Grad Students, Prospective and Otherwise

by Kieran Healy on September 9, 2007

Thinking about getting a Ph.D? Try lying down until the feeling goes away. Didn’t work? Try (1) Tim Burke on how to tell whether you really want a Ph.D. (Short answer: probably not.) If you persist anyway and find yourself starting a program somewhere at the moment, then (2) Total Drek provides 22 Unhelpful Hints about making the best of it. They’re very good. And so are (3) My co-blogger Fabio Rojas’s Grad Skool Rulz.

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harry b 09.09.07 at 2:38 pm

Well, I’m very curious whether philosophers think that you need the philosophical equivalent level of specificity that Burke says a history applicant needs. When I make decisions I more or less disregard personal statements which range from bland (which I like) through specific (which makes me think that they have had a good professor in the field of specific interest) to the loopy (which I dislike, but don’t discriminate against). I’m interested in the following: Do their grades, letters, and most of all writing sample, indicate an aptitude and disposition for careful analytic thinking, and, if they have a weak background, do they look as if we would be a good place for them to catch up? Of course, I’m not in a top-20 school, and we are ungenerous funders, but I will say that despite that my approach seems to have yeilded pretty good results in the case I know about (ie, the people who actually came — maybe people high up the list who turned us down were duds; that would be embarrassing!)


MN 09.09.07 at 2:48 pm

Yeah, I’d like to see a thread on ways to identify good candidates. I feel like I’m definitely lacking in that domain. Perhaps we could have one around January when we’re all staring at applications. But if people are inspired now, not to hijack the thread, but I would welcome suggestions.

For example, how do you identify motivation and drive?


Peter 09.09.07 at 3:46 pm

My advice to intending PhD applicants in Computer Science is here:


ogged 09.09.07 at 4:31 pm

Fontana Labs also offered good advice.


Barry 09.09.07 at 4:40 pm

“Well, I’m very curious whether philosophers think that you need the philosophical equivalent level of specificity that Burke says a history applicant needs.”

In statistics, no.

There were several comment on his blog, to the extent that this is perhaps a history-specific thing.


mark 09.09.07 at 5:14 pm

How about US grad schools vs the UK, or elsewhere? I know CTers have academic backgrounds from all over the place, and it’d be interesting to hear what they think of the pros and cons of different systems of graduate education.

Is the teaching element of US PhD programs so valuable that it justifies the 2-4 extra years you can expect to spend on a social sciences/humanities degree in the US? Is it extremely difficult to get American academic jobs without an American degree?


Aidan Kehoe 09.09.07 at 5:36 pm

Hmm. I seriously looked into postgraduate study in linguistics in a very specific area; the guy I was interested in working with (and who did most of the work I’m interested on building on) politely said ‘no, I’m not taking on grad students,’ and didn’t follow up to my response asking for the programmes he’d recommend, given that.

But a good friend who is currently starting a Ph.D. in linguistics, on learning this, and that I had abandoned interest in linguistics for another field of study, suggested applying to do Ph.Ds with other professors who were not so interested in what the first guy does. I didn’t listen to her, and wow, to my surprise, I may well have been right. But, hey, even if I wasn’t, the money will be better in the alternative field, should I manage it.


Eszter 09.09.07 at 7:22 pm

Mark, if said US program is a good one then there’s a good chance you can learn a lot from courses. I certainly learned a ton from our methods sequence. (When I say methods, I don’t mean stats, I mean research methods, how to figure out a research question, how to evaluate other people’s projects, how to write an empirical publishable-quality paper, etc.)

Generally it’s pretty difficult to get good academic jobs regardless of where you got your training although some programs place pretty well consistently (it may be, however, that the people in them who wouldn’t place so well drop out during the process).

Taking a bit longer helps publish papers, which is becoming an increasingly important part of getting a job. So there’s one more reason not to rush through a PhD program in 2-3 years.

