My friend Christopher Benson sent me this article the other day and it begs a wide reading. Foreboding as it is, “The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time” is both clarifying and sobering. I’ll let interested readers scan the article for the statistics it cites, but the article is largely a jeremiad against the PhD degree—its difficulty, its expense, its orientation towards the arcane and absurd, and worse, its liability both professionally and financially.

As the article indicates, countless PhD students spend years dedicated towards research that will perhaps never posit an actual job in their field. Supply is greater than demand as the article suggets. The futre seems depressingly bleak then for doctoral students: They are treated as indentured servants by their superiors. They spend meaningful years that could have been put towards savings, retirement, and even more important—nurturing families.

But please, do not read this as a carte blanche dismissal of doctoral degrees. America needs her PhD’s, and we need them badly. If you have a PhD, be proud…you should be.

What  lurks behind this article, in a spate of interpretive license, is the increasing dissatisfaction with the American education culture; what I would call the coming education bubble.

We’re all now long familiar with the 2008 “Housing Bubble” which contributed greatly to the “Great Recession” which were still mired in. In short, housing prices plummeted and people owed more money than their houses were worth. Additionally, individuals purchased houses they could not afford and in turn, when these payments defaulted, the houses became toxic assets. [I’m aware that trained economists will probably cringe at that brief summary.]

What the housing bubble has in common with the education bubble is that both elements have an increasingly depreciative value. Home ownership became expected, and likewise, a college education has come to be expected. Like owners who owed more money on their homes than they were worth, many degrees from American universities demand egregious tuitions that aren’t worth the salt that went to pay for them. In many instances, college degrees that now cost $80,000-$120,000 loom with diminishing return. They are their own toxic asset as 22 year old students embark on the world straddled with burdensome debt. Sadly, it only compounds the debt mentality.

Education, today, is an unsustainable venture at present. When it is flatly impossible for students to work themselves through college (even public universities), the culture itself will collapse. And the economic ruin that follows will only highlight the inflationary hope we put in professionalized education. If my statistics are correct, education outpaces the increased cost of even healthcare when adjusted for inflation.

Brick and mortar institutions will always exist. Yale, Harvard, and Princeton aren’t going anywhere. At the same time, their alternatives in the form of distance education degrees aren’t worth the convenience that their marketed towards, either. These can too easily devolve into diploma mills.

The questions arises: If the educational culture in America is unsustainable, what’s the next step forward? When will the bubble burst and what will follow as a result?

Posted by Andrew Walker

  • If my thesis advisor asks why I’m leaving grad school, I’ll turn them to this post :)

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  • In the Economist article, I felt like I was seeing some “grass is greener over there” thinking (full disclosure, I’m a grad student working on a PhD). It’s true that many newly minted PhD’s get jobs outside their expertise, but many of them actually desire to go do something different. It’s a choice, and most people change career directions one or more times in their life. And yes, the job prospects are not good if you want to stay in academia, and you may make more $$$ by not getting a PhD, but (1) many grad students really didn’t choose grad school for the money (to their parent’s dismay) and are aware of the consequences, (2) mediocre work almost anywhere does not pay well, and plenty of graduate students (like people in many jobs) are doing just enough to get by, and (3) for those who “make it” and end up as tenured profs (which many outstanding students who want that career path do), being a professor can be a really good job with unsurpassed job security.

    All that said, I think there are too many people in college and grad school overall, and I think the “solution” to the “bubble” may be that the rising costs and consequences of going to the university may keep more people out, alleviating some of the supply and demand concerns.

  • And just this week I was dreaming of going back to school to pursue a doctorate…

    Two thoughts:

    1) Those who go to school to obtain a doctorate simply to make more money might very well be disappointed, especially when loans and more debt are involved. Unless you do very well in your particular field of study or program, there really are no guarantees.

    2) My father-in-law has a Ph.D. in musicology. He did want to teach, but was realistic about his prospects, even back in the 70s. However, he has always valued his degree, and even as a building supply salesman for most of his career, he says getting a Ph.D. taught him a “stick-to-it-iveness” that always helped him in his work.

  • Zack

    My personal opinion on this matter is that the whole educational edifice needs to be uprooted and restructured. We live in an age where educational possibilities have been completely decentralized and we need to take advantage of it. Universities were set up out of nessesity at first, you had to travel to get an education and go to a centralized location where all the academics were gathered in order to be educated. The fact is that now we have the internet at our fingertips with multiple ways to get the same exact education you could get at college for the cost of books alone. College is completely irrelevant in our modern context, if you are really interested in learning something you have all the tools nessasary to teach it to yourself if you know where to look. Of course, I am a college student who has thought long and hard about pursuing a phd, and I am giving you the reason I’m not going to do it. Also, I know this doesn’t apply to degree’s requiring hands on experience and things. go

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  • @Zack: You might be right that a restructuring might be good, but it’s important not to confuse undergraduate and graduate study (especially working on a PhD). Earning a PhD is (in theory at least) the transition from being primarily a consumer of knowledge to being also a producer of knowledge. It’s a fair question how well we (the education system) are actually doing that, and how useful this “new knowledge” actually is, but it’s definitely not something you can just “go read about the web” and then contribute too. In a few cases and subfields, perhaps, but not across the board. Producing usually takes interaction and dialogue.

  • Mark

    I’m with Zack on restructuring. I think the average undergrad degree are a detriment to learning now for the reasons that Ivan Illich spelled out, though I would exclude the hard sciences and engineering, though there are enough problems there of a different type.

    I tend to think that an undergrad is what high school used to be, and grad school is what an undergrad degree used to be. The consumer/producer distinction at the Phd level is probably true because of the wholesale adoption of the German research model over a hundred years ago. This gave us the focus on “original research” and also gave us tenure, none of which has been entirely salutary, perhaps not least because careerism for PhDs has insured that few will actually read what most of them produce, and even the producers don’t care because the intent is to get a job.

    Nonetheless, there is certainly a valid distinction to be made for those who do original work, certainly of such stunning brilliance and value that it is a great a benefit to culture and humanity. But to the extent that the producers aspire to teach undergrads the producer/consumer model has problems. For one, there is a conflict between doing original work and teaching, since the latter does not require the former. Also, if Zack and I are right that undergrad education desperately needs to change or at least shrink in scope in light of the vast expansion in access to learning material in the last decade or so, then the PhDs will be drastically affected in any case since most of them aspire to teach undergrads. If students are increasingly seen as consumers, as is undoubtedly the case, the negative consequences for academia and students simply accelerate in what has been called a “credentialization arms race.” This is just another aspect of an education bubble.

  • That article (The Disposable Academic) resembled someone who goes through a divorce and concludes that marriage itself is a sham.

    Getting a Ph.D. is useless. Useless I tell you!