Academia as a Meritocracy: A Response to The Economist

In its year end issue, The Economist makes one of those increasingly familiar attacks (see here and here for other examples) against the academy as an institution for the way it recruits personnel. The article has lots of great statistics (80% of Canadian post-docs earn less than the average construction worker!) and great pull out quotes (A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a Master’s Degree!). But the bottom line is basically that universities are producing more PhDs each year than there are jobs available in academia for people with PhDs.

Why is this the case? According to The Economist, “universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labor”(p.156).* And why would anyone ever subject themselves to such “slave labor”(p.156)?** Well, because these naive young things “are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they’ve done” and “few will be willing to accept that… even hard work and brilliance may not be enough to succeed”(p.158). And of course current faculty are complicit too, because “it isn’t in their interest to turn the smart kids away.”***

As I was reading this article, I was trying to reconcile the horrors of academia**** with the fact that I will soon be slogging through hundreds of applications for potential grad students who will want something like one of the 25-30 slots we will offer for our next Ph.D. class. Could I in good conscience actually admit any of these students? I mean, after all, they must clearly be deceiving themselves into thinking this could lead to a good career. Unless, of course, they turn out like one of our students this year who has job offers at multiple top universities. Or our other students who went on the market this year and landed good jobs. Or one of my students who didn’t even apply for an academic job, but wound up at a top notch consulting firm. Or the excellent Ph.D. students from other universities we’ve just hired. They’ve turned out OK, haven’t they? Would they have been better off had some well meaning admissions offer turned off the spigot at the source and only admitted a quarter of the graduate students to NYU that we actually admitted? Maybe they would have been at the top of their class, but maybe not.

This reminded me of former NY Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Piazza was drafted in the 62nd(!) round of the 1988 baseball draft. He went on to become one of the (if not the) game’s best hitting catchers, and is a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. Without a minor league system that allowed many, many more people to play some level of professional baseball than there were spots for in the major leagues, Piazza would never have made it to the majors. Being picked in the 62nd round shows that the talent evaluators at that stage of the process would have missed him as a potential star.

And this, perhaps, is why it is not a bad thing that we admit more PhD students to programs than we have jobs for as university professors. Because the alternative is that we have to decide a lot earlier who is going to be good and who is going to bad. If I can admit 20 students to the Ph.D. program at NYU next year, then that is 20 students who have a chance to shine. They may not all make it, but it is worth considering whether we are better off giving those 20 students a chance then picking now – based solely on their undergraduate record – only 5 who will be given a chance.

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22 year old that is admitted to a PhD program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a PhD program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I’d rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don’t think we know which 22 year-olds are going to make the best academics. Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make. I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into – the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors – but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that’s the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to PhD programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.

[h/t to Drew Conway.]


*Just discovered this? You mean back in the day when people walked both ways to school barefoot uphill in the snow, PhD students were not cheap, highly motivated, and disposable? Interesting!

**Slave labor? Really? Any thoughts on whether the undocumented migrant farm workers featured in an earlier article in the same issue would mind trading places with a PhD student?

***While working with graduate students is one of the great pleasures of an academic job, readers should be aware that this is in no way a one way street in terms of costs and benefits. Of course graduate students can lighten one’s teaching load by grading and running discussion sections, and a professor with a team of good graduate students can often produce more publishable research than he or she can working alone. But make no mistake: advising graduate students – be it regarding their own research, their collaborative work with you, or their teaching, not to mention their professional development – takes a great deal of time and effort as well.

****The crescendo of the piece is that some of these students might actually “be better off doing something else”(p.158)! The horror – do you think people who don’t get PhDs might ever find themselves in a position where they would be better off doing something else? Inconceivable!

3 Responses to Academia as a Meritocracy: A Response to The Economist

  1. James January 4, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    I generally agree with your points, Josh. I would also add that a number of grad students seek a PhD for reasons other than getting an academic track job.

    But, I do have two major qualms: (1) Most departments are far from open with their placement and completion records. While I think its a legitimate defense that grad students know that they’re taking a professional gamble when seeking admittance; that argument gains less traction when the process is quite opaque. (2) I wonder to what extent your argument generalizes to programs ranked well outside the top 20. Is there a point at which a future in academia becomes so slight that your argument – which I see as essentially about barriers to entry – no longer holds?

  2. Greg Marx January 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    Without assessing either the main argument or the appropriateness of the analogy to major league baseball, I think it’s fair to say that the Piazza example is misleading. Piazza’s case is well-known precisely because it’s so rare. Not all highly drafted players become successful major leaguers, but the vast majority of successful major leaguers are highly drafted players. And the baseball draft goes on for so many rounds not because talent evaluation is so difficult and you never know when you might find a diamond in the rough, but because major league teams have a lot of minor league affiliates whose rosters need to be stocked — so that the highly drafted players who might become future stars have someone to play against during their development.

  3. Fr. January 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    Re: “advising graduate students… takes a great deal of time and effort as well”

    In our disciplines, yes. But some of my French friends doing their PhD in Biology have told me about other students who conform to the general picture of the article, minus the slave exaggeration.