Academic work as a Moral Tale: An agony in a mere six fits [Part 4]

By | December 8, 2014

Fit the Sixth

Let’s now return to where we began this excursion – the question of the academic job market. Whatever it is, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t what it was 30 years ago, or even 15 or 10 years ago. The old assumption was that if you completed a PhD in a reputable field from a reasonably reputable institution under the supervision of a reasonably reputable committee chair on a reasonable topic using reasonable research techniques, you would have at least a reasonable shot, if not a slam-dunk, at a tenure-track position, and a moderate chance to achieve tenure. It really did happen to people. Then you’d go on to get reasonable research grants, do reasonable research, publish articles about it in reasonable print journals, teach reasonable classes much in the way your classes had been taught, and all would be right with the world.

Now, unfortunately, very little if anything is right with the world. Following all those rules is pretty much a one-way ticket into the adjunct pool. Unless you are one of the academic elite at an elite university with elite mentors, where a version of the old model does operate, you are likely to become just another face in the crowd. It’s what the economists call a “dual labor market” – one set of rules for the rich and another set for the poor, and considerable difficulty moving up (although relatively easy descent.)

But where did that crowd come from, and why is it so, well, crowded? The answer lies in the proliferation over the last decade of online universities, often for-profit versions, that have found that satisfying the appetite for achievable PhD degrees can be a source of both fun and profit. Fun, because supervising student research 1-1 engages the attention of their faculty by helping them to feel like real professors without requiring a lot of serious work ; and profit, because students in PhD programs often drag their enrollments out over extended periods while trying to finish dissertations. And that’s not even taking into account the returns from students who start such programs and then drop out or are forced out before the dissertation, where several terms of full-tuition enrollment can be expected before the inevitable withdrawal takes place.

Many of those who enroll in such programs are less interested in the PhD for its traditional significance – a commitment to systematic research – and more for its presumed quality as a teaching credential or other avenue to professional advancement. Often acquiring a PhD or related professional doctorate is required for moving up the next step in a professional ladder. For those engaged in doctoral study for such instrumental reasons, the research associated with getting the PhD can seem like a mere formality, something to be carried out quickly with the least possible effort, and their dissertations often reflect this lack of real interest. Some institutions have watered down their expectations for data analysis to perhaps a couple of t-tests. Worse, some places actively encourage students to seek significant editorial assistance in preparing their dissertations, opening the door to numerous questionable practices. Overall, the flood of newly minted PhDs, many if by no means all with less than stellar academic qualifications and little interest in research, has led pretty directly to a buyer’s market for professors and

The sad part about this is that there are some very excellent online PhD programs that can turn out graduates with qualifications and abilities easily comparable to those of graduates from all but the most elite FTF schools. Actually, there are several good prototypes for alternative PhD study models, including in particular the Fielding Institute, the RAND Graduate School, and the Naval Postgraduate School.

During my TUI days, I had a goodly number of excellent online PhD students, many of whom I never or only at the last minute actually met FTF. We had as extensive interactions around their research as I would have had FTF; it just took place mediated by communication tools of various sorts. Of course, it took notably more concentration and drive for students to excel under such conditions, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the blame for the gradual devaluation of the PhD degree due to a proliferation of its holders, not all of whom are fully qualified, lies squarely on the professors who have actively collaborated in sending such marginally qualified individuals out into the market. The owners and administrators who have organized and managed these programs must share the blame, but it’s the professors who have had to do the job. The PhD is a degree that can only be awarded upon certification by three or four current holders of the degree that the applicant meets acceptable standards for research and scholarly writing. Awarding that certification to those whose qualifications and/or research are marginal is dereliction of duty.

I will admit to having on occasion played a part in this exercise; although I have never given a pass to a seriously unqualified applicant, there have been some over the years whose adherence to the standards would have to be considered to be marginal. After all, the bills do need to be paid.

Obviously, significant fault also lies with the academic administrators who knowingly institute doctoral programs without well designed curricula including both content areas and research methods, enough well-trained and experienced professors to both teach the needed courses and provide adequate research supervision, research opportunities that are open to the students, or all the ancillary support services including community networking that are needed just to keep an online program afloat.

I don’t propose to name names of institutions here, or to call into question anyone’s PhD credentials by implication. It’s certainly possible to have a high-quality experience even in a weak program, or a weak experience in a strong program. And programs wax and wane in strength over time due to changes in emphasis, personnel, budget, and administration. But overall, there is no question that the proliferation of PhDs turned out by both newer online institutions, both nonprofit and for-profit, as well as by traditional FTF programs anxious to keep enrollments up and tuition flowing to support all those tenured professors, has led to a vast pool of cheap adjunct academic talent that has in turn enabled administrators to cover teaching responsibilities without increasing tenure lines.

And for better or worse, the academic job market has been fundamentally changed in no more than 15 years. And the changes just keep coming.

In a follow-on post thread to come, I will offer my speculations about where the academic job market is going, and what the effects of these ongoing changes might be.