I haven’t yet read Leonard Cassuto’s new book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. I’m trying to get my hands on a copy. I’m encouraged by its initial feedback, though, because it seems to offer exactly what I’ve been calling for: a non-sensationalist, clear look at a very deeply disordered system that’s not afraid to criticize it harshly without devolving into the kind of scorched-earth recrimination that “quit lit” so often consists of.
I used to write fairly often on the topic of graduate education, but I’ve largely stopped in the past year or so. That’s because I was tired of so frequently being accused of being an apologist for the current situation. What’s weird about that is I’m most certainly not an apologist. I think we badly need change. And I think a lot of individual people need harsh condemnation for perpetuating an unhealthy system. Many people with PhDs, and even more graduate students, are exploited by universities. And on the only question that people seem interested in, whether or not people should go to grad school, my answer has been consistent: you almost certainly shouldn’t go. But this hasn’t been enough, and after having these debates both online and in person hundreds of times, I’ve found that I’m never going to satisfy some of the most vocal people who prosecute the case against academia. Not because we disagree on the material problems, but because I have little use for the kind of affective response that people always seem to be after. I am willing to offer harsh criticism, but not bitterness, and in my experience, that’s what people really want me to offer.
I’m just trying to be honest with you: most of my interactions with former academics and people who are angry while trying to hang on within the system have amounted to a demand that I express a certain affective response towards current conditions, rather than a demand that I share with them their take on the structural economic realities of current conditions. Indeed: I already do agree with them, in large measure, about the structural problems. I just don’t think that the particular emotive terms in which these issues are so often discussed are useful.
If there’s a real difference in substance between me and most other people who critique the state of graduate education and the academic job market, it’s in claims that I hear all the time that recent PhDs are a uniquely economically precarious population. I simply find that idea empirically unsupportable.
Let’s look at raw numbers, bearing in mind that these are for large aggregates of the population, including people who have had PhDs for a long time and not just recent graduates. There’s tons of good data out there, much of it compiled in this extremely detailed report from the College Board.
Note that these trends are true even if we look at just those aged 25-34 and are in their immediate post-grad school lives:
None of this should be particularly surprising. After all, people with masters and PhD degrees have college diplomas, and despite the endless efforts of our journalist class to claim that the college premium has disappeared, all responsible economic data suggests precisely the opposite.
There’s a stock response to aggregate information like this: well, surely, the situation is far worse for recent grads! In the future, the numbers will look far grimmer, because the academic markets have recently plunged. But this claim is typically offered without evidence, and what evidence I do see tends to be deeply confounded by the economy-wide employment depression the United States suffered following the financial crisis. What’s more, this attitude implies that poor labor market conditions in the humanities and social sciences is a new phenomenon, when in many fields it goes back to at least the early 1990s. Yes, of course: the academic job market is deeply unhealthy, and the humanities and social sciences face very uncertain futures in terms of the number of tenure track lines they hire and will hire. That needs to change, no question. Administrators at colleges must be pressured to reinvest in the teaching force, and all potential grad students should be told about these long odds over and over again. But there’s a big difference between saying that people with PhDs can’t get a particular kind of job and saying that they can’t get any jobs. That there are far fewer quality full-time academic jobs for the PhDs we turn out is inarguable, and reform is needed in many ways. That PhDs are “the new serfs,” or are comparable to sharecroppers, or represent a uniquely beleaguered economic class — all notions that have been put to me directly by people who are understandably upset about how their graduate careers turned out — those ideas simply are not supportable.
I highly encourage you to look at this breakdown of recent STEM PhD graduates by Jordan Weissmann from a year ago. On the one hand, Weissmann is indeed presenting data that things have gotten worse, economically, for a class of people who probably assumed that they were sure to do well in the labor market. And again, I agree that this is a problem. But even under the new, worse conditions that Weissmann details, such people are in vastly better shape than many millions of Americans who struggled economically. And as Weissmann repeatedly says, those who struggle initially on the job market almost always end up employed, and that those who don’t end up in academia tend to find work in the private sector. It should not be this hard for us to admit the real problems while refusing to lose the forest for the trees. No doubt those in the humanities find the working world harder than those in STEM disciplines. But as the numbers show, most of them end up OK, too, even though many of them surely face the personal disappointment of not getting an academic job.
I’m asking people to separate a few different things. I’m asking you to separate the emotional and personal costs of not getting the career you wanted from the larger sense of societal economic problems. The former is a personal problem and I have so much compassion for people who suffer from that problem. The latter is a social problem and exists on a higher orbit than the former. I have sympathy for friends of mine who wanted to get tenure track jobs and didn’t, and who went on to jobs in publishing or insurance or high school education or administration or public relations. I do not have the same kind of sympathy I have for those with only high school degrees who labor in the fast food industry for poverty wages. I also ask you to separate the acknowledgment that a system has deep problems from the need to insist that those deep problems are unique, uniquely harmful, and uniquely in need of reform. Surely we can separate those things.
This is just inarguable: in bare economic terms, if you had to choose from a veil of ignorance between being someone with an advanced degree or someone from the (much larger population of) people with no college degree at all, you’d choose the former every time. That’s true even if you were to stipulate that you were choosing to be someone with a PhD but no academic job. I have both sympathy and solidarity for those with graduate degrees who don’t have any job, and I recognize that many adjuncts live lives of terrible exploitation. Change is desperately needed. As a socialist, I believe that everyone should enjoy far more material security and comfort than many in our society do, no matter what their education level. I also recognize that many aspects of academic culture make that culture uniquely insulting to those who are smart, work hard, and yet fail to get long-term employment in a broken labor market. But all of the responsible evidence that I’ve seen suggests that the overall conditions are far better than the popular conception, and I think we need to be clear about the actual economic reality for Americans with advanced degrees, particularly compared to the majority who do not have a college degree.
The fact of the matter is, the “lol grad students” narrative simply ticks too many boxes in a clickbait economy. One of the most tried-and-true click generators is setting up a group of people for mockery, which enables readers to feel better about their own station in comparison. This combines with the anti-intellectualism that is endemic to American culture, the resentment our media tends to display towards academics, the desire to be self-congratulatory that Alan Jacobs identifies, and the genuinely righteous indignation people feel for academia’s labor practices, to make this genre durably popular in our media landscape. The only sacrifice is a clear public understanding of the truth: that those with advanced degrees, as a class, enjoyed major social and economic benefits in comparison to the average American. We can recognize that while remaining totally committed to change and to helping those with PhDs who desperately need help. Indeed, if we’re going to solve these problems, we have to.