All that said, if you are able to make a contribution and are able to make it known, and can do all that in 2-3 years, more power to you.


philosopher 09.09.07 at 8:00 pm

I agree with harry that specificity per se is not necessary for a graduate applicant. (I’m a professor at a program at the lower end of Leiter’s ‘top 50’, btw.) But I think that Tim Burke indicates that the specificity is a proxy for a harder to gauge trait: how well the student understand just what kind of work is required at the graduate level, and their mental preparedness to engage in that kind of work. There are other cues available for this, too. Often one can get it from the writing sample, when it’s a really solid. But the personal statement _can_ be a good source of such a cue. I guess I do somewhat hold the loopier ones against people, in that they may indicate that the person has a bad misconception as to what professional philosophizing amounts to.


dilbert dogbert 09.09.07 at 8:02 pm

Philip Greenspuns blog just lately had a commenter who pointed towards a blog that discussed the same question but it was about going to West Point- again the ans was: Probably Not. Philip also has his own article on doing phd work in Computer Science – again: Probably Not.


lindsey 09.09.07 at 8:14 pm

Thinking about getting a Ph.D? Try lying down until the feeling goes away.

Is it really that bad? What about just a masters?


magistra 09.09.07 at 8:21 pm

I notice that Total Drek’s hint no 11 was all about the importance of your own cohort and how ‘social isolation is a near death sentence’, so it’s not just budding female philosophers who feel this.


Kieran Healy 09.09.07 at 8:29 pm

What about just a masters?

Unless it’s a recognized professional qualification (for a non-academic profession, I mean), I’d say definitely wait till _that_ feeling goes away.


liberal 09.09.07 at 9:02 pm

Highly relevant is that Matt Groening cartoon: “Meet the bitterest person in the world: the grad school dropout.”


lindsey 09.09.07 at 9:08 pm

Oh so discouraging! Well, I’m not sure it will. What if I told you it would be joined with a JD degree? (the philosophy part being for fun, the law part for bread)


LogicGuru 09.09.07 at 10:18 pm

I would never have gotten a Ph.D. if I could have gotten non-menial non-pink-collar work without one. Period. I hate teaching. The sole reason why I got a Ph.D. was to avoid pink collar shit work and to minimize teaching. Teaching 6 courses a year with time for research was better than teaching endlessly at the high school level.

Before you say think again about getting a Ph.D., think about what the alternatives are–particularly the alternatives for women.


mark 09.09.07 at 10:51 pm

Thanks, Eszter. I can see what you mean about the higher coursework content in a US degree being helpful. Funding seems to be more available in the US, as well. And at the end of the day, I suppose you don’t actually save all that much time in the UK, especially once you factor in the year or two of postdoc work that’s often tacked on to the 4 years in order for newly-minted researchers to get a start on publishing.


adam 09.09.07 at 11:21 pm

I am a third year PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering and the dynamics in engineering are completely different. I would never expect an incoming student to know what kind of project they want to work on. Certainly I would expect them to know if the broad area they wanted to study (say, Biomaterals versus Imaging). But I would not expect them to have a pre-proposal in mind before entering grad school. That just strikes me as silly.

I would choose a school based on the strength of the program in the general areas you are interested in. If the professors are interested in you, they’ll fly you out for an interveiw. Talk the the professors and any current grad students you can find. Try to get a sense for the atmosphere of each lab.

Remember — your research advisor will own you for 4-7 years. Your relationship with them is the most important determinant of your success!


DC 09.10.07 at 12:16 am

Is a masters not a good way to test the waters for a doctorate? What’s makes a non-qualification MSc etc. such a bad idea?


Kieran Healy 09.10.07 at 1:31 am

Is a masters not a good way to test the waters for a doctorate? What’s makes a non-qualification MSc etc. such a bad idea?

Nothing, depending on what it’s in and what the reason is for doing it. Things vary a lot by field. But in many cases good programs don’t take students on just to do Master’s degrees, and prospective students are often unclear about this. That said, there are of course many perfectly respectable terminal M.A. programs, and in some cases it’s obviously the right choice. I did an M.A. myself before coming to grad school in the U.S.


nick s 09.10.07 at 2:39 am

Is it extremely difficult to get American academic jobs without an American degree?

