Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Future of My Profession

Does it have a future?  Is it bleak?

This story alone suggests "Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!!"  That's right--outsourcing grading to South Asia!  Lovely.  I hate it when I have folks grading my classes that don't attend the lectures, but how about folks who don't attend the country?  Hmmmm.   The tradeoffs probably vary, depending on the field, with business ethics classes, like those discussed in the article, as less problematic than political science, where more knowledge of particular places might matter.  And where more creativity might be possible.

A second story is also depressing.  It is entitled "We Must Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities" and by extension in other fields of inquiry.  Among other recommendations, it suggests we should have a warning label on our programs--academic job market is a risky business, and a PhD is no guarantee of success.  A quick look at the political science rumor mill will testify to the high levels of anxiety out there as newly minted PhDs have hard times finding jobs.

Several forces are combining:
  • deep budget crises by states and provinces, leading to significant cuts in university budgets.
    • McGill is cutting its TA budget by a big percentage so my undergrad intro to IR class is losing 1/3 of its enrollment since I am losing three TAs (at least, that is the plan for now)
  • the drop in stocks has affected the availability of positions
    • Because of diminished stock portfolios, boomers are not retiring, creating a huge wave of resentment, in part because each generation of grad students is lied to about the likely departure of a wave of profs.
    • Usually well-endowed universities have lost a big hunk of their savings and their income so they are not hiring.
  • The drying up of equity markets probably means that it is harder for parents to get loans to cover their kids' education (in the US anyway.  Canadian parents seem not to be as committed to their kids' education nor do they need to be since tuition is less).
  • Universities are shifting their hiring, focusing more on cheaper (sans benefits) short term appointments than tenure track positions.
I have always maintained that we are a bad guild as we bring in too many students so that there are lots of cheap folks around to replace us, keeping wages down.  But we like having lots of  grad students.  Why?  Because our grad classes would become uncomfortably small.  Because we like having lots of teaching assistants (and given their union-imposed time limitations, I need a bunch for a 600 person class).  And because we like having lots of RAs.  So, we overproduce, like any tragedy of the commons situation.

Should I start warning students away from grad school in poli sci?  I have been doing that for years for students going to law school.  I ask them if they understand supply and demand.  They always have a niche argument--that some part of the law community is under-served.  More likely, they don't really know what next to do and law school is a good way to kick the can down the road.  But it isn't, of course.  And grad school is not either.  I guess I will start telling students who seek letters of recommendation that I will only recommend the very best students for grad school since the market is swamped.

I am not sure whether we will see a real structural change, like online classes taking over.  I do think that the college experience itself is important for personal growth, and that the North American educational system, particularly the combination of teaching colleges and research-intensive universities, is a real strength that fosters economic growth.  But we are in for some bumpy years ahead.  I guess I am glad I have tenure at a fine institution, for all of its warts and its fools.


Chip said...

not sure this is new. I remember when I started my PhD program in the mid-80s, my acceptance letter said this was a great time to do grad school because all the old duffers would be retiring right as I finished up. As it turned out, most of my peers didn't get academic jobs, I lucked out with 4 years of postdocs and then a one year that eventually turned tenure track. And when I talk to people older than me, coming out in the 70s, I hear a similar story. So is this new?
Anyway, my daughter has already decided she wants to go to grad school (she's a freshman this year), I'll have her read your post to get her thinking about other possibilities...

Chris C. said...

I think research is going to suffer the most. Many people in state governments are skeptical of research in general, particularly in the humanities (and not without good reason in many cases- Mark Bauerlein had an excellent column last year in the Chronicle on this topic). I expect class sizes and teaching loads to rise and travel/research funds outside the sciences to be cut (should provide fodder for those in favor of making PS more "sciencey").

Whether or not the incentive structure within the discipline that values research over pretty much everything else (not without reason either) changes is another question. I'd love to see more emphasis placed on teaching and mentoring, but I admit it's hard to find good measures of that.

All this information should discourage more grad enrollment, but with law school increasingly a non-starter for jobs I suspect enrollments won't drop too far voluntarily. Thus, there will probably be a significant number of disappointed job-seekers on the market for a while to come. Perhaps they'll have to adjust their expectations instead and come to love lower-ranked schools and/or "flyover states," or simply just exit the discipline.