Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Irresponsible Journalist at The Economist Spreads Lies About Graduate Studies

Dumping on academia has become one of the favorite pursuits of print journalists everywhere. As the higher education system in this country suffers one blow after another, journalists are happy to serve their corporate masters and promote the idea that education is bad, useless, and harmful. In their efforts to talk people out of pursuing higher education, such journalists stoop to half-truths and even outright lies.

Take, for example, a piece titled "The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time" that appeared a few days ago in The Economist. The author of this article demonstrates how partial truth easily becomes a full-blown lie. In order to prove that graduate students are often overworked and exploited, this irresponsible journalist says the following about Yale: "A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching." As somebody who graduated from the doctoral program at Yale, let me tell you how things really are.

A graduate student's stipend at Yale is, indeed, in the vicinity of $20,000 per year. A graduate student at Yale also gets a tuition waiver and medical insurance, which put the value of the entire package somewhere around $50,000 per year. You are guaranteed to get this funding for 5 years. Out of these 5 years, the first two are spent taking courses (not teaching, mind you) and preparing for the comprehensive exams. The next two years a graduate student does teach, but never more than one course per semester. For people who have the hardest teaching workload (those who teach language courses) this means working for 50 minutes a day five days a week. For the rest, it's less than that. The fifth year of the doctoral program is dedicated to writing the dissertation. You get the same funding as in the previous years but do not have to teach or, actually, be on campus at all. I, for one, moved back to Canada in my fifth year to spend time with my family and my Montreal friends. A simple calculation shows that a graduate student at Yale ends up receiving a total of $250,000, in exchange for which amount s/he is required to teach a total of 4 courses. Not too shabby at all, in my opinion.

The article's barrage of lies gets completely out of hand when the author states that "In the humanities . . . most students pay for their own PhDs." When I apllied (and was accepted) into several of the best graduate programs in the US, nobody asked me to pay for anything. Some universities had a worse package, some offered a better one, but there was never any talk of me paying tuition anywhere. The Economist's article goes out of its way to prove that "too many" people go to graduate school. Anybody with an ounce of grey matter would ask themselves where all these grad students are supposed to get the huge amounts of money to pay for this education. This quasi-journalist, though, is happy to spread unchecked falsehoods just to prove the point that more education is worse than less.

The article's author uses the favorite trcik of irresponsible journalists as Fox News, which consists of introducing unsupported, ridiculous lies as something that "some people say": "Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes." It would be nice to get a couple of quotes here from these "fiercest critics" and "business leaders", or at least to be given their names, but The Economist's authors feel no need to burden themselves with looking for proof for their outlandish suggestions. Only a complete idiot would think that a PhD is about "teaching skills." It's not like the information is top-secret, so there is no justification for this quasi-journalist's strange criticisms of academia.

Another egregious statement provided by the article's author is "Research at one American university found that those who finish [with a PhD] are no cleverer than those who do not." Of course, the university in question is never named and no link to this mysterious study is provided. I, for one, would be really interested in finding out how you measure "cleverness" and what kind of scientists conduct such idiotic studies. As a blogger, I can afford to write pretty much anything I want in my posts. Still, I challenge anybody to find a single instance when I talked about "a study at a university" and failed to link to the information I referenced.

The main argument this article provides about why graduate studies are useless is that not everybody with a PhD ends up becoming a Full Professor and making the average professorial salary of $109,000. Obviously, that's true. It is just as true for any other profession where becoming one of the top earners in your field is never a guarantee, no matter what your area of specialization is. Still, graduate school provides grad students with one undeniable benefit: five or more years that can be dedicated to bettering oneself intellectually, hanging out with friends, travelling, reading, thinking, writing, partying, etc. Grad school is the best way to delay one's entrance into the hamster race of the corporate world. Who else but the graduate students have the luxury of sleeping in until noon on a regular basis or staying in bed with books for a month well into their thirties? No matter how much one will end up making after graduation, having this experience is priceless.

By the end of the article, the author reveals the real reason behind her dislike of grad school: "Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology." It is no surprise to me that someone who writes so clumsily and puts out such an unconvincing, badly researched and dishonest piece of rubbish didn't thrive either in or out of grad school. Sadly, there are ignoramuses and under-achievers everywhere. Even the best system in the world couldn't guarantee a complete absence of unintelligent, uninspired plodders who are incapable of benefitting from it.

I have cancelled all of my subscriptions to pring media (except one to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.) I'm so frustrated with this irresponsible journalism that charges good money to provide me with material based on what "some people say" or "a study has discovered" that I now get all of my information from bloggers I trust. They, at least, never forget to offer proof for their statements and do responsible research before writing.

19 comments:

Rimi said...

