Scabs, Scantrons, and Strikes at the University of Oregon

by Corey Robin on November 22, 2014

From the Department of You Can’t Make This Shit Up…

Grad students at the University of Oregon are about to go out on strike.

Last year, we talked here about how the faculty at the University of Oregon were trying to negotiate a fair contract with the administration. You’ll recall that the administration wasn’t doing itself any favors with its outlandish efforts to deny faculty privacy and encroach on faculty autonomy outside the university. Because of the pressure we managed to put on the administration, we helped to get the faculty a good contract. Now we need to stand with the grad students and their union fight. Only this time, the administration is being even more outlandish.

At the heart of the dispute is a demand by the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTTF) for two weeks of paid leave for illness or childbirth. The city of Eugene, which is where the University is located, mandates that all workers in the city get sick leave benefits. But university employees are exempted from the policy, so the GTTF has to bargain for the benefits.

Now it just so happens that the university’s interim president, Scott Coltrane, is a sociologist who’s a leading national spokesperson for the importance of…good family leave policies. He’s been featured in The Atlantic and on NPR. He was even at the White House last June to speak about how important these policies are. Well, he certainly wouldn’t be the first academic who talks left and walks right.

But here’s where things get really delicious.

Late last month senior administrators circulated a secret memorandum to deans and directors outlining a plan to break the strike by hiring scab labor and weakening academic standards for undergraduate education. You’ve got to read the whole thing to believe it, but here are some of my favorite parts.

First, the administration moots different possibilities for conscripting scab labor from the unionized faculty ranks.


It is generally understood that supervisors [i.e., chairs] can approach represented faculty [i.e., in the bargaining unit] and engage them in a dialogue about assisting for the duration of the strike. This assistance may include, but is not limited to: teaching, grading, or participating in the hiring of replacement workers…In the event that there is a specific need that may require assigning work to a represented faculty member who has refused to accept it, please contact Academic Affairs for further guidance about that particular situation.

Keep in mind that many of these full-timers who are to be “engaged in a dialogue” or face the possibility of being reported to “Academic Affairs for further guidance” are not tenured.

Then there’s the faculty who aren’t represented by any kind of union. Here’s how they ought to be approached for scab labor:


Similar to represented faculty, we will be seeking volunteers from among our unrepresented faculty ranks for coverage of work previously assigned to GTFs. Unlike represented faculty, there is no ambiguity as to whether departments can explicitly assign the work should the need arise. Again, every effort should be made to find volunteers to cover the work.

In the lexicon of UniversityofOregonese, “volunteers” can be “assigned” work. As is so often the case, language betrays the power it’s meant to serve.


If all that fails, there’s this:


Hire LCC instructors or other community subject matter experts.

And then there’s the delicate matter of final exams.


Now when I was at Yale leading the TA grade strike at the end of the fall semester in 1995, the university ran into this problem, too. They solved it, in a bunch of cases, by having students simply write on a card the grade they thought they should get. That’s the gentleman’s honor code.


At Oregon, they’re a little more…meritocratic.



For a strike occurring on or after finals week, departments should have a plan in place for covering finals and grading that is performed by GTFs.


1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.


2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.


3. Provide students with the following options:


a. Forgo the final and take the grade they had going into the final


b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded


I’m told that the university is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.

Thankfully, twelve department heads and program directors issued a public letter to senior administrators refusing to engage in strikebreaking activities on practical, pedagogical, and moral grounds, threatening to resign their administrative positions if forced to do so. I hope more join them.

The strike could yet be avoided if the university administration were to offer meaningful concessions. And for that they need more pressure.

You can help by emailing President Scott Coltrane at pres@uoregon.edu and Provost Francis Bronet at provost@uoregon.edu and urging them to settle with the GTFF.

You can also sign this petition:

We—the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Oregon and the community at large—express our strong support for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (the GTFF) in their current contractual negotiations with the University.

In light of the invaluable contribution GTFs make to the instruction and research missions of the University, we feel GTFs have earned a contract that provides them with fair compensation, respectful treatment, and the basic securities provided to other campus employee groups.

We demand that the University take seriously the GTFF’s bargaining proposals— a minimum wage that actually meets living expenses for graduate students in Eugene and paid parental and sick leave.

We stand beside the GTFF and call upon the University administration to take concrete and immediate steps, at the bargaining table and beyond, to provide GTFs with the fair wages, equitable benefits, and respectful working conditions they deserve.


Please make sure to reach out to these folks, and please circulate this post widely.

Special thanks to Joe Lowndes, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, for writing an earlier draft of this, which I posted at my blog.

{ 121 comments }

1

NickT 11.22.14 at 5:52 am

“Now when I was at Yale leading the TA grade strike at the end of the fall semester in 1995, the university ran into this problem, too. They solved it, in a bunch of cases, by having students simply write on a card the grade they thought they should get…”

This is a somewhat selective version of what occurred. It would be more accurate to say that many TAs thought that GESO’s approach was foolish and unlikely to win anything except the anger of students and parents. The administration, who certainly had their own follies and faults, had to do very little but wait for the grade strike to fall apart as reality became ever clearer.

2

Corey Robin 11.22.14 at 6:06 am

You’re right, I was being selective. Here are some of the other things the administration did or had the faculty do:

1. Bring three leaders of the strike up on disciplinary charges, in which expulsion was listed as an explicit punishment. (Since two of those leaders were international students, that would have have meant having to leave the country.)

2. Issue instructions to faculty and graduate students itemizing all the consequences of participation in the strike. Among those consequences: expect negative letters of recommendation in your dossier and no further teaching at the university.

3. Organize captive-audience meetings of graduate students where they were informed by their chairs, directors of graduate studies, and — often — advisers, that they should expect negative repercussions like those listed above.

4. All the multiple cases that were documented by the National Labor Relations Board of individual faculty threatening graduate students with denial of further teaching or bad letters of recommendation or other negative consequences.

For a strike that had so little support and for which the administration was just waiting to fall apart, it certainly took quite a bit of retaliatory action to crush it.

Since you’re posting anonymously, I have no idea if you’re actively lying or just misinformed. In any event, you’re wrong.

3

NickT 11.22.14 at 7:48 am

Actually, I was one of those TAs – and I remember the events of the strike with considerable clarity. I also remember your “leadership” and the way that GESO went about relentlessly pestering grad students, even after you had been told by multiple people to stop calling them. You’ve never faced up to just how unpopular GESO was with grad students – and it’s time you recognized your own culpability in this matter. Creating narratives of how GESO was perfectly virtuous and wise do no-one any favors, especially future activists.

If you can’t face the fact that you and GESO screwed up on this one, at least have the decency not to accuse other people of lying or being misinformed as a way of covering your own ass.

p.s. I remember Robin Brown with some respect because she at least knew when to back off. She also shot a good game of pool.

4

BenK 11.22.14 at 12:12 pm

There’s more than one person out there who remembers the Yale unionization efforts. As I recall, having been a graduate student, it was a mixed bag including considerable immoral behavior on the part of the unions. I am less inclined to listen to grandstanding from someone who was associated with those efforts and is somehow proud of it.

5

Main Street Muse 11.22.14 at 1:13 pm

All this because grad students want two weeks paid leave for illness or childbirth? Wow.

6

Anarcissie 11.22.14 at 1:51 pm

I wonder if there is an account of the business at Yale not written by the usual suspects (Yale, the New York Times, etc.)

7

Corey Robin 11.22.14 at 1:54 pm

NickT: It’s hard to take seriously an accusation of “covering your own ass” from someone who’s posting anonymously.

8

Corey Robin 11.22.14 at 1:56 pm

Anarcissie: Fair enough. But as I should have said to other commenters above (and should have clarified in my original post, though I didn’t think it needed clarification): this post is about the events of today, not 20 years ago. I really do not want it derailed with a discussion about Yale. The point is the grad students at the University of Oregon. So, please, everyone, let’s move on.

9

gatheringdust 11.22.14 at 2:21 pm

I’d like to know which “consultants” the university has hired. Academics have a huge capacity for assholery, as witnessed by the diversion above, but the memo from the University of Oregon seems to have been crafted by management professionals of a truly low-life kind.

