Sunday, February 20, 2011

Calls for unraveling of Ph.D. education may be premature

At least that is the conclusion of an article by Joshua Tucker of NYU's department of Politics that appeared at Inside Higher Ed, Academe as Meritocracy.

He takes issue with recent calls (including this one in The Economist, that's gotten a lot of attention) to limit the number of Ph.D. students, so that the number of new Ph.D.s would better match the number of new academic positions. He writes:
"As I was reading this article, I was trying to reconcile the horrors of academia**** with the fact that I will soon be slogging through hundreds of applications for potential grad students who will want something like one of the 25-30 slots we will offer for our next Ph.D. class. Could I in good conscience actually admit any of these students? I mean, after all, they must clearly be deceiving themselves into thinking this could lead to a good career. Unless, of course, they turn out like one of our students this year who has job offers at multiple top universities. Or our other students who went on the market this year and landed good jobs. Or one of my students who didn't even apply for an academic job, but wound up at a top-notch consulting firm. Or the excellent Ph.D. students from other universities we've just hired. They've turned out O.K., haven't they? Would they have been better off had some well-meaning admissions offer turned off the spigot at the source and only admitted a quarter of the graduate students to NYU that we actually admitted? Maybe they would have been at the top of their class, but maybe not.
"And this, perhaps, is why it is not a bad thing that we admit more Ph.D. students to programs than we have jobs for as university professors. Because the alternative is that we have to decide a lot earlier who is going to be good and who is going to be bad. If I can admit 20 students to the Ph.D. program at NYU next year, then that is 20 students who have a chance to shine. They may not all make it, but it is worth considering whether we are better off giving those 20 students a chance then picking now -- based solely on their undergraduate record -- only five who will be given a chance.


Anonymous said...

Good point, but a top program such as NYU's isnt the best place to evaluate what is going on with the marginal PhD student. NYU kids are the cream of the crop, obviously landing great jobs and making the most of their education. The question is what happens to the students in the marginal PhD programs.

Another point is that going into the private sector does not mean equal waste. PhDs can do many wonderful things, such as pricing mortgage backed securities in Wall Street.

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