Retort and Riposte: More Grad School Stuff
So for those of you who missed the earlier exchange Dan and I have been having a bit of a back-and-forth RE: the state of graduate education. I broke the topic with an article on the Duke Collective, a group of students who had resorted to wage sharing to help minimize the perilous funding situations they found themselves in. I argued that the move places a spotlight on the structural problems with graduate education and higher education in general. Dan responded with some Canadian-centric points that I’ll try to respond to here.
” Unfortunately, we do not yet live in Star Trek’s post-scarcity economy, and therefore it’s important to think through why the current system is the way it is, what fully funding graduate studies would entail, and what effects it would have on academic labour generally.”
I think in order to answer this point I need to give you a primer on the way graduate education is paid for in the US. It is not, as it is in Canada, a land of ubiquitous $27 an hour stipends and reasonable work expectations. I’ll focus on the way that sciences are handled because that’s the area I feel most comfortable speaking with any kind of authority on.
In the US the training of science graduate students is normally linked to “soft money”. Faculty mentors apply for short-term research grants and training grants to retain graduate students and fund student projects. Faculty often rent lab space from universities and pay themselves with the grants they bring in. Your future, the project you work on, and the faculty mentor you work with are dependent on federal and state funding and dependent on how good your mentor is at writing grants. In other words there is scarce agency given to individual graduate students as to which labs and which professors they actually want to work with. After the application process, the interviews, the “fit testing” and the rotations you’re left with only a few options for people who have money, let alone ones who aren’t terrible to work with. The marriage of short-term research grants to graduate funding also fosters a conflict of interest between the lab mentor and the student. The student has a vested interest in graduating sooner rather than later while the mentor has an interest in extracting as much useful work out of the student as possible which often leads to extended stays in training programs.
At the post-graduate level you can expect to transition into a post-doctoral position. These positions were at one time honors bestowed on promising young scientists but have now become so common that they translate into an itinerant, scientific workforce. Post-docs float from one lab to another on short contracts for four years or more working 60ish hours a week for $30-40K a year. The post-doc holding pattern combined with the linkage of grad student funding to grants has created a culture in which the majority of biological research is generated by transient or student researchers. The axiom is that trainees are the laboratory workforce and the axiom is poisonously true.
“Drastically limiting the number of PhDs would also, however, mean ending the careers of many potentially brilliant scholars before they even had the chance to get started. All but the very strongest and best-prepared applicants would be denied the opportunity to pursue graduate work at all, a situation that would not only work against late bloomers (who perhaps need a bit of graduate-level instruction and guidance to get on track), but also graduates of less prestigious institutions or students who have unusual backgrounds. I have to say that the prospect of denying otherwise-qualified students the opportunity to continue their educations for purely budgetary reasons strikes me as distinctly unpleasant.”
It doesn’t matter how unpleasant you think this is. Restricting access due to budgetary constraints and the realities of the economy is fiducially prudent. Every other labor market is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Graduate programs should too. You cannot expect people to train graduate students at the same rate with less money. It’s criminal to try. Furthermore it’s been indicated time and time again by people in higher education and economists that there are too many people with PhDs. The market cannot absorb all of the PhDs in science. It’s even worse for the humanities. Calling for graduate enrollment to remain the same because you don’t want to avoid hurting the careers of young scholars ignores the prevailing market forces and dilutes the value of the PhD as a degree. When you factor in the American Academe’s snobbishness against low-powered institutions, the torturous application process to get on the tenure track and the persistent adjunctification of the faculty you are left with no vacancies for people from “less prestigious institutions” or “weird backgrounds” let alone people with stellar records.
“Grad students are already compensated for their non-study labour, it is just that they are part-time workers. When Vince writes that “Graduate students are essential to the function of universities, teaching classes, performing research, doing laboratory work, grading papers and holding office hours for undergrads but they are not compensated well enough to make a living for the 5-7 years it takes to get a Ph.D, nor are they considered employees,” he does not mention that PhD students are in fact paid for all labour they perform outside their programme requirements.”