10

gatheringdust 11.22.14 at 2:24 pm

11

Barry 11.22.14 at 2:50 pm

Corey, I suggest being strict on both the ‘no Yale’ and general ‘Unyonz Iz Evul’, assuming that you’d like to keep this thread in the same universe.

12

Main Street Muse 11.22.14 at 3:03 pm

I thought the Nike guy pretty much owned UO these days. Kind of sounds like they’re adopting the Nike view on the use and value of cheap labor … and yes, unions are very threatening to that perspective.

(UO is dumping on graduate fellows who want two weeks paid leave to have a baby. UNC has paid out more than $4 million in PR and legal fees recently for its ongoing academic fraud scandal. UVA is now grappling with a terrible rape crisis. Duke is dealing with a cheating scandal. Harvard had a cheating scandal not long ago. The academy is rife with corruption and scandal…)

13

Anarcissie 11.22.14 at 3:11 pm

Is there a significant difference? Labor struggles at universities, as at other bourgeois institutions, pit workers against management and owners. The latter, having the wealth, social status, and connections, have the use of the boss media, the government, big money, lawyers, and paid and voluntary shills. And they never forget, as we have just observed. Today’s labor struggles, like yesterday’s and tomorrow’s, tend to be variations on a theme, and reference to other such conflicts may add an informative dimension to consideration of the present one, although from what I read above the preparations for strike-breaking seem pretty run-of-the-mill.

14

joeyjoejoe 11.22.14 at 3:17 pm

if your summary of events is accurate, why is it even remotely controversial? if a hospital staff went on strike, mamagement would make plans to care for patients. if graduate TA’s go on strike, management is making plans to insure the 20,000 students of the university are able to complete the semester. Not only is it not bad; it is exactly what management should be doing.

joeyjoejoe

15

William Timberman 11.22.14 at 3:37 pm

How come all the Harry Bennett clones are showing up on this thread? You on a watchlist or something, Corey?

When I was trying to help organize a staff union on my campus 30 years ago, it was expected that the administration would behave like dicks toward staff and students, but the war on grad assistants and adjuncts was just beginning, and not everyone understood that it was all part of the same struggle. Now that we’ve finally gotten down to confirming the University of Phoenix as the template for the whole of higher education, the end game seems a lot clearer….

Shorter version: give ’em hell, Corey. Whatever the outcome, it’s a fight worth taking on.

16

In the sky 11.22.14 at 4:13 pm

The public letter link appears to be dead.

17

Corey Robin 11.22.14 at 4:26 pm

Link fixed. Thanks.

18

MPAVictoria 11.22.14 at 4:45 pm

This is going to be a depressing thread. I hope you anti union assholes are enjoying your Saturday off….

“Shorter version: give ‘em hell, Corey. Whatever the outcome, it’s a fight worth taking on.”

Yep.

19

John Garrett 11.22.14 at 6:04 pm

William Timberman@15: what you said. I’d love to know what is really going on here, and where these previously unseen herds from the right are coming from. Is it just chasing Corey or is there actually a theme server somewhere that sends them out to do battle with unions, grad students, whatever? I wish one of you dark trolls would tell me in what way grad students are not employees, and entitled to any benefits other employees receive. Oh, I forgot, you think nobody should get any benefits whatsoever.

JG

20

Linnaeus 11.22.14 at 7:02 pm

The ASE union at my Ph.D. institution (in the same region as UO) will be entering contract talks with the administration, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

21

adam.smith 11.22.14 at 7:56 pm

The heartening part here is that (most of?) faculty seem to be on the right side.
The disheartening part is that the TAs are basically fighting for breadcrumbs. That there is even a fight about 2 weeks sick leave and pregnancy (!) leave is just pathetic.

(And what @15 & 19 say — I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories, but once you hire union-buster firms, I do believe that absolutely everything is possible, including hiring actual people & sock puppets to try to attack the poster and/or derail the post on popular academic blogs and fora, likely to undermine above mentioned support among faculty)

22

Dan 11.22.14 at 9:31 pm

Yeesh. Imagine if grad students demanded a living wage.

23

gianni 11.22.14 at 11:02 pm

NickT and BenK – same naming model, repeating the same line. Reminds me of JQ’s thread a couple of weeks ago decrying the ‘branding’ crazy taking over University administrators, where his post was quickly denounced as stupid by someone who was quickly revealed to be a uni. administrator.

Who knows what NickT and BenK are all about, but I find it highly unlikely, given the sentiments that they have expressed above, that they are highly attentive CT lurkers or avid readers of CR’s work. So how did they swoop in so quickly and get the first non-OP comments? Funny how that happens.

As for the OP, obviously it is outrageous. The bit about ‘volunteers’ is especially ugly. The hypocrisy looks bad, but – of course- this is not about the particular demands, it is about the power relations themselves, the fact that they feel so emboldened to be making demands.

Just my scattered thoughts.

24

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 11.22.14 at 11:37 pm

I remember the strike of 1977…
~

25

ZM 11.23.14 at 12:18 am

Kevin Anderson the climate scientist posted on his blog last year about something similar, but more about pay issues. He said as a union member he would support the union’s actions, but really thought they should be pursuing systemic reform of remuneration at universities.

I am not sure of the etiquette about copying this as it says it was a temporary post, but it has been up a year, so I will just copy the first section and hope that is okay (?):

“As a union member I will be taking part in the strike, but wish to emphasise that from a financial perspective it is the distributional issues that are important and not that all academics etc. are inadequately rewarded. Personally, I consider that professors and other senior members of staff are more than adequately remunerated – and actually some are overpaid by a considerable margin. At the same time many of my colleagues who are on short-term research contracts remain financially undervalued and with very uncertain job security, as indeed are many support staff, from P.A.s to technicians and cleaners. I would very strongly favour action that recognised and sought to address such distributional unfairness, and certainly I would support an absolute pay ceiling for anyone working within the university system.”

http://kevinanderson.info/blog/email-to-the-ucu-about-striking-and-academics-pay/

26

green menace 11.23.14 at 3:02 am

Of course, this isn’t about the cost of paid leave from UO administration’s point of view. It’s not even about the “principle” of giving paid leave to part-time employees as they’re claiming. What it’s really about is union-busting, pure and simple.

The UO administrators, and many department heads, detest having to sit down every two years and negotiate with grad students as if they were adults. Every bargaining cycle elicits a spate of accusations against the GTFF for hampering the Strategic Initiative for Whatever, competitive faculty recruiting, and so on, because of the GTFF’s outrageous demands for a living wage. And they hate the fact that support for the union is very strong.

UO is hoping that they can wait out the strike and let the GTFF demoralize itself into submission. Fortunately, the administration has made such an unholy mess of this situation that they’ve probably burned through any advantage they had. It’s still going to be very hard on the UO grad students, so it’s important to get the word out and support them in any way possible.

27

Chris Grant 11.23.14 at 3:24 am

“Who knows what NickT and BenK are all about, but I find it highly unlikely, given the sentiments that they have expressed above, that they are highly attentive CT lurkers or avid readers of CR’s work.”

Google says NickT and BenK have been commenting on Crooked Timber for quite some time.

28

MPAVictoria 11.23.14 at 5:49 am

“Google says NickT and BenK have been commenting on Crooked Timber for quite some time.”

Bullshit. I come here almost everyday and I don’t recognize those names. If they have posted here before it was VERY infrequently.

29

gianni 11.23.14 at 6:37 am

@27

source plz

30

kidneystones 11.23.14 at 6:57 am

The frequency of posting would seem to be less relevant than our involvement in unions. All unions are not alike and any sensible discussion of union issues takes this into account. I’d have no trouble supporting a two-week maternity/paternity leave. Sick leave seems to me a separate and more important issue, as illness affects all employees, not just those procreating.

Castigating union members who do not support a particular work action, or negotiating strategy, occurs too often in my experience. A more effective approach is to listen carefully to the concerns of fellow members, demonstrate respect, and then try to find workable compromises, especially if the success of the labor action depends upon winning consensus. Most of us like to at least think we are entitled to hold opinions of our own, no matter how silly a notion that may be when we’re in the presence of our moral and intellectual superiors.

