Chris Blattman

The PhD problem?

Harvard english professor Louis Menand critiques the academic industry:

Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system.

That comes from his essay in Harvard Magazine. It is an except from a longer book, The Marketplace of Ideas.

It has many interesting bits, including this one:

It may be that the increased time-to-degree, combined with the weakening job market for liberal arts Ph.D.s, is what is responsible for squeezing the profession into a single ideological box. It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach college students for a living. Tightening up the oversight on student progress might reduce the time-to-degree by a little, but as long as the requirements remain, as long as students in most fields have general exams, field (or oral) exams, and monograph-length dissertations, it is not easy to see how the reduction will be significant. What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available.

I think economics departments (and, to some extent, political science) have done better than the humanities in improving time-to-dissertation and employment. Perhaps it’s because of market forces, perhaps ideology.

As my previous post suggests, economics may have done a better job at social control as well.

Hat tip to Amanda Beatty.

One Response

  1. Ahh, but the University system is profoundly dependent on creating more PhDs than there are jobs for (or at least getting more graduate students). The humanities may be worse at it than Economics, but they’re hardly immune from the pressures that create the academic system that we have (when you have PhDs adjuncting at three schools but still on food stamps, you have *serious* problem in the system) . Skills acquired earning an economics degree are probably more transferable than say, english literature, but it’s not at all clear that those skills require the amount of schooling we demand.

    FWIW, I think a great book (from a decidedly lefty perspective) is “How the University Works”

Comments are closed.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog