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Zachary Marshall | USLHC | USA

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Grad School Musings on a Slow Night

Hi there blog-readers,

I’m on shift tonight watching part of ATLAS, but the beam is having some teething troubles right now. Nothing to worry about, but we won’t be running for the next 11 hours or so. So instead, I thought I’d pile on the talk about graduate school with my own addition. I hope you’ll forgive me if this is long – shifts are eight hours…

I admit it’s not new news, but this is my reply to a New York Times op-ed piece by Mark Taylor of Columbia University. He really put a hit on graduate and general higher education and “specialization.” Read it all at the NYT online.

First, I believe we are leaving out medical school, law school, business school, pharmacy school, trade schools, teaching certificate programs, and many other kinds of “higher education,” instead focusing on academic PhDs. I’ll try to restrict myself similarly.

Two claims in the first paragraph I find to be worth examining closely:

-) “There is no market” for graduate students. Our obvious example is that the professors at any large university are all PhD’s. One doesn’t get a PhD in art history so that one may become a plumber. If we want to argue that there are too many graduate students in fields that are too small to support the students, then we need to better educate students about their job prospects prior to graduate school. Graduate school isn’t a default position – there should be a reason that you want that degree.

Graduate school has another stated purpose: at the end of it, you should know a single subject better than any other person on earth (okay, as close as possible, we can’t all be geniuses!!). If you learn how to write the perfect comma over four years, then you’ve set your self up for a career as a professor – or as a typographer, publisher, editor, printer (yep, they’re still around), graphic artist…

-) “All at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100k in student loans).” Personally, I don’t know anyone in academic graduate school who is paying for his or her education (remember, we left out medical school, law school, business school, etc). The point of those teaching positions is so that graduate students can support themselves. I make a very comfortable living – and I’m living in Geneva! Still, graduate school is an investment, just like buying a house. You pay for it over the years, and at the end you have something of value. If you play your cards right, you can easily make money on the deal – if that is what you are after. And if you don’t care so much about money, you can live very comfortably.

Finally, I’ll try to go through his proposal point-by-point (my paraphrasing in parentheses).

(1 – Restructure the curriculum to avoid departmental specialization) This seems to be a misunderstanding of what “specialization” means in the modern world. I am a student in high energy particle physics, and my thesis will be on hadronic jet shapes using the calorimetry of the ATLAS detector at the LHC (sounds specialized). That means that I am a combination of student, physicist, mathematician, computer scientist, electrical engineer, author, editor, presenter, graphic artist, webmaster, teacher, manager, and politician – and that’s on a slow day. I don’t want to learn how to be a better computer scientist from someone like me. I want to learn how to be a better computer scientist from someone who knows a lot about computer science! At some point I may “raise” my own graduate students – and at that point, I will be able to teach them about those areas that I know best. And I hope I have the wit to send them to the appropriate place or person to be trained in the other specialties they will need to know in order to better do their job!

I claim that to really specialize, one also needs to know things about all the other fields that in any way overlap with ones own. Richard Feynman wasn’t a great physicist just because he knew a lot of physics. He knew enough about physics to be able to look at a problem a chemist was having and propose a solution.

(2 – “Abolish permanent departments” in favor of “problem-focused programs”) Essentially, this is a repeat of claim #1. I don’t want a “water” teacher. I want a political science teacher to teach me about the aspects of political science pertaining to water distribution across nations. I want a geophysicist or atmospheric chemist or oceanographer teaching me about where the drinkable water will be 100 years from now. I want a chemical engineer or chemist teaching me about new desalinization techniques.

If we are talking about a major in “water”, then I think that’s a good idea. In fact, most universities already support “create your own major” programs for students interested in an interdisciplinary major (which, incidentally, does not mean it is more or less specialized than any other major). Many PhDs are interdisciplinary in some sense. In fact, I know of one person with two PhDs in water-related fields (water distribution, and… don’t remember). I don’t want a department of “time.” If someone wants to study the philosophy of time, they should join the philosophy department. And that person would be nuts to not talk to a physicist about relativity at least once during their graduate career.

(3 – “Increase collaboration among institutes.”) This is already done in many other countries. I see no reason that state universities in the US should not do the same. I see many reasons why private universities in the US should under no circumstances attempt to spread themselves out like that (Ok – Harvard, you guys get math. Yale gets classics. Stanford – you get Physical Education. Everybody okay with that?)

(4 – “Transform the traditional dissertation”) Let me just change this point for him a bit: “Reformat” the traditional dissertation. In the modern era, there is no reason that a dissertation should be published as a paper book. Publish all theses electronically, in a publicly accessible catalog. Rather than simply citing a text, one could electronically link the texts. Links could be included to permanent web addresses. Humanities departments should try to catch up with the sciences (and I mean sciences broadly, to include most research fields) in their use of electronic formats. That’s not a “transformation” of the dissertation any more than binding was a “transformation” of the Iliad – it’s the same story. It’s just easier to carry around.

(5 – “Expand the range of professional options for graduate students”) Graduate students are trained in a huge expanse of fields. See my point above. That I might not be employed next year in a job that uses the exact same combination of skills I have now developed is no surprise. Would anyone suggest the skill set developed during high school is identical to the one used by a carpenter? Or that an undergraduate economics major uses the same skills an economist? Or that a journalism major uses the same skills as a journalist? And yet, that is a part of their training. On the job training is just as important for academia as for any other job – it’s just different. To be an academic, one must learn how to advise students, interact with a department, balance a budget…

I find it deeply unnerving that he suggests that all a PhD is “trained for” is to become a professor. Of my current advisor’s six previous students and three most recent former post-docs, zero are professors. All of them left academia. Two of my closest non-physicist friends are preparing themselves for a career in industry – which they will begin after receiving their PhDs.

If a graduate degree in religion is only sufficient preparation for a professorship, so be it. But then it should be made clear to the entering graduate students that they are preparing for a life as an academic. One does not enter the seminary and complain that the only career path open to him is the priesthood!

(6 – “Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure”) Mandatory retirement is a bad idea in any field. Some people need to retire when they are 55. Some people should keep working until they are 75. Some people should keep working until they die. I’ve met – and taken classes from – all of those in academia. Abolishing tenure is something that I am not fundamentally opposed to, and I know that puts me in the minority. Suggesting that every professor should come up for job renewal every seven years is pretty excessive, though. Having “performance evaluations” regularly is not a bad idea – and already takes place in many universities, irrespective of the possibility of firing someone.

Academia is not quite like blue collar work, nor is it like most corporations. In blue collar work – for the most part – once a worker gets old enough, they cease to be as productive as a young guy. Not, mind you, a new guy – the new guy still has to learn the job. The alternative is to move into “management” – essentially, into the corporate side of the work. In a corporation – for the most part – one moves up the ladder, and by the end of a career one might be near the top. In academia, quite frequently the best professors have no interest in “moving up the ladder” to become deans or presidents of universities. In this sense, academia is most like construction work – one begins as a graduate student, doing the grunt work, writing as much as possible. Eventually, one becomes a full professor, managing graduate students and undergraduates of ones own.

Knowledge is a funny thing. It’s not always well-transferred by a book, article, or talk. Sometimes the only way to keep the knowledge around is by keeping the person around. Over a lifetime as a professor, one develops a certain set of skills – one “specializes” in being a professor, which requires understanding many different fields. Universities hire professors to teach and do research. Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that in their final years, even those professors who can no longer contribute to the knowledge in what used to be their field can continue to teach students what they know better than anyone else. They could even try to teach the young guys how to be a better professor.