31

green menace 11.23.14 at 7:50 am

In the present case of the UO grad students, which I believe is the topic of this thread, there was an overwhelming mandate by its membership to strike. Nonetheless, no individual GTF is being required to participate in the strike in any particular way, or even to participate at all.

32

Val 11.23.14 at 10:08 am

@30
I’ve been refraining from commenting, because I live in another country and we do things differently here. But when I read your kindly statement that you would have “no trouble supporting a two-week maternity/paternity leave” for those people who are procreating (even though it’s quite unimportant) I did feel I had to point out that there are many, many people in the world outside your country would not find your position quite as generous as you do.

(Obviously words didn’t quite fail me, but oh my goodness)

33

Val 11.23.14 at 10:14 am

Two weeks off to have a baby! And they have to fight for that. It’s like that Ghandi line when asked: ‘what do you think of western civilization?’ ‘It would be a good idea’.

34

Chris Bertram 11.23.14 at 10:15 am

(To save you all from pointless speculation, the CT comment logs reveal that Nick T and Ben K have been commenting for a while, albeit infrequently, that they are non-identical with one another and that one of them has managed to get himself disemvowelled on one occasion.)

35

Lynne 11.23.14 at 10:43 am

Val, + 1! to both your comments.

And I don’t much care for conflating maternity and paternity leave here, but that’s a subject for a different thread.

What this union is fighting for is pitifully little.

Lynne, also from a different country

36

novakant 11.23.14 at 11:50 am

What this union is fighting for is pitifully little.

Indeed, the situation in the US is ridiculous compared to almost everywhere else:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parental_leave

I would still like to reserve the right to criticize unions when I see it warranted.

37

Val 11.23.14 at 12:37 pm

Thanks Lynne @35!

Novakant from your link:

“Paid parental leave has been available as a legal right and/or governmental program for many years, in one form or another, in most countries – with the exceptions of the United States of America, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Liberia.”

Unusual collection of countries.

“The United States is the only high income country not to provide such leave. “

38

William Timberman 11.23.14 at 1:48 pm

For the rest of the world’s information, this is what we call family values in the U.S.: impoverishing people who take the time to have one.

39

James Wimberley 11.23.14 at 1:56 pm

Somebody should note that denying maternity leave is a specific blow at equalizing opportunity for women in academia, at a crucial point in their lives – the key bottleneck IIRC, as women score roughly equal up to first degree level. Any institution serious about gender equality in faculty would be offering six months.

40

BenK 11.23.14 at 3:14 pm

@gianni
Oh, a wee little commissar. How quaint!

@Barry
History – if you can’t rewrite it, refuse to discuss it? I prefer the official CT slogan, personally.

41

T 11.23.14 at 3:54 pm

We currently have a situation where tenured faculty in the humanities encourage 7 years + of graduate study for students having little to no chance of obtaining tenure track employment. Bully for you that you support a union. Solidarity. Blah, blah, blah. When you start accepting the number of grad students that might actually get jobs we’ll see some real solidarity. But then you’d have to grade your own exams.

42

Watson Ladd 11.23.14 at 4:44 pm

@T: I’m in mathematics, where we have somewhat similar issues, although not as badly, and I’m lucky enough to be at an institution that does regularly produce candidates who get jobs. That doesn’t affect the need for health insurance, or paying the rent each month.

Furthermore, plenty of grad students know they might not get jobs in academia afterwards. That doesn’t change the issues of the work conditions they face while there, including in some cases (notoriously chemistry) dangerous conditions.

43

T 11.23.14 at 5:07 pm

WL@42

I’m with you. 7 years + of TAing and no job prospects should come w/health insurance, parental leave, safe working conditions and min wage. Just thinking the bigger picture gets lost. Yes, they should soak your stale bread in milk. Just don’t forget, tenured faculty is management.

44

Mdc 11.23.14 at 8:55 pm

In what sense ‘management’? They are supervisory, that’s true. But higher pay and better working conditions for grad students are not opposed to the class interests of full time faculty (as they are to the administration’s). Neither is it in the class interest of the professoriate to constrict the supply of tenure-track positions by replacing full time with adjunct teaching- quite the contrary.

45

T 11.23.14 at 9:35 pm

Mdc @44

There is considerably more prestige to be a prof at a Ph.D. granting institution including higher pay and more mobility. There is a smaller class load at Ph.D. granting institution. There are more TAs to grade papers and teach sections at a Ph.D. granting institution. It’s in tenured faculty’s interest to have grad students around although the faculty knows that the vast majority of new humanities (and certain social science) Ph.D.’s are unemployable in their field due to lack of tenure track positions. Their class interests are different because they have employment for life. The interests of tenured faculty and grad students are just not aligned. The administration has less control of the tenured faculty than the tenured faculty has over graduate students (and the non-tenured). Seriously, what kind of person encourages someone to sign up for 7 years of minimum wage work as an apprentice knowing full well they will be unemployable in their chosen field?

46

Anarcissie 11.23.14 at 11:32 pm

‘Seriously, what kind of person encourages someone to sign up for 7 years of minimum wage work as an apprentice knowing full well they will be unemployable in their chosen field?’ That’s called ‘management’ — the domination and exploitation of less powerful, possibly misinformed people.

47

Mdc 11.23.14 at 11:51 pm

Isn’t the unemployment rate for humanities PhDs something like 1or 2 percent? Some of those jobs are underpaid and miserable, ie, adjunct teaching. But that’s because of budget cuts that faculty neither advocated nor defend now. I’d bet adjunctification has been held most at bay where faculty is strongest in setting policy.

There’s also something sort of incoherent in claiming that what’s in the true interest of grad students is that they not exist at all.

48

Main Street Muse 11.24.14 at 12:17 am

MDC @47: I’d bet adjunctification has been held most at bay where faculty is strongest in setting policy.

And where would this be? Just wondering.

49

T 11.24.14 at 12:27 am

Mdc

Below is a quote from an article encouraging people to get a humanities PhD (yes, encouraging)

“For most graduate students in the humanities, the relevant data points are well known: In any given year, there are significantly more Ph.D.s than available tenure-track jobs. The median time-to-degree for Ph.D.s in the humanities is nine years. A third of all humanities doctoral students drop out before completing the degree. Of those that do finish, only around half, depending on the discipline, are tenured professors within 10 years.” http://www.psmag.com/education/why-you-should-go-to-graduate-school-in-the-humanities-59821/

I suggest you read the articles by William Pannapacker writing as Thomas H. Benton. He’s not so encouraging.

What’s in the interest of graduate students is that departments continuously graduating under- and unemployed PhDs to accept less grad students or become an M.A. granting department. That is definitely NOT in the interest of tenured faculty. Don’t hold your breath.

50

justaguy 11.24.14 at 1:12 am

As far as faculty being management goes, in the UC, where I’m a PhD candidate, individual departments decide how many students to accept. My department accepts more students than they have available TAships or other forms of support for, and then assigns them according to their priorities. So, they create the size of the labor pool, allocate jobs, and manage TAs. If that’s not management, what is?

As far as the fact that faculty “neither advocate nor defend” the rise of adjunct labor in the academy – sure, I assume most if not all faculty would prefer there to be more tenure track jobs. But, in creating the oversupply of new PhDs, they create the conditions where there is a large number of people without stable employment who are willing to work in such horrible conditions.

In my field there are 300-400 new PhDs every year and 50-150 tenure track job openings. If departments reduced the number of PhDs to be more in line with the actual job demands, there would be fewer people to adjunct and universities would have to pay adjuncts more. They can only offer such bad working conditions because there are so many people looking for any teaching job they can get. My department is increasing the number of students it accepts, further exacerbating the problem.

51

green menace 11.24.14 at 6:13 am

@39

The gender issue has indeed been underscored, and it is one of many reasons the UO grad students voted overwhelmingly to strike. It simply isn’t fair to expect women to put off childbearing until graduation, when they face even more uncertainty. But this is exactly what the UO administration expects, as encoded in their “GTFs are students first” rhetoric.

52

QS 11.24.14 at 8:05 am

The reason grad student unions/labor actions are controversial (even notable) is the contradiction that occurs when (supposed) apprentices treat themselves as (the) laborers (that they are). In many aspects it’s for the better that academia maintains guild-like qualities, this isn’t one of them.

53

mdc 11.24.14 at 3:21 pm

Arguing that grad students would be best served by departments accepting and funding fewer teaching fellows seems kind of like saying autoworkers are best served by owners shutting down auto plants. How many actual grad students would rally behind a movement to cut their own numbers, making job placement less competitive by making admissions more competitive?

Any department that “continuously” turns out “unemployable” degree-holders has a big problem, and is failing in their mission, I agree. I’d be interested to read about a particular case that fits that description. Most professors are pretty zealous about placement for their advisees, in my experience (that’s one source of their “prestige,” at least). Many departments very publicly list the placements of their grads.

54

mdc 11.24.14 at 3:31 pm

MSM:

Ok, maybe I shouldn’t have said that, since I’m not willing to name names. Still, it makes sense that many small, independent colleges have stayed away from adjunct teaching in part because faculty have a stronger voice there. It might be interesting to compile a list of all the schools with no adjunct teaching and look for a pattern.

55

Marc 11.24.14 at 4:42 pm

If it helps to give some perspective, the Yale unionization effort was extremely divisive between graduate students, especially in different disciplines, and it unfolded over many years. The initial TA Solidarity was in 1987, while the big grade strike was in 2005. So anyone at Yale in a period lasting over a couple of decades would have been impacted. In brief, science students were extremely hostile to GESO, while humanities students tended to be more sympathetic. And the whole mess was tied up in the poisonous relations between the other Yale unions and the university; GESO was affiliated with the unions, which again tended to be both militant and with cool to hostile relations to the sciences.

So it isn’t surprising that the whole effort led to long-term bad feelings, sufficient that they manifest themselves from long-time commenters here. I know that we’re in a stage where we’re supposed to be worshiping unions on the left, and that they’ve done real good overall, but the Yale unions left more than few people with very negative real-world opinions about unions.

56

TM 11.24.14 at 5:03 pm

T 49: “The median time-to-degree for Ph.D.s in the humanities is nine years. A third of all humanities doctoral students drop out before completing the degree. Of those that do finish, only around half, depending on the discipline, are tenured professors within 10 years.”

That last bit, about half of PhDs actually getting tenured, seems implausibly high to me. The median graduating time of 9 years is just mind-blowing. These assistants are getting an incredibly raw deal, spending the prime of their lives in utterly precarious economic conditions in the hope of getting a shot at the first decent position of their lives at age 40 or so. I have long wondered, are they so desperate to knowingly take this on, or are they misinformed (in addition to being desperate, perhaps)?

I don’t know whether it’s fair to blame the permanent faculty. What I do know is that the system is set up so that faculty are encouraged to take on as many grad students as possible. One reason I learned a few years ago from a message by the Provost: the University was actively seeking to increase the number of grad students because the ratio of grads to undergrads is a metric used in rankings, which means that administrators want that metric to go up just for its own sake, regardless of any educational or research or whatever (even financial) consideration. This is madness, and there is method in it.

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mud man 11.24.14 at 5:22 pm

Arguing that grad students would be best served by departments accepting and funding fewer teaching fellows seems kind of like saying autoworkers are best served by owners shutting down auto plants.

If autos were made to be fixable, we could shut down a lot of auto plants and the autoworkers could have new careers being neighborhood mechanics rather than production line assemblers. The only interest served by keeping the factories running near maximum is Capital.

58

js. 11.24.14 at 6:00 pm

I think that rather than following T down this particular rabbit hole, it’s worth noting that even if what s/he says is entirely true, it only reinforces Corey’s original point about supporting GTTF in its (very modest) demands.

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Anarcissie 11.24.14 at 6:06 pm

I hope you will forgive me if I ask a stupid question out of the ignorance which comes from my very spotty knowledge of academic matters. Why, if it’s such a horrible job, do so many people want to be grad students? There does not seem to be much reward these days. One would probably do better as a plumber or a computer programmer.

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Rich Puchalsky 11.24.14 at 6:24 pm

“Why, if it’s such a horrible job, do so many people want to be grad students? There does not seem to be much reward these days.”

Because non-financial rewards exist and are in contemporary society fully cashed-out in the sense that they reduce your salary. People want to be grad students because of the enjoyment of study and scholarly thought, perhaps the imagined prestige of being a professor, etc. Because people will sign up to be grad students due to these things, the employers of grad students are free to pay them less. In a similar way, I used to work for nonprofits in Washington DC that worked towards various left-liberal causes. Because people like the feeling of meaning that they get for working for a cause, they could be paid 2/3 of what they’d get in industry (and were indeed paid that much less). Ralph Nader was an early innovator in inspiring people to work for these kind of organizations and paying them very little as a result.

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BenK 11.24.14 at 6:32 pm

@Anarcissie

This is a great question. It really gets to the heart of many discussions.

Being a graduate student is not at all a horrible job, particularly at a well-regarded university, but it isn’t for everyone or suitable at every stage of life.

Being a graduate student, one is able to join a community of scholars, at an enormous facility. One can broadly work in various areas of interest without having to raise independent funding. There is immense freedom regarding working hours and pace, topics and so on. In the sciences, in particular, this may be the only stage of your career when inquiry is so loosely tied to the acquisition of funding before starting the project.
You are typically free from administrative duties as well.

It can be an opportunity to enjoy many of the benefits of teaching without the hassle of being the ‘chief administrator.’

There is also a degree of financial support. It isn’t really wages, per se, given how free ones time can be. However, it is meant to liberate one from having to find the rent each month. It isn’t typically enough to set aside for retirement or anything, but that’s hardly the point. It also isn’t often enough to support a family on one income – although I have seen that done.

If one wants to continue in this relatively idyllic lifestyle of unbounded exploration, working idiosyncratic hours on topics of personal interest, one must typically find grant funding and start paying overhead to an institution. It is a kind of franchise, if you will. Not many people can find that funding and those that do generally accept relatively low salaries – in part because they would prefer to fund their own work than their own salary, but also because it is part of the trade (liberty and prestige vs income). Security used to be part of the package, but it is less so now. Institutional funding streams have been largely replaced by ad hoc project funding; that’s a subject for another debate.

If one looks at it in this light, the essence of graduate school is becoming part of this community, however temporarily, with a relative degree of liberty. Postdoc is perhaps an extension of this state; with more opportunity for supervision, but the increasing weight of deferred income potential. When one moves on to a job in government or industry, all that freedom is given up in return for a better salary and so on.

There is, in my mind, a very clear distinction between proper graduate school – with its intellectual freedom and slight stipend – and medical school, law school, any of the professional schools or trade schools, which have no such freedom and a high price tag. In law school, if future law jobs fail to materialize, all is lost. In graduate school, the education is very much its own reward. A professional student is an education customer; a graduate student is a very junior community member. Neither are a typical ’employee.’

I hope this explains why I think that graduate school is a great thing to do, not a horrible job. It can, of course, be a horrible experience, just as climbing Everest or a six-month tour of Europe can be a horrible (even fatal) experience.

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tgrtgr gbfbfbg 11.24.14 at 6:43 pm

I have to work very hard to persuade excellent student that law school is a terrible idea. We think of 22 year olds as adults, but the decision making is still pretty bad. Especially the good students believe that they are extra special good ones who will make it. Its like that movie “you mean I have a chance!.” Long shot tournaments like humanities ph.d.’s don’t mesh well with human decision making. Requiring higher wages and benefits will reduce the number admitted and make everybody better off.

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js. 11.24.14 at 6:52 pm

Why, if it’s such a horrible job, do so many people want to be grad students?

Well, being a graduate student isn’t a horrible job – in fact it’s not a job at all. One can after all imagine a set up where grad studies are fully funded and one is simply a student. It’s just that the way things are set up, being a graduate student typically requires taking on a horrible job as well. People do it because in addition to what Rich mentioned, people expect to get less horrible jobs once they’re done with grad school.

To the extent that that expectation is unreasonable, certain reevaluations would have to be made. But this point is utterly irrelevant in the current context, because whatever one thinks of that, it’s perfectly right and fair to demand better conditions for the jobs one has to take on while in grad school.

