Self-Help: The Obvious Remedy for Academic Malemployment
By Bryan Caplan
A substantial fraction — maybe the majority — of PhD programs really shouldn’t exist.
of course, this is saying that universities, and tenured professors,
should do something that is radically against their own self-interest.
That constant flow of grad students allows professors to teach
interesting graduate seminars while pushing the grunt work of grading
and tutoring and teaching intro classes to students and adjuncts. It
provides a massive oversupply of adjunct professors who can be induced
to teach the lower-level classes for very little, thus freeing up
tenured professors for research.
It’s hard to see any alternative
to fix the problem, however. The fundamental issue in the academic job
market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts
lack a union. It’s that there are many more people who want to be
research professors than there are jobs for them…
essentially arguing that professors ought to, out of the goodness of
their heart, get rid of their graduate programs and go back to teaching
introductory classes to distracted freshman. Maybe they should do this.
But they’re not going to.
All true, but why would anyone look to the beneficiaries of the status quo to solve this – or any other – social ill? The obvious agents of change – here and elsewhere – are the victims of the status quo. And who are the victims of the academic Ponzi scheme? Grad students in low-ranked departments in fields with few non-academic career options.
How on earth can a powerless grad student at a dead-end department remedy the problem of academic malemployment? One career at a time. If you can’t get into a department that offers you good job prospects, find something else to do with your life. This is precisely what the title of Megan’s article (“Can’t Get Tenure?
Then Get a Real Job”) suggests, even though her article strangely fails to
Of course, a hard-core paternalist could object, “Students are clearly too overconfident to effectively use this simplistic remedy.” And a hard-core neoclassical economist could sigh, “People make risky choices all the time. Why should we single out dead-end Ph.D.s for persecution?” But the wise response, as usual, is two-fold.
First, stop using tax money to subsidize foolish decisions. Whatever you think about government subsidies for education, there’s no reason for taxpayers to pay to train students for nigh-mythical jobs in French poetry.
Second, show concerned tolerance. Loudly identify the risks that many grad students fail to take seriously. Point out the malcontent of earlier cohorts that took the road the next generation is contemplating. Remind them that the economics Ph.D. is an atypically sweet deal, even at lower-ranked schools. Then leave them alone.