It's kind of you to think of them as irresponsible. I see a definite large-scale defamation agenda here in corporate-owned and sponsored media.

But while being in a PhD programme (or out of it) is not an indisputable measure of cleverness, there is definitely the aura of smarts attached to it, which is what makes conservative commentators who bash education ironically flaunt a 'PhD' or a false 'Dr.' before it.

On the flip side, there were quite a few fellow doctoral students at my erstwhile uni (and elsewhere) showed a great felicity for swallowing and regurgitating theories, and little for intelligent, original, and self-aware critical analysis. So, like with all generalisations, this spurious little 'Dr' journo HAS hit a small target. And I wish this was not the case.

Clarissa said...

It's always very entertaining when such journalists release books about how blogging has destroyed print journalism. Of course, it's easy to blame the competition for being more honest and responsible.

As for the quality of graduate education, of course everybody takes out of it whatever they want and can. But that's the case with any kind of endeavor.

KT said...

Thanks for this riposte.

I read the article and I didn't know how to react. Your post puts it in the right perspective. Why the Economist would take such a pessimistic stand is still beyond my comprehension.

There is already plenty uncertainty in the minds of many graduate students. They don't need the word of another anonymous journalist from the Economist to paint yet another gloomy picture of the future of the academia.

All I can say is: thank goodness for blogging.

Richard said...

As the old cliché has it: a PhD is someone who has learned more and more about less and less. That being said holders of PhDs, like any group, are highly diverse. Personally, the PhD holders that I am acquainted with have ranged from brilliant and wise to downright off their heads. Outside of the academic and scientific worlds, a PhD is primarily a good door opener to the world of think tanks and ‘centers’ with spin offs to such lucrative areas as consulting. It really depends on the individual PhD holder.

Clarissa said...

For me, this is not so much about the value of a doctoral degree, which - as Richard points out - varies deeply from one individual to another - as about irresponsible journalists who treat their readers with so much contempt that they don't even try to research their subjects or substantiate their claims.

sheddingkhawatir said...

"staying in bed with books for a month well into their thirties"

My favorite part of graduate school! Especially getting paid to do it.

fairykarma said...

Your points are valid, but even you don't address in detail the "what happens after I graduate?" question, which is the question most people are interested in when it comes to graduate school in the humanities.

It's been addressed here:
http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

The news isn't exactly flattering. To say that the cushy positions are reserved for the few best is fine. But the author points out that even getting a decent job is a struggle for humanities folk.

I found the article below pretty sobering
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/06/in-the-basement-of-the-ivory-tower/6810/3/

Who in their right minds would do humanities if they knew there was a big chance of teaching those kinds of students just to get by?

There are plenty of avenues which can at least guarantee you a decent living. IT, engineering, medicine, science positions in the corporate world, just to name a few. Does everyone who majors in those fields get a decent job? No. But I would say more grads in those fields get decent jobs compared to humanities grads.

Btw. My idea of decent is not cushy. Simply enough to make ends meet and start saving.

cringe-all said...

"five or more years that can be dedicated to bettering oneself intellectually, hanging out with friends, travelling, reading, thinking, writing, partying, etc."

So there is some concession from you here that a large part of the attraction of grad school is a desire to continue to be a student, to avoid having to look for a job for five years, and in some ways be less responsible than your peers who are grinding it out in the "real, big, bad" world? ;)
While the article is one-dimensional and bad journalism precisely for the reasons that you mention, I do think it raises a number of unpleasant but valid questions about the way the academic world is structured today (these questions are nothing too original and something that all grad students are familiar with).
Looking it at as a purely economics question, there is a much greater supply of PhDs than there is demand for academicians.
Most people start their PhD careers as highly motivated scholars hoping for a lifelong career in academics but gradually realize there isn't just enough place for all of them. So why this race among universities to produce more of them? Cheap, motivated and gifted labor (mostly foreign) is indeed something American universities are looking to exploit. Obviously the article doesn't offer the counterpoint, which you do. PhD is love's labor, and not everything can be measured with economics. The foreign students benefit from the American system in a lot of ways too. It is almost symbiotic but I wish schools were more selective so that the PhD brand value remained higher.

Clarissa said...

"There are plenty of avenues which can at least guarantee you a decent living. IT, engineering, medicine, science positions in the corporate world, just to name a few."

-Knowing all of that and more is of absolutely no help to a person who doesn't have a scientifically inclined brain. I couldn't have achieved anything in any of these fields to save my life, simply because my brain doesn't work that way.

I'm happy that I never listened to anybody's dire predictions about how an education in literary criticism is "useless." I would have been beyond miserable trying to force myself into fields that are completely alien to me. People should follow their tastes and preferences, in my opinion, and not what dishonest journalists try to sell to them at the behest of their corporate masters.