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js. 11.24.14 at 6:52 pm

Oops. First sentence in my last is a quote from Anarcissie @58.

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Rich Puchalsky 11.24.14 at 6:58 pm

BenK @ 60 valorizes the same thing that I decry @ 59. Having any degree of enjoyability in a job precisely and negatively reflected in its remuneration seems to me like a kind of negative utilitarianism — how can we make everyone equally and maximally unhappy.

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Palindrome 11.24.14 at 7:00 pm

@58: It’s a superstar labor market. Relatively small numbers of talented academics get secure jobs, the opportunity to pursue their research interests, and reasonable teaching loads. Very large numbers of talented academics get insecure, semester-to-semester teaching gigs; unbearable workloads; and the limited intellectual stimulation of intro classes with bored gen ed freshmen. Just as in professional sports and the entertainment industry, many are called but few are chosen.

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BenK 11.24.14 at 7:11 pm

@Rich Puchalsky

We basically agree, as you pointed out, but I am less grim.

However, if you take a bunch of jobs with different non-monetary rewards and give them equal salaries, all you do is create excess competition for the windfall. Suddenly, irrelevant gates are required to keep people out of the more desirable job and in the less desirable one. This happens despite all sorts of other important phenomena in the background (supply, demand, comparative advantage, differences in taste, imperfect information, etc).

I think my original answer was sufficient to address the question as posed (‘why would people choose to be graduate students?’) by exploring some of the non-monetary virtues that the experience can have.

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MPAVictoria 11.24.14 at 7:32 pm

“If one wants to continue in this relatively idyllic lifestyle of unbounded exploration, “

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Wow. Just wow. I wish I had gone to grad school where you did. It sounds truly wonderful.

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MPAVictoria 11.24.14 at 7:36 pm

“seems to me like a kind of negative utilitarianism — how can we make everyone equally and maximally unhappy.”

Rich I am going to steal that line and I am not even going to feel bad about it.

Thank you.

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Marc 11.24.14 at 7:55 pm

Graduate students in different disciplines have radically different experiences. In the sciences, the odds of a tenure-track position are higher, and the alternatives tend to be more highly paid. The choices vary: in the physical sciences the primary alternate channel was finance; it’s now more like Big Data. Biotech/Big Pharma would be more viable in the life sciences. It also helps that you don’t pay tuition and do get paid a decent stipend to be a student in the sciences.

People in this thread are wildly generalizing about the academic market. People go into it because, in a lot of fields, it really isn’t as dire as it’s being portrayed here.

Granted, there are disciplines where the costs are higher and the odds against doing well are higher. But it’s not a blanket affair at all.

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mdc 11.24.14 at 10:29 pm

“If autos were made to be fixable, we could shut down a lot of auto plants and the autoworkers could have new careers being neighborhood mechanics rather than production line assemblers. The only interest served by keeping the factories running near maximum is Capital.”

If only those fools at the UAW could realize that…

72

mud man 11.24.14 at 10:54 pm

@mdc

You seem to imagine that the UAW is organized towards social improvement rather than chipping on the margins.

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T 11.24.14 at 10:59 pm

Being a tenured academic at a research institution can be a great job. You get to conduct research in your area of interest. You get to attend conferences in nice places and often get to be a visiting scholar in a cool location if you make the right friends and have a successful research program. You get a sabbatical. The downside can be the pay in urban areas but the upside is that you’ll do fine in many non-urban locations. And you can’t be fired except in very rare circumstances. A job for life is pretty hard to find.

To get this brass ring you need to get a tenure track position and then get tenure. My point is this has become really difficult in the humanities especially if you do not attend a top tier institution — and even then it’s a crap shoot. Nonetheless, as discussed above, it is in the tenured faculty’s interest to keep this ruse going. Unfortunately, many prospective humanities grad students do not know it will take 9 years to complete the degree with no job at the end or they are convinced that they will be the exception in the job market. Tenured faculty should disabuse them of that fantasy.

Mark @69 is right on about the employment prospects and graduate experience varying by discipline. While the humanities generally suck, certain social sciences and natural sciences have good job prospects. I’d be interested to be educated by nat sci folks about what prospects look like there. It seems that 9 years of study should produce a job in your field.

This blogger thinks a PhD in econ is the way to go.

http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2013/05/if-you-get-phd-get-economics-phd.html

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TM 11.25.14 at 1:50 am

This is a a bit of a digression but it seems noteworthy that the process of getting a PhD used to be much quicker, typically 3 years or less (*). In other countries, afaik, 3-4 years is still considered standard for a doctorate (**).

Does anybody have insight into how and when that happened, that 9 years of graduate study (in addition to at least 4 years undergrad) became considered normal in certain academic fields?

(*) When I read biographies of of scholars of earlier generations, I often notice how little time they spent as formal students. To name one, Bertrand Russell became a fellow at age 23, after 5 years in Cambridge, and was appointed lecturer at 24. Granted he was a genius but my impression is that this kind of career was not unusual.
(**) In Germany, academics hoping to land a professorship are still expected to complete a habilitation, sort of a more involved dissertation, after the doctorate.

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Anarcissie 11.25.14 at 2:00 am

js. 11.24.14 at 6:52 pm @ 62:
‘Well, being a graduate student isn’t a horrible job – in fact it’s not a job at all. …’

If you can strike (with any effect), it’s a job.

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js. 11.25.14 at 3:31 am

Anarcissie @74:

Did you actually read my comment? Of course graduate students typically are also employees of the university, i.e. they have jobs. My (rather obvious) point was that no one chooses to be a grad student on account of the typically horrible job that typically comes along with being a grad student. (And for example, a very small number of grad students manage to get through grad school without ever becoming an employee of the university, so it obviously can’t be the case that being a grad student is itself a “job” in the relevant sense.)

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T 11.25.14 at 4:35 am

TM

Data from 1978-2003 for time to PhD sliced a bunch of ways. Like you, I’d like to see the series extend back further.

http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/

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krippendorf 11.25.14 at 11:37 am

Getting a bit closer to the OP, my US university offers one semester at full stipend pay ($30,000 per year, more or less) + health benefits for graduate students who are on parental leave and who commit to at least co-equal parenting. (If they ‘fess up to having a stay-at-home spouse, all bets are off.) I support the university’s efforts. But, there are bugs in the policy yet, especially in engineering and the sciences where graduate students are typically funded off external grants.

Specifically, under the parental leave policy, the PI of a grant has to pay the RA whether he or she is actually working on the project or not. There are also nontrivial costs associated with discontinuity in RAs: if it takes 6 months to train an RA to the point where he or she is actually helpful, that’s 6 months out of the life of a grant that the PI’s lab isn’t able to work at the speed promised in the grant proposal. This creates a not-so-subtle incentive for PIs to prefer to hire RAs who are least likely to become pregnant or, if they do have a child, to have a stay-at-home partner who will take care of the kid.

This disadvantages parents in the competition for RAs, of course, but especially women. Internal data at my university (see also the Clayman report out of Stanford on dual-career academic couples) show that male graduate students, especially in the sciences and engineering, are still more likely to have stay-at-home spouses than female graduate students. Moreover, there’s an assumption, especially among the older generation of faculty, that women are more likely to set aside science, even if temporarily, to take care of kids. The upshot is that the parental leave policy has, in some ways, exacerbated statistical discrimination against women in the sciences. NOT the policy’s goal, by a long shot.

The answer is not to eliminate the parental leave. But, it’s a real conundrum. The nature of the PI-RA matching process is not one that is easily policed for gender bias. The university isn’t rich enough to buy out the RA-ships of graduate students who are on parental leave. In an era when federal research funding is on the chopping block, asking the taxpayers to pay for two RAs for one RA’s worth of work is a political nonstarter. Alumni donors rarely give to graduate student training, period, and they are even less likely to give to graduate education if they know their funds are going toward a parental leave for a graduate student. And, even if the financial problem were to magically disappear, the continuity problem would remain.

(Yes, I realize that the UO students are only asking for 2 weeks, which is pittance compared to a full semester. But, the bigger issue of unanticipated consequences is worth thinking about.)

