Grad School: Four Education Reforms That Need To Happen



Everyone agrees that education has to be reformed. Republicans look for state- and local solutions, Democrats look towards centralization. But everyone agrees that education either is about to or has already fallen off a cliff. We all agree that if the current trends continue, it’s only a matter of time before China and the other developing countries overtake the US in research (one of the few areas where the US still has a competitive advantage). Soon unless something is done, most politicians in both parties agree, top American students will emigrating to study at chinese universities rather than the other way around.

Talking about the value of R&D and about investing in bright minds is something almost all politicians – and political candidates – are good at. However, very few of them want to acknowledge one of the biggest reasons why America may lose its dominance in R&D: Grad school.

Let me give you a couple of quick facts about getting a PhD:

1) The average PhD stipend is only $15 dollars more ($14055 vs $14040) than the average salary at McDonald’s. This is significantly less than the unemployment benefit received by some people (the max. unemployment benefit is over $21 000).

2) The average PhD in the US takes about 7-9 years to finish, compared to 3-5 in the UK. This is due to bureaucracy, grad students being forced to take on work their professors are supposed to be doing (even lecturing entire modules), stipends being so low students have to take part-time work etc. And no, there is no sign that American PhDs are somehow better for spending twice the time in grad school (if they were, I doubt we’d see Cambridge and Oxford among the world’s top #10 universities). Yes, you have to get a masters to do a PhD in the UK, but a masters is only 1 year so the difference is significant anyway.

3) The non-finishing rate (everyone who drops out + everyone who fails) among PhD students is around 50 % on average (ranging from over 60 % in English to around 35 % in engineering).

4) Less than half of PhDs who manage to complete their degrees (sometimes as little as 20 %) will actually gain permanent employment in academia. Not the biggest of problems if you’re an engineer (there will be plenty of industry jobs). It’s a bit more of a problem if you’re in the humanities or (most) social sciences.

5) Grad students, even though they do a significant share of the teaching at universities nowadays, are not considered employees and therefore do not receive health insurance, vacation (though this varies between different universities) or any other benefits. As a grad student, you are completely at the mercy of your supervisor – if he thinks it’s appropriate that you work 52 weeks of the year, then that’s what you’ll do. Of course, this sets the stage for extortion and other forms of abuse – if you write a paper with a conclusion your advisor doesn’t like, all he has to do is hint that he may not give you a christmas vacation unless you change it. Or, worse, hint that he may not sign your PhD thesis. Change advisor? Sure, if you can find another one who will take you, and that may not be easy as your current advisor can, just by making a few phone calls or sending a few emails, make sure you get blacklisted in the entire academic community

6) 70 % of university teachers are adjuncts, ie people employed from semester to semester rather than full-time tenured employees. This is problematic as these people are not obligated to do research, and rarely find time to do so. Also teaching quality suffers as adjuncts are often replaced. More on the problem with adjuncts later.

Would you spend 9 years of your life, earning a McDonald’s salary despite having a college degree, having no health insurance nor vacation, only so you could put the letters PhD (and, hopefully, get a research job) after your name? No? Well, be happy there are people crazy enough to do it. Because, without academia, America as a superpower would be finished tomorrow.

I know this sounds like academic snobbishness (the type that Rick Santorum hates), but let’s look at the facts: Without the theoretical research done in academia, none of the great inventions we associate with modern life would have happened. Most people hate theoretical research, thinking “they’re not doing anything useful”. What they don’t understand of course is that every single piece of practical research ever done, has been made possible by countless of hours spent on theoretical research.

Let’s take a few examples: Aviation science had been around for hundreds of years before anyone actually managed to build an airplane. The first paper on heavier-than-air flying machines was published 1716, that is, about 200 years before the Wright Brothers actually managed to build a heavier-than-air flying machine. Aviation was 100 % theoretical for hundreds of years, and no-one expected it to ever be any more than just a theoretical field. It certainly most have seemed useless at the time, but without all that theoretical research, the airplane never would have been invented.

Newton’s theory of gravity was also an entirely theoretical concept; there was no practical use of Newton’s discovery. But without it, we would never have put a man on the moon (just to mention one of many things).

Einstein’s theory of relativity was also theoretical, but without it, we would never have had the nuclear bomb (nor nuclear energy and a lot of other things). It was science for the sake of science at the time, but without it, World War II would have most likely dragged on for another 2-3 years and cost millions of additional lives (yes, I’m aware of Einstein’s opposition to nuclear weapons).

The computer is another example of something that was invented in theory long before it was invented in practice. So, in other words, without theoretical research – no Caffeinated Thoughts. That fact in itself ought to justify all research spending in the world in my opinion.

Since technological improvements is the main source of growth (and the only source of long-term growth), and since academia through its theoretical research makes technological breakthroughs possible, academia has a critical role in ensuring long-term growth. Without long-term growth, the US will not remain a superpower for long. I hope we can all agree on that.

Anyway, back to grad school: What reforms, specifically, are needed?

1) Raise the stipends

You can’t force the researchers of the future to make due on less than the minimum wage and then expect them to perform well. Raising the stipends would not cost the states nor the federal government any significant money (as there are so few graduate students in the first place), but could reduce the dropout rate among PhDs and attract bright students to a career in research. Today, due to the extremely low stipends, PhD programs have a tendency to attract not the brightest and most enthusiastic students, but rather the students who are afraid of entering the workforce and of growing up. Needless to say, they don’t make good researchers.

Of course, no-one should do a PhD for the money, but would it be too much to ask for a PhD stipend to be equivalent to that of a regular starting salary for a college graduate?

And while we’re at it, make sure every grad student has health insurance and just as many vacation weeks as other recent college graduates.

You can’t expect to be a top research country if you treat your researchers like slaves.

2) Stop using the term “grad students”

The problem with the term “grad students” is that it makes people think that those pursuing PhDs are actually, well, students. So when you point out that the average stipend is a measly $14 055 per year, people immediately tell you something like “Well, when I was in college, my parents didn’t even give me $14 055 a year, so why should grad students have more? They’re just students just like I was”. But that is completely wrong.

Being in grad school means you have to actually work. You’re no longer given assignments, you no longer have classes (for the latter part of your studies anyway). You have to work independently. You’ll meet with your advisor (who, despite the title of advisor, is actually your boss) anything from once a week to once every term, and he won’t tell you what to do – only if what you have done is good enough. Your advisor will not babysit you, like your professors probably did when you were an undergrad. You’re supposed to do original research, and you’re supposed to do it yourself. You’re supposed to plan your own work, and make sure your research gets published in peer-reviewed journals. A grad student can expect to work about 60-70 hours per week – and please don’t even try and tell me you had to work that much when you were an undergrad.

Doing a PhD is actually more resembling to being a trainee than a student. So, why don’t we just stop pretending grad students are students, and start calling them “Research trainees” or something like that?

3) Limit admission to grad school

It is not a secret that there is a massive oversupply of PhDs today. Like I mentioned above, even though virtually all PhD students want to become professors, there are only tenure-track jobs available to less than half of those who actually graduate (and only half graduate in the first place).

But how can this happen? Why don’t universities have the good sense not to accept more PhD students than they can later on hire?

Because universities no longer exist to help students. They exist to help themselves. And the oversupply of PhDs have really helped universities save money.

Universities are counting on (and encouraging) students to behave like gambling addicts. Remember how gambling addicts keep gambling to win back the money they’ve already lost? And how they then end up losing even more money?

Many students, particularly in the humanities, display this type of behavior: You go to college to get an English degree, and you don’t really worry about the whole “getting a job” thing. After all, all your professors have told you that the “critical thinking skills” that you will gain from the program will be attractive to any employer, so nothing to worry about. Then you graduate, and for some reason employers aren’t standing in line to hire you and your “critical thinking skills”. You don’t know why, but you figure your professors would never lie to you, so the problem must be that you need to develop your “critical thinking skills” even further. Hence, you go to grad school. Maybe you do a Master’s degree at first, or you jump straight onto a PhD (the former is more common in Europe; the latter in the US).