"But I would say more grads in those fields get decent jobs compared to humanities grads. "

-I haven't seen any similar tendency at all.

Clarissa said...

"So there is some concession from you here that a large part of the attraction of grad school is a desire to continue to be a student, to avoid having to look for a job for five years, and in some ways be less responsible than your peers who are grinding it out in the "real, big, bad" world? ;)"

-I agree with the Ancient Greek philosophers who maintained that otium (leisure time dedicated to peaceful contemplation and intellectual betterment) is the most valuable commodity there is. For me, a person who dedicated their life to the pursuit of otium is the most responsible of all because their responsibility is to themselves and to their own intellectual growth.

I don't see how slaving in some cubicle in order to finance some stupid mortgage is more "responsible" than pursuing intellectual endeavors.

"Most people start their PhD careers as highly motivated scholars hoping for a lifelong career in academics but gradually realize there isn't just enough place for all of them."

-I've known many people who have dropped out of PhD programs. None of them did it for the reason you quote. People mostly drop out because they realize they don't like doing research or teaching. Or both.

Clarissa said...

Here is a really good post on the same silly article:

http://charlesrowley.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/why-completing-a-phd-is-truly-worthwhile-1/

V said...

Hmm... Very strange post... In whose interests it is written?

Suppose I am a corporate manager, believing grad school is pointless, there is no need for so many PhD's, and that this grad school gig consumes way too much resources... Would it really be wise to tell me that grad students actually contribute less in terms of measurable outcome (such as hours of teaching) and cost more than I, corporate manager, believed before. And on top of that they dare use grad school to delay the entry into the corporate rat-race!!!
I, the corporate manager, would be even more tempted to reduce the number of grad students by 90%, hire one visiting professor (with low salary and no chance of tenure, but with PhD, so I can tell the kids and their parents that I "improved the quality of their education" ) instead of 3-4 grad students, and abolish any tuition wavers. Since the positions in academia can be filled with those 10% who can afford paying their way through grad school, and no more PhD's are needed...

Clarissa said...

My dear friend, surely you know by now that I only write whatever I know to be true. I have no fear that my corporate administrates will read this - or anything else for that matter - because it isn't like reading is one of their skills to begin with. :-)

These weird people with no reading skills stil believe that the number of PhD graduates somehow reflects positively on them. So who am I to disabuse the poor ignoramuses of their long-held notions?

Every single thing I wrote about the Yale grad program is God's honest truth. Do you think I should have concealed it? Why? And from whom?

Hal Anderson said...

An interesting post. I think most students would have some difficulty with the argument that "X says that Y usually happens but Z happened to me and therefore X is wrong." You might look into the Chronicle of Higher Edication studies a few years ago that found that tenure-track positions were being eliminated and more classes taught by instructors, postdocs, and TAs.

Clarissa said...

I never disputed that tenure-track positions are being eliminated and I'm very bothered by that trend.

Still, this doesn't make the anonymous article in The Economist any better. It's still horribly written and poorly researched.

Yale's graduate package isn't something that "happened to me." Every grad student in the Humanities gets it. Every single one. This information can be discovered with a minimal effort on the part of this irresponsible journalist.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am not so sanguine about support for grad studies. My daughter spent four years in grad school in music. She received about $120K total in fellowships, which did not completely cover her tuition. She had to get student loans of another $80K to live on and pay the remainder of the tuition.

Clarissa said...

I wasn't writing about all support for all graduate students everywhere. I was talking very specifically about my own graduate program which this anonymous journalist referenced.

It strange to me that people keep seeing this post as some kind of a negation of the numerous ills of academia, when its initial purpose was to demonstrate how unreliable print journalism often is.

eric said...

This IS The Economist, after all, so this rather pointless article is not out of place there.

"Grad school is the best way to delay one's entrance into the hamster race of the corporate world. Who else but the graduate students have the luxury of sleeping in until noon on a regular basis or staying in bed with books for a month well into their thirties?"

Absolutely! I would like to print this quote and frame it. It's exactly why, though I'm not in academia now, I'm glad I went to grad school.

saunier said...

I found the piece rather balanced, as someone who holds a PhD and is now in a tenure-track professor position. I feel it describes a reality, that the governments are funding an ever-increasing number of PhD students without any check for a need for them. You are reading the article in the wrong perspective, starting from your prejudices about The Economist. I read it as also emphasizing many very real issues in PhD programs: in many areas, students are poorly paid, work for a long time without proper supervision (professors are rarely evaluated on their track record on their success rate, and keep getting funding while their students do not graduate), PhD students are used as cheap labour by universities and research centres... I have seen all these things.

I really enjoyed my time studying for my PhD and I love research, but pretending the issues described in this article are not real is plainly a lie.