79

QS 11.25.14 at 12:04 pm

My guess as to the lengthening of PhD completion times:

(1) More graduate student teaching (institutional shift to cheap labor) means more time not doing research/dissertation.
(2) Pressure to publish prior to graduating (looks good on job market) means some students divert their attention from finishing dissertation.
(3) PhD less and less the domain of the elite, more people taking out loans to do graduate work, staying in school means loan deferment.

80

Mario 11.25.14 at 12:28 pm

The TAs are a very weak group that will not achieve much, if anything at all. They have little real bargaining power, and a lot less experience at this than the consulting firm that was hired to bust them (is there maybe a union veteran around to help the TAs?).

It is their professors who should be fighting on their behalf, as they do have actual bargaining power. But that’s not the kind of sacrifice tenured faculty is willing to make.

81

Barry 11.25.14 at 1:35 pm

Marc: ” In the sciences, the odds of a tenure-track position are higher, and the alternatives tend to be more highly paid.”

‘Higher’ means what? 25%

As for the alternatives being more highly paid, I’d point out that many of these fields require post-docs, and can pay jack sh*t for them. If there were good opportunities outside academia, that’d be harder.

82

Anarcissie 11.25.14 at 1:47 pm

js. 11.25.14 at 3:31 am @ 75 — There seems to be a form of mystification going on with regard to grad students. On the one hand, they can be construed to be participants in a hierarchy of roles which is more feudal or military than capitalist; in which no unscholarly labor or money need pass either way. On the other, the great majority that are not wealthy are simply a part of a vigorously exploited working class. The former construction can be used to obscure the reality of the latter, but one need not be deceived. Once the class-struggle relationship is perceived, phenomena like the hatred of the authorities and their friends and admirers for unions, or the lengthening of the period of indentured servitude, can be easily understood. It’s not all that different from many other industries and trades, is it?

83

BenK 11.25.14 at 2:20 pm

@QS
PhD completion times have not uniformly lengthened, at least in the sciences. Yes, before WWII, it seems they were shorter. Part of that may have to do with younger ages of starting families, etc. However, at least in the natural sciences, they lengthened considerably and have actually tightened up a bit since the 1970s and 1980s, as far as I can tell. 8-10 years is less common now.

@Anarcissie
You can certainly look for class struggles if you want. A short discussion will not change a hermeneutic of identity politics and conflict; certainly not enough to replace it with something I find more constructive. To preempt the obvious rejoinder, I find conflicts among individuals and even within individuals, all within the context of a not necessarily harmonious community, which is, on the whole, a positive construction and an advance on the alternatives, such as a Hobbesian bellum.

@Barry
The odds of getting a tenured and funded position from the end of the first or second postdoc until post-retirement as Emeritus in the sciences is much lower than 25% now. The expectation that every lab head in biomedicine will have 2 R01s on a repeating loop is hitting up against a hard reality. Getting tenure isn’t the end of the road, its just the end of the first leg of a marathon. But then again, that is asking society to commit to an individual’s dreams and free inquiry at a very high level of resource allocation, not to mention overwhelming institutional overhead that lines other pockets.

This doesn’t make graduate school a bad thing – it highlights why it is a good thing, a unique privilege, and not simply a stepping stone to high incomes as if it were a professional school.

@MPAVictoria
Grad school was hard, particularly emotionally. I think, probably, that most everyone else had several hard years in their 20s. Grad school was a tremendous opportunity, of which I took some advantage. To the degree that I did, it was great. I hope you are able to enjoy your life – not in perpetual anticipation. Laughter is certainly a good start.

84

John Garrett 11.25.14 at 2:47 pm

Even for the successful, the system is profoundly screwed up. In the biosciences, at least, faculty with or without tenure spend far more time schmoozing and writing and rewriting and defending grants, sometimes for laughably little money, than they ever do doing the work. The blizzard of publications, some actually worth noting, is due to grad students, the guys in the middle of the twenty-seven names on the pub.

JG

85

MPAVictoria 11.25.14 at 3:05 pm

“Grad school was hard, particularly emotionally. I think, probably, that most everyone else had several hard years in their 20s. Grad school was a tremendous opportunity, of which I took some advantage. To the degree that I did, it was great. I hope you are able to enjoy your life – not in perpetual anticipation. Laughter is certainly a good start.”

I think you are looking for justification for your position and will say pretty much anything. Your credibility is rapidly decreasing…..

86

BenK 11.25.14 at 3:10 pm

@MPAVictoria
My credibility is decreasing? This from the person who believed from the outset that I didn’t read Crooked Timber regularly?

*chuckle*

87

js. 11.25.14 at 3:10 pm

@Anarcissie:

You’re doing a rather good job of constructing a position that (a) has v little to do with what I was saying, and (b) has v little to do with Corey’s point in the post. I don’t want to derail this thread any more, but please continue.

88

Marc 11.25.14 at 3:30 pm

This is the most recent survey in physics that I could find:

http://www.aps.org/careers/guidance/webinars/upload/PhDs-in-the-US.pdf

The bottom line is that there are about 1400 PhDs a year; about 350 faculty hires a year; so about 1/4 will on average end up as professors. However, there are a lot of other research positions and industry positions; about half will go immediately into private industry. The other half become postdocs (so roughly 1/4 will ultimately leave the field or move to private industry after taking a postdoc.)

The salary chart on page 9 is especially relevant: people who leave academe in disciplines like physics typically end up in very highly paid jobs. This is because a big part of the graduate training is teaching people to solve equations on computers, and there are a lot of lucrative applications of those skills.

The biological sciences are different, in the sense that there is very much a hierarchical structure (a few professors leading large labs, supported by large grants and with many researchers.) However, there are also many more long term “soft money” positions, e.g. people end up as academic researchers.

Time to degree in the physical sciences is typically of order 5-6 years (with paid stipends and no tuition); there are, of course, individual programs that do worse than that. In ours, for example, explicit exceptions have to be made to have a student stay for a seventh year and it’s not possible to be in the program for more than 7 years (e.g.virtually all students finish in six years.)

I can’t speak to the humanities, but field to field differences like this are a big reason why there is such a disconnect between people in discussions of this sort. And why it’s so difficult to do things like organize across disciplines – physics and history graduate students have few experiences in common beyond being at the same institution.

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Alex 11.25.14 at 3:33 pm

I note that rated academic blog Crooked Timber has basically no content on #defenduss.

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MPAVictoria 11.25.14 at 3:40 pm

“This from the person who believed from the outset that I didn’t read Crooked Timber regularly?”

If you do read you rarely post. Plus you don’t seem the type to frequent a left of center blog. Of course perhaps I was wrong and perhaps you spent your graduate years in an atmosphere of idyllic contemplation. Most of us are not that lucky so generalizing your experiences is dangerous.

91

Shelley 11.25.14 at 3:54 pm

I was so blown away by the phrase “talks left and walks right”–how could I never before have heard something so succinct and helpful?–that I could hardly focus on the rest of the piece.

But I know from my teaching that colleges are becoming increasingly like corporations.

It’s hard to win the battle against money. We need a new Saul Alinsky to figure out a strategy.

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MPAVictoria 11.25.14 at 3:57 pm

“I was so blown away by the phrase “talks left and walks right”–how could I never before have heard something so succinct and helpful?–that I could hardly focus on the rest of the piece.”

Totally agree. It is a fantastic way of putting it.

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Ze Kraggash 11.25.14 at 4:35 pm

“The former construction can be used to obscure the reality of the latter, but one need not be deceived.”

But it certainly does obscure the reality of the latter, somewhat. They choose to enter and participate in a guild hierarchy. In a sense, they are pursuing a career, climbing the ladder, not surviving by selling their labor. Nothing’s wrong with organizing, but I don’t think the class analysis, as you apply it, is particularly helpful here.

94

Jerry Vinokurov 11.25.14 at 4:45 pm

But then again, that is asking society to commit to an individual’s dreams and free inquiry at a very high level of resource allocation, not to mention overwhelming institutional overhead that lines other pockets.

This is some total horseshit. The NIH budget has been flat or shrinking (accounting for inflation) for a decade now (see this excellent article for more details). Our scientific funding is nowhere near a “high level of resource allocation.” That would be something like the defense budget, which really speaks volumes about our national priorities.