Then, provided that you graduate, you discover that 1) employers still don’t think much of your “critical thinking skills” and 2) academia doesn’t seem to think much of them either. You are now at this stage about 30 years old, you’ve never spent a day outside of academia, and now you can’t find a tenure-track job. Basically, you gamble by going for a degree in the humanities, and you lose 3-4 years of your life (the time it takes to do get your undergrad degree), and so you end up gambling even more by getting a PhD (to win back the years that you already lost), and of course you then lose even more. Because, remember, you can’t win against the house. In particular not if the house is a university building.

The logical thing to do obviously would be to try and get a real job. Not the easiest thing with an English degree, but still. However, after spending over a decade in academia, you’ll be fully indoctrinated into the culture and thinkings of the academic community. Which means, in practical terms, that you won’t even try and get a job outside of academia, as to do so would be “selling out”. You’re an intellectual after all, you certainly can’t settle for a job as a librarian. And you definitely can’t work in the private sector; corporations are, as you know, evil. That’s what you’ve spent the past decade studying and writing about.

So what do you do next? Very likely, your next step is to become an adjunct. Adjuncts are lecturers who unlike tenured faculty members do not have permanent employment. Instead, an adjunct is hired to teach a specific module(s) and is paid a specific amount per module. When the module ends, the adjunct is terminated automatically – unless he/she can convince the university to hire him or her to teach another module. Whether the university re-hires an adjunct very much depends on how students performed in the class the adjuncts taught: Hand out high grades (which leads to high student satisfaction scores) and you may live to teach another day. Demand that your students work for their grades, and your academic career is over.

Obviously, teaching 1-2 modules isn’t going to pay the bills. So, adjuncts end up teaching at several different universities at the same time, travelling for hundreds of miles every day, just to earn enough money to survive. It actually isn’t unheard of adjuncts who, despite working at as many as three colleges at the same time, have to rely on food stamps.

And, this is all intentional: Universities accept more PhD students than they can hire, to make sure that there always will be a huge number of unemployed PhDs willing to work as adjuncts for basically no money at all. The system, in short, is rigged. The universities then hire adjuncts instead of real, tenured professors, which then leads to fewer tenure-track jobs opening up, and to more PhDs having to take adjunct jobs and so on. These adjuncts don’t do much high-quality research (they don’t get paid to do any and they don’t have access to university labs etc), and so as you get more and more adjuncts, and fewer tenured and tenure-track professors, you get less high-quality research overall. And this, ladies and gentlemen, reduces growth.

A reasonable requirement would be that universities have 1 tenured faculty member for every 1 adjunct – 50/50, in short. Rather than 2-3 adjuncts for every tenured lecturer, as the situation is today.

A lot of conservatives loath tenure, so let me just explain shortly why I support it: Tenure, imperfect as the system is, is the only thing that guarantees the academic freedom conservative intellectuals like myself so desperately need. While I’m absolutely against tenure for teachers at lower levels of education (elementary and high school teachers), tenure is important in academia. The tenure system absolutely has to be reformed, but a tenured professor still beats an adjunct any day of the week. Also, tenure is a significant employment benefit and without it, professors would certainly demand to be paid a lot more than they currently are.

By limiting the number of PhDs, in particular in the social sciences and the humanities, we can allow the academic labour market to balance itself and the oversupply of PhDs may begin to subside. For example, maybe we should only allow a university to accept X number of PhD students for every X number of tenure-track professors they’ve hired over the past five years?

4) Introduce a mandatory retirement age for Professors

This one should go without a saying; when you have such an extreme oversupply of PhDs, it’s time for someone to retire. It’s absolutely unreasonable to expect young academics to spend the best years of their lives as adjuncts and unemployed just because some 80-year old professor refuses to retire.

The exact age a professor should be forced to retire can be debated, but there is absolutely a need to draw a line.

Is it not their own fault?

