Friday, January 21, 2011

The gloom and doom speech

Texas, where I live, has suddenly “discovered” an enormous budget deficit, just months after our governor was re-elected by telling everybody that he had kept Texas on a sound financial footing, unlike, say, California, which is facing major cuts in services. Suddenly Texas is ready to close down several community colleges and reduce funding for public schools drastically. Anything to avoid those job-killing tax hikes.

One fact that keeps surfacing in this context is this one: People with more education are much more likely to get and hold onto good jobs. Thus, cutting funding to education to save jobs is a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Or so it seems.

As an academic, I have to think about questions like this and their ethical implications frequently. My field is musicology: a word that most people now associate primarily with Prince, if they associate it with anything at all. For as long as I can remember, many more advanced degrees have been granted in musicology than the job market can justify, and the result has not been more jobs but more unemployed musicologists. I myself was “under-employed” for ten years before finally finding one of those elusive tenure-track jobs. In the meantime, I discovered that having a PhD over-qualifies you for almost everything except flipping hamburgers, where the turnover is so high already that they don’t care if you’re really looking for a better job.

The ethical implications of this situation resurfaced this week at an academic colloquium held in my department for our academic music majors. My colleagues spent nearly an hour talking to them about the fields of musicology, music theory and ethnomusicology, with an eye to helping them select a graduate program that suits their interests. It fell to me to conclude the performance with what I have come to think of as “the gloom and doom speech.” In a few harrowing words, I told them that there are few fields in the world in which they can invest more time, money and emotional energy in getting a degree that qualifies them for fewer jobs that pay less. I ask them if they are so determined to be musical academics that if a job doesn’t appear right away, they would be willing to sell apples on a street corner until it does. I tell them that my version of selling apples on a street corner was teaching English (yes, English!) at a second-rate private high school for two years, and I sometimes regale them with horror stories from that experience. (I once received a one-page paper on the Odyssey in which Odysseus was spelled seven different ways, none of them correct.) Then I watch as they file out dejectedly – or, even more problematically, as they absorb this information and continue to talk about their futures as though they had not heard me. This bothers me because I did the same thing when I was their age and I got “the speech” from one of my professors. I sometimes wonder if I should have listened – but deep down I’m sure it wouldn’t have made a difference, and I just hope my students’ determination is as strong as mine was. They will certainly need it.

Yesterday I sweetened the pill a bit with the following video. Watch it, and tell me if you think it’s funny. Then tell me what you would do if you were in my shoes. Or if you already are.


  1. I don't think you embedded it right, Robin. I'm not seeing anything.

  2. I think part of the reason students pursue a PhD is because school is the only thing they know how to do. That is part of it for me. Sure, I have passion for my subject area, but part of me needs the school environment to function. By going to school for a PhD I can defer my loans even longer and delay the reality that I will not always be a student.

  3. @Jonathan - Let's try again.

  4. I can't seem to make it into a hyperlink, but if you copy this into your URL line, it will come up.

    @Aaron - I'm afraid you're probably right about that. As a counter-motivator, check out one of my favorite quotes on Facebook. A friend of mine who sweated blood to get a PhD and then tried to find a job in business was actually given the following advice by a professional career counselor: "Get that PhD off your resume! It would look better if you had spent time in jail than to have a PhD."

  5. Meh.

    I've started to respond to this several times. We'll see if this version makes it through.

    The aggregate unemployment rate among people with graduate and professional degrees is less than 3% last time I checked. Less than college grads. Way less than high school grads.

    If you pursue a PhD thinking it is a meal ticket, you're naive, and having Robin Wallace rain on your parade is the least of your problems.

    If you pursue a PhD out of love of your chosen area and the embrace of critical thought, you'll be ok. Not to say the road won't have some bumps, and that a hefty dollop of luck is doesn't push some to the head of the line. But the PhD is, for most grad students, a test of stamina met with intellectual restlessness.

    When my first grad student defended, I confided to one of his committee members (who later failed to get tenure not once but twice): "I don't know if he made it through the screen or if he's an escaper." My colleague replied: "Well, you know what needs to be done; backcross and re-select." This student is still in science, as are all of my PhD trainees.

    My lovely and talented wife and I got our PhDs at the same time and from the same university. We moved to the same University to do our postdocs. Since then, our career trajectories have diverged. Who is happier or more "successful?" I'm not prepared to say yet, 28 years in. I think we were both afforded choices we wouldn't have had without the degree, but in the end, these are experiments without controls.

  6. "If you pursue a PhD out of love of your chosen area and the embrace of critical thought, you'll be ok."

    Theoretically, I agree, although I do think there are more bumps in the road, and more chances of complete derailment, in the humanities. At present, I don't regret those ten years of under-employment at all; they've made me a better person and a better teacher. At the time I was going through it, it was a lot harder to see it that way. I know people who have become extremely bitter over the experience, and have never been satisfied with their lot in life.

    I've never had the chance to teach doctoral students, and I've really only advised a handful of bachelor's and master's students with a music history concentration. (Most of my graduate students are in other areas of music.) Of those, one is now a well-known radio personality to those who listen to public radio in Nashville. Others have done various kinds of teaching and/or gone on to doctoral study. There are no train wrecks that I am aware of.

    Nevertheless, I vividly remember a quarrel I had with my dean at a previous job. He insisted that, at a tiny school with fewer than 100 music students, I should aim to have 6 music history majors at any given time. When I told him that was unrealistic, and that I felt obligated to advise anyone who wanted to major in music history about the uncertainties of the job market and make sure they knew what they were getting into, he answered "Well, if you don't believe in it yourself, how do you expect to recruit students into your program?" I have encountered less extreme versions of this attitude elsewhere.

  7. Here's an interview with the editor of a book on the commodification of academic research that provides insight into your former dean's comment:

    As an associate dean for research myself, as well as an academic researcher who has always struggled for extramural funding, I like to think I understand both sides. The bean counters have momentum on their side these days. In medical schools, the unit of scholarship is the dollar. With a research grant, it is easy to quantify the scholarship of a faculty by this unit. But for some, like me, who bear a disproportionate teaching load, there is no simple way to monetize this part of my activities, which nevertheless competes for my time with research.

    I think the lesson isn't necessarily to discourage ambition (which your YouTube faculty seeks to do) but to inform it.

  8. "I think the lesson isn't necessarily to discourage ambition (which your YouTube faculty seeks to do) but to inform it."

    Absolutely! The video is so funny because so many of us have probably wanted to say one or more of the things that the professor there says at one time or another, but have wisely refrained.

    One big difference between the humanities and science is that in the humanities even academic research doesn't bring in much, if any, money, so the commodification takes place in the less tangible currency of prestige, which largely boils down to perception.

    Jonathan B., are you still lurking?

  9. Robin,

    I've wanted to say such things to some students. They are the ones who think if they just stick around long enough, they'll get a badge and it will mean a good job.

    I wouldn't say such things to the students who display commitment, tenacity and intellectual restlessness. They are survivors, and will figure it out, regardless of circumstances.

    The reality is that a lot of kids who choose the PhD thing would be better off with a masters. The opportunity cost of a PhD is substantial, particularly in the humanities. But, from casual inspection, I'd infer that most PhD candidates couldn't define "opportunity cost" and couldn't explain how to research it if they were told the definition.

    As a student of human genetics, my observation is that the traits of high intelligence and good judgment are unlinked.