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Inside the Ph.D. scam


This all seems vaguely familiar:

An associate professor of political science at Indiana University at Bloomington told graduate students that he can’t serve as the department’s job-placement director any longer, as he refuses to participate in the “official department charade.”

“Dear graduate students,” the professor, Abdulkader Sinno, emailed students, “I’m resigning because I don’t want to be complicit in keeping you in a Ph.D. program that doesn’t help your advancement. The department needs graduate students to cheaply teach or assist in teaching its undergraduate students, and for faculty to keep claiming that we have a serious Ph.D. program. I just don’t believe that you should pay for their needs with your livelihood.”

Faculty members, Sinno continued, “are perpetuating the myth that a Ph.D. from a modest department like ours can be reliable a reliable route to middle-class life. It is not anymore.”

So does this:

Michael McCarthy, a second-year graduate student in the department who posted Sinno’s letter to Twitter, told Inside Higher Ed Tuesday that while he agrees with much of Sinno’s job market analysis, he doesn’t believe Sinno was exposing a charade.

“I think they have said it out loud,” McCarthy said of his program’s general stance on the job market. “When they were first recruiting me to this program, they were telling me, ‘You know, job market numbers aren’t great. You’re sort of joining at your own risk.’”

McCarthy said he hopes he lands a faculty job but that he’s prepared to look outside academe if not. What Sinno’s letter also fails to capture, he continued, is the poor job market he faced before enrolling in graduate school.

“Two years out of undergrad, I was struggling to find consistent work,” he said. “It was call center jobs and sales jobs and stuff that was sort of not related to political science, and I [also] had a degree in economics. It wasn’t really related to those fields, and felt sort of beneath my skill set. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve always liked school. I’m still reading the sort of stuff that I would be reading if I was in grad school.’”

Naturally the administrative powers that sort of be are responding with the usual malarky about the “chronic underfunding” of R-1 public universities:

The reality, Winecoff said, “is that public universities are underfunded across the country, and that does have an impact on our students, particularly in the academic job market. This is not a surprise to anyone who has been following the trends.” IU’s political science department has for years now been offering graduate students programs that are more oriented toward nonacademic employment and networking, along with more traditional instruction, he also said.

Universities like Indiana are generating much more income per student in real dollars than they were a generation ago. It’s just that this money doesn’t go to paying faculty, and most especially contingent and graduate student faculty, who do the bulk of the teaching at these schools for peanuts:

McCarthy has said on social media that one concrete way to help graduate students would be for the university to recognize their union. Graduate assistants at IU-Bloomington went on strike seeking recognition and collective bargaining rights in the spring, but the university refused to accede to these demands. Over the summer, the university offered them contracts that raised minimum stipends from about $18,000 to $22,000.

The cynical view is that these graduate students know or are supposed to know what they’re getting into, plus, as I heard a member of my own faculty say in a faculty meeting when discussing the related issues in law schools, “what else are they going to do anyway?” (The last decade or so has given me a much keener appreciation of why people end up getting lined up against a wall and shot during revolutions, although that admittedly does not constitute an exercise in collegiality per se).

Exploiting a combination of optimism bias and economic and social desperation to engage in administrative rent seeking doesn’t seem like a vindication of the Noble Ideal of the University, but I guess we’re past that, as Stringer Bell might say.

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