This is a comment I’ve received a lot of time when I talk about the plight of graduate students: Sure it’s all just their own fault for being so stupid as to pursue a PhD. Isn’t the Republican party about personal responsibility? If you rot away as an adjunct after you’ve done your PhD, that’s not the government’s problem.

The problem with this “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” logic is that doing a PhD shouldn’t be a crime. If we want the US to be world-leading in research, we just can’t treat would-be researchers like this. I absolutely agree that many of those who pursue PhDs are being stupid, but that doesn’t change anything. The reason why we need to reform grad school is not only for the sake of the PhD students themselves, but for the sake of our future. Like I explained earlier in the post, academia has an important role to play in the US economy and society.

Also, it should be noted that most grad students are being deliberately mislead by the universities regarding their job prospects. Universities claim that if you just work hard enough, anything is possible. As long as you’re motivated, smart, and a hard worker, you’ll certainly be among the lucky few who gets tenure. The problem is that that’s not true; tenure depends more on luck than anything else. If you happen to have written papers on a topic that is trending right now, you may get tenure. If you happen to have an advisor who is a star in the academic community, you may get tenure. If you happen to work in a department where someone retires (that doesn’t happen regularly in academia as there is no mandatory retirement age), you may get tenure. And so on. It has very little to do with your own effort.

Not only do universities mislead students; parents and and the rest of society plays a part in this as well. Parents encourage their kids to pursue PhDs so that they will have a “doctor” in the family. Society (everyone from your relatives to your school teachers) claims that more education is always better, and no high-school kid has ever heard of the term “overqualified”. Can you blame someone who has grown up being indoctrinated into believing this for going to grad school?

Grad school reform: A need for the survival of the GOP

Having explained why grad school reform is necessary for the survival of the US as a superpower, it’s time to turn to a more important issue: Why the GOP needs to push these reforms in order to survive as a party.

Basically, the GOP needs to make inroads to academicians. We often talk about the need to appeal to blacks, hispanics, single mothers etc. but most of those groups are sadly out of reach due to them being overly dependent on the welfare state. Academics is a group that is growing in numbers, and that I believe is within reach of the GOP.

It’s not just the PhDs; they’re not large enough as a voting group to make much of a difference. It’s everyone who works in academia, everyone who’s tried to pursue a PhD, everyone who thought about trying to pursue a PhD but was scared away by low stipends and horrible job prospects. And that, all in all, is a lot of people. It’s hard to predict demographic trends: Most of those who claim the GOP needs to reach out to hispanics base this claim on the assumption that the birth rate among hispanics is going to remain as high as it is today. Time will tell whether this assumption is true (I doubt it…), but one thing that we can take for granted is that the number of PhD’s and also other college graduates will continue to increase.

The current GOP voter base just isn’t big enough. We have to choose how we want to expand it: Hispanics/blacks/single mothers, or academics? If there is a way to do both; fine. But if we have to choose, I take academics in a heart beat. There is no doubt in my mind that if the GOP were to introduce bills that would guarantee a decent living standard for those in academia, that we could gain a majority of votes among those with college- and postgrad degrees. In recent years, the GOP has worked hard to scare away academicians, with anti-intellectual language (such as Rick Santorum accusing Obama of being a snob) becoming more and more common. This is not the way to go. Mark my words; we will not survive as a party if we become the party of rednecks.

It is very confusing to me that Republicans haven’t realized this already; after all, Ronald Reagan (arguably the most successful Republican president of the 20th century) came from the intellectual conservative movement that developed and flourished in the 1950′s and 60′s. Simply shouting slogans that appeal to the uneducated voters is a losing strategy, as these voters become fewer and fewer. Ronald Reagan knew how to make intellectual, well-founded arguments, which is why he won in a landslide among college graduates. Despite the fact that “learning from history” is a fundemental part of conservatism, recent Republican candidates ignore this part of history and instead rely on turnout among uneducated voters to carry them to victory.

This post became a lot longer than I thought it would, and while there is a lot more I could say about the subject, I’m just going to stop here and possibly follow up later. Thanks for reading.