It’s trickier coming into the US market with a British PhD in the humanities and no significant teaching experience. The entire machinery of academia, from positions to conferences, is understandably built around.

I’d say it’s a smoother transition for a talented British student to go from undergraduate studies to a Kennedy Scholarship or similar, and then enter the US system at the postgraduate level.

The funding options are much more helpful back on the other side of the pond, though. But with that route, it’s probably smarter to look for a postdoctoral research fellowship in the UK to build up a publishing/teaching portfolio before braving the US cattle market and abbatoir.


will 09.10.07 at 2:46 am

I recently went through the application rigmarole for physics, and am pretty satisfied with the result (a top five program), despite a few surprise rejections. Regarding specificity, I sought to strike a balance between displaying deep interest and knowledge in “X,” and showing flexibility and willingness to explore other fields. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in this; perhaps I was pigeonholed as “X” at the rejecting institutions. C’est la vie.

I was actually interested in Oxbridge, but my impression (perhaps mistaken?) was that Americans can forget about being funded, except if they go through the dog-and-pony show of Marshall, Rhodes, et al.

adam: My impression is that most incoming engineering grad students either have a research group lined up or are scrambling to find one. My fellow physics students are rather more laidback about research, many planning only on coursework in the first year.


Matt 09.10.07 at 2:47 am

“What if I told you it would be joined with a JD degree? (the philosophy part being for fun, the law part for bread)”

I’d be careful here, too. For one, it won’t be for free and will be one more year you’ll be earning interest on the big student loans for the JD. And, it will make firms a bit more weary about hiring you- you won’t be ready to start working for them for a year, they might worry that you’ll be too airy or abstract for the real work of lawyers, and maybe that you really want to be an academic. (I speak from some experience from dealing w/ law firms while doing grad work in philosophy, too.) It _might_ be of some use w/ some judges in getting a clerkship (in which case it might well be worthwhile) but there will be several other judges, too, who will see it as a direct negative. Anyway, I’d check and be very clear as to what has happened for former philosophy JD/MAs from the program and see if you’d be interested in that sort of life before spending the money and time. (My impression is that a JD w/ another professional degree can be very useful if you want to practice a special field of law where the professional degree is applicable.)


Megan, not McArdle 09.10.07 at 3:04 am

the bitterest person in the world: the grad school dropout.

So, so true, says one of them.


Eszter 09.10.07 at 4:03 am

Regarding terminal MAs in the US, a lot of applicants don’t realize that it is very rare for a school to fund such students whereas programs will fund PhD students.

Also, if a school admits you to its PhD program, but offers no funding, I’d think very long and hard before committing to it. (I would never have, for one thing, I already had enough loans from college.) If they don’t believe in supporting you financially, it’s not clear whether they really believe in supporting you at all.


bloix 09.10.07 at 4:15 am

“I hate teaching. The sole reason why I got a Ph.D. was to avoid pink collar shit work and to minimize teaching. Teaching 6 courses a year with time for research was better than teaching endlessly at the high school level.”

I’m sure your students are getting value for their money when they take your classes. Seriously, don’t you feel any guilt at all when you cash your share of their $45,000 a year?


Megan, not McArdle 09.10.07 at 4:33 am

She could hate it and still have enough integrity and professionalism to do a decent job. Why assume the worst, and then take a jab at someone? You could figure that you don’t know the whole situation and then say nothing.


Barbar 09.10.07 at 7:57 am

don’t you feel any guilt at all when you cash your share of their $45,000 a year

That’s probably not very much money.


Katherine 09.10.07 at 9:53 am

Well, as someone about to start a (part time) Masters, I’ll bookmark this thread and come back in the three years it’s going to take me. Thanks for the links.

