Monday, May 27, 2013

Stanford to Pay Humanities PhDs to Go Away

Recent history PhDs trek to the Ed department
Once upon a time, I worked with an old man who had a sad secret.  When the man was young, he had fallen deeply in love with a girl whom his rich parents considered an unsuitable match. The parents dealt with this embarrassing problem in way that is long-established among the wealthy, they offered the woman a large sum of money to go away. She accepted. By the time I knew the man these events were decades in the past, but the resulting sadness was still fresh.

Why am I reminded of this story when I read about Stanford University's new plan to help its unemployed recent PhDs by offering free tuition if they will enroll in the MA in Education program and become high school teachers? "Sorry that PhD training is not going to get you a job. How about a free MA in something more employable and we call it good?"

Not that they are presenting it that way of course. "Society needs good teachers at all levels,”  Associate Dean Debra Satz, told Inside Higher Ed. “In Europe, it is much more common for high school teachers and others to have advanced degrees.”

I think it is also from Europe that we get the model of paying inconvinient people to go away.

The Stanford plan is terrible in all kinds of ways. High school social studies jobs are already scarce, and it is not clear if a PhD will make a job seeker more competitive or less. While a broad knowledge is absolutely necessary for a good high school teacher, the hyper-specialization and research focus of a doctoral program is not a path to that broad knowledge. The time commitment is enormous--perhaps 7 or 8 years to the PhD (though Stanford is trying to cut this to 5) and then another 2 for the education degree--for a job that you might have landed with an undergraduate degree. And as a Facebook friend of mine said when I shared the article, "Hope they can coach a sport."

The real problem of course, is the overproduction of PhDs in humanities fields. Year after year, and despite the warnings, thousands of your people come to places like Stanford to earn a PhD with the unlikely goal of becoming college professors. "The primary goal of Stanford's Department of History's graduate program is the training of scholars. Most students who receive doctorates in the program will go on to teach at colleges or universities," Stanford tells its prospective history graduate students, offering a link to "placements." The link is broken.

Everyone knows that the answer is to radically reduce the number of PhD programs and their graduates--but no one actually wants to do it. Faculty love teaching intimate graduate seminars rather than surveys in the lecture hall. Grad students are needed to grade
Crikey, it's an education degree!
freshman papers and run discussions. The grad students themselves are completely committed to the system and invested in the idea that it is they who will find the golden ticket in the Wonka Bar. College administrators rise through the ranks by not rocking the boat. And every year the job market gets worse.

The problem with unemployed graduates is that they don't leave. They drag out their degrees to postpone the horrible problem of repaying student loans without a job. Their stipends run out and they hang around, begging for a course or two to adjunct and access to the library. In the article one Stanford professor complains about engineering students "parked" in postdocs that were meant to be temporary. The weight of unemployed former and current graduate students gets greater each year, and their presences depresses faculty and current graduate students alike. Stanford had to do something.

I do wish these students success with their MA degrees in education. Teaching in the public schools is a noble profession, and arguably far more important to society than is being a college professor. The Stanford plan just seems a roundabout way to get there.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Now I know why I've been living overseas for the past twenty years. My wife retires five months from now. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for repatriation.