the unemployable PhD: deliberate?


I look at Stephen Karlson’s interesting question: why do people pursue Ph.D.s that will not result in academic employment. I treat this as an example of the how anthro and econ see the world.

Full text:

The intersection of anthropology and economics is badly marked, and on a rainy night, it’s easy to miss it altogether. The city put up street signs a few years ago, but one of them fell down and the other was stolen. There are stop signs but most people sail right through them without stopping. I mean, really, why bother? In this neighborhood, what are the chances you’re going to hit something?

Quite so. Anthropology and economics work from different assumptions. They don’t parse the world the same way. They have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for one another’s “burning questions.” It’s almost as if they occupy different domains or dimensions. In point of fact, this intersection very often doesn’t.

Except today. I discovered the exemplary blog of Stephen Karlson called Cold Spring Shops. (With thanks to Brain Brew Blog for the connection.) Karlson writes like a wizard. He takes up important question. His blog is a joy. At the moment, Karlson is thinking about an interesting little puzzle: why it is that some people take Ph.D.s when there is no realistic hope of full academic employment, tenure or a sustaining career.

Dr. Karlson writes:

Let us suppose that there is common knowledge on the part of aspiring Ph.D. students in some disciplines that they face a great risk of never landing a tenure-track job, let alone tenure, and those who do so succeed will still be paid much less than otherwise comparable people in other disciplines or in industry. Why, then, do so many people participate in that market? What other constraints are they operating under, or what objectives are they pursuing, that we don’t fully understand?

Karlson contemplates two explanations, one Stiglerian, the other Stiglitzian. The first supposes that the “persistence of an anomaly is evidence of an efficiency we haven’t thought about carefully enough.” The second supposes that “conditions conducive to allocative efficiency almost never hold in practice.”

I want to propose an anthropological explanation. On one reading, this may be taken as evidence for the Stiglerian argument. On another, it can be taken as a refutation of the Stiglerian argument. Let me say in advance that this argument is going seem a little cynical. And it is. As anthropology and economics get to know one another better, in the long term it will be impossible to say which is truly the more dismal science.

I think it’s possible (and without the ethnographic work, I am just speculating) that some people take Ph.D.s that will never bring them academic employment with the full knowledge that it will never bring them academic employment. There are two possible reasons.

First, I think that people raised in the humanities and social sciences in the post modernist regime created by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, are inclined to see the world outside the university as unrelieved by the possibility of interest, hope, curiosity, surprise or engagement. (And here, in too telegraphic summary, is why: the postmodernists say that we can’t generalize about the world because our analytic categories are unstable, but, whew, we don’t have to because it is all about power. [And you thought I was cynical.]) This is perhaps a Stiglerian “efficiency” we have not thought about. The value of the degree is not the employment it is supposed to bring. It is its short-term prolongation of protected status.

Second, I think it’s possible (and now I am entirely out on a limb, but surely that’s what blogging is for) that people take Ph.D.s is order to “spike” their careers. Once you have a degree in an exalted field (from, one hopes, an exalted school) and no employment, you have established grounds for an act of world repudiation. You can now claim to be worthy of higher things, to have be refused those higher things, to have been forced to retire from the world, and that you are now entitled to nurse, cultivate, and frequently vent an dystopic view. The world has done you wrong. You have replied by withdrawing from it, and no one can blame you. In sum, the value of the degree is that it allows you to disengage from the world with full justification.

Let’s go back to the intersection of anthro and econ. Economics goes looking for the actor’s rationality, the pursuit of advantage. This is almost always the smart thing to do, and anthropology does it too rarely…as if Adam Smith’s assumptions are peculiar to our culture and should never be exported in the study of other cultures. Anthropology goes looking for the ways in which people build and embrace ideas about the world. It cares about behavior that is purposive because it makes the world make sense.

And that’s I think what’s going on here. This apparently irrational moment of consumer behavior, the purchase of a Ph.D. that will not bring employment, is actually knowing and deliberate. It is an act of self and world construction. It allows the individual to make certain claims to identity. It allows them to build and to occupy a certain understanding of the world.

Is this Stiglerian? Better, would Stigler (returned) accept this as a useful, intelligible explanation of the question in question. (More pressingly: what about Karlson?) Probably not. This is an “impasse” between the two fields. What economics sees as irrational, anthropology finds witting, rational, deliberate…and of course spectacularly odd.

13 thoughts on “the unemployable PhD: deliberate?

  1. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I think you are certainly one to something when you speak of geting a PhD as an act of self creation (beyond the obvious sense in which of course it IS very straighforwardly a kind of self creation). But you (and Karlson?) both seem to miss the possible role of some combination of denial and (dare I use the term?) “entrepenurial risk.” I suspect that many people approach a Phd program with some combination of two ideas: (1) that if it does work out the benefits of an academic job (autonomy regarding one’s time and interest) outweigh the disadvantages (lack of autonomy regarding location, low pay), and (2) that even if there are twice as many (say) Anthro PhDs as jobs on average, that doesn’t mean THEY won’t get one of the jobs that does exist.

  2. Grant

    Daniel, Beauty! (highest form of praise in hockey addled Canada). We win if we win and we win if we lose. If a job comes in, perfect. If it doesn’t, we are allowed to retire from the world with full warrant. In this case, your argument, we have an economic actor maximizing enough to go for the main chance AND prepare themselves for the downside. (And in this case, the question becomes, do economic actors who engage in high risk entrepreneurial risk of this kind look for propositions that have a bale out position of this kind?) Clearly, in your argument, the symbolic performance is now more entitled than I had it in the original statement. I think (and not just to save the argument, though, of course, I am not above this sort of thing) we may have two segments: one that acts as your argument says it does, the other acts from the fully cynical motives I was imputing. Great post, thanks. Grant

  3. JK

    Of course many of those who do get academic jobs also go on to a lifetime of disdaining the experience of everyone outside the academy, as being morally beneath them.

    Maybe there is no way to structure academic life which can prevent it becoming an inward-looking ‘cult’ in this way. The problem is certainly not new.

    The recommendation that everyone should acquire at least some ex-academy experience is exactly right: a lot of silliness dressed up as teaching and research would be avoided if this could be achieved.

    I guess the rest of us have to be glad to see the regions of academia which for various reasons do not succumb to the illusion that experience can have no meaning or value outside of college (so visibly absurd when stated thus explicitly) and sorry about the steady stream of individuals in each succeeding generation much of whose productive potential is lost to the cult’s fascinations.

    As with problems of drug addiction, it’s the proselytizers one feels worst about.

  4. Adrian

    I think Dan has it about right. People pusuing a PhD are engaged in a tournament. Participation provides consumption pleasure in from the enjoyment that comes from perfecting a skill. Winners get social status, autonomy, and at least in some fields a decent to exceptional (top-tier B-schools & Law Schools) salary.

    One could just as well ask, and many have, why do so many youths spend so much time practicing their basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, tennis, etc. skills? Answer: getting good at the activity is in and of itself pleasureable, and if you turn out to be both good and lucky, you could win big. Net-net, the expected value is positive.

  5. Pingback: Foolippic

  6. Teller

    Interesting article, but you have too narrow of a view on economics. Econ view the individual as maximizing expected utility, not wealth. Stigler would have no problem saying that PhDs in post colonial theory or feminist studies is largely consumption (which is partially what you are saying), and thus rational even if the payoff is low. If I understand you correctly you are also saying that by pursuing a social science degree people are changing their preferences. Further, there is certainly a lot of identity building and seeking of social status going on here (anyone saw the episode of the Sopranos a couple of weeks back with the Priceton “doctor”?). Becker and Murphy (Stiglers followers and students) brilliantly integrate such matters into economic theory in “Social Economics”, (2000).

    The way things are going, and in my opinion hopefully, economics will swallow up most other social sciences. It is already doing better political science than political science, and better gender studies than gender studies. Of course there are still good social scientists and humanists fighting against the stream in their respective fields, who have sadly drowned in Social Constructivism and other nonsense.

    This also brings up another at least as interesting point: WHY are humanities degrees leading to unemployment and low wages? This is not the case with many other fields of science, and certainly not the case with economics. Of course you could always argue that the outside market is small for humanities, but this just moves the question one step back. Why is the outside market small? With all the money and resources going into politics, why aren’t political scientists as much in demand as economists or engineers?

    I think the answer was indicated in the analyses in the blog. By sinking in the intellectual swamp that post-modernism represents, humanities have lost all predictive power. The purpose of education is to increase the analytical ability of the students, not decrease it by learning them (falsely) that all truth is relative or to denounce fact and logic. In my opinion, most people who buy into post-modernism get their brains turned into mush, and become unable to hold analytical position in the “real” world. These theories only work in an institutional setting where results do not matter, which is why you only see it in. Ever tried designing a bridge using Derrida?

  7. froth

    Teller’s point is telling. College and university Humanities departments are not responding to the employment market’s signals, for whatever reason. Those reasons are amenable to economic analysis, including viewing barriers to entry, switching costs, reputational externalities, etc., but primarily analysis tools from Public Choice theory. Money flows in from government, either from grants to schools or loans to students, and the gatekeepers extract as much benefit from their positions as possible. The bottom line is that teachers and teaching institutions don’t have to care if their end product, the students’ education, is desired or not.

    Given this, and the widespread knowledge that this is the case, it’s a self-selection issue with matriculating students. They’re losers, afraid of the job market, and selected on the basis of capacity for cognitive dissonance. Marxism and socialism are dominant, as well as anti-rationalism of every sort.

    “It ain’t what they don’t know. It’s what they do know that ain’t so that’s the problem.” — Twain

  8. LK

    greetings discussants,

    couldn’t resist adding to the phDebate after spotting an article in this wknd’s new york times. it’s about google and its predilection for hiring PhD’s. i will cut and paste a highlight below but not before chiming in with a few opinions.

    one of the points they make is that google trumps microsoft many times for its number of PhDs and researchers, even though google is a fraction of the size. and that unlike microsoft, where i’ve been told by insiders that the 8 am to 8 pm shift is referred to “as working half days”, google builds in a day a week for personal research projects. and herein lies the difference. while microsoft encourages employees to march in lockstep and has a frightfully small research division google enthusiastically encourages original thinking and projects. and aren’t proclivities for these types of pursuits precisely why people end up on things such as the PhD path?

    and now, a few words from the new york times:

    What’s Google’s Secret Weapon? An Army of Ph.D.’s

    Published: June 6, 2004

    EY, it’s not rocket science. And it’s not brain surgery. But if your background is in either, you’re welcome to take a shot and apply at Google. The company’s employees include a former rocket scientist and a former brain surgeon.

    Mostly, Google has concentrated on recruiting those with a background in what you would expect: computer science. Founded by two near-Ph.D.’s who have purposely placed Ph.D.’s throughout the company, Google encourages all employees to act as researchers, by spending 20 percent of their time on new projects of their own choosing.

    As we take our seats in the Coliseum to watch the latest challenger go up against mighty Microsoft, handicappers will see that Google has two advantages, one of which it has disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission: washing machines are provided at the company for employee use. The other, it has not: with a Ph.D.-centered culture, Google’s co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have assembled the industry’s most unorthodox portfolio of human capital since Microsoft began intense recruiting of computer science majors at top undergraduate schools in the 1980’s.

    Microsoft has 56,000 employees, but its research group, with 700, is separate. Google has 1,900 employees, and no separate research group, so all 1,900, effectively, are charged to “boldly go where no one has gone before” (its words). You have to like Google’s chances.

    Employee motivation is tied to sundry conveniences and happy stomachs, or so it would seem. When Google filed its initial public offering plans in April, it enumerated employee benefits like those washing machines, free meals and doctor visits at company offices. It warned prospective investors to “expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time.”

    Moving in the opposite direction, Microsoft said last month that it was making some minor cuts in benefits, rankling employees, who are as aware as anyone of the $50 billion sitting in the corporate treasury.

    It’s no contest: Google is going to win a battle of benefits, what with its on-site gym, on-site dentist and on-site celebrity chef who previously served the Grateful Dead.

    Yet none of that matters, really. What trumps all else is Google’s willingness to organize the entire company around the insight that top talent likes to work with other top talent, tackling interesting problems of their own choice. It’s the same reason that some computer science students complete a master’s degree and then persevere for three to five more years for a doctorate. It entails deep original research for a dissertation, while subsisting on a meager fellowship that allows for a celebrity chef only like Colonel Sanders.

  9. MT

    People do things at least in part because of what it’s like to be doing them. You seem to suppose everybody’s wholly goal oriented.

  10. idnca

    Could not agree more with the idea that getting a PhD entails some sort of self-construction. By definition everything action or endeavor is an act of self-construction – it makes us happen, so to speak – but here it is reflexive: one engages in an act that is consciously believed to contribute to what one pretends to stand for in the eyes of others.
    Now the question is whether this mostly or only apply to PhD candidates.

    I wonder to which extend the career path one chooses in terms of function, company and industry is not increasingly expected to pave the way for a sense of self, at a given moment in time. This is roughly speaking the idea behind Richard Florida’s Creative Class which flies to jobs and places where its members foresee possibilities to “validate their identity”.
    Florida, who remains a bit idealistic, sees this as the progressive freeing-up of individual subjectivities from the social normativity at play in fordism, with its standardized work patterns, organizational structures, actors, consumption patterns and lifestyles. In a more foucauldian fashion, I wonder whether it is not rather a new historical mode of “subjectivation” of individuals, not more nor less satisfying than that of disciplinary state, but simply made possible through new power-knowledge relations because we see that this new social aspirations to permanent self actualization, at work and beyond, is not without its downsides: depression, end of the nuclear family stabilizing structure, feeling of purposeless lives, etc.
    As you suggested Grant, we always find ourselves amidst a tight network of power relations from which it would be naive to believe we could escape…

Comments are closed.