I’m just doing it to learn, shock horror, so lord knows whether it’ll lead to anything else.


lindsey 09.10.07 at 12:21 pm

they might worry that you’ll be too airy or abstract for the real work of lawyers

I should have guessed that the real world would discourage learning for learning’s sake. I must remind myself: knowledge is for the job market, knowledge is for the job market…


magistra 09.10.07 at 12:46 pm

If you’re considering the differing merits of PhDs via the US/UK route, one thing to bear in mind is that it is now very hard to get postdoctoral positions in the UK (at least for the humanities). The British Academy has about an 8% success rate for postdoctoral fellowships and that’s at the generous end: Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships routinely have several hundred applicants for a single post. A lot of UK medievalists with PhDs (good candidates from places with world-class supervisors) are having to survive on part-time teaching for several years (the equivalent of adjunct work) or have just left the field.


elbujo 09.10.07 at 1:03 pm

Burke’s discussion interested me. I went from a large university to a high-ranked graduate program. But I had none of the savvy–that way of talking about oneself and one’s interests–that the other students had.

He describes this way of talking about oneself as almost an organic thing. As if one really would just naturally think of one’s interest in this way:

“I’m interested in modern China with a strong emphasis on economic history. I’m particularly interested in the internal economics of China before and after Communist rule.”

That’s a product of a certain kind of training, a training one gets at small colleges or very prestigious universities.

I had specific interests but had no training about how to talk about them. In fact, I did not know how to ‘do’ that way of speaking whatsoever or to represent myself to others as a scholar. Strangely enough, I did as well or better than anyone in my graduate program in the early years. Later, I wonder if being an outsider has caught up with me a bit. The fact I initially could not speak of myself in the way Burke describes it had no effect on my ability to write papers or to pursue my interests. Nor to sometimes receive high praise on my papers. I lacked professional polish, though and still do. The polish that Burke’s Swarthmore students have, for example. Yet, a number of students who intimidated me with their capacity for impressive self-presentation simply didn’t make it through the program. A problem for them perhaps might have been that they had trouble failing or being ignorant or being a novice and learning something. They had trouble not being sure of what they were interested in or what they thought about something, of going away and being confused or even spending a few years trying to figure something out. Difficulties, when they arose, were harder for them. This came easily to me and sometimes I think the fact I was kind of a dunderhead was weirdly advantageous.

In any case, I don’t think Burke has it entirely right but it is true that one will be happier as an academic if one likes to specialize and loves minutiae. But these are more general traits and I think a more confused youngster could flourish in graduate school if they had these traits but were a bit less decided on a precise object of study.


Matt 09.10.07 at 1:08 pm

“I should have guessed that the real world would discourage learning for learning’s sake.”

It’s not exactly that, Lindsey, but rather that lawyers (like most people in their own fields) tend to be pretty conservative- not necessarily in the political sense, but rather in that they don’t like to take risks. (This might be more true of big-firm lawyers than others but I’d be surprised.) And, they have lots of very good applicants to choose from. So, if they hire the regular Columbia grad and he does poorly they can just say, “well, who could have known. He had great credentials.” But if they hire the person who also has the MA in philosophy and she does poorly then someone might say to them, “That’s what you get for hiring something who’s not down to earth.” It’s nothing in particular about philosophy, I think- just something that marks the person as different. They saying used to be, “No one got fired for buying IBM computers.” It’s not true like that now, of course, but I think the general idea still plays out a lot whenever there are more applicants than jobs.

This isn’t to say you should not do an MA in philosophy, especially if you think you might eventually want to get a PhD. Merely, it’s important to see that there are potential down-sides to it too.


harry b 09.10.07 at 2:50 pm

Lindsey — don’t let them put you off, you should do an MA in Philosophy, there’s no question about it. (I know her better than the rest of you!)


lindsey 09.10.07 at 3:00 pm

Just tell that to the admissions people! (their decision, after all)… but I’ll keep an eye out for what everyone says they’re looking for in an applicant…


Tim O'Keefe 09.10.07 at 4:06 pm

Regarding terminal MAs in the US, a lot of applicants don’t realize that it is very rare for a school to fund such students whereas programs will fund PhD students.

Well, this isn’t true of terminal MA programs in philosophy, at least. Most of them do offer funding, and such programs aren’t all that rare. Brian Leiter talks a bit more about such programs, FWIW.


Matt 09.10.07 at 4:11 pm

I didn’t mean to be too negative on MA programs as such. It was a big help to me to do an MA (though not in a straight MA program) before eventually returning to grad school (and law school). And, I do think that doing an MA in philosophy while doing a JD can make one a better lawyer (as well as a better candidate for a PhD program.) My only concern is to point out that there are real potential costs in doing an MA and that these should be considered when deciding whether to do one, and that many people will not, for various reasons, make them clear to you.


Timothy Burke 09.10.07 at 5:07 pm

I should say that in my own practice, I’ve veered very strongly away from specialization. This isn’t the way that I want things to be in grad school. I’d rather doctoral programs were more exploratory, more continuous with undergraduate education, more open to generalists. I’d rather that someone who primarily says, “I really love the art of historical writing and thinking” be seen not just as a viable applicant but as a highly desirable one.

But I don’t think that’s the way it is, for the most part. As philosopher says, what I think writing a more specialized description of your plans does for you as an applicant is communicate your understanding of what graduate school and academic practice often really look like. I think it’s easier to have that kind of polish and then rebel against it than to walk into a room full of people with that sort of prior socialization and encounter it naively. The latter scenario often leads to people becoming the institutional equivalent of the victim in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”.


lindsey 09.10.07 at 5:25 pm

Thanks matt. I do appreciate your warnings. And no, I hadn’t really thought of that being a problem, though it does seem like it could be. Thankfully, I’m not all that interested in a dog-eat-dog law firm, so if they don’t want me it’s not a big loss. Ideally, I’d like to do public interest stuff, so I’ll be broke anyway. And the school I’m going to does have pretty good hiring rates regardless(though I don’t know for those who get the MA). I do appreciate your concern, and I’ll keep it in mind!


LogicGuru 09.10.07 at 11:08 pm

I’m sure your students are getting value for their money when they take your classes. Seriously, don’t you feel any guilt at all when you cash your share of their $45,000 a year?

You’d better believe my students get value for their money. I may not like teaching but I give it all I’ve got and I’m good at what I do. I find the rhetoric of “x is unhappy here” that appears on supervisory evaluations as code for “we’d like x to go somewhere else but don’t have any good reason to kick her out” the worst sort of disingenuous bs.

Where does the idea that one is supposed to ENJOY one’s work come from? If we enjoyed it, we wouldn’t have to be paid for it, dammit, and for most human beings the work we do is the least worst alternative to starving. We work our butts off to get PhDs so that we can be among the lucky few who actually enjoy some aspects of our jobs–a privilege that most people can’t even dream of.

Being an academic, and getting the chance to do original research, is the pearl of great price. We sacrifice to get that–we take on risk, we kill ourselves to get tenure, we sacrifice wages that we could be getting if we did those better paid jobs in the Real World and we pay for the privilege of doing research and working at a job that pervades our entire lives by teaching, serving on committees, etc. That’s perfectly fair and in fairness we give our all to those duties.


Bloix 09.11.07 at 12:06 am

Jesus H. Christ, the least I hope for my children when they go to college is that their professors enjoy teaching them. The idea that they’ll be stuck with some asshole who hates the little fuckers’ guts, but is going to teach them, anyway, because that’s what she’s paid to do, makes my hair stand on end. You think that teaching is a sacrifice you make in order to do research. I don’t give a fuck for your research, I want someone who will teach my children for my $45,000 a year. I’m not interested in delaying my retirement for 3 years so you can be available in your office one hour a week where you take delight in belittling your students because they really don’t want to be like you.

And as for the worth of your research – one in a hundred of you will make a genuine contribution to scholarship. The rest will write “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485” over and over again. But you will all teach. If you do your jobs well, you will all raise the level of public discourse and awaken minds to new possibilities. If you do it poorly, you’ll damage them and alienate them. That’s your important work, not your precious research.


c. 09.11.07 at 12:07 am

But don’t you find it hard to do original research from up on that cross?


ben 09.11.07 at 12:11 am

wow, bloix, logicguru really seems to have struck a nerve! and you seem to assume that someone cannot do her job well unless she enjoys it. while I enjoy teaching and I am happy that I don’t have to face it in the way that logicguru does, that doesn’t mean I am necessarily the better teacher of the two of us.


