Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Once we are on the topic of grad education

Here is a recent piece on grad education in Nature. The "problem" it points to is that academia is producing more PhDs than there are academic positions to fill. This is true, it appears in virtually every domain, including the hard sciences like physics and biology. I am pretty sure that this applies to linguistics as well. I put 'problem' in scare quotes for it is an interesting question what kind of problem this is. Let's stipulate that in the best of all possible worlds PhDs only go to the deserving and all the deserving get the jobs desired. WHat is the best policy when this is not what we have? One reaction is that we should not produce more PhDs than there are academic positions for. Another is that we train PhDs for several kinds of career tracks (with several kinds of PhDs) only some of which are academic and another is that we train PhDs as we have always done but we are up front about the dangers of employment disappointment.  All of these options are reviewed in the Nature piece.

For what it is worth, I am not sure what the right thing to do is. I do know that given this situation we should really be making sure that PhDs do not go into debt in order to get a degree. This requires that grad programs find ways to fully fund their students. As for the rest, I really don't know. There is something paternalistic about putting quotas on PhDs just because landing a job at the end is problematic. We must be clear about the prospects. But we should never lie to students or mislead them,  But once the employment facts are made clear, are there further responsibilities?  Maybe offering courses that make career options more flexible in the worst case? I don't know.  However, this is, sadly, once again, a very important problem that could use some discussion.

When I graduated, jobs were not thick on the ground. Grad students were told that landing a job was chancy, even if one graduated from a good place with a good PhD. This did not serve to deter many of us. We all thought that we we would be ok. Some were. Some weren't. Looking back I am not sure that I would endorse a system that pre-culled us. Why? Because doing grad work was rewarding in itself. It was fun doing this stuff and, moreover, it turns out, in retrospect, that figuring out who would be the successful and who the less successful was not antecedently obvious. There may not be a better system.

This is an important problem. How should we proceed? Grad students out there are especially invited to  chime in.


  1. A research-focused degree can provide excellent training for many careers. Some of those careers are in research universities, leading to production of yet more PhDs. But the skills can be valuable in many other ways. Some of the things that we can and should do better at include:

    -- Removing the stigma often associated with pursuing a career outside research universities.
    -- That would also entail creating some kind of recognition for success in non-academic careers. Faculty are told on the one hand to value diverse career preparation, but on the other hand they only get recognition for academic placements with cachet.
    -- Learn more about how PhD-level skills translate into things that are useful elsewhere. Last winter Meredith Larson (NWU PhD in Linguistics, now program officer at IES, an education funding agency) gave a great presentation here on how her linguistic analytical skills are really valuable in her current job.
    -- Prepare PhDs with more diverse skills. This isn't because government and industry want a broader skill set, it's because *all* highly skilled jobs require a broad skill set these days, including academia.
    -- Find better ways for PhDs outside the ivory tower to stay connected to the scientific community. Part of the reason for the stigma of pursuing non-academic careers is that it can genuinely feel like a person is abandoning the community.

    The theme of your post is something that science agencies like NSF care a lot about. Their view, as we have heard it conveyed, is not that there's an over-production of PhDs. There's a need for a highly skilled scientific workforce. Their view is that the PhDs need better preparation for what lies ahead.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. As far as I recall from the postings in 'Linguists Outside Academia' group, many people figure out that they have a very low chance of finding an academic position. For this reason, they either quit their program or complete their degree and then get a certificate degree that prepares them for a job outside academia (speech pathology, computational linguistics). I do not think people would be very willing to get an MS/MA in these fields after completing their PhD. One option would be to offer such certificate programs at more universities.