Again this misses my point entirely. Graduate students have to compete with other graduate students both inside and outside of their departments for limited funding space in the humanities. The work they perform, while necessary for them to survive, can detract from actually getting to complete your degree. It’s difficult to do research for a thesis while balancing a full course load and an introductory course with 50-100 freshmen. The problem is not that they are part time or full time the problem is that their funding is irregular and dependent on departmental whims or short-term research grants. We do not get regular paychecks, especially not in fields like Musicology. We get what we can take from the institution and by extension other graduate students. We get money when the graduate studies department decides when they want us to eat. Why should I mention that the students are compensated for the labor they perform outside the degree requirements when that has nothing to do with the thrust of the problem, lots of work for very little or irregular pay? Why should I mention that the students are being paid when the problem is that they are not compensated fairly for labor or recognized as labor by their institutions?
“Graduate students may be professional teachers, lab workers, assistants, or whatever else they are contracted to do, but they are not yet professional academic researchers. They are not employed by their universities to conduct their own research projects in the same way faculty are. Rather, they are in the process of earning the necessary professional qualifications to be employed as such.”
If you are doing the same work as a teacher or a laboratory technician you should be compensated. You bring prestige and funding to your lab by generating data. In the US you generate the majority of all scientific discoveries. You educate the undergraduates. You grade papers and tests. These things are labor and should be compensated as such.
The way that the university gets around this is by framing graduate education as an apprenticeship. The idea is that they work long and hard for low pay (or no pay) but that the mentor and institution have a responsibility to launch the career of the scholar. This is no longer the case. Placing people in tenure track positions is neigh impossible; employment prospects are tenuous at best. The part of the social contract that justifies the apprenticeship model is left unupheld by the university and the mentor but the student’s role has gone unchanged. The arrangement is convenient for the institution, which can ignore labor laws and basic fairness for the students. They ignore basic human dignity for the students and exploit their optimism. This has to change. If the IRS classifies graduate students as employees for the purposes of taxation so should universities. If the United Autoworkers are willing to allow graduate students to join them for collective bargaining rights they need to be recognized for the workers that they are.
“PhD research is not the same as paid corporate training.”
No it isn’t. Cooperate training exists to enrich the organization that gives you the training for a job that exists. PhD training does neither of these things. The academic labor market and the labor market in general are so poor that the majority of PhD carriers will end up as transient academic labor or on foodstamps or both. If the point of the PhD is to enrich the society that produces them it fails by making it impossible for PhDs to return the investment. If the purpose of the PhD is to replenish aging faculty and serve as the institutional memory of the profession of professing it still fails due to the abysmal percentage of young scholars and scientists on the tenure track. What is the purpose of spending 5-7 years on a degree that certifies you for a job that does not exist?
“All disciplines are not compensated equal(ly). There is a reason that it is relatively uncommon to find significant funding available for students doing postgraduate training in law or medicine, and that is that many of those students can expect significant return on their investment in future labour markets. Fully funding such training for all students would, therefore, be an incredibly inefficient use of limited university budgets.”
Law and medicine are pre-professional programs, not research positions or teaching positions. They are not the same. To conflate them is to be profoundly ignorant of the nature of post-secondary education. Nobody is asking that MDs get full compensation to do coursework but we do compensate them for post-graduate training during their residencies. How would you feel if the doctor that was working the late shift in the ER wasn’t being paid enough to live without food stamps? Now expand that, how would you feel if the people developing new vaccines, discovering new species, or teaching your college kids weren’t paid enough to remain solvent?
“Nobody is forced to take a bad funding deal. I want to be clear here and say that I absolutely 100% think that governments etc. should be doing more to support research and education–a project that includes more funding for postgraduate training and the production of new scholarship–but when it comes right down to it, if a graduate programme is not going to make it financially feasible for you to attend, the best advice is usually to do something else.”
Nobody is forced to do anything. Why should any problems matter? You’re arguing that nobody should expect good funding or the expansion of funding but you’re also saying that people should not take bad deals. Those points are contradictory and not terribly helpful. This is especially true in the US where funding is not something that’s regular or guaranteed. Your deal can go out the window, your TA spot can be taken by another graduate student, funding can be cut at the state, university or federal level. It’s unreasonable for graduate students, the people in the weakest bargaining position, to take responsibility for the funding packages that institutions offer them.
It’s not just me saying these things. The call has been sounded by professors warning people away from graduate schools, by scientists and engineers, by think tanks and by former academics. The question is not “Is the system broken?” but “When will people care?”.
Edit: This post originally misquoted Dan’s figure of $27 per hour as $27K a year.