c. 09.11.07 at 12:16 am

I find it rather strange that every time this subject comes up on the blogs, there is this resounding chorus of, “Oh, don’t go to Grad School! Don’t get a PhD! That’s a terrible idea! It’s definitely not for you!” — from a bunch of people who, well, went to grad school and got PhD’s, and don’t seem to have any regrets about it.
I think the sentiment is authentic enough — we all know people who are deeply unhappy in grad school, and maybe would’ve been better served by some time in the private sector, or pursuing their interests some other way.
Still, I don’t find the tone really generally helpful, since it gets compressed from “Some people may have been happier doing something besides grad school” to “You (whoever you are out there) shouldn’t go to grad school.” And it generally comes from a bunch of people who apparently did just dandy in grad school and went on to get faculty jobs.


c. 09.11.07 at 12:24 am

Ben (and logicguru as well, I suppose),
You’ll have a very difficult time convincing me — and a lot of people, I think — that someone who claims
I hate teaching. The sole reason why I got a Ph.D. was to avoid pink collar shit work and to minimize teaching.

is not a shite instructor. There are legions of professors with this attitude, especially in technical fields, and we’ve probably all suffered through the results in the classroom. But what does it matter — they’re probably just teaching students who will go on to do some “pink collar shit work” anyway.


LogicGuru 09.11.07 at 3:46 am

I still don’t understand the nerve I struck. If my job were coal mining, data entry, or accounting no one would be horrified if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But somehow there’s a mystique surrounding teaching so that it is taboo to say one doesn’t like it or assume that I couldn’t/wouldn’t work hard or do a good job because I didn’t like it.

So what is the deal anyway? This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten this response. When I say I don’t like teaching people respond as if I’d said I don’t like sex and fake orgasm. Now I’m ‘satiably curious about what’s behind these taboos–why the outrage?


Timothy Burke 09.11.07 at 11:04 am


I wouldn’t call it a taboo. It’s more, at least for me, that I have a hard time reconciling my own experience of teaching with your claim that you can both hate teaching and do it very well. Your analogy to other jobs is part of what’s leading you astray. If an actor said, “I hate acting, I absolutely loathe it”, we’d wonder how it was possible that that actor still managed to give moving dramatic performances. We wouldn’t wonder if that actor was able to do a perfectly good job pitching detergent in a commercial, on the other hand.

Really good teaching seems to me to be something that requires a strong quality of emotional investment in both the act of teaching and in the desire for students to learn. But it’s somewhat dependent on subject and on the size of the classroom. A beginning science lecture to a classroom of 400 students might be more like the actor in the commercial: something that anyone with the necessary knowledge and basic presentation skills could do credibly. A small discussion-oriented seminar in the humanities? I just don’t see how you can do that well if you’re hating every minute of it every time you do it.


Matt 09.11.07 at 1:03 pm

_”If an actor said, “I hate acting, I absolutely loathe it”, we’d wonder how it was possible that that actor still managed to give moving dramatic performances_”

I’m pretty sure that quite a few very good actors did think this, at least after a short while. If I recall correctly Cary Grant, for example, claimed to hate acting (and most everything else, but in particular acting) even during the height of his career. Surely liking your job raises the chances that you’ll do it well, but it’s obviously not a necessary condition for doing so.


Josh G. 09.11.07 at 8:13 pm

I simply don’t understand logicguru’s claim that “I would never have gotten a Ph.D. if I could have gotten non-menial non-pink-collar work without one. Period.” Didn’t logicguru consider going to law school? Medical school? Becoming a certified accountant (which actually pays pretty well)? Or is she attempting to claim that sexism in all of these fields is still so bad that she would be relegated to “pink collar” work? I find that very difficult to believe.

There are a lot of people who actually like teaching. Enough, in fact, that I don’t think it is a wise use of college funds to employ people in the humanities who do not like to teach. Everyone who went to college as an undergraduate remembers that one professor who obviously considered his (or her) teaching to be a burdensome chore. The classes were boring and lifeless, and they sucked. With dozens of aspiring PhDs for every job opening, I don’t see why we should be hiring those people for tenure-track positions.

