Junk Analysis

On April 27th, The New York Times published an essay that compared graduate education in the United States to the current wet, hot mess that is the Detroit automobile industry. That heresy did not go unanswered by academics, who have long argued that the problem is not the overproduction of Ph.D.‘s, but rather an “underproduction” of tenure-track jobs. One academic writer referred to the Times essay as “junk analysis.”

Some academics have difficulty correctly identifying junk analysis, too. The 1989 Bowen report, “Prospect for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences,” comes to mind. In that widely referenced report, William G. Bowen predicted “a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences.” But the report was flawed; it had failed to account for the 350,000 part-time faculty members then working in academe. It wasn’t until 1994 that Bowen’s conclusions and methodology were questioned but, in the meantime, colleges awarded more than 200,000 new Ph.D.‘s. In a recent interview, Bowen described the report as having “certainly proved wide off the mark.” Ah, well.

Today the presence of 550,000 part-time faculty members in academe is well known, and the scholarly studies about that phenomenon subject us to a form of shock therapy. One researcher discovers part timers adversely impact student retention. Zap. (Never mind about student preparedness.) Another researcher concludes that part timers are less dedicated to their students and institutions. Zap. (Never mind studies that show part timers do not churn through jobs.)

On the basis on such studies, one might conclude, it would be best if the nation’s part timers were abducted by kindly aliens. After all, recent studies are filled with sympathy for part timers, and it’s not the sinner we must burn at the stake, but rather the sin. But what, exactly, is the sin involved here? Are adjuncts just a bunch of idiot savants? Are they just gluttons for punishment? Why can’t the ones who want tenure-track jobs just get jobs? After all between 2003 and 2009, colleges in the United States hired 44,600 new tenure-track faculty members.

Why? Because higher education is, in fact, churning out graduate degree holders with the same reckless abandon that GM churned out Cadillacs. Over the past decade, around 44,000 Americans have been awarded Ph.D.‘s. each year and about 512,000 people have earned master’s degrees annually. If we converted 90 percent of all current temporary appointments into tenure-track jobs, there would still be several million more candidates than positions.

So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, nothing so simple as closing the factories for nine weeks to deplete inventory.

Part of the answer is for those with tenure to realize they didn’t land there simply because they’re smarter than everyone else; 63.7 percent of them are white men. Actually, 79.7 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members are white. The other part of the answer is for job candidates to get sober about the true nature of the academic job market, and the enormity of the applicant pool versus the number of available full-time jobs. The final part of the equation is for government and universities to track and share employment data with current and would-be graduate students so they can evaluate their career prospects.

In short, a lot of really smart people are going to have to stop being so very naïve about their career prospects. Fortunately, a graduate degree is a huge advantage you can learn to leverage.

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