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Jerry Vinokurov 11.25.14 at 4:53 pm

However, there are a lot of other research positions and industry positions; about half will go immediately into private industry. The other half become postdocs

First, “postdoc” is not a good position to be in for the rest of your life, since it offers basically no opportunity for advancement. Second, there are some research positions, but nowhere near enough to absorb all the excess PhDs who don’t go on to academic posts. Third, even people who do go on to lucrative careers in e.g. finance potentially represent a misallocation of resources: they were trained largely at the public expense and wanted to do science, but couldn’t make a living that way, so they went into some other industry instead. That’s obviously not true for everyone, but it’s definitely true for some people, who would prefer to do research but literally cannot afford to.

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T 11.25.14 at 4:53 pm

Marc@86

This is valuable information on a group blog devoted to the humanities and more discursive social sciences. And it explains a lot of the reactions of grad students to unionization. The humanities folks are stuck for an average of 9 years in grad school and then face terrible job prospects — sold a bill of goods by the tenured faculty that need them to teach their classes, to lower their course load, to grade their papers, and to raise the prestige of their department by offering a PhD. In the natural sciences and harder social sciences there are job prospects in potentially lucrative private sector work and gov’t work in addition to academia and, at least in physics according to the PP, the professorial positions are overwhelmingly tenure track. You also see a higher ratio of tenured to untenured in the humanities in permanent positions with an army of rightfully disgruntled adjuncts. The departments have ossified. The nat sci folks may be unhappy with working conditions as a grad asst. but see their experience as the apprenticeship (and hoop jumping) to get the journeyman card and a good living doing what they like (or a physicist going to Wall St. earning a good living at a job which they might or might not like). The humanities grad students have come see themselves as working for nothing with the dead end becoming clearer each year in school. Or, as Bob once said, “if you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose.”

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Mdc 11.25.14 at 11:02 pm

I really don’t get the “bill of goods” critique. There will always be more apprentices than teachers-of-apprentices: otherwise, the department would be like a summer camp where every camper becomes a counselor. Granted it would be unethical to churn out hordes of miserable, unemployed degree-holders, even if you could hide the fact that this was going on from the next crop of suckers. But in practice, it’s never going to look that simple. *Someone* will always be lucky enough to get a job. So how, in practice, do you know if you’re admitting to many grad students? Seems best to just be honest and public about degree-completion and placement rates, and let the students decide for themselves.

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T 11.26.14 at 12:11 am

@97

I think you have the facts wrong. There are way more departments that only teach undergrads and masters students than have PhD programs. So I think there are way more potential teachers-of-apprentices than apprentices.

Further, in many disciplines, the number of new PhDs matches the number of jobs. In econ, for example, PhD programs typically place most of their students. While there isn’t much upward mobility among departments, PhDs from the lower ranked departments still find jobs. In the humanities, there are departments that have PhD programs that shouldn’t exist and many other departments shouldn’t admit nearly as many students if they actually care about their grad students getting jobs.

If, on the other hand, you think it should be buyer beware, so be it. But recognize it is clearly in the interest of tenured faculty to have PhD students around whether the students find employment or not. And if you do think tenured faculty have some ethical responsibility to discourage someone from spending 9 years of there life on a fool’s errand, then yeah, the tenured faculty are exactly selling a bill of goods. A bill of goods from which they benefit.

99

TM 11.26.14 at 1:10 am

Since there’s been no reaction to this bit, I’ll throw it back out there:

“What I do know is that the system is set up so that faculty are encouraged to take on as many grad students as possible. One reason I learned a few years ago from a message by the Provost: the University was actively seeking to increase the number of grad students because the ratio of grads to undergrads is a metric used in rankings, which means that administrators want that metric to go up just for its own sake, regardless of any educational or research or whatever (even financial) consideration. This is madness, and there is method in it.”

This is an anecdote but it’s true. Is this kind of reasoning common? I’d be curious to know.

100

green menace 11.26.14 at 1:49 am

Yes. In fact, one of the great ironies in the UO grad student strike is that UO President Scott Coltrane believes that it is imperative to reverse the fall in graduate enrollment in order to boost the university’s prestige and ranking.

101

T 11.26.14 at 2:19 am

@93 @100

You may not have your analysis correct. Maybe the nat sci and some social sci grad students are joining a guild. Not so much for the humanities and soft soc. sci. So given GMs comment @100, maybe the the humanities tenured faculty are the kulaks, serving the czar and helping themselves.

102

Anarcissie 11.26.14 at 3:01 am

js. 11.25.14 at 3:10 pm @ 76 — I am done with my (meta)digression now. I did attempt to apologize for my ignorance in advance.

103

JW Mason 11.26.14 at 4:31 am

Of people who received PhDs between 1981 and 2003, about one-third had tenure-track academic positions within six years of completing their doctorates. In economics, sociology and political science, the fraction was about one-half. See table 1 here. And as of 2012, only one third of PhD recipients incurred any debt in the course of their graduate work.

I will not speculate on the basis of claims on this thread and elsewhere that graduate school is a scam, “a fool’s errand,” a “bill of goods,” etc. But they are certainly not based on the facts. The truth is, graduate school is a great experience for many people, and the chance of a successful outcome are better than in just about any other professional tournament. Your odds of making a good living as an academic are vastly better than your chances of making a living as a musician, actor, novelist, etc.

If there are any young people reading this thread who are considering graduate school, my advice is: You should go for it. If you care about your field and like teaching, you are quite likely to end up with a satisfying career. And even if you don’t end up with an academic job, there are many worse ways to spend a chunk of your 20s. Don’t listen to the haters.

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JW Mason 11.26.14 at 4:34 am

Needless to say, the fact that a large proportion of PhDs continue to get good teaching jobs does not in any way detract from the importance of graduate employee organizing efforts like the one Corey is writing about here. We should all do whatever we can to support the grad students at Oregon and elsewhere. But it is worth pointing out that one of the things that makes graduate employees different from other workers is precisely the fact that they are able to successfully organize unions — something you can’t say about many other sectors these days.

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JW Mason 11.26.14 at 6:05 am

Looking at the NSF tables a bit more, it turns out that in 2013, 49 percent of people earning doctorates in the social sciences had tenure-track positions within 10 years of getting their PhDs. That’s up slightly from 48 percent a decade ago. Meanwhile, among all non-retired social science PhDs, the fraction with tenure track jobs is 51 percent, approximately the same (and also flat over the past decade). This means that the prospects of new PhDs today are no worse than those of preceding generations. The idea that there has been an expansion in doctoral programs relative to the number of teaching jobs is simply wrong.

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justaguy 11.26.14 at 6:57 am

“This means that the prospects of new PhDs today are no worse than those of preceding generations. The idea that there has been an expansion in doctoral programs relative to the number of teaching jobs is simply wrong.”

The number of people with tenure track positions within 10 years of PhD reflects on the job prospects of 10 years ago, not today. If you want to know about the job prospects of new PhDs today, look at the number of TT job openings on academic job wiki, which has a fairly inclusive listing http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Academic_Jobs_Wiki . Keep in mind, many of the listings are for Visiting Assistant Professorships and other non tenure track jobs.

I don’t know about other fields, but in my social science discipline for the past couple of years there has been a high of one job opening for every 3 new PhDs, and a low of one for every 10.

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Ebenezer Scrooge 11.26.14 at 12:25 pm

I’d view the sciences/humanities distinction on this thread as a matter of degree, not kind. The hard science people definitely have a better chance of getting a tenure-track job and can make a decent living if they drop out of academia. But they don’t do nearly as well as the MBA or elite JD types: either for tenure track or high-paid jobs. There’s a bit of irony here. JD training is largely watered-down humanities, and MBA training, although it purports to be watered-down quantitative social science, is mostly watered-down qualitative social science and cultural socialization. This might be the revenge of humanities majors, if not the humanities faculties.

The true princes of the academy these days are those from the econ-MBA complex. But then again, that seems to be the point of contemporary academia. It’s a much less attractive place than it used to be. At least the physicists who ruled the roost in the 1960’s and 1970’s pretty much bought into classic academic values of inquiry, despite their intellectual arrogance. Maybe intellectual arrogance is a good thing. The modern ruling class is all about market share and profitability.

