
      Intellectualism takes energy and time – hard to come by if your boss doesn’t understand (or maybe even resents) the letters after your name. It may not have been so bad in the era of plenty – when there were plenty of grants and jobs to go around — but now the competition for most jobs is tighter. If someone has a passion for butterflies, it might just be economically smarter to keep it as a hobby, as many of us do with music education. One can partake, it can be a true passion, but it is a big leap of faith to consider my love of choral music a career prospect. 😉

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