Grad Students Aren’t Stupid…

…but maybe there should be fewer of them anyways.

I think perhaps I’m late to this game, but there’s been quite a bit of discussion about “Thinning the Ph.D. Herd”, a Slate piece by Rebecca Schuman about Johns Hopkins University’s plan to reduce enrollment in PhD Programs.  Sean Carroll, for instance, says “I’ll believe we should accept fewer grad students when I hear it from actual undergrads applying for grad school.”  There is quite a strong strain of people arguing that people should be allowed to freely choose what to do, and that reducing PhD enrollment is paternalistic on the part of JHU. People seem to think that by downsizing programs, JHU is saying “you only think you want a PhD, but you are mistakenly signing yourself up for a life of penury, so we’re saving you from that”.

Responses to the Slate article

Responses to the Slate article

It’s worth recalling Braess’s Paradox, however.  In essence, it says that people might be making locally optimal choices that lead to globally sub-optimal outcomes for everyone (including themselves), and limiting choice may actually improve results for everyone. Nobody in the hypothetical scenario is acting irrationally or without having considered all the options, but things are worse than if someone stepped in to constrain choices.

There’s two questions we need to ask: is the current PhD system the globally optimal system for the students in it, and if not, would unilaterally reducing the number of grad students improve the results. In the sciences, I’m actually not sure that we’re too far off—most people I know of (in my Tier 1 R1 highly ranked program) live comfortably on our stipends, receive health insurance and various perks, and typically don’t have trouble finding jobs that use their research skills.  I suspect the same is true for the students in Profs Carroll’s, Krugylak’s, and Booty’s departments as well.

The same is not obviously true for the humanities, even from top tier institutions.  My partner is in a highly ranked, unusually well funded humanities program, and the horror stories I hear are chilling.  Her stipend is, in a good year, 75% as much as mine (although $2-5k more than many other programs in the humanities), her program has a shockingly high attrition rate, jobs outside academia are considered outright failure, and a significant number of people end up as adjuncts, earning wages below the poverty line.  Having gotten her PhD in German, I suspect this is much the world that Rebecca Schuman is from as well.  Is this the globally optimal situation for graduate students? I think not.  Would reducing PhD enrollment help, especially if stipends are redirected to the ones that remain? I’m not certain, but I think it’s worth a shot.

Finally, I just want to make clear that reducing PhD enrollment isn’t the only way to improve the lives of grad students, nor even necessarily the best one.  But it is an option in the arsenal, and seems likely to have at least some positive effect.

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