Rethinking the Scale of Graduate Education

Declining number of applications will force us to examine what we do and how we do it

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

September 09, 2013

What if we built a degree program and nobody came? The preliminary application numbers have been a subject of much conversation lately among deans. The scuttlebutt is: Applications to graduate school are said to have dropped sharply this past year, across fields, across the country. Some observers are saying that the graduate-school bubble has burst.

We've got a problem, all right, but it isn't a bursting bubble. That metaphor, besides being tired, is plain wrong.

Instead of a bubble, imagine a balloon with holes in it. Despite the holes, the balloon remains inflated because it receives a steady supply of air. The balloon may sag here and there as the air escapes, but as long as it keeps getting that air, it keeps its shape—mostly.

The balloon, of course, stands for graduate school in the arts and sciences, and the air represents those lining up to get in. For some years now, thousands of applicants have been filling our collective balloon pretty consistently from year to year. The current drop-off is sudden enough that it might be just a shudder—it's too early to tell. Graduate schools exist in a volatile global economy, and demand for graduate training is hardly an independent variable.

But what if the new level proves permanent? The question is worth answering not only because it might not be hypothetical, but also because such a change exposes some of the key assumptions underlying the graduate-school enterprise in the arts and sciences. And those assumptions need airing.

Our procedures rely on built-in economies of scale that we mostly take for granted. Shrinking graduate programs would have myriad practical implications for what graduate study might look like in the future. The "soft" fields—the humanities and certain social sciences—may have an easier time creating a smaller model of graduate education. That's because the educational infrastructure in those fields is mostly made up of people.

The humanities model is based on personal exchange: Education happens when people communicate with each other. Right now the model for that conversation centers on the seminar (for master's and doctoral students), with Ph.D. students proceeding to an apprenticeship under a dissertation adviser, who is flanked by committee members.

We haven't questioned that format for generations, but that doesn't mean it can't be revised relatively quickly. A move to a tutorial system, for example, wouldn't require any buildings to be razed and rebuilt. Some countries (such as Britain) already deliver graduate education that way.

Not that such a shift would be easy. For one thing, many professors would resist, for we love our graduate seminars rather too well, if not always wisely. But the curricular implications of a tutorial-based system are more important—and more vexing—than any personal objections. Without periodic offerings on the annual seminar menu, scholars in more esoteric subfields would encounter fewer graduate students, and departments and programs would have to figure out how (or perhaps whether) to sustain those areas.

The possibility of subfields having to compete for graduate students in a program will raise significant questions of purpose. For example, the endangered fields could well include newer ones (including those based on minority discourses and points of view) that challenge long-established canons. Taking those subfields out of seminar circulation (which is where they often attract new adherents) could stifle them and effectively serve to enshrine the intellectual status quo.

Such concerns matter, but they're trifling compared with what would happen if the scientific fields downsize. Scientific inquiry started out on a small scale in the United States. (And that scale was valued: "Research cannot be successful with large numbers," said a report by President G. Stanley Hall of Clark University in 1890. It would be hard to imagine such a statement from a leading scientist today.) Scientific research became heavily capitalized after World War II. Now it's called "Big Science" for a reason.

Graduate education in lab science depends on conversation, yes, but it also depends on labor and expensive equipment. Start-up costs for a new assistant professor in the lab sciences at a research university run about $1-million. That seed money is expected to give scientists the initial boost to compete for grants to support their work after that.

But the labor is likewise expensive. In order to win grants, a scientist needs a busy lab that performs lots of experiments. Professors don't do many of those experiments; instead, they supervise students who do the work. Some ambitious undergraduates work in science labs, but the main source of labor, paid for by the aforementioned grants, is graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. (Postdocs aren't much different from graduate students in that regard: They're also apprentices whose term of service is understood to be limited, and as former graduate students, they come from the same labor pool).

So the current model requires Big Science to be big. Professors develop expert skills in management and grantsmanship to keep their labs rolling along. A successful lab produces a steady stream of publications and Ph.D.'s, with each supporting the other. A drop in the number of available graduate students would force nothing less than a paradigm change in the sciences. Put simply, who would do the work that's necessary to get the grants that keep the operation going?

One solution would be to hire permanent staff members. In fact, many science professors essentially do that already, using their "soft money" (from grants) to keep certain postdocs on the payroll indefinitely. The emergence some years ago of the "permanent postdoc" makes its own case for reform. A whole class of would-be lab directors now labor within a job category that they can't escape because of the abysmal job market.

Statistics from the National Science Foundation tell a grim story: Unemployment among science Ph.D.'s has been on the rise for more than a decade. Moreover, the competition for grant money has become much tighter in recent years. So it seems Big Science is already too big.

If Big Science shrinks and admits fewer graduate students, that would affect the humanities, too. The money that maintains Big Science also goes to "overhead" that enables the university to run across the board, not just in the sciences.

Meaning: We're all in this together.

It's therefore not surprising that the problem of unemployment in the sciences throws the purpose of the entire research university into high relief.

The first American research universities were founded in the late 19th century, and those institutions sought successfully to yoke their ambitions to the rise of science. William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, said that his institution's primary mission was to promote "the work of investigation."

In other words, the research university was designed as a knowledge factory. "The work of giving instruction," said Harper, was "secondary." On the other hand, the Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, provided for land-grant institutions that would be centered on students. The stated aim of the law was "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts," and also "to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes."

American higher education has been thus divided for over a century. The earliest colleges aimed to create educated citizens, "capable of thinking, writing, and acting well," as William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, put it in 1754. The earliest research universities (which were founded much later) promoted the creation of knowledge. The two enterprises—making students and making knowledge—have coexisted mostly comfortably for many generations. When the land-grant institutions were founded in accordance with the Morrill Act, for example, most of them emerged as research universities with a practical, student-centered bent.

So it becomes clear that the American graduate-industrial complex has been built to produce educated students and new knowledge at the same time. Its very structure makes those two goals hard to separate. The real possibility of significantly fewer graduate students will shake our foundations—and we may have to rethink our mission and structure from those foundations upward.

It's true that the revolution may not take place, at least not right away. Academe is, after all, inherently conservative (with a small "c"), and slow to panic. Still, it won't hurt us—and I mean all of us, from faculty and administration to graduate students—to start thinking in broad terms about the structure of the profession: what we do and how we do it. We should take the current application numbers as a bracing warning that we need to be more open to change, and a lot more ready for it.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at