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Barry 11.26.14 at 1:23 pm

Ebenezer, please go to the blog ‘lawyers, Guns and Money’ and read up on the prospects for JD’s. TL;DR – after the top dozen schools (out of over 200), you’re screwed.

Marc, I was lazy and just skimmed the APS report – did it account for almost all grads? The reason I ask is that law schools committed fraud for a number of years, only reporting salary figures for the top half of jobs.

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mdc 11.26.14 at 1:41 pm

“maybe the humanities tenured faculty are the kulaks, serving the czar and helping themselves.”

Wha? Here’s where your class/labor relations analysis doesn’t make sense: some (not all) full-time faculty have an interest in there being grad students, it’s true. But you know who else does? Grad students themselves! Both groups want to pursue advanced studies in the humanities, one from the side of the teacher, one from the side of the student. Faculty’s interests are not opposed to higher pay, better working conditions, and good job prospects for grad students, which is why many of them advocate for these things. At the least, well-funded, well-placed grads add to a department’s “prestige.”

Also, I don’t get your references to “tenured faculty.” Junior faculty also work with grad students. Hell, I even had TAs when I was adjuncting.

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JW Mason 11.26.14 at 2:29 pm

The hard science people definitely have a better chance of getting a tenure-track job

Wrong. The fraction of hard-science PhDs with tenure-track jobs is significantly lower than of social science PhDs. And as Barry says, people with law degrees do even worse.

It continues to amaze me how many people are willing to make these kinds of assertions with zero factual basis.

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Marc 11.26.14 at 2:38 pm

@108: It was pretty comprehensive as far as I could tell. It doesn’t account for people who dropped out, which is typically of order a quarter of the incoming class, usually in the first 2 years (e.g. they don’t pass the qualifying exams or a dissertation advisor.)

The hard sciences have a viable non-academic career route post-graduation, which is the difference.

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T 11.26.14 at 3:26 pm

mdc 109
It may be the case that certain tenured humanities faculty want the grad students to have better pay, better working conditions, and better job prospects.. and a pony! But the reality is that 2/3 of their students will not ever get in a tenure track position AND THEY KNOW THAT unless they have no frikin’ clue. And knowing that, it seems that keeping these students around for 9 tears to teach their sections and grade their papers is serving their own interests and the administration. This problem is especially acute once you leave the top ranked programs where it’s still hard to get a good job. Remember, a lot of the tenure track jobs involve teaching 4 courses a semester in the middle of nowhere with practically no time for research. Some folks like that. But after spending 9 years doing research for the dissertation, a lot of new profs don’t get to do what they trained for and what they love.

I think the tenured faculty have an obligation to spell this out to potential students. But it is not in their interest to have their department drop the PhD program, have to teach and grade more courses and to lower their mobility because they don’t have time to do research etc. It’s way easier push for parental leave because, you know, that will make the 9 years to oblivion easier for everybody. When humanities departments (i.e. tenured faculty) start trying to match the number admittances with the number of jobs that will be progress. Fat chance that will happen. And I don’t see many of the tenured folks that frequent this blog raising much disagreement with the assertion that the humanities job market sucks and that humanities departments as a whole make any effort to match admittances with future jobs.

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T 11.26.14 at 3:43 pm

JW @110

Since nat sci PhDs have non-academic employment alternatives in their fields, the comparison is not apples-to-apples. There are private and public sector jobs in the life sciences. Not much need for a used philosophy store. As a wise commentator mentioned above, it also varies by field within the nat sci.

In physics, for example, over 50% of PhDs wind up doing physics in the private sector and have for quite a while. I’d be surprised if entering grad students were unaware of this.
http://www.aps.org/careers/guidance/webinars/upload/PhDs-in-the-US.pdf

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JW Mason 11.26.14 at 3:48 pm

Social science PhDs employed in government and in the private sector actually have higher median salaries than physical-science or natural-science PhDs. Of course it is true that there are more hard-science PhDs in those types of jobs — that’s just the flipside of there being more social-science PhDs in TT teaching jobs. There are very few PhDs of any kinds working as adjuncts. The vast expansion of adjunct teaching is almost all composed of people without PhDs, who a generation ago would not have been teaching at the college level at all.

The more important thing is that there is zero evidence that employment prospects for people with PhDs are worse than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

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JW Mason 11.26.14 at 3:49 pm

Sorry, meant to write “physical science or biological science” in first sentence above.

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T 11.26.14 at 4:14 pm

JW@114
http://www.aaup.org/article/characteristics-part-time-faculty-who-would-prefer-full-time-position-current-institution#.VHX7FMma9bw

while most part timers don’t have PhDs, 34,000 people isn’t chopped liver. Further, that doesn’t count full-time non-tenured track instructors and visiting positions.

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justaguy 11.26.14 at 4:35 pm

“Here’s where your class/labor relations analysis doesn’t make sense: some (not all) full-time faculty have an interest in there being grad students, it’s true. But you know who else does? Grad students themselves! Both groups want to pursue advanced studies in the humanities, one from the side of the teacher, one from the side of the student. Faculty’s interests are not opposed to higher pay, better working conditions, and good job prospects for grad students, which is why many of them advocate for these things. At the least, well-funded, well-placed grads add to a department’s “prestige.””

Grad students don’t just “want to pursue advanced studies in the humanities”, they want to do so with a specific goal in mind – usually having a career in the academy. If more PhD students are admitted than can be reasonably expected to find jobs, you’ll have people with PhDs working under horrible conditions as adjuncts. If fewer students are admitted, you’ll have more people disappointed that they didn’t get into PhD programs. There’s heartache and disappointment on either side of the equation.

My university responded to cuts in funding by increasing the number of grad students while cutting the support available to us. The stress of not knowing if I would have a TA position from quarter to quarter led me to develop a health condition that keeps me in chronic pain and fatigue. After wasting 7 years researching things I’m very passionate about, I have half a dissertation, I’m simultaneously over and under qualified for all of the jobs I apply for, and I lack the energy to get out of bed for days at a time.

Do I have an interest in there being more grad students?

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Mdc 11.26.14 at 4:52 pm

That sounds awful. But I thought the suggestion on the table was to cut your funding altogether so as to force you into some other line of work (either you or someone else). I’d rather organize.

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Ian 11.26.14 at 5:00 pm

TM @ 99:

Yes, this kind of reasoning is common. It’s especially so within university systems. In the University of California, for example, there is a new formula for distributing state funding that strongly favors the campuses with the most PhD students–hence, each campus is trying to expand their doctoral programs, in a kind of insane arms race.

On the other hand, the accreditation process is finally starting to take career outcomes seriously. For our review last year we had to provide detailed accounts of where graduates of our doctoral program are working, and the university is starting to keep tabs on this information on a yearly basis.

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T 11.26.14 at 6:14 pm

Ian @119

“hence, each campus is trying to expand their doctoral programs, in a kind of insane arms race.”

Exactly. And when the administration tells the departments (tenured faculty) to increase the number of grad students do you think there will be push back? Of course not, the interests of the czars and kulaks are aligned.

As for me leaving out junior faculty out of the cabal, well put yourself in their position. They spent 9 years getting the degree and waited 7 years to come up for tenure. Do they have any interests other than getting published, showing up for class, being collegial and STFU (or agreeing w/the consensus)? The last thing they want to do is piss off the folks voting on their tenure. They are not going to piss away 15 years of their life when the brass ring is that close. There are, of course, exceptions.

So the next time some faux radical professor does the solidarity dance, ask him what percent of the dept. grad students spend 9 years of toiling away without getting a job. And if the answer is what I expect, tell him what he can do with his solidarity.

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Ebenezer Scrooge 11.26.14 at 11:10 pm

Barry@108:
I said “elite JDs”. And I do read LGM. And they’re right, of course.
The undergrads who do elite JDs could mostly have done a rigorous Ph.D. program if they were so inclined, so I thought a comparison would be fair. (Indeed, I know one of them who dropped out of her law firm job after only a few weeks, and went for a physics Ph.D. And she was a sociology undergrad!) The non-elite J.D.s are typically in a different pool, although I have met some awful smart people from the Jesus Barbecue School of Law.

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