Saturday, April 18, 2015

Caveat emptor! All PhDs are not created equal

Back when I was in India and thinking about graduate school in the US, and given that those were the prehistoric days before the internet, I thought that most good universities were comparable and that it might not make that huge a difference on where I did my schooling.

It didn't take me long to know that I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Thus, I briefly flirted with applying to a couple of elite universities.  But, it was too much work all over again.  I ditched the plan, even as I watched two other students from India move on to Berkeley for their PhDs.  (One returned to India, primarily because he couldn't find an academic position here.  The other, I tracked down after all these years, thanks to thinking about this post.)

A PhD from USC sounds great to somebody in India. It might impress somebody in Peoria.  But, insiders know all too well that it ain't a PhD from Harvard.  All PhDs are not created equal.


Now, when I attend conferences and watch the eager-beaver younger people whose identities are so wrapped up with their doctoral dissertations, I am tempted to ask them if they had thought whether or not their PhDs would really get them the academic positions that they are dreaming about?  When they have so much access to information that I never had when I was 22, did they not pay attention to how difficult it is to find a permanent job in academia?  Heck, when as undergrads they had the experience of teaching assistants with strange accents and adjunct faculty who were tired and poor, did they not worry about the post-doctorate phase of life in which they could be unemployed or underemployed?

I suppose to be youthful means to be optimistic and over-confident.  But, then they should not complain later, right?  To complain after seven years of graduate schooling will mean that they lack the very critical thinking that academe is about.

Dan Drezner, whose blog I followed a lot more before he moved on to WaPo, warns about the "cult of the PhD."  Though in the context of his fields of political science and international relations, his observations are equally valid to most, if not all, other disciplines as well:
if your goal is to become a professor and you are not accepted with a scholarship into a top-20 political science program, I would not in good conscience recommend that you get a PhD.
Most of the professoriate in international relations comes from the elite schools. Whether this is because these schools function as a prestige cartel or not is immaterial: the reason will not change the current realities. The academic job market is brutal; getting an academic job without a degree from a top-20 institution is even more brutal.
USC ain't in the top-20.  Well, its academic creds have vastly improved over the past decades.  But, if I were an undergrad in this country and thinking of a PhD program in order to have a career as an academic, USC would be more like my "safe school."

Drezner concludes with this:
If you really want to be a professor, then you need to get a PhD. If you want to advance your career as a wonk, then, all else equal, a PhD would probably help. But all else is not equal. If this is the kind of world you want to enter, then fine, you’ve been warned. But do not claim, seven years from now (if you’re lucky), that someone sold you a fake bill of goods.
Yep.  I have been saying the same thing for years.  And have also been blogging forever, it seems like, on why going to grad school is the worst move for most people.

The WSJ adds:
universities contribute to a glut of Ph.D.s by admitting students who take out loans (some 40% of the $1 trillion in student debt is for graduate school) even when they know few will ever work as full professors. By admitting them into graduate programs, the schools in effect are producing for themselves a low-paid work force.
“To put it crudely, they are hiring their own serfs,” says Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He says it’s “as much a moral issue as an economic one.” A university truly devoted to the well-being of its students would be more honest to grad students about the dismal job prospects for Ph.D.s—and more candid to undergrads about their actual instructors.
Caveat emptor!  Yes, that phrase too I learnt only in graduate school ;)


  1. I've wondered about this too, even in the Indian setting. Its nowhere near as costly to do a PhD here, and yet job opportunities are equally abysmal. I know people who are doing PhDs in obscure areas - some single species of butterflies in the Western Ghats for instance. Its hard work, for a long long time and at the end a job in academia is not easy to get. And even if you get it, the pay is atrocious - in business school here the student on graduation gets 10 times more salary than a leading Prof of 30 years.

    I often wonder what motivates a young student towards academia ??

  2. I can tell you this much--when a 22 or 23 year old student is all gung ho about getting into a PhD program, maximizing future earnings rarely ever is the objective. Most know that they are able and capable of earning a lot more money otherwise.

    However, I worry that they assume that society will pay them decent incomes just because they get PhDs. It is this disconnect that I have been talking and writing about for years ... as they turn 30 and realize that a "decent" income might not happen, they forget that nobody guaranteed them that in the first place.

    BTW, the fact that most academics are not chasing money even though they are more than smart enough is also why professors continue to be a respected set of professionals, by and large, even in this country that believes "if you are so smart, how come you ain't rich?"

  3. I thought this article would be of interest to you:


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