I suppose things might be different in the hard sciences. If someone is doing cutting-edge biology or chemistry research, you can credibly argue that this is more important than teaching undergraduates. (I still think there’s a real problem in the fact that we conflate the two essentially unrelated roles of teacher and researcher into the same job description. In practice, it often amounts to a game of bait-and-switch played on the students.)

On the other hand, if you’re a professor in English, I don’t think you can credibly claim that your research is more important than teaching undergraduates, or, indeed, that it has any value at all. Virtually no one will ever read it, and most of it is so densely written that no one could understand it even if they did make the attempt. And, let’s face it, there’s nothing you can say about Shakespeare or Homer that hasn’t been said a thousand times before (and probably in a clearer, more understandable manner). We should stop the ridiculous pretense of “research” in the humanities, and professors in those departments should be chosen for teaching abilities, not on their ability to crank out worthless articles that no one cares about. If necessary, designate one or two departments in the country to do research, and let everyone else concentrate on teaching.


c. 09.12.07 at 2:41 am

I think Tim and Josh G. both make the point well. While I think maybe Josh is being to harsh on humanities research, he’s right in that there’s almost no justification in hiring humanities professors who hate teaching. (And it should, one hopes, be a rare exception in the sciences also).

I mostly agree with Tim’s point, and was about to say something similar. Good teaching requires a kind of mental commitment that is nearly impossible to muster if you don’t get some joy out of it (or at least see it as valuable and part of your craft — not something that you have to suffer through for the sake of research). I would only change Tim’s example from actor to, say, doctor or secondary school teacher. They’re both extremely important services and the former, like university teaching, is really expensive. So imagine a doctor who says she hates her patients and only likes research, or a high school teacher who hates students but loves administrative work. They may be perfectly competent, but I’d really rather have someone else tending to my medical needs, or teaching my kids.


Josh G. 09.12.07 at 5:42 am

If I could restructure American higher education from the ground up, I would split the current career track of “professor” into two separate lines of advancement.

One career track would be focused on teaching undergraduates. These teachers would have PhDs and would be full-time, tenure-track employees (not adjuncts, as many colleges use today). They would be hired, tenured, and promoted based on their willingness and ability to teach a relatively heavy course load, much of it at the entry level (especially in fields that include a distribution requirement for all majors).

The other career track would be focused on research. These professors would also have PhDs and would be full-time, tenure-track employees. They would be hired, tenured, and promoted based on their ability to bring in grants and to do high-quality research.

These categories would not be exclusive. Instructors would be given some free time to do research if they so chose. Researchers might be tasked with teaching a couple of upper-division seminars. And there would be the opportunity to move from one track to another if vacancies permitted.

Professors in both tracks would have the same pay at the same levels, and similar job titles. For instance, an instructor might be titled “Assistant Professor of Political Science Instruction,” while his research colleague would be “Assistant Professor of Political Science Research.”

The ratio between instructors and researchers would vary between departments. For instance, English might have a bunch of instructors, but only one researcher in the department (or none at all in small colleges). Hard science would be closer to an even split, or maybe even somewhat tilted towards researchers. Social science would be somewhere in-between.

The job of “professor” is currently two largely unrelated jobs stitched together. There’s no reason to believe that the best researchers are also the best people to teach low-level courses to undergraduates. Let’s make this plain and transparent and almost everyone will be happier.


Nick L 09.12.07 at 3:35 pm

It’s funny but I’ve never met any professional in my entire life who recommended their field of employment. Solicitors, teachers, accountants, business people, academics, doctors and pharmacists all have attested to me that they would never recommend doing what they do for a living. I think this may simply be, as mentioned above, that if work in general wasn’t tedious and unpleasent then it wouldn’t pay.

I’m just starting as a graduate student after spending two years moving pieces of paper around an office. Perhaps I will be proved wrong, but I have a feeling that research and teaching may prove much more interesting than basic admin, especially as excessive administrative burden seems to be one of the biggest complaints of academics in the UK.

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