Canards about the University: “There are too many PhD programs.”

by Ed Kazarian

Consider this the first in a series devoted to pieces of conventional wisdom which one hears repeated in discussions of higher education, which strike me as deserving of more skepticism than they usually receive.

If there’s one thing that the current state of the job market proves, it’s that there are too many PhD programs in the humanities.

I think this is wrong.

I’ve got no statistical basis for this except my own observations, so it may turn out that I’m all wet here. But if so, I’d be very interested in having that demonstrated (especially since I’m rather unsure that there is enough data to do so in the current environment, and I’d love to see that data collected and analyzed).

In any event, based on the evidence available to me, I tend to think that the reason that there are more and more PhD programs cropping up all the time in humanities fields isn’t just institutional vanity, but because there is a need for all these PhDs—and not just because universities are doing quite nicely in many cases by exploiting the heck out of graduate student labor.

But nobody can get a job! Surely if a program can’t give its graduates a reasonable expectation of getting hired, it must be superfluous and its existence irresponsible, n’est-ce pas?

This predictable objection ignores—as do many, many of the surveys of faculty employment conditions that I’ve seen recently—the fact that not only do most of these ‘unemployed’ PhDs have jobs, most of them have several jobs, and are in fact teaching the equivalent of a full time load or more. They’re just doing it for crap money at several universities, to the detriment of themselves, their families, and their students.

In other words, somehow—and I don’t understand how this happens except as a case of what Lacan called ‘foreclosure’—we keep treating overworked adjuncts as if they’re actually unemployed.

Conversely, I suspect that if you actually gave all these multiple-instutiton adjuncts jobs at ordinary full time loads (ranging from 3-3 to 4-4), there would be something much closer to a shortage of available faculty in many departments than